L. Tucci Teaching American History: Immigration



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L. Tucci

Teaching American History: Immigration

19 April 2012

Italian Immigrants of Boston

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (“The New Colossus”)

Emma Lazarus’ 1883 poem to the Statue of Liberty helped to give the statue and the United States of America a strong identity of welcoming unwanted immigrants to the country, promising success and happiness. In fact, the United States of America is well known for being a nation of immigrants. However, our history often skims over the negative aspects of some of our immigrant groups, such as the Southern Italians. Although the Southern Italians were part of the later masses of immigrants arriving to the United States in comparison to the English, Irish, Germans, and Northern Italians, their acceptance to the country was not as receptive as Lazarus’ poem describes. For instance, Boston Massachusetts was a destination for many Southern Italians, particularly the North End. Their arrival was not celebrated by the city’s current inhabitants of English and Irish descent, rather the Southern Italians faced many forms of discrimination, forcing them to constantly have to prove themselves to the American population.

The Italians had a steady and growing number of immigrants constantly leaving their country in the late 19th century. Prior to 1870, less than 30,000 Italian immigrants made the journey to the United States, while the 1870s saw an increase of 50,000 immigrants, mostly made up Northern Italians. Yet, beginning in the 1880s through the 1920s, more than 4 million Italians came to the United States; this group on the other hand was made up of mostly Southern Italians (Daniels 67-68). This was the largest influx of any immigrant group to arrive in such a short span of time. Most of these new immigrants made their new home in America’s large cities, such as Boston.

Like the United States, Boston also saw a major change in its population. In the hundred year span of 1800 to 1900, Boston transformed from an ethnically uniform seaport of 24,000 inhabitants of mostly English descent to a diverse population of more than 560,000 and growing (“Boston: People”). This rapid growth in population was originally due to the Irish and German immigrants, and later followed by the southern and eastern European immigrants, including Italians and Jews. In Boston, the majority of Southern Italian immigrants settled in Boston’s North End. Originally the North End was the city’s most esteemed residential area, housing at one time colonial governor Thomas Hutchinson and silversmith Paul Revere. However, by the mid-1880s the North End’s economic conditions began to drop and the arrival of poor Irish and German immigrants grew, causing the wealthy to move to Boston’s Beacon Hill and eventually the Back Bay. As a result, the North End had transformed into Boston’s first slum neighborhood, housing primarily the poor Irish immigrants. Yet, with the incoming of a large Southern Italian population beginning to take place in the 1880s, the North End would see another transformation of ethnic identity. At first, the two populations lived amongst one another. For instance, in 1900 the North End’s population was 24,000, with nearly 15,000 being Italian, 5,000 Jewish, and a few thousand Irish (Puleo 7). Eventually, the Irish, like the wealthy inhabitants before them, would make the move to new Boston neighborhoods, such as South Boston, Charlestown, and Dorchester.

By 1905, the North End was unmistakably Italian dominate. The population was now 27,000, of which 22,000 were Italians (9). By the 1920s, 40,000 people crowded into the North End with Italians making up 97 percent of population (45). And by 1935, Italians would be Boston’s second largest ethnic group dominating in both the North End and East Boston (181). The Southern Italian population had created their own Little Italy, making the journey from Italy seem more bearable since they were surrounded by at least familiar sounds of the Italian language, smells of the old country’s food, and people of the same culture, despite the drastic country to urban scenery change for many. Initially, Boston Italians settled with family or friends from the same village in Italy, but because of the small geographic area of the North End and rapid immigration numbers, residents from different regions of Italy were all forced to interact with each other and submerge their regional differences. Ultimately, the immersion of a tight knit Italian community would help the immigrant group with survival and assimilation, such as finding jobs and overcoming discrimination.

Southern Italians were not well received in the United States or Boston. The “old” immigrants and settlers found many ways to discriminate against the newest wave of immigrants, and as a result made it difficult for them to assimilate into American culture. Although Boston Italians did not face as violent discrimination as other parts of the United States, particularly the South, the once persecuted Irish still made life difficult for the new immigrants in town. One form of discrimination the North End Southern Italians faced was in housing. Because the majority of Southern Italian immigrants were poor, they had to settle where housing was most affordable, the North End. As one Yankee journalist put it, “No where in Boston has father time wrought such ruthless changes as in the once highly respectable quarter, now swarming with Italians in every dirty nook and corner” (45). The North End was certainly showing its age since the English had been the primary residents by now being crowded with decrepit tenements. City investigators described the tenements as “adjoined so closely that sufficient air and light could not enter outside rooms; and except for those on the top floors, inside rooms were dark and musty” (12). As a consequence, the health of the Southern Italians was at high risk to diseases and viruses like tuberculosis, pneumonia, meningitis, typhoid fever, diphtheria, infant cholera, and bronchitis. Specifically, between 1898 and 1899, the North End suffered the largest number of deaths in the city (13). Sadly, neither the city nor state did anything to change these conditions despite the obvious dangers.

