If You’re Italian, German or Irish-American, This is How Your Ancestors Were Treated as Immigrants

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America has a shady past of treating people who were considered the “others” with disrespect and violence. Do you think that what’s happening now to the Muslims is new? Do you think it only happened to African-American’s in History’s past? If so, you should read on and learn your history. Something worth sharing with your friends.

Italian-Americans – “The largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place in New Orleans in 1891 — and it wasn’t African-Americans who were lynched, as many of us might assume. It was Italian-Americans.”

   – America has a proud tradition as an immigrant nation, but it also has a long history of marginalizing those it marks as “other.” America’s other heritage includes suspicion, hostility, abuse and even death, leveled against ethnic groups as they arrived one after another in waves over the past 2½ centuries.

I learned much about this as I researched “The Family Corleone,” a novel I wrote based on a screenplay by Mario Puzo. The novel is about, among other things, Italian-Americans living in New York during the depression.

There were a number of things that surprised me in my initial research. I knew something about our nation’s early antipathy toward Catholics and Italians, but I had not fully appreciated the depth of that antagonism. For example, the largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place in New Orleans in 1891 — and it wasn’t African-Americans who were lynched, as many of us might assume. It was Italian-Americans.

After nine Italians were tried and found not guilty of murdering New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy, a mob dragged them from the jail, along with two other Italians being held on unrelated charges, and lynched them all. The lynchings were followed by mass arrests of Italian immigrants throughout New Orleans, and waves of attacks against Italians nationwide.

What was the reaction of our country’s leaders to the lynchings? Teddy Roosevelt, not yet president, famously said they were “a rather good thing.” The response in The New York Times was worse. A March 16, 1891, editorial referred to the victims of the lynchings as “… sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins.” An editorial the next day argued that: “Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans. …”

John Parker, who helped organize the lynch mob, later went on to be governor of Louisiana. In 1911, he said of Italians that they were “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.”

In addition to prejudice based on ethnicity, Italian immigrants also had to face an older hostility toward their religion. In earlier centuries, Catholics in America were in a position similar to today’s Muslims. In 1785, when Catholics proposed building St. Peter’s Church in the heart of Manhattan, city officials, fearing the papacy and sinister foreign influences, forced them to relocate outside the city limits. In this incident, it’s easy to hear echoes of the Murfreesboro protests, as well as the ongoing protests against an Islamic center proposed for 51 Park Place in contemporary Manhattan.

On December 24, 1806, two decades after St. Peter’s was built on Church Street, where it still stands, protesters surrounded the church, outraged by mysterious ceremonies going on inside, ceremonies we now commonly understand to be the celebration of Christmas. The Christmas Eve 1806 protest led to a riot in which dozens were injured and a policeman was killed.

The decades go by, they turn into centuries, and we forget. We’ve forgotten the depth of prejudice and outright hatred faced by Italian immigrants in America. We’ve forgotten the degree to which we once feared and distrusted Catholics. If we remembered, I wonder how much it might change the way we think about today’s immigrant populations, or our attitudes toward Muslims?

The question of prejudice toward Italians and Catholics was ancillary to my writing project, something I wanted to better understand in order to fully imagine my characters. Nonetheless, the research left me with even greater respect for generations of Italian Catholic immigrants who struggled to make their way in a world so initially hostile to them and to their religion; and by extrapolation, for all immigrants and members of minority faiths everywhere, in every historical period, including our own, who face similar struggles.

The Anti-German Crusade – “A Minnesota minister was tarred and feathered when he was overheard praying in German with a dying woman.”

During World War I, many German Americans were broadly accused of being sympathetic to the German Empire without regard to their individual loyalties. Former president Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most significant voices in this national suspicion, denouncing “hyphenated Americanism” and insisting that dual loyalties were impossible to maintain in times of conflict. This wartime xenophobia spread throughout the United States in the form of community scorn and organized state and government repression.

