On the 14th of March 1891, 11 people were accused of the murder of the chief of police. They were acquitted, but it ended up in a pogrom: the victims were the children of the laborers deported to Louisiana to work in plantations instead of slaves.
On the 12th of April, at 11am, New Orleans’s mayor, Democrat LaToya Cantrell, issued a proclamation on the city’s behalf to apologize for the lynching of 11 Italians that took place on the 14th of March 1891: that is128 years ago. The ceremony took place privately at the New Orleans’ American Italian Cultural Center, with the participation of Italy’s Consul General in Houston, Federico Cia-ttaglia, who delivered a message from Italian Ambassador to the US, Armando Varricchio: “I wish to thank the Order of Sons and Daughters of Italy, a well-established Italian American association, for its commitment, and I wish to underline how the Italian American community helped shape the history of New Orleans, Louisiana and the US, as well as support the development of this great country.”
Words were spent about a “128-year-old open wound.” And what a wound: the New Orleans lynching is considered the first large-scale pogrom to have taken place in the New World, and it followed very modern dynamics indeed. After the murder of David Hennessy, chief of local police, New Orleans’ most powerful citizen’s organized a blitz against the Italian community: homes, stores and boats were ransacked, many people were assaulted and beaten.
Eleven men were arrested, including Joseph Macheca and Charles Matranga, two of the wealthiest people in New Orleans, but the trial found everyone not guilty. The Italian community celebrated with fireworks and parading portraits of King Umberto: “it’s his birthday,” they would say, but that wasn’t true.
They had, however, celebrated too early. The morning after, newspapers’ front pages reported an invitation, extended to all “good citizens,” to meet up in town and “rectify the wrongdoing of justice. You must be ready for action.” 61 signatures followed, including those of some of New Orleans’s most prominent politicians and businessmen, and that of the city’s mayor. A crowd of 20.000, all chanting “who killa da Chief” mocking the Italian-American accent, gathered.
One hundred men carrying Winchester rifles lead the protesters to the city jail, where the 11 were still held because of “bureaucratic formalities,” and killed them. Their bodies were carried to the street, hanged to lampposts and left for people to defile. The Italian Consul Pasquale Corte who, alone, had tried to stop the massacre, was expelled from the city. The crime was praised all over the States: New Orleans had done the right thing. The future US President Teddy Roosevelt said: “It was high time someone gave that race what it deserved.”
In the following weeks, New Orleans was taken over by fear. Rumors of the incoming arrival to the Gulf of Mexico of the Italian navy, and voices about a militia of 1000 mafiosi ready to take over the city lead to the proposal of creating a similar one to assault the Vatican. Italy called back its Ambassador in Washington and both the Government and the Monarchy were bitterly criticized in the Parliament for having failed to protect the nation’s immigrants.
But why did they end up in New Orleans in the first place?
It’s a wondrous yet grim story that begins with the American Civil War and the Italian Unification. The first had freed slaves, who no longer accepted to do plantation work, one of most brutal and alienating jobs in those times. And so, Louisiana’s landlords started looking for new laborers and found them — also, thanks to a formal agreement with the newly born Kingdom of Italy — in Sicily, an already impoverished region, in those years brought to its knees because of taxes and war. 30.000 Sicilians left their country, thinking to find a plot of land of their own once arrived in the US. It took no effort, though, to realize they were not to become landowners, but the “new slaves.”
They fled plantations. New Orleans, or Novorlenza as the Italian would call it, became a “little Palermo,” where Sicilians worked shoulder to shoulder with their main “competitors,” the Irish. They thrived in fishing and commerce, they opened stores, they created – scandal! With African Americans – unions to protect the working rights of dockers, and the first flotillas to get bananas in Honduras. They also introduced large-scale gambling in a city riddled by corruption. Sicilians were, we can really say it, a social class on the rise. Prejudice against them was really strong: known as “dagoes,” they were officially considered a race of criminals, half white and half black, “the result of Hannibal’s invasions and the crumbling of the Roman Empire and, of course, they were “mafiosi:” the term was used in New Orleans even before it was in Palermo.
Americans were helped in their anti-Sicilian campaign by Italy’s own official scientific voice, that of Cesare Lombroso and of his school, who declared they were racially inferior and “predisposed to crime.” This violent ambiguity about the “nature of Sicilians” shared by Italy and the US had horrific consequences: it has been estimated that, in the following 10 years, at least 50 more lynchings took place in New Orleans, all against Sicilians: they were accused of being “mafiosi” or social agitators, rapists or extortionists. Only African Americans had it worse, with 5000 victims.
The police chief affair was eventually settled many years later, with a compensation of 25.000 USD granted by the Congress to the families of the victims. Slowly, New Orleans’ Sicilians took up the stage again. In the 1930s, Lucky Luciano stroke a deal with Louisiana’s governor, Huey Long, to share slot machines’ wins and a Sicilian, Robert Maestri, was mayor of the city for 10 years. Sicilians, let’s say it this way, “got white.”
Yet, it took 128 years for the community to receive official apologies through the words and voice of Latoya Cantrell, an African American mayor. A small, yet enormous piece of news, in the current climate of racial and cultural upheaval the US have been experiencing as of late.
Have you watched Green Book, the movie that won the Oscars? It’s a story set in the 1950s, about the unlikely friendship between an Italian American security man and an African American musical genius, born during a dangerous trip through a segregated deep South. One night, while the two where actually in Louisiana, they were stopped by a racist cop who asked to the driver, interpreted by an extraordinary Viggo Morternsen: “and you… where do you come from?” “I’m Italian.” “Right, sort of a n***er, then.” Viggo punched him in the face.
In the last scene of the movie, which takes place in New York, the African American musician is welcomed by Viggo’s family for dinner on Christmas Eve, in a triumph of spaghetti and meatballs. You get what I mean.
Rome and Africa: it’s a great match, isn’t it?
Enrico Deaglio is the author of Storia Vera e Terribile tra Sicilia e America (Sellerio) where he narrates a similar episode to the one discussed here: the lynching of five Italian farmers in Tallulah, 300 km North of New Orleans, in 1899.