Another reason the North End Southern Italians were discriminated against was because of the common Italian habit of being “birds of passage.” This meant that many Southern Italians traveled back and forth between Italy and the United States for seasonal work, demonstrating a lack of interest of permanently settling in America. It is estimated that of the over 4 million Italians who came to the United States in the 1880s to 1920s, as many as 1.7 million practiced being “birds of passage” (54). In fact, the Italian government strongly encouraged this temporary emigration due to the country’s poor economic conditions (55). This insulted many Americans with one citizen exclaiming “The American race will eventually be wiped out by these alien hordes. Even now every city has its Little Italy…in which the people do not learn the English language, do little business except among themselves, and send all the surplus earnings back whence they came” (58). Yet, even those Italians who crossed the Atlantic only once and stayed in the United States permanently were tainted by this notion. Furthermore, Southern Italians were slow or uninterested in obtaining citizenship. This angered other ethnic groups of Boston, especially the Irish, because the two groups commonly competed for the same jobs. As a result, the lack of commitment demonstrated by the Southern Italians to Boston and America made the Irish especially scornful and suspicious of the immigrant group with many believing that the Italian immigrants “are under America, not of it” (58).

Religion was another way North End Southern Italians faced discrimination. Although most of the Boston Irish and Italians both practiced Catholicism, the Irish found the way the Italians practiced the religion to be strange and unusual. Typically, Italian Catholicism included parades and festivals honoring saints, which the Irish Catholics viewed as “pagan and idolatrous,” very unlike their more traditional and moralistic approach (15). The Irish also resented the Italian anti-clericalism beliefs and lack of children’s religious education. As a result, because the Boston Archdiocese was governed mainly by the Irish, they tried to exert their superiority over the Italians. In 1876, the archbishop of Boston “hoped to encourage the Italian congregation gradually to make a transition to the English language by this introduction of bilingualism at Saint Leonard’s Church,” which was the first Italian parish in New England (6-7). Furthermore, the priest of Saint Leonard’s was ordered to hear confessions in English. Many of the Italians saw this as unfair and insensitive since many came to the country unable to speak any English and saw their religious practice as a critical part of their identity.

The Southern Italians of America and Boston were also discriminated against because of the stereotypical stamp of being a criminal group. Indeed, there were violent and destructive Italian groups, including the North End based Italian anarchists. The Italian anarchists used terrorism and violence to fight capitalism and the government, believing that they were the source of troubles for the working class and poor (107). One example of their acts was the December 17, 1916 bombing of the Salutation Street police station, which caused damage stretching far beyond the station house. While the overwhelming majority of Boston Italians were apolitical and peaceful, the radical anarchists and their followers frightened Americans, making them even more suspicious of the entire ethnic group. Other organized crime groups of Italian origin was the notorious Mafia. Although Boston had its own Mafia leader, immigrant Filippo “Phil” Buccola, the Irish and Jewish mobs were also fighting for control over the same things, like bootlegging, gambling, loan sharking, and prostitution (157). However, because of the publicity of the Italian Mafia and its well known gangsters, all the ordinary Southern Italians were left to be questioned and not accepted. One Boston Baptist minister pronounced that “the influx of Italians had increased crime and immorality in the North End” (27). In response, the Italian newspaper of Boston, La Gazzetta del Massachusetts, defended its people by saying “On the whole, anyone who lives in this quarter knows that it compares favorably with any other – socially, morally, and educationally. Our troubles are not inherent in our neighborhood…my people have done and are doing their best to lead lives that will benefit themselves and the country which offers them asylum” (27). Unfortunately, the few bad Italian examples breed enough anti-Italian, anti-immigrant fervor that they damaged the reputation of the majority that were law-abiding.

