“The wave of migration to the United States in the 19th century caused a national panic and led Americans to discriminate against Europeans immigrants. Some were designated “whiter” — and more worthy of citizenship — than others, while some were ranked as too close to blackness to be socially redeemable”. This was the scenario that, according to an article by Brent Staples appeared at the end of last year on the pages of the New York Times, our compatriots found upon their arrival in the land of the ʻAmerican dreamʼ and that on 14th March 1891 culminated in an episode of extreme violence. In New Orleans (Louisiana) eleven Italians were lynched following the murder of a police chief: although they were acquitted in court, a mob found them guilty nonetheless. Retracing those events can help us better understand the present historical moment in which the racial issue has returned forcefully to the centre of the debate, in Italy too.

ITALIAN AMERICANS. “These Italians ‒ according to Staples ‒  seemed at first to be the answer to both the labour shortage and and the increasingly pressing quest for settlers who would support white domination in the emerging Jim Crow state”. The United States, in fact, had recently left behind the Civil War and abolished slavery. Free blacks of the Southern states had left behind a void that the Italians were happy to fill (at least at the beginning). However, the idyll of the newcomers with the state of Louisiana soon vanished: the discouragement for “the miserable wages and the terrible working conditions” occurred soon. Despite the difficulties, Italian immigrants began to thrive, creating their commercial activities, and fraternize with African American people, as witnessed by the first mixed marriages. This, Staples said, “contributed to the perception of the Sicilians, in particular, as not entirely ʻwhiteʼ and therefore susceptible to those same persecutory acts, including lynching, of which blacks were ordinarily victims”.

PUBLIC OPINION. By telling about these episodes of violence against the black population, the press had long been the protagonist of a campaign of mystification to justify them, perpetuating racial stereotypes. In this regard, as Staples highlighted, the newspapers of the Northern states were as guilty as those of the Southern ones. “The Times constantly used titles such as A Wild Black Lynched, insinuating the guilt of the victim and pointing him as a ʻcriminal by natureʼ”. A similar treatment was also granted to Italians. Another article by The New York Times in 1880 characterized immigrants, including Italians, as “links in a chain of descending evolution”. According to the American journalist, this smear campaign ended up attributing to immigrants of Italian descent an assumed predisposition to crime, just as it happened to African Americans. The Times referred to another lynching victim as “Dago Joe” (“Dago” was a derogatory addressed mainly to address Italians) highlighting mixed blood and adding that he had inherited “the worst of the races representing him” and that he was “a killer by nature”.

THE MASSACRE. This is the ground on which the blind fury of the inhabitants of New Orleans took hold on 14th March 1891. In late October, the police chief David Hennessy, had been killed by a group of armed men and before he died he had indicated a “Dago” as responsible, however without giving names. According to many reports, from forty-five to two hundred and fifty Italians had been arrested in the following hours. It is certain that among the nine men ended up on trial for that murder, six of them were acquitted while three obtained the annulment. The crowd, unhappy with the verdict, decided to take matters into their own hands. A few days later, “when New Orleans victims’ blood was still fresh” ‒ told Staples ‒ the Times titled: ‘Chief Hennessy Avenged: Eleven of his Italian Assassins Lynched by a Mob’”.

THE BIRTH OF COLUMBUS DAY. If the massacre didn’t go unnoticed, it was partly for the response by the Italian government Rudinì that recalled its ambassador, giving way to a period of diplomatic chill between the two countries. The American president Harrison who, as the journalist underlined “would have ignored the massacre of New Orleans if the victims were blacks”, had nothing to do but run for cover and obtaining benefits payment for victims’ families Rome had requested. However, the event had another important result, that is, the proclamation of the Columbus Day by Harrison in 1892. “This event ‒ Staples concluded ‒ made sure that Italian Americans found their spot in the USA establishment myth, rewriting history and identifying Christopher Columbus as the ʻfirst immigrantʼ”.

Translated by Daniela Marsala