Italian-Americans in New Orleans

Piazza d’Italia - New Orleans

Piazza d’Italia - New Orleans

 

Dear Readers,
Italian American Digest, the quarterly publication of the American-Italian Renaissance Foundation, and the Italian American voice of the Southeast, founded by the late Joseph Maselli, in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1973 turned forty this year. The late Joe Maselli was “no ordinary Joe” when it came to accentuating the positive of his Italian Heritage.
 
In addition to his business interests, Joe Maselli was the president, founder and guiding spirit of the American-Italian Renaissance Foundation, a museum and research library that documents the history of the Italian community in New Orleans. He was also a leading force in the establishment of Piazza d’Italia, with its centerpiece fountain, designed by the winner of a worldwide architectural completion, as part of a downtown New Orleans revitalization project. 
 
In 1984, during the World’s Fair, Maselli made sure the Italian Village with its food and festivities was a Fair favorite with the visitors from all over the world. Joe Maselli was also the founder of the American-Italian Federation of  the Southeast which is comprised of Italo-American “presidenti e ufficiali” of 
organizations throughout our southeastern United States, i.e. Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia.        
***
 
Louisiana ranks 14 out of a possible low of 50 in the population of Italian Americans by state. At last count it was reported that there were 165,015 Italian Americans in the state with over half of them living in New Orleans. Yes, there were 87,351 Italian Americans in New Orleans! 
There are 34 Italian American organizations in Louisiana. And in New Orleans alone, there are 8 Italian American organizations. The Elenian Club has 500 members, the American-Italian Renaissance Foundation has 600 members, and the St. Lucy Society of New Orleans has 200 members.
 
Some of Louisiana’s oldest Italian American organizations, the Contessa Entellina Society was founded in 1886. The Amerita Club in Alexandria was founded in 1925. The Società Italiana di Mutua Beneficenza Cefalutana was founded in 1887. St. Joseph Italian Society was launched in 1922 and the St. Lucy Society of New Orleans was founded in 1927. Yes, the Italian Americans have been around Louisiana for many, many years.
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The Louisiana Purchase, as we learned in our elementary school Story of America history books, was when our third president Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) signed the Louisiana Purchase Treaty, by which the United States bought about one-third of its present territory from Napoleon, emperor of France at a price finally fixed at fifteen million dollars. 
 
The Louisiana Purchase land included not only the state we know now as Louisiana but eight states that would be carved out of the whole western part of the Mississippi Valley, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska and part of five more: Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Colorado and New Mexico.
 
The Louisiana territory was born in 1682, when the French explorer Robert Cavalier de La Salle erected a cross near the mouth of the Mississippi and solemnly read a declaration saying he took possession of the whole Mississippi River basin, in the name of “the most, high, mighty, invincible and victorious Prince; Louis the Great, by grace of God king of France, 14th of that name”. And it was in honor of King Louis XIV and some say his Austrian born Queen Anathat he named the land Louisiana.
 
In 1718, French explorer Jean-Baptiste le Moyne founded a settlement near the site of La Salle’s proclamation, and named it Nouvelle Orleans for Philippe, Duke of Orleans. By the time of the Louisiana Purchase, its population of whites, slaves of African origin and “free persons of color” was about 8,000.  A picturesque assemblage of French and Spanish colonial architecture and Creole cottages, New Orleans boasted a thriving economy based largely on agricultural exports.
 
For more than a century after La Salle took possession of the Louisiana Territory, it was traded among European Royalty at their whim and it was the rumor of a Royal trade, with an Italian connection that may have spurred President Jefferson into possible purchase action; the rumor that King Louis XV, concluding that the territory was valueless gave the area to his Bourbon cousin Charles III of Spain in 1773. But in 1800, the region also changed hands, when Napoleon negotiated a clandestine treaty with Spain’s Charles IV, the treaty called for the return of the territory to France in exchange for the small Kingdom of Etruria in northern Italy, which Charles wanted for his daughter Louisetta.
 
When Jefferson heard rumors of Napoleon’s secret deal, he immediately saw the threat to America’s Western settlement and its vital outlet to the Gulf of Mexico. The crunch began for Jefferson in October 1802, when Spain’s King Charles IV finally got around to signing the royal decree officially transferring the territory to France. The 1803 signing of the Louisiana Purchase agreement ended that worry and two hundred years later, in 2003, the bicentennial anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase was happily celebrated.
***
 
The Louisiana Purchase Treaty was signed in 1803 and as early as 1804 “Italians were already beginning to make an economic impact on the city. Jerome Ciapella was such an influential merchant in 1804 that his signature accompanied a petition to the United States Congress on behalf of the merchants of New Orleans and General Andrew Jackson was received in triumph at Piero Maspero’s Exchange Coffee House on Chartes Street following the Battle of New Orleans in 1815”. Earlier than that, records also show that three Italians, Maestro Francisco, Cristoforo di Spinola and Bernardo Peloso, were known to have been in Louisiana with Hernando De Soto’s Spanish exploratory expedition in the early 1540’s. Although these Italian early birds are of notable interest, it is among the approximately 70,000 Italian immigrants that arrived at the port of New Orleans between 1898 and 1929, and made Louisiana their home that Readers with relatives in the ankle boot shaped state of Louisiana find interesting.
***
 
A thriving trade existed between New Orleans and Palermo, Sicily. By the 1860’s Mediterranean growers regularly supplied the United States with oranges and other citrus fruits before the development of the citrus industry in California, Texas, Florida and Louisiana.
 
By 1880’s, ships outbound from Sicily carried lemons, limes, olives, oil, dried figs, and other products to New Orleans, where a sizeable portion of those goods were sold in the New Orleans retail market; the remainder were loaded on steam boats and carried to ports upriver like Natchez, Memphis, St. Louis and Cairo, Illinois. On the return trip, vessels from New Orleans carried cotton and grain (rice and wheat) as cargo to various European ports before returning to Palermo.
 
Most of the early Italian immigrants  who came to work on the sugar cane plantations of Louisiana were from the Italian island of Sicily. The villages from which they came from were Contessa Entellina, Ustica, Bisacquino, Termini Imerese, Poggioreale, Corleone, Cefalù, Palazzo Adriano, Trapani, Chiusa Sclafani, Trabia, Caccamo, Gibellina, Vallelunga Pratemento, Roccamena, Sambuca, Salaparuta, and the city of Palermo.
 
In the cities, the largest and most dense concentrations of Italians in Louisiana was found in the New Orleans “French Quarter”. The Quarter has always been affordable, and in 1900 when the Italian immigrants were flocking to it, there were enough inexpensive properties to accommodate even poverty stricken newcomers.
     Italian immigrants who settled there did so because of its proximity to the farmers markets (French Market).
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