Southern Italian children also faced discrimination at school throughout the United States and North End. Many Italian schoolchildren were penalized for their immigrant parent’s illiteracy and negative attitudes toward formal education. Teachers would ridicule Italian schoolchildren for their broken English and the clothing they wore. Administrators and teachers went as far to classify Italian children as “lost causes,” “dummies,” “wops,” “retarded” or “problem” children more often than other ethnic groups (86). One teacher said “These children, especially the boys, were a source of constant irritation to teachers…These children were disliked both by teachers and non-Italian pupils” (86). Furthermore, school and government officials usually ignored concerns from Italian parents, citing that their illiteracy and own lack of formal education made them ill suited to decide what was best for their children. This response and the lack of teaching about Italy in schools gave many Southern Italians the feeling of inferiority, and may have been another reason why many Southern Italian families removed their children from school after the eighth grade, besides the reason of working to contribute to the household income.

Another form of prejudice against the Southern Italians came later with the beginning of World War II. Due to Italy’s alliance with Germany, many American officials and citizens became weary of the immigrants in the country. The new wave of discrimination was assisted by a speech made by President Roosevelt, with one Italian immigrant stating that “His remarks not only brought shame on Italy. They drew upon the notorious stereotype of Italians as stiletto-prone people that had haunted the members of this ethnic group since the beginning of mass immigration from Italy to the United States in 1880s” (199). Furthermore, Roosevelt’s speech sparked many Southern Italians, including in the North End, to be fired from their jobs (199). Perhaps even more shocking was that as many as 10,000 Italian American noncitizens, mostly on the West Coast, had been driven from their homes and jobs, restricted from traveling, and interned in camps for a four month period in 1942 for “military necessity” (210). Italians were outraged that some of their countrymen were classified as enemy aliens, yet still had their sons fighting in the war for the United States.

All this prejudice against the Southern Italians fueled many different discriminatory attempts and creations of bills against the immigrant group. For instance, there had been various attempts to create a law that would require all immigrants over the age of sixteen to pass a literacy test in any language before being admitted into the United States. The goal of the bill according to the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization of 1913 was to “bring about an elimination of the most undesirable of those coming to our shores and at the same time not strike down those who come to make their homes with us, to build up the moral and material prosperity of our country, and to become permanent citizens among us” (74). The language of the bill appeared to target Italians, since most were illiterate in English and Italian, some did not stay in the country, and many had not gained citizenship. The bill eventually passed in 1915 after many failed attempts, with the addition of also doubling the head tax for prospective immigrants (111). Many Southern Italians saw this law as an affront to the Italians already living in the United States because it would have meant that the majority of them would have been barred from admittance into the country.

Another way the United States government showed its dislike for the Southern Italians was through the introduction of quotas. The Johnson-Reed United States Immigration Act of 1924 was a national-origin quota bill that limited immigration to two percent of the number of each nationality in residence as recorded in the census of 1890 (148-150). The new quotas permanently reversed America’s open door immigration policy and again specifically targeted the Southern Italians and other southern and eastern European immigrants. As a result, 1921 was the last year the Italian immigration population would reach six figures, totaling 220,000 new arrivals (136). Furthermore, the Prohibition amendment was seen as another personal blow to the Italian immigrants. Culturally, wine was a norm at mealtime for the Italians, and again they felt that the government was specifically narrowing in on them.

The United States government also contributed to the discrimination against the Southern Italians by classifying them specifically. The U.S. Bureau of Immigration identified Italian immigrants as two different races, northern and southern. “Southern Italians were viewed as a different race entirely, likely for many reasons: their darker complexions, their inability to speak English, their general illiteracy, and their unusual Catholic religious customs” (81). Northern Italians actually encouraged this separation from their Southern countrymen, with many resenting or embarrassed by any association with the peasants and farmers of Southern Italy. With the government specifically defining the Southern Italians, it ultimately confirmed the biases or prejudices that other ethnic groups had of the immigrant group. Century Magazine declared “The Italians are primitive in every way…and yet, to know them, to know their utter helplessness and unsophistication, is to have infinite pity for them…that the Mediterranean peoples are morally below the races of northern Europe is as certain as any social fact” (80). In fact, Southern Italians and African Americans were viewed as strikingly similar, eliciting common criticisms and violence against the two groups, including lynchings. These categorizations caused added stereotypes against the Southern Italian population.

