A Mississippi Delta Italian immigrant farmer in 1909.
As was noted in part 1 of this article, by 1910 some 115,000 Southern and Eastern European immigrants had settled in the eleven state region that had earlier comprised the Confederate States of America. The most numerous immigrant element to enter the region by that date were Italians, 44,358 in number, residing chiefly along the Gulf Coast and in the Mississippi River Valley.
I now propose to look at the experience of this particular group as a case study of the South’s reaction to this New Immigrant influx. Nearly half of the region’s Italians (20,233) settled in southern part of Louisiana. The 1910 census shows them to have resided in the following parishes in concentrations of 500 or more:
St. James 699
St. Mary 1,246
The other counties in the eleven state region where the number of Italian immigrants exceeded 500 were:
Richmond, Virginia 511
Hillsboro, Florida 3,991
Shelby, Tennessee 1,539
Jefferson, Alabama 1,846
Washington, Mississippi 588
Chicot, Arkansas 723
Brazos, Texas 671
Erath, Texas 720
Galveston, Texas 1,030
Harris, Texas 1,057
A number of these counties lay in urban areas: Richmond, Virginia; Nashville, Tennessee; Birmingham, Alabama; and Galveston and Houston, Texas. It is to the non-urban concentrations, however, that the greatest interest attaches, for the southern economy was predominantly agrarian. If immigrants were to be attracted to the deep South in large numbers, as some planters hoped, it would have to be on the basis of opportunities to acquire land cheaply and to profitably cultivate the acreage.
Louisiana’s Italian population was centered in the city of New Orleans and six nearby parishes. These districts contained some of the most valuable farmland in the state, acreage devoted largely to sugar cane cultivation and mixed farming. While some Italians owned or leased the land on which they worked, most toiled in the sugar fields as common laborers. Between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, Professor Walter L. Fleming wrote in the Political Science Quarterly in 1905, the Italian laborer has largely displaced the Negro and the same is true of many other localities.
Sugar Mill payday, 1900, a racially and ethnically mixed work force.
What factors attracted Italian immigrants to Louisiana? Between 1880 and 1910 the state’s sugar plantations suffered from a chronic labor shortage. When early attempts to use Chinese and Scandinavian laborers failed, the state, in cooperation with leading planters, undertook a campaign to recruit Italian laborers, an effort that coincided with the beginnings of large-scale Italian immigration to the United States. Those who came to Louisiana gained a reputation as industrious workers and at this point some planters talking of the wholesale replacement of Negroes with Italians.
According to Professor Fleming, side by side with the Negroes, the Italians have proved their superiority as farm laborers. By the early 1900s, the state was so eager to import Italian laborers that a line of steamers was put in operation between New Orleans and Italy. In one week alone in 1903, according to Fleming, 2,134 Italians arrived in the city of New Orleans.
By 1910 Italians constituted the largest single immigrant group in Louisiana. This figure does not fully reflect the impact Italian laborers had on the state’s sugar producing parishes, however, for each year at harvest time, or zuccarata, thousands more Italians traveled to Louisiana (chiefly from Sicily), but also from Chicago, New York, St. Louis and other American cities to join the local labor force in the sugar fields. Estimates of these annual migrations ranged from 16,000 to 100,000 (the latter figure Fleming’s).
The jobs Italians performed in the sugar fields were unskilled, dirty, and low-paying and held out little prospect of advancement. According to historian Jean A. Scarpaci, advancement was possible only when a worker saved his wages so as to be able to buy or lease land. This Italian immigrant propensity for hard work and the accumulation of savings for land purchases, it should be emphasized, generated resentment among the locals, who maintained that Italian savings were siphoning off funds from the local economy.
The Italian had rather limited economic latitude in Louisiana. While a few became entrepreneurs in nearby towns, some went into agriculturally-related businesses, and others moved to the lumber and truck farm regions of the state, most of these immigrants eventually left Louisiana for more promising areas.
However, Italians were to remain in the area around Independence, Louisiana (Tangipahoa Parish) where land could be acquired on liberal terms. The community at Independence had been developed under the supervision of the Illinois Central Railroad. The chief crop that these immigrant farmers cultivated were strawberries. In 1910, Tangipahoa Parish produced nearly 95 percent of the state’s production of that valuable crop. In 1904 according to Fleming, 275 carloads of strawberries, valued at $500,000 were produced by Italian laborers. Many of these Italians remained to become independent farmers. It should be noted however, that these foreigners were not readily accepted by the community.
New York Financier Austin Corbin, who owned and operated railroads on Long Island and was the principal developer of New York City’s Coney Island, also funded the establishment of an Italian agricultural colony in Chicot County, Arkansas.
