I undertook the writing of this personal and family history chiefly to shed light upon my experiences and background for my children and hopefully, in turn, for their children. I am also following the advise I have so often given my students over the years, to recount in written form their own histories, which form part of the fabric of the past, and most of which will otherwise be irretrievably lost when they pass from the scene. I have given this account of my life to this date the title “Local Historian, North and South” because that title comes closest, I think, to capturing the professional role I have played in my life. This chapter of my autobiography was written about15 years ago (c. 2002).
The Italian Immigrant Experience
Back in 1995 I attended a lecture sponsored by a Newton-Based organization, the Center for Italian Culture, on the history of Italian immigration into Boston. The speaker, as it turned out, had relatively little knowledge of the topic he was engaged to speak upon. He knew his immigrant history in a general way well enough, but he didn’t seem to have much of a grasp of the specifics of the Italian immigrant experience.
After the talk, I approached the President of the Center, Emilio Mazzola, to express my concern that the talk had not delivered what its title had promised. I seem to remember saying something like, “Emilio, I could have done a better job off the top of my head,” whereupon he challenged that assertion by inviting me to give a future lecture on the same topic, which was precisely what I had hoped he would say.
This was and remains a subject that interests me at a gut level. I felt here, as I often did when taking up a new and exciting historical topic, a sense of mission.
Over the next few months, I worked away at this topic with great energy, reading everything that I could lay my hands on that might shed any light on the history of Boston’s Italian community, and in the end developing a two-part lecture series, under the title Boston’s Italians, which I then presented at the Newton Free Library on Tuesday, October 24, 1995 and Tuesday, November 14, 1995
These lectures were very well attended. Even the second of them, which was given during a heavy rain storm, drew an audience of nearly a hundred people, and the response was very positive. Over the next few years the Boston Italian lecture was presented, in whole or in part, to many Greater Boston audiences, including the Bostonian Society, the Italian Genealogical Society of America, the Dante Alighieri Society, the American-Italian Historical Society, and to public libraries, historical societies, and other social organizations in Boston’s West End, Hyde Park, East Boston, Winthrop, Melrose, Brockton, Watertown, Braintree, Waltham, Wellesley, Wellesley College, Needham, Dedham, Winchester and Hyde Park.
The enthusiastic response that I got from these audiences, eventually prompted me to do a book on the topic, appearing in 1999 under the title, The Italian-Americans of Greater Boston: A proud Tradition. In putting this book together, I drew not only upon a huge archive of family photographs that were readily available but many photos loaned to me by attendees at the various lectures on the topic.
These activities, in turn, led to my being selected in 2001 as a recipient of the Pirandello Lyceum’s I Migliori Award, given for service to the promotion of Italian American culture. I also received an award from the Watertown Historical Commission in 2009, the Community Spirit Award, for this talk.
One of the complaints that I had about the Italian-American organizational infrastructure, especially the Dante Alighieri Society, the Pirandello Lyceum, even the organizers of Massachusetts’ Italian Heritage Month celebrations, was their programmatic preoccupation with the big gun topics of Italian culture (Dante, Galileo, Columbus, and Renaissance artists and painters), and the relative lack of concern, even embarrassment when it came to taking up the topic of the ordinary immigrant experience in America. I challenged these organizations to take a more proactive role in examining the immigrant experience, unfortunately with little success. I continue to feel now, as I did then, that the Italian immigrant experience deserves to be more systematically studied.
My maternal great grandfather, Pietro Salvucci (the last figure on the right) is seen here on shipboard on one of his seven documented crossings of the Atlantic Ocean in the period 1898 to 1924.While the precise date of this photo is uncertain, it was probably taken during the last in 1924. If so, my grandfather, Loreto Salvucci, also on his way to America, was almost certainly the photographer.