Anti-German fervor during World War I resulted in the renaming of food that was of German origin or that simply sounded German. Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage,” frankfurters were called “hot dogs,” and Salisbury steak was given a less gastronomically pleasing but more Americanized label: “meat loaf.” Streets and even some municipalities with German monikers changed, such as the renaming of the Michigan town of Berlin to “Marne” in honor of those who fought in the Allied victory at the First Battle of Marne.

In early September, Congress passed a bill requiring all German-language newspapers published in the United States to print English translations of any commentary about U.S. government policies and international relations or the state or conduct of the war. The same rule was applied regarding any other nation with which Germany was at war.

While thousands of German immigrants were forced to buy war bonds to prove their loyalty to the United States, they were rewarded with widespread xenophobia from national organizations as well as from their neighbors. The Red Cross barred individuals with German last names from joining, for fear of sabotage. The Cincinnati Public Library was asked to withdraw all German books from its shelves. In much darker examples of bigotry fueled by the war, German-born Robert Prager was dragged from a Collinsville, Illinois, jail and lynched by a mob who suspected him of spying, while a Minnesota minister was tarred and feathered when he was overheard praying in German with a dying woman.

Language was a major fear factor driving the anti-German hatred and manifested itself in legislation that attempted to isolate foreign-language practitioners. In the 1918 Babel Proclamation, the governor of Iowa prohibited all foreign languages in schools and public places. Nebraska barred instruction in any language except English, although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the ban illegal in the 1923 case of Meyer v. Nebraska. The response by German Americans was often to “Americanize” their names (e.g., changing “Schmidt” to “Smith,” or “Müller” to “Miller”) and to limit their use of the German language in public places, especially churches.

In anticipation of support for Germany among immigrants, President Wilson issued two sets of regulations, on April 6 and November 16, 1917, imposing restrictions on German-born male residents over the age of 14, including natives of Germany who had taken citizenship in countries other than the United States. Approximately 250,000 men were required to register at their local post offices and carry registration cards at all times, as well as report any changes of address or employment; the regulations were extended to women in April 1918.

The U.S. government investigated thousands of people under these regulations and eventually arrested approximately 6,300 “aliens.” Allegations included spying for Germany or endorsing the German war effort. Internees were held at two camps splitting the eastern and western United States along the Mississippi River: Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia and Fort Douglas in Utah. While most internees were released in June 1919, some remained in custody through March and April 1920.

While Germany was at war with France and Britain beginning in August 1914, America had not yet joined the conflict. Yet there were several German military vessels in U.S. ports that were ordered to leave or be detained. The crews of these ships were first held as alien internees and later as prisoners of war.

When war broke out in Europe, hundreds of men on two German cruisers, the Prinz Eitel Friedrich and the Kronprinz Wilhelm, were unwilling to face the might of the British Navy in the Atlantic and instead lived for several years on their ships in various Virginia ports and frequently enjoyed shore leave. Eventually they were given a strip of land in the Norfolk Navy Yard in Norfolk, Virginia, on which to erect accommodations.

In October 1916, the ships and their personnel were moved to the Philadelphia Navy Yard along with the structures, which became known locally as the “German Village.” Yet the village was still located at a secure U.S. military facility surrounded by barbed wire. In the spring of 1917, nine detainees escaped, prompting U.S. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels to transfer the other 750 residents of the village to secure units at Fort McPherson in Georgia and Fort Oglethorpe, separated from the civilian internees there.

In December 1914, the German gunboat Cormoran attempted to refuel and restock its provision at the American island territory of Guam. Denied the full amount of fuel needed, the German captain optioned to remain in Guam along with the crewmen as alien detainees. Most of the crew lived on board due to a lack of housing and relations remained friendly, even though the German seamen outnumbered the island’s contingent of U.S. Marines.

As a result of German U-boat attacks on American shipping, the United States broke off diplomatic relations with Germany in February 1917. U.S. authorities in Guam imposed greater restrictions on the German detainees as relations between America and Germany worsened. Following the U.S. declaration of war against Germany in April 1917, Americans demanded, “the immediate and unconditional surrender of the ship and personnel.” The captain and crew destroyed the Cormoran with an explosion that took several German lives. The surviving 353 German sailors were shipped to the U.S. mainland as POWs on April 29, 1917.

