Italian Laborers

Pacific Commercial Advertiser/August 22, 1899

Experience on Louisiana Plantations.

The Only Race That Can Successfully Compete With Negroes In Semi-Tropical Climes.

NEW ORLEANS, August 1. The lynching of the five Italians at Tallulah, La., and the ordering away of the other Italians in Madison parish may temporarily check the Italian immigration into North Louisiana and thereby interrupt a movement which is having an extraordinary influence on Louisiana and promises to hasten a solution of the color, or race, question. The interruption, though, is likely to be only temporary.

The Italians seem to be the only race that can labor successfully and compete with the negro in the semi-tropical climate of Louisiana. They have been arriving for the last twenty years at the rate of many thousands each year, and the census soon to be taken will show that largely because of this immigration districts and parishes which formerly had a large majority of negroes are now white. Among these are Plaquemine, Assumption, Terrebonne, Iberia and St. John. The Italian immigration has naturally been largest in Southern Louisiana in the territory around New Orleans, where there is already a large Latin population. Thence it has spread into the northern parishes, where it has met with a far from hearty welcome; but the Italians seem to have the patience and perseverance of the Chinese, enduring persecution and overcoming prejudice by mere persistence.

No better evidence could be presented of this triumph over bitter prejudice than is found right here in New Orleans. The Parish prison lynching of eight years ago was a blow from which many thought the Italian colony of New Orleans would never recover. Perhaps 6,000 or 8,000 Italians left New Orleans then, seeing no hope or future for themselves here, and settled in Memphis, St. Louis, Chicago and at other points. But the Italians have lived down the Hennessy assassination and the discredit of the Mafia, and have more than regained their former position. The Italian colony of New Orleans has doubled in numbers since the Parish prison lynching affair, and in wealth and standing has advanced far more. It has taken the first place among the foreign population of New Orleans. There are now two daily Italian papers in New Orleans, and Signor Enrico Cavalli, the editor of one of them, the Italo-Americano, is the representative appointed by the Italian government to investigate the Tallulah lynching. Schools have been established, at which the Italians are taught not only English but their mother tongue, and King Humbert, through the Italian Consul, has contributed liberally to the support of these schools, which keep alive a love for Italy in the hearts of its sons.

The status of the Italians has been very much improved of late, they dropped the hand organ long ago, and they never took to barbering, shoe-cleaning or street work, as in New York. From cobbling they have better branched out into the manufacture of shoes, and they control some of the largest factories in the South. The fruit, vegetable and fish trades they have absolutely controlled since they first came, for they are without rivals in peddling. They are rapidly crowding into the corner grocery business, formerly monopolized by Irishmen and Germans, and into nearly all lines, even the learned professions. Latterly they have been quite conspicuous in politics.

It is, however, in the country districts that the Italians are making themselves most felt. Three-fourths of the Italian immigrants are from Naples or Sicily. They are peasants, accustomed to farm work, and they come over here to work on the sugar plantations. They come from limited areas even in Sicily and Naples. The little town of Contessa Entellina, for instance, has more of its citizens in Louisiana than at home; and Cefalu, from which came all the men lynched in Madison parish the other day, has several thousand of its sons and daughters in Louisiana. The immigrants are, with rare exceptions a hardy, robust race, willing to work and impervious to the climate. The Immigration Commissioner at this port declares that the character of the Italians arriving is steadily improving. They find work the day they arrive. Some come over in the summer, work through the grinding season, when wages are high, and return to Italy in the winter with their earnings; but this practice is dying out and a majority of the immigrants come to stay, learn English, or something like English, as soon as they can, and apply for naturalization papers. Not a few adopt English names like Brown, Smith or Jones, in order to be thorough Americans. They doff their picturesque costumes within a week of their arrival and pick up a cheap imitation of American dress.

They make good laborers and give Italian perfect satisfaction to the planters, being infinitely superior to the negroes. The Louisiana planters have been for years trying to get some substitute for the negroes, who are not trustworthy. The Italians come nearest to fulfilling all conditions. They are well satisfied with their wages and save money where the negro cannot. They do not drink, and cause little trouble. They are willing to live in the same cabins as the negroes and to work with them in the fields on equal terms, and they work hard and faithfully. They have, therefore, given satisfaction and are rapidly crowding the negro back from the sugar district. In all the districts immediately around New Orleans, where the negro furnished nine-tenths of the labor ten years ago, the Italians are in a majority today. New Orleans was a white oasis in the midst of a population overwhelmingly negro at the last census; the new enumeration will show that Plaquemine and St. Bernard below, Jefferson and St. John above, Terrebonne, Lafourche, Iberia and St. Martin’s on the west have become white; that is, have a majority of white population thanks to the immigration of the Italians and the rapid increase of the Acadians (brethren of Evangeline), the two races which are doing the most to support the Southern theory of ”white supremacy,” but who are looked down on with contempt by the Americans, the Creoles and the other white races.

