By: Basil Russo, ISDA President
On March 14, 1891 a mob of anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 people hung, shot and clubbed 11 Italian immigrants outside Parish Prison in New Orleans. This was the largest recorded mass lynching in American history.
Nine of the immigrants had been charged with the murder of the city’s police chief, David Hennessy. A lawful trial had been held and the jury found none of them guilty. These lynchings were then orchestrated by the city’s political and business leaders, who chose to show their disdain for our country’s legal system by committing 11 murders of their own.
As repulsive and shocking as the mob’s actions were, the response of several newspapers, as well as some of our country’s political leaders — including future president Theodore Roosevelt — was equally offensive. Not only did they fail to condemn the lynchings and demand that those who participated be prosecuted, but also, they sought to justify and even applaud these heinous acts.
The most tragic example was that of The New York Times Editorial Board, which wrote in response to the lynchings:
“These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigations…These men of the Mafia killed chief Hennessy in circumstances of peculiar atrocity…Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans to stay the issue of a new license to the Mafia to continue its bloody practices.”
It is unimaginable, at any point in time, that such words would appear within the editorial pages of one of the world’s most influential journalistic institutions. In keeping with its longstanding reputation of exposing and condemning prejudice in America, The Times should publish an apology.
However, the newspaper and its Editorial Board have neither acknowledged the grave error they committed 128 years ago, nor have they responded to our repeated calls for a retraction.
They evidently are more concerned about hiding their shameful editorial instead of exhibiting the integrity it would take to admit they were wrong. The Italian American community has never had a history of whining and complaining about past injustices–it’s not who we are. After all, the advent of Columbus Day celebrations, which began in earnest a year after the lynchings in 1892, was a massive undertaking by Italian immigrants to restore a sense of dignity and self worth for themselves in light of the rampant anti-Italian hostility that the lynchings precipitated throughout the country at that time.
But, we demand that our community be treated with respect and that is something The Times has refused to do by ignoring us. Our community needs to barrage their editors with emails telling them so.
Please do your part and send a simple email to The Times–your subject line should read: The New York Times needs to apologize to the Italian American community.
The body of your message can be one to two sentences long.