To celebrate Italian-American Heritage and Culture month, the Fitchburg State University Archives and Special Collections, the Center for Italian Culture, and the Fitchburg Historical Society have collaborated to bring you this digital exhibit on Fitchburg's Italian-American neighborhood--the Patch. All materials were sourced from the Amelia V. Gallucci-Cirio Library, the Center for Italian Culture Archives, and the Fitchburg Historical Society.
Digital exhibit created by Ross Caputi, archival assistant at the Center for Italian Culture Archives, and Asher Jackson, archivist at Fitchburg State University, in collaboration with the Fitchburg Historical Society.
Between 1820 and 1929 approximately 20 million Italians emigrated to other countries within Europe, the Americas, and Australia. More than 4 million came to the United States.
The first wave of Italian migration beginning in the second half of the 19th century came mostly from the northern regions of Italy; but during the heaviest period of mass migration (1890 - 1920), the United States became a favored destination for migrants from the Italian south.
Italians left Italy fleeing poverty and state violence and came to the United States in search of economic opportunity. Most did not intend to stay. They only hoped to work for a limited period of time and then return home with enough money to build a better life for their family. For a variety of reasons, many stayed, gained citizenship, and built families, businesses, and associations here in the United States.
Patterns of chain migration brought clusters of immigrants from the same areas of Italy. Large groups from the Veneto, Naples, Abruzzo, and Sicily settled in Fitchburg. Paisani (people from the same village or region) tended to stick together for linguistic and cultural regions, often forming social clubs around these identities.
The Madonna Della Cava Society was formed by immigrants from Pietraperzia, Sicily and they continue the worship of their Madonna to this day.
Italy was blessed with great linguistic diversity. At the time of Italian Unification (1861) there were dozens of Italian languages spoken throughout the county and only 3% of the population spoke standard Italian. For this reason, many Italians in the U.S. who were not paisani struggled to communicate with one another. Over time regional identities faded (often within a single generation) and were replaced with a binational Italian-American identity.
The Italians, like other migrant groups, were often treated as undesirable guests and faced discrimination and nativist violence, including lynchings.
The largest lynching in American history occurred on March 14th, 1891 when 11 Italian immigrants were murdered by a mob in New Orleans.
While Fitchburg was a relatively welcoming community, Massachusetts as a whole was not. Boston was a center of anti-immigrant sentiment and the movement for legislation to restrict immigration. The Immigration Restriction League was founded in Boston by Harvard graduates in 1894.
In response, Italian-Americans did what they always did and turned to family and community.
Mutual aid societies offered naturalization and health services to families that couldn't afford them.
In Fitchburg there were social clubs for paisani from Sicily, Naples, or the Veneto. There were also clubs and organizations that sought to advance the interests of the broader Italian-American Community.
Anti-Catholic and anti-Italian sentiments sometimes left Italian immigrants without a place to worship. The Saint Anthony of Padua Church was built adjacent to the Patch for the Italian-American community.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, new ideas about social class, labor relations, and economic justice began to challenge traditional ideas about the organization of society. Given the extreme poverty of peasants and industrial workers in Italy, many believed that communism and anarchism offered a path to greater equality and a more comfortable life. To the alarm of industrialists and the authorities, Italian immigrants often brought their new political ideologies with them to the Unites States.
In addition to the popularity of leftist ideas among Italian immigrants, many Americans also became alarmed about the community's affiliation with a new form of criminal organization, sometimes called the Black Hand or the mafia.
The 1891 lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in New Orleans catalyzed the Italian-American community to embrace Cristopher Columbus as a symbol of their binational identity and all the contributions that Italians had made to the United States. As Peter G. Vellon explains in his book A Great Conspiracy against Our Race: Italian Immigrant Newspapers and the Construction of Whiteness in the Early 20th Century (2014), Columbus was embraced as an Italian-American icon to function as a shield against discrimination and violence.
In 1934 Columbus Day became a national holiday, and then in 1971 became a federal holiday. Though not officially a holiday celebrating Italian-American culture, the holiday has been tightly associated with Italian-American culture and history.
In recent years, a growing public awareness of the impact of European colonization of the Americas on indigenous people has recast Cristopher Columbus as a symbol, not of discovery, but of destruction. The Italian-American community has been split on the controversy, some wanting to hold onto the familiar icon of their childhood, while others point to an abundance of less controversial Italian-American heroes.