Equally interesting and significant were the efforts made to introduce Italian labor to the South’s cotton economy. Let us take the Chicot, Arkansas experiment as an example. A New York financier, Austin Corbin, conceived the idea of colonizing Italians in the lower Mississippi Valley. He acquired a large tract of cotton land on an island in Chicot County, Arkansas, and negotiated with Prince Ruspoli of Rome to send 500 Italian families to that location as tenants. That is to say, Corbin sold them land on long-term credit, with prices set high to assure the profitability of his investment.
This colony was called Sunnyside—an unfortunate choice of a name as it turned out. This effort, conceived on a grand scale by New York entrepreneur Corbin, proved a disastrous failure. The Italians he recruited were not acquainted with cotton culture (the crop was not grown in Italy) or the methods and tools employed in its cultivation. Since it had been the practice of the Italians to grow what they consumed and consume what they grew, the idea of raising a crop to be carried away by a river boat was foreign to their experience, as was the dependence on the outside world for foodstuffs.
It was also difficult to get the Italians, who came from different regions of the peninsula, to work together harmoniously. When the death of Austin Corbin robbed the Sunnyside venture of its chief financial backer and tropical diseases struck the colony, many of the Italians fled the area.
The failure of the Sunnyside venture was only temporary, however. By 1905 Corbin’s acreage was being worked by more than 500 Italians. The high degree of success attained in the face of the difficulties mentioned above—lack of familiarity with cotton, financial insecurity, and adjustment to a new and strange environment—led some southerners to heap praise upon these farm workers and foretell the day when they would replace the Negro. One such advocate, the avowedly racist Alfred Holt Stone, wrote as follows in 1905:
Alfred Holt Stone, planter, writer, politician, and tax commissioner for the State of Mississippi. was noted for his racist views of African-Americans.
The Italian is so jealous of the use of every foot for which he pays rent that he will cultivate with a hoe places too small to be worked with a plough, and derive revenue from spots to which a Negro would not give a moment’s thought. I have seen them cultivate right down to the water’s edge the banks of bayous that had never before been touched by the plough. I have seen them walk through their fields and search out every skipped place in every row and carefully put in seed to secure a perfect stand. I have seen them make more cotton per acre than the Negro on the adjoining cut, gather it from two to four weeks earlier, and then put in the extra time earning money by picking in the Negro’s field.
Yet there was a darker side to the Italian experience in the South which needs to be examined before we can identify the factors that discouraged this element from settling in the region in greater numbers. Of considerable influence was the stereotype of the Italian as the most degraded of European newcomers. As John Higham noted of the Italians, they bore the mark of Cain. They suggested the stiletto, the Mafia, the deed of impassioned violence. This, it should be emphasized, was a national, not just a Southern stereotype, but it manifested itself in the Land of Dixie with particular force.
According to historian Rowland Berthoff, Southerners had all along been of two attitudes about immigration. While one group, consisting of planters, land speculators, railroads, industrialists, and state governments strove to promote immigration, the popular attitude, latent at first, but growing more open after the 1880s, was hostile.
The southern attitude toward immigrants underwent a marked change between 1898 and 1912, as reflected in the voting behavior of the region’s congressional delegation on the literacy test issue. By 1910, Higham tells us, the South was becoming the nativist section par excellence. The hardening of Southern attitudes toward immigrants was related to the newcomer’s lack of background of Southern traditions and values, an outlook that might tend to undermine the white supremacist social order of the region. This was especially true of the Italians, Higham writes, who sometimes worked beside the blacks on large plantations and who seemed to lack a properly inflexible spirit.
This proposition is somewhat hard to credit. Why would Italian immigrants be any more likely to fraternize with Negroes than immigrants of German or Irish background? Indeed as Strapaci noted in her study of labor in the Louisiana sugar parishes, Italians very quickly shed their tolerance and adopted native white attitudes on the race question.
The lynching of five Italians at Tallulah, Louisiana in 1899 was attributed by one journalist to the fact that the Italian storekeepers in question had dealt mainly with the Negroes, and associated with them nearly on terms of equality in what was a predominantly black district. But such explanations of Southern hostility to the Italians seem contrived. The Italian inspired fear in Southern whites not because of his supposed liberal attitude toward the Negro, but because of what Italians themselves represented to Southerners—a dark and alien presence.
As a representative of an Alabama naval stores company declared in answer to a 1905 Immigration Restriction League of Boston inquiry: For God’s sake send your Italians to the coal mines of Pennsylvania or some other hot place. We are not in sympathy with the padrone or mafia system. We love the flag and would die to protect it. We do not want it cursed cutthroats and anarchy.
