Looking back before looking forward in 2013, I am reminded of some great Italo-Americans I have met in the U.S.A., who have passed away but via their sons or daughters, their work continues to move forward. In Louisiana, the work of honoring and celebrating Americans of Italian descent began in earnest at the 1984 World’s Fair with Joe Maselli, the driving force behind the effort to create a permanent museum on South Peters Street, in New Orleans after the Fair.
Joe Maselli cherished his heritage and was active in many Italian heritage groups, including the American Italian Federation of the Southeast. Joe spearheaded the museum renovation project until his death three years ago, his son, Frank Maselli, said. Over the years, the museum has taught and still teaches Italian language courses, has held many Italian cultural events, has inducted local individuals of Italian descent into its American Italian Hall of Fame and has served as a research library on local American Italian history for families interested in genealogy and scholars.
The third floor, once home to the extensive research library of Italian heritage, will become the exhibit nucleus of the new center. The library already has been relocated to the Jefferson Parrish East Bank main library at 4747 West Napoleon Ave., Metairie, Louisiana 70001 (Sal Serio, Director) in order to give the museum at 537 So. Peters Street in New Orleans, more room.
I personally know over a half dozen families in Northern California with grandparents who “got off the boat” in New Orleans, and not Ellis Island, and wonder, “Do you have items to donate to the American Italian Museum?” The American Italian Cultural Center is seeking to acquire artifacts, documents, and photos that illustrate the history of Italians in New Orleans and Louisiana. Particular areas of interest include life in Italy and, especially Sicily; the experience of immigrating to America; work in New Orleans or on farms or plantations in Louisiana; and any contribution of Italian Americans to the culture of the city and state. If you or your family have one or more items that you think would be right for the museum, please call (919) 360-0790.
Louisiana has a large Italian-American population and until “Katrina” badly battered and flooded the city, over half of them lived in New Orleans. The “French market” hasn’t been French for over a century. Italian fruit and vegetable peddlers with “roots in the boot” like Cuccia, Maenza and Benandi opened what are now thriving businesses where restaurant owners come in the early morning hours to pick out the best of the harvest for their restaurants’ customers. One of my favorite people in the state of Louisiana and the entire Southeastern United States was Cav. Joseph Maselli, long time Italian-American activist and founder in 1973 of the “Italian Digest”, the Italian-American voice of the Southeast (it is a quarterly and they only publish four issues a year ($10.00). Managing Editor is Bette Cadwell and contributing writers include Linda Serio, Andrew Montalbano and Laura Guccione. For info: Italian American Digest, PO Box 6156, Metairie, L.A., 70009. Tel. ).
Mr. Maselli has done much to unite, further and preserve our cultural heritage by helping to present a united front against media discrimination toward Americans of Italian descent by networking with Italian American leaders throughout the USA and promoting projects that present positive Italian American images. Mr. Maselli, a successful businessman, was not a glory hound, and quietly worked behind the scenes with utmost sincerity and no self-serving agenda for nearly four decades.
Among the projects Mr. Maselli has “ideato” or helped nurture are the Piazza d’Italia, the American Italian Renaissance Library, the Italian American Museum, and the purchase of the Giovanni Schiavo Library for Tulane University and sponsorship Italian Village at the World’s Fair. Italian Village was one of the most popular attractions at the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition. For local citizens, it became their “home” at the Expo. Free entertainment throughout the day and night brought thousands of visitors to the Village courtyard each day.
Once inside the Village, visitors had the opportunity to taste many fine Italian foods, and purchase a vast array of local and imported items. It seems everyone knows of the fine foods as well as the art and music Italy has given the world. But few know the important part Italians have played in the history of Louisiana and the United States. Thousands of visitors who came to the Village were introduced to the history and achievements of the Italians in Louisiana through the Italian American Museum. Many newspaper articles, pictorial displays, memorabilia and collections donated from individuals and families, as well as a video television presentation titled “Italians in America” were on display and lectures were given on their history.
Many visitors to the Museum were surprised to learn that it was the Italian merchant and navigator Amerigo Vespucci for whom America was named. Others were to learn that an Italian American signed the Declaration of Independence, William Paca of Maryland, his signature is the third one below the largest signer, John Hancock. Much of the displayed memorabilia in the museum gave a short history of many Italian families of the area, who started from humble beginnings to become leaders in business, industry, medicine, music, politics and various fields. On display was a life mask of the great tenor Enrico Caruso on loan from the Louisiana State Museum, a large original oil painting of Louis Prima, as well as many photographs and copies of his sheet music.
Also on display was a copy of the first phonograph record Enrico Caruso made when he came to the United States in 1903; a copy of the first jazz record made in history (Guinness Book of World Records), by “Nick” LaRocca and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band made in 1917. Joe Maselli also sponsored a study on Italian American contributions to Jazz.
A beautiful replica of a St. Joseph Altar occupied one section of the Museum. The St. Joseph Altar and the St. Joseph Day Celebration is the most popular Sicilian custom in New Orleans and surrounding areas. Many of the historical writings in the museum showed that the Italians were in Louisiana from its earliest beginnings. In fact, one was traveling down the Mississippi River and past what is now New Orleans some eighteen years before the city’s founding. This was Enrico Tonti, who was second in command to LaSalle, and one of the greatest discoverers in mid-America.
A few of the many outstanding names on display contributing to the history and growth of New Orleans and Louisiana were: Saint Cabrini, known always as “Mother Cabrini”. She established a school and children’s home on St. Philip Street in the Vieux Carre in 1892 that is still in operation. She is the first American citizen to be canonized a Saint by the Roman Catholic Church. Joseph, Felix and Luca Vaccaro, along with Salvatore D’Antoni developed United Fruit and Standard Fruit and Steamship Companies. They made New Orleans the largest importer of bananas in the world. Angelo Socola developed rice into an industry in Louisiana and had the largest rice mills in the United States. And, Joseph C. Canizaro, of Joseph Canizaro Interests, has become New Orleans’s most outstanding entrepreneur.
His business knowledge, as well as his courage and energy to take on daring business adventures and new projects has not only created many thousands of jobs, but his Canal Place One and other developments have reshaped the New Orleans skyline. These are just a few of the many Italian and American-Italians who have enriched and contributed to the history and growth of Louisiana. Following the 1984 Louisiana World Expo, the Italian American Museum was permanently housed in the Italian Renaissance Foundation Building adjacent to Piazza d’Italia and until “Katrina”, was open to the public.
Now the water has receded and the Italian Renaissance Foundation Building standing high and dry, but Joe Maselli’s son, Frank Maselli, has taken the reigns as chairman and acting director and has launched a capital campaign to renovate the space and architects Frank Gerarve and the Lemoine Company Contractors are already on board. The revamping of the center was long overdue. Maselli said the last update was completed approximately 20 years ago by the National Parks Service. The American Italian Cultural Center will remain open during the renovation daily from 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. Call (504) 522-7294 or visit www.americanitalianculturalcenter.com .