Irish-Americans, Racism and the Pursuit of Whiteness – “Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, “White Negroes.”

Like many immigrant groups in the United States, the Irish were characterized as racial Others when they first arrived in the first half of the 19th century.  The Irish had suffered profound injustice in the U.K. at the hands of the British, widely seen as “white negroes.” The potato famine that created starvation conditions that cost the lives of millions of Irish and forced the out-migration of millions of surviving ones, was less a natural disaster and more a complex set of social conditions created by British landowners (much like Hurricane Katrina).   Forced to flee from their native Ireland and the oppressive British landowners, many Irish came to the U.S.

Once in the U.S., the Irish were to negative stereotyping that was very similar to that of enslaved Africans and African Americans. The comic Irishman – happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance – was a stock character in American theater.   Drunkenness and criminality were major themes of Irish stereotypes, and the term “paddy wagon” has its etymological roots in the racist term “paddy,” a shortening of the name “Patrick,” which was used to refer to the Irish.   However, this is also a gendered image and refers to Irish men, specifically.   The masculine imagery of “paddy” hides the existence of Irish women, but did not protect Irish women from racism as they were often more exposed to such racism through domestic jobs.   Women typically played a key role in maintaining Catholic adherence, which resonates closely with Irishness and difference. The “model minority” (if you will) stereotype of Irish-American women is of a “Bridget,” recognized for her hard work and contribution to Irish upward class mobility.

Simian, or ape-like caricature of the Irish immigrant was also a common one among the mainstream news publications of the day (much like the recent New York Post cartoon).  For example, in 1867 American cartoonist Thomas Nast drew “The Day We Celebrate” a cartoon depicting the Irish on St. Patrick’s Day as violent, drunken apes.  And, in 1899, Harper’s Weekly featrued a drawing of three men’s heads in profile: Irish, Anglo-Teutonic and Negro, in order to illustrate the similarity between the Irish and the Negro (and, the supposed superiority of the Anglo-Teutonic).   In northern states, blacks and Irish immigrants were forced into overlapping – often integrated – slum neighborhoods.  Although leaders of the Irish liberation struggle (in Ireland) saw slavery as an evil, their Irish-American cousins largely aligned with the slaveholders.

And, following the end of slavery, the Irish and African Americans were forced to compete for the same low-wage, low-status jobs.  So, the “white negroes” of the U.K. came to the United States and, though not enslaved, faced a status almost as low as that of recently-freed blacks.   While there were moments of solidarity between Irish and African Americans, this was short lived.

Over the course of the 19th and early 20th century, Irish Americans managed to a great extent to enter and become part of the dominant white culture.  In an attempt to secure the prosperity and social position that their white skin had not guaranteed them in Europe,  Irish immigrants lobbied for white racial status in America.  Although Irish people’s pale skin color and European roots suggested evidence of their white racial pedigree, the discrimination that immigrants experienced on the job (although the extent of the “No Irish Need Apply” discrimination is disputed), the simian caricatures they saw of themselves in the newspapers, meant that “whiteness” was a status that would be achieved, not ascribed.

For some time now, Irish-Americans have been thoroughly regarded as “white.” Evidence of this assimilation into whiteness is presented by Mary C. Waters (Harvard) in a recent AJPH article,  in which she writes that “the once-rigid lines that divided European-origin groups from one another have increasingly blurred.” Waters goes on to predict that the changes that European immigrants ahve experienced are “becoming more likely for groups we now define as ‘racial.’”   While I certainly agree that the boundaries of whiteness are malleable – it is a racial category that expands and contracts based on historical, cultural and social conditions – I don’t know if it is malleable enough to include all the groups we now define as ‘racial’ Others.

As people rush to embrace even fictive Irish heritage and encourage strangers to “Kiss Me I’m Irish” today, take just a moment to reflect on the history of racism and the pursuit of whiteness wrapped up in this holiday.

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