Despite the strong discrimination against the Southern Italians in the United States and North End, they worked extra hard to prove themselves to other population groups of the United States by assimilating in a number of ways. For instance, more and more Southern Italian were beginning to learn to read in Italian and English by taking reading courses at night after working all day (90). Southern Italians also worked to assimilate by owning real estate. By 1913, Southern Italians owned more than 25 percent of the North End, including homes and successful businesses, like Pastene and Boston Macaroni (90, 91). For most Southern Italians, owning a home was the most important step in the assimilation process because “Housing represented a means to an end, an investment for family in community” and was something that was out of economic reach in Italy for most of them (96). Southern Italian immigrants also started to show their roots in America by beginning to move up the job ladder by taking on skilled trades and professions, including risky entrepreneurships in produce, fishing, and barbershops, while 40 percent continued as unskilled laborers (91, 182). Despite having large numbers in the unskilled workforce still, this actually helped to soften the “shiftless and lazy” stereotypes of the Southern Italians, as many Americans were thankful for them fulfilling the “dirty work” jobs that others did not want (94). Additionally, unlike their mothers, the daughters of Italian immigrants began to assimilate by entering the workplace in large numbers in Boston, specifically in the garment district as seamstresses. Young Italian women would also take part in North End library clubs, where they would read, discuss American civic affairs, learn needlepoint and pottery, and occasionally study music. Slowly, Italian Americans were being recognized for their hard work.

Assimilation of the Southern Italians was further demonstrated during World War I when the arrival of new immigrants slowed down. This was a step forward because it allowed Italian neighborhoods, including the North End, to become more cohesive. Furthermore, immigrants from Italy began to identify themselves as “Italians” to other Americans, rather than describing themselves in regards to their original village, province or region in Italy (101). This was significant since many Americans had been trying to identity them as such all along. And although it was difficult for many to do so, due to their unending love of their homeland, gradually more and more Southern Italians began making the big step of becoming a citizen of the United States. In fact citizenship rates were about 25 percent in 1915 and continued to grow to about 50 percent in the mid-1920s (103, 144). It appeared that the later Italian arrivals were quicker to apply for citizenship. Furthermore, the children of Southern Italian immigrants also started to assimilate in their own ways by somewhat rebelling against their parents and ethnic heritage. For instance, some changed their names by shortening them or eliminating vowels, while others Anglicized both first and last names (147). Some would refuse to learn Italian, and others became hostile or indifferent to nearly anything their parents held dear. Ultimately the goal was to avoid discrimination and gain acceptance into the larger American community.

Southern Italians also made their mark in the United States by becoming involved with politics. In Boston, the Irish were the dominate political seat holders. Joseph Langone was the first to break the Irish political tradition by being elected as the first Italian American state senator in 1932 (185). Soon after, more and more Southern Italians were seeking representation, appointment, or election. Additionally, Southern Italian North End residents were becoming more politically active and voicing their opinions themselves. For instance, in 1939, North End residents took on city hall demanding more city services for their neighborhood, such as timely garbage collections and hot water at the public bathhouse (187). Becoming politically involved was an important step for Southern Italians in the assimilation process because it showed that they had interest and commitment to their community and country, something that many other Americans had questioned the ethnic group on. Furthermore, a smaller, yet important way that many Southern Italians found pride in their own and in America was through pop culture. In baseball Italian Joe DiMaggio was a hitting and fielding sensation, and in the music world Italian Frank Sinatra possessed a singing voice that would make women swoon. In the 1940s these men were amongst the most talented, popular, and best in their fields, something that the Italian population celebrated alongside other Americans, which helped make the overall Italian population feel like they belonged and were being accepted.

Southern Italians also proved themselves to many Americans with their contributions during war. During WWI, about 4.8 million men and women served in the war, with approximately 300,000 of those being Italians, including nearly 90,000 noncitizen Italians. Boston Italians made up between 7,000 to 9,000 of those serving (114). “Some Italian men, arriving in the U.S. on the eve of war, found themselves drafted into the military of a country whose language they could not read, write, speak, nor understand. Still they served their adopted country honorably, many of them paying the supreme sacrifice in defense of freedom and liberty” (114). It was evident that most Italian immigrants, like most Americans, supported the war effort. During World War II however, many Italian Americans had to fight a new wave of discrimination due to Italy’s alliance with Germany. To prove their loyalty to the United States Southern Italians took many steps. In Boston, many Italian Americans enlisted in the navy. Nationwide, Italian Americans made up more than one million of the sixteen million serving in the war (214). More and more Italians were rushing to become citizens of America, with the Boston Globe reporting “Most of the Italian applicants expressed disgust with Mussolini’s actions, declaring they were more anxious than ever to become full citizens of this country and sever all relations with Italy” (200). North End Italian social clubs, like the Sons of Italy, Sons and Daughters of Italy, and the Society of the Immaculate Conception, also showed their support for America by banning the Italian flag and language, changing the club’s name, burning the Italian flag, or buying defense bonds (201, 210-211). Italian politicians also worked to show their distaste for Italy by having the Mussolini Street changed to Russo Street in Providence, Rhode Island (211). Furthermore, Italians joined other Americans by participating in paper, tin, bond, blood, clothing, and scrap-metal drives. With other Americans they struggled through rationing gas, meat, butter, sugar, and rubber. Italian mothers who lost sons in combat hung gold stars in their windows and grieved like Gold Star mothers of every ethnic group. Italian American women joined “Rosie the Riveters” of all nationalities to help the countries factories manufacture and deliver enough supplies to the troops (213). No nation had ever accomplished such a feat, and this remarkable unifying effort on both the home front and warfront drew Americans of all nationalities closer, helping many to forget their differences. For many Italian Americans, the end of the war would symbolize full acceptance as Americans.