Joshua Caldwell, a Knoxville, Tennessee attorney, delineated the core attitudinal difficulty confronting Italians and other New Immigrant elements when he declared in an 1893 article appearing in the journal Arena, entitled The South is American, that his part of the country was the most thoroughly American because it was the most thoroughly Anglo-Saxon and that he could never believe that the hybrid population of Russians, Poles, Italians, Hungarians, which fills so many Northern cities and states could ever be properly assimilated. Caldwell went on to label the Italians as the single greatest menace to the South among these various alien elements.
The experience of Italian immigrants in the South was marred by numerous outbreaks of violence, the most infamous being the 1891 New Orleans incident in which eleven Italians were dragged out of jail by an infuriated mob and lynched. It was claimed that the eleven had conspired in the assassination of the Superintendent of Police, David C. Hennessey, and that they were Mafiosi, but a jury had found most of them innocent of the murder (on some they had been unable to agree). This was and remains the single greatest mass lynching in American history.
The 1891 lynching of eleven Italians in New Orleans nearly led to war between Italy and the United States.
Since three of the murdered men were citizens of Italy, a diplomatic crisis ensued in which the Italian envoy to the United States, Baron Francesco Saverio Fava, was recalled and there was widespread talk of Italian-American hostilities. In the excitement, many Southerners volunteered to fight Italy, including a Georgian, R. S. Lewis, who telegraphed the Secretary of War with an offer to raise a company of unterrified Georgia rebels to invade Rome, disperse the mafia and plant the stars and stripes on the Dome of St. Peter’s.
The Italian envoy to the United States, Baron Francesco Saverio Fava, was recalled in the aftermath of the New Orleans lynchings and the refusal of the U.S. government to intervene, and there was talk of war between the United States and Italy.
As historian Roland Berthoff noted, Judge Lynch dispensed justice to Italians on more than one occasion. In addition to the New Orleans incident, three Italians suspected of homicide were similarly disposed of in Hahnville Louisiana in 1896, five more at Tallulah, Louisiana in 1898 (after they injured an American doctor in an argument over a goat), and another three mysteriously shot at Ervin, Mississippi in 1901. Thus methods of mob terrorism commonly used against Negroes were extended to Italians, who many white Southerners regarded as but another inferior race to be disciplined.
An Italian political cartoon depicts the lynching of five Italian immigrants in Talulah, Mississippi in 1899
Author Ray Stannard Baker, writing in 1904, noted the tendency of the white Southerner to treat the Italian , who was in many places doing the work of the Negro, like the Negro. A movement is actually underway in Mississippi, he noted, to keep the Italian immigrants out of the white schools, and cited the case of Frank Scaglione, the leader of the Italian colony in Sumrall, Mississippi, who was decoyed from his home and unmercifully whipped by a mob of white men.
Given these conditions—the mounting hostility of Southerners, acts of violence, the attempts to relegate the Italian immigrant to the status of the Negro, it is little wonder that Italians largely avoided the South; that in 1910, out of a total U.S. Italian immigrant population of 1,343,000, only 44,000 resided in our eleven state area.
Father Pietro Bandini, the Catholic Priest and former missionary to the Indians of Montana, who in 1899 helped found a grape producing Italian colony in northwest Arkansas, Tontitown, named for the French explorer of Italian extraction, Henri de Tonti (1649-1704).
The unwillingness, or perhaps inability, of the South to absorb the new immigrant is dramatically demonstrated by the experience of the Italian colony at Tontitown, Arkansas. This settlement was an offshoot of the Sunnyside experiment. When Austin Corbin’s grand scheme collapsed, a group of Sunnyside settlers, under the leadership of a Tuscan priest, Father Pietro Bandini, struck out across the state of Arkansas, working on railroad construction projects as they proceeded, and finally settling in the northwestern part of the state near where the neighboring states of Kansas and Oklahoma meet.
Never was a people more thoroughly isolated than these Italian refugees, for their Southern neighbors steadfastly avoided contact with them. In fact, several attempts were made to burn the town’s Catholic Church.
Italian Immigrant in Tontitown, Arkansas.
Shortly after World War I, more than a quarter of a century after the foundation of the Tontitown community, a visiting Italian journalist described the state of affairs in that isolated Italian colony in an article published in Century Magazine:
This was a hothouse Italy, the author wrote, formed of patience and love, like certain convent made embroideries reproducing famous altar pieces. As an imitation it was perfect; yet every inch of it was artificial.
The colony was from the point of view of Italian civilizations, an obvious case of arrested development…. The Italy of these people is the Italy of almost two generations ago.
The most amazing modern replica of a medieval republic; of one of the free and proud cities, battlemented and turreted, self-contained, and self-sufficient (emphasis mine), ceaselessly glorifying their Italian civilization. Yet with no visible bond with other fragments of Italian mentality and culture situated elsewhere on the planet.
What this colony of Italians immigrants clearly was not, twenty-five years after its foundation, was either American or Southern.