The position of the Italian in Louisiana is very anomalous because of the race, or, rather, the negro, question. Neither the whites nor the negroes know how to class him he is, as it were, a link connecting the white and black races. Swarthy in color, the Sicilians are darker than the griffes and quadroons, the negro half-breeds of Southern Louisiana, but they are undoubtedly white. On the other hand, they are willing to live in the same quarters with the negroes and to work side by side with them, and seem wholly destitute of that anti-negro prejudice which is one of the distinguishing features of all the white races in the South. It cannot be said that this attitude of the Sicilians toward the negro has won his gratitude. He looks upon the Italian with pretty much the same feeling as he entertained of old toward the poor white trash. He has no respect for the Italian and refuses to treat him with the respect and deference shown to other white men. He will not take off his hat to him or call him “Mister,” a word which is never applied under any circumstances to the negro in the South, even when Colonel and Judge are used, and which the negro always uses of the whites.

It is the same with the whites. The average man will classify the population as whites, dagoes and negroes. This is the explanation of the lynching of Italians in Louisiana. Not 99 per cent but 100 per cent of the white men lynched in this State have been Italians. There have been wholesale Italian lynchings in New Orleans, St. Charles, St. John and Madison. The unwritten law of the South is that a white man shall not be lynched. No matter what his crime, he is entitled to trial by law and a legal execution. The only exception is the Italian, who, in this respect has been placed on terms of equality with the negro. If the Italian kills a white man; that is, a non Italian, he is likely to be lynched for it.

This rule has prevailed in all parts of the State. As long as the Italians in New Orleans confined their killings to their own race no special attention was paid to the matter. When, however, they killed an American, the Chief of Police, Hennessy, eleven were lynched. It should be said, by the way, that the excuse given by the Italians for the Hennessy assassination was that he interfered in an Italian quarrel. The Provenzanos and Matrangas had quarreled and declared a vendetta against each other. Hennessy, who was a friend of the Provenzanos, interfered, bringing himself, so the Italian assassins said, under the Italian vendetta code. It was the same in St. John the Baptist, where the killing of a creole by an Italian resulted in the lynching of all the Italians in the parish jail; while in Madison the mere assault on Dr. Hodge was considered good ground for wholesale lynching. Perhaps the situation there was never than in the interviews with leading citizens of Madison, who declared that the hanging of the Italian prisoners was necessary in the interest of “white supremacy,” the battle-cry of the North Louisiana Anglo-Saxons, was involved in the killing of white men by other white men, it is difficult to explain.

In the matter of law and order there has been a marked improvement among the Italians. If the Mafia ever existed, it is thoroughly dead now. It was believed in by the Italians themselves, and many of the better class paid blackmail to those who used the name of Mafia to frighten them with. The vendetta prevails among the newly arrived immigrants, but they soon drop it and go to law to settle their disputes. Formerly it was considered dishonorable and cowardly for a Sicilian to testify in a court against an oppressor; but now all do so.. The amount of crime among them is small and decreasing. Their worst weakness is the hereditary tendency to take immediate vengeance for a wrong with the knife, pistol or the shotgun. In the second generation the Italian-American is an American, industrious, progressive and public-spirited.

Such is the race which now constitutes the largest foreign element in the population of Louisiana, and offers the state the best assurance that it will not become a second Africa, like the coast country of South Carolina. It has been difficult to get white immigrants to settle in the bottom lands of the Mississippi. Other foreigners will not come. They fear the heat and the malaria. The men from the North and West who have lately come into Louisiana  have, without exception, settled in the pinelands or prairies. The white immigration into the rich alluvial lands of the Lafourche, Teche, Atchafalaya and Mississippi, the delta of the great river, has been nearly wholly Italian. It has fared well there and increased, and it is rapidly substituting white for negro labor, and accomplishing results that would have been impossible in any other way. In spite of the prejudices that exist, the mob out-breaks and the lynchings, the Italian is rapidly solving the negro problem in Louisiana. If the immigration from Italy keeps up, the Italian element will in time be preponderating in many parts of Louisiana. Outrages like that at Madison prove only a temporary check to this population movement., There are many who do not like the change from the old times and object to these modern Latins, but considering the rapidity with which the prejudice against them has weakened in the last few years, it is probable that it will have completely disappeared in another decade.

(Source: Chronicling America,