Although Emma Lazarus’s poem was not descriptive of the reception of the Southern Italians, their hard work and dedication to the United States would change the American perspective of them. Unfortunately, Southern Italians had to tirelessly defend themselves, arguably more than any other immigrant group of the time. With time though many Americans saw that the Southern Italians sought refuge in America for many of the same reasons they had, including escaping harsh economic conditions, natural disasters, disease, and cultural issues. Although it took sixty years of fighting discrimination and assimilating, Southern Italians had proved that they were no longer aliens, but key components of the American society. In the end, Southern Italian Americans and other Americans found similarities amongst themselves and displayed the same commitment to the United States, despite their origins.

Annotated Bibliography

“Boston: People.” Encyclopedia Britannica Article. Britannica Online Encyclopedia, n.d. Web. 17 April 2012.

This source was a very vague summary of the people of Boston dated from 1800 to the present. This source would be good for a lower level course or middle school students to see a basic evolution of the population of Boston.

Cannato, Vincent J. American Passage: The History of Ellis Island. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. Print

This source provides a great history of immigration through Ellis Island mostly. Because I was not focusing on Ellis Island or New York in particular, the book only provided minor help for me. I specifically referenced the American perspectives of Italian immigrants and there was also a few pages on the Boston view of Italian immigrants. This book would be useful for teacher reference or getting extracts for a high school class read.

Daniels, Roger. Not Like Us: Immigrants and Minorities in America, 1890-1924. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1997. Print.

This book, although not exclusively specific to Italian immigrants, did provide an informative, short history of Italian immigrants including statistics, reasons for immigration, areas of settlement, settlement culture, information on religious values and discrimination, quotas, and prejudice through the Sacco and Vanzzetti trial. I found this shorter text to be a great way to brush up on the topic, which would be great for teachers or high school students to read.

Donohue, Stacey Lee. “Linciati: Lynchings of Italians in America (2004).” Film & History 36.2 (2006): 53. Academic OneFile. Web. 17 April 2012.

This source is specific to the challenges and discrimination that Italian immigrants faced in America, particularly in New Orleans, resulting in Italian comparisons to the black population and with lynching’s occurring as form of discrimination. This source is so specific to one topic that it might be useful to use for a specific class lesson or jigsaw topic.

“The New Colossus.” American Studies at the University of Virginia. University of Virginia, 1 November 2009. Web. 19 April 2012.

This website was used solely for Emma Lazarus’ famous poem written about the Statue of Liberty. It is a great poem to use in a classroom at all grade levels and in multiple ways. For instance, it might be a nice way to introduce the topic of immigration, then reflect back on the poem after the unit of immigration to see if the poem is an accurate representation of America’s history of immigration.

Puleo, Stephen. The Boston Italians: A Story of Pride, Perseverance, and Paesani, From the Years of the Great Immigration to the Present Day. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007. Print.

This book is by far the best source I came across. The book provides an expansive history of Italian immigration to America, past and present, including why they came, their arrival and settlement, the many forms of discrimination, assimilation, and more. Specifically the book focuses primarily on Boston Italians in the North End. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone seeking to learn more about the Boston Italian-American population and history. This book would be useful for teachers to design specific topics on Italian immigration and in some appropriate high school classroom settings for specific reference to it for reading, projects, or jigsaws.



Riccio, Anthony V. Portrait of an Italian-American Neighborhood: The North End of Boston. New York: Center of Migration Studies, 1998. Print.

This book provides a much more positive and perhaps biased spin to Italian immigration to Boston. However, the great thing about this book is that the book has Italian-Americans personal accounts of their life or of their family’s life in the North End, and includes very descriptive pictures of the time. This book would probably be most beneficial for elementary and middle school students because of the pictures and easier reading level.


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