ITALIAN AMERICAN HISTORY HISTORY
Three-fourths of all Italian immigrants to the United States came from regions south of Rome. Although the vast majority had been farmers in Italy, 97 percent settled in cities in the United States. They often established distinctive ethnic neighborhoods known as Little Italies. Many early Italian immigrants settled in New York City and San Francisco. In 1860 New York City had an Italian population of 10,000. By 1920 almost one-fourth of all Italian immigrants lived in New York City, while more than half lived in the middle Atlantic states and New England.
The factors that began the southern Italian emigration were mostly economic and the shortage of tillable land was also a problem. In other words, the soil was so bad that nothing could grow! People were starving and had no nutrition. There was no work, and families didn’t have enough money to live. Difficult conditions characterized life in southern Italy in those times. Southern Italy's lack of coal and iron ore severely hampered the growth of industry. In the last half of the 1800's, deforestation, soil erosion and overpopulation made a difficult situation even worse. In other words, the forests were being cut down so people could have wood to build with, the soil was being washed away, and too many people were living in the area! Then, in the early 20th century, several natural disasters rocked southern Italy: Mt. Vesuvius, a huge volcano, erupted… burying an entire town near Naples, Sicily's Mt. Etna erupted practically every year from 1900-1935, and the Sicilian earthquake of 1908 and its resultant tidal wave that swept through the Strait of Messina killed more than 100,000 people in the city of Messina alone.
Traditionally Italian men came to the United States before the rest of their family. Most Italian immigrants never planned to stay in the US permanently. There is even a special phrase that was coined for Italians: "Birds of Passage" since their intent was to be migratory laborers. Even though about 75% of Italian immigrants were farmers in Italy, they did not wish to farm in the US (as it implied a permanence that did not figure in their plans). Instead, they headed for cities where labor was needed and wages were relatively high. Many Italian men left their wives and children behind because they expected to return (and many, many did). They worked seasonal and unskilled jobs building railroads, streets, skyscrapers, and public transportation systems; mining coal; or working in steel, shoe, and auto plants. Many of the women who followed the men to the United States found work in the urban garment trades, canneries, and textile mills. Immigrant children often left school before graduating to help their families earn money.
Life in Italian neighborhoods in the early 1900s revolved around family, church, and small self-help insurance societies formed by villagers from a single Italian town. Other key community institutions included neighborhood businesses, such as banks, boardinghouses, groceries, and saloons. In later years, political parties, the Catholic Church, and labor unions often sponsored sports and social clubs.
Many Americans of northern European ancestry regarded early Italian immigrants as undesirable foreigners who were “not quite white.” Some anti-immigrant activists feared Italian American support for radical labor organizations, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Italian Socialist Federation. Others associated Italian Americans with mysterious criminal organizations, such as the Mafia or the Black Hand, a secret society devoted to blackmail and terrorism. They demanded that Italian Americans abandon their distinctive ways in order to become 100 percent American. Fear of Italians, along with other southern and Eastern European immigrants, led Congress to restrict immigration in 1921 and again in 1924.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Italian immigrants gained U.S. citizenship in large numbers. In New York City, the children of immigrants preferred to move from Manhattan to the outlying boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island where they could purchase a modest home. Many immigrants found higher-paying work in skilled trades, while their American-born sons and daughters sought work in corporate offices. Italian Americans also began to win election to prominent public offices. Such politicians as New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia and New York congressman Vito Marcantonio relied on the support of Italian American workers in vast industrial unions, including the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU) and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America (ACWA).