By: Basil Russo, ISDA President
The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia clearly demonstrated how far Italian Americans have risen in the U.S. since our ancestors arrived more than a century ago.
Aside from the presidency, there is no more important or prestigious position in our country than being a Supreme Court Justice. And we had not just one, but two, including Justice Samuel Alito.
Numerous Italian Americans have served as governors, speakers of the house, CEOs of major corporations, union presidents, cardinals of the church, innovators in the area of medicine, science and education, as well as some of the most famous entertainers and athletes.
U.S. Census statistics show that Italian Americans, as a group, are among the highest wage earners and are among the best educated, while having one of the lowest divorce rates. Clearly Italian Americans have made it, and in a big way. We are major contributors to the success of America.
But our rise to a position of prominence in the U.S. did not come easy. The successes we enjoy today are the result of a long and difficult struggle. Between 1880 and 1925, approximately 4 million Italian immigrants arrived in America with nothing more than their dreams and a willingness to work to make a better life for their families.
When they arrived, they were greeted with suspicion. They were commonly referred to as dagos, WOPs and guineas. They were forced to live in diseased tenement housing. They were only allowed to work the most dangerous and lowest paying jobs. Two of the most tragic events of American bigotry and prejudice, involving the inhumane treatment of Italian immigrants, can be seen in the following historic accounts.
In 1890, the police chief of New Orleans, David Hennessy, was shot and killed. Several prominent individuals, who sought to take advantage of the situation by wrestling control of the New Orleans docks away from the Italian immigrants, hatched a plan to blame the immigrants for the chief’s death.
Dozens of Italian immigrants were arrested, 19 were indicted, and nine were placed on trial. The jury returned its verdict and found none of them guilty. Despite the verdict, these men were put back in prison.
A few days later, the mayor of New Orleans and his staff called for a vigilante gathering in the town square. Some 10,000 men showed up and stormed the jail where the immigrants were held in order to lynch them.
Eleven of these Italian immigrants were either shot or murdered by the mob, or lynched from trees outside the jail. This was the largest mass lynching in U.S. history.
The New York Times wrote an editorial in support of the lynchings, and people spoke of impeaching President Harrison, when he spoke out to condemn the murders. Lynchings of Italian immigrants continued periodically throughout the south over the next 20 years.
In April of 1920, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrants, were arrested in Boston and charged with the murder of a shoe factory paymaster and a guard.
Sacco and Vanzetti both considered themselves to be anarchists, but they were men who believed in human dignity, freedom and justice.
The trial pitted these two immigrant workers against those in positions of power and authority, who were fearful the labor movement in America posed a threat to them. The trial judge was a prejudiced and bigoted man, who expressed his feelings publicly. Sacco and Vanzetti were found guilty and sentenced to death.
People throughout the country believed they were innocent, and that they had not receive a fair trial. Mass demonstrations were held throughout America as well as in major cities throughout the world. Despite these worldwide protests, Sacco and Vanzetti were executed on Aug. 22, 1927.
These two great miscarriages of justice clearly exhibit the deep-seeded bias and prejudice Italian immigrants and their children were subjected to as new immigrants in America.
It was only because of the courage, sacrifices and struggles of the immigrants that Italian Americans, like Antonin Scalia, were ultimately given the opportunity to achieve their great successes in our country.