Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Century of Melting Pot Frictions, Part Three

Part of a series exploring the prejudice each new immigrant group encountered when they arrived in this country.

After a surge in immigration from Italy during the 1880s, Italians became closely associated with anarchy, socialism, and general crime from the 1890s to the 1930s. "Italian anarchists" is a phrase that was frequently repeated in the newspapers, as was "Italian radical."

By the 1880s, "Anarchists" had emerged as the terrorists of their day. During the 1880s, Anarchists fought for the rights of laborers and against capitalism. The term was eventually used liberally to describe anyone who might disrupt the status quo through violence. Socialists were frequently associated with anarchy, demanding better pay through labor strikes. Laborers struggling to gain adequate pay and humane working hours through unions were derided as radical and violent socialists.

Waterbury's Italian immigrants were often connected to labor strikes. In 1888, Italian workers on a new railroad line connecting Waterbury and Meriden went on strike, demanding an increase in pay of 25 cents per day. A "red flag" was raised by the strikers, a symbol of their socialist beliefs ("Trouble with Railway Strikers," Democrat and Chronicle, 13 April 1888).

Waterbury Police Superintendent George W. Beach had little patience for immigrants.  After a series of problems with Italian immigrants in 1905, Beach declared that he would "arrest and search... every man against whom their is the slightest suspicion of carrying concealed weapons." Beach referred to Waterbury's Italian immigrant laborers as "half-civilized people" who should "confine their butcheries and shootings to themselves." The laborers were being brought in to Waterbury at a rate of about 150 per day to work in the factories, living in shanties on the outskirts of town since there wasn't enough housing available for all of them. They worked long hours six days a week, kicking back with kegs of beer on Saturday nights, followed by rowdy carousing. Beach considered the Italian immigrants to be a "grave danger" for Waterbury.

Bridgeport Herald, 10 Dec 1905

In March of 1912, a young Italian anarchist, Antonio D'Alba, tried to assassinate King Victor Emmanuel III in Rome. D'Alba reputedly lived in Waterbury as a teenager, learning the brick mason and stone mason trades and immersing himself in socialist and anarchist propaganda during his free time ("Italians Say Dalba Lived in Waterbury," Hartford Courant, 16 March 1912). He was said to have left Waterbury when he was 19.

Italian "radicals" kept the public on edge. A June 1920 strike in Waterbury turned deadly when an Italian striker, Liberio Liso (also reported as Liberto Rizo), was fatally shot by police. Two Waterbury police officers, Lt. Richard Leroy and John J. Bergin, were also shot during the melee. Liso was branded as a "violent radical" following his death, and the newspapers reported that Bolshevist and radical literature was found in his pockets, along with a membership card for the Waterbury Workers' Association, a labor union for unskilled workers.

On September 16, 1920, an explosion on Wall Street killed 37 people and injured hundreds. The Department of Justice tracked down their primary suspect, Giacomo Carusso, to Waterbury ("Bomb Suspect Arrested on Clue from Waterbury," Hartford Courant, 7 Oct 1920). They lost the trail of Carusso and his five associates in the "Italian section" of Waterbury, but they were eventually arrested in NYC. While in Waterbury, the Carusso gang held up a restaurant full of people on Bank Street in the Brooklyn neighborhood. Witnesses were brought to NYC to identify them by Waterbury Detective Lt. Thomas Colasanto. Although guilty of the robbery in Waterbury, Carusso and associates were eventually cleared of charges relating to the bombing on Wall Street.

Hartford Courant, 7 Oct 1920

In 1923, the Waterbury police prevented Carlo Tresca from speaking at a meeting of Waterbury Italians at Our Lady of Lourdes parish hall. The police forcibly removed Tresca from the hall and told him to leave town. The newspapers called Tresca "an alleged radical" who planned to speak against the fascist movement. Tresca is today remembered as a leader of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union and a leading opponent of fascism, Stalinism, and the Mafia infiltration of the trade unions.

Norwalk Hour, 27 Feb 1923

The best known case of anti-Italian and anti-socialist hysteria during the 1920s is the Sacco-Vanzetti trial and execution, which happened in Boston. In Waterbury, as in cities throughout the northeast, Sacco-Vanzetti sympathizers organized to protest their execution. Visiting speakers at a gathering of the Waterbury Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee on August 9, 1927 denounced the "capitalists who in a few short hours will burn our brothers, Sacco and Vanzetti, in the electric chair." ("300 Protest Execution of Two Radicals," Hartford Courant, 10 Aug 1927).

Part One: Irish Immigrants 

Part Two: German Immigrants

Part Three: Italian Immigrants

Part Four: Russian Immigrants

Part Five: Chinese and Japanese Immigrants


John A. Sarlo said...

Your "commentary" on Italians of Waterbury was "off the mark" particularly by the apparent use of articles of the day and the obvious lack of the pursuit of up to date information (TOO much work?). I don't know who you are but you should know the last name of the Italian in the June 1920 "Scovill" strike is Tiso, not as was printed. Your worst presentation was the "Best Known Case" about Italians was the report on the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. The several trials, execution and subsequent reports of the wake and funeral attendance of thousands of people and the world wide reaction (good or bad) points out its impact at the time. Separately an up to date should have indicated, guilt or innocence notwithstanding, on the 50th anniversary, in 1977, Mass. Governor Dukaskis issued a Proclamation they had been unfairly tried and convicted.

Waterbury Girl said...

The point of the post was not to show how we view past events today, but as part of a series exploring the irrational prejudices that every immigrant group has faced when they arrived in this country. The introduction, in the first post in the "Melting Pot Frictions" series, is as follows:

Xenophobia is a word that has been used frequently in the past year. The definition, an intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries, clearly describes some of the rhetoric we've been hearing from certain political figures. Whether it's an intense fear of Syrian refugees, an irrational dislike of Mexican immigrants, or an irrational fear of all Muslims, xenophobia has been surging.

As someone who was a child during the 1970s, I have long embraced the melting pot metaphor of this country, thanks in part to a School House Rock video and Disneyland's It's A Small World ride. One of the things that makes America great is our diversity, our ability to integrate people of different faiths and customs into our country. While other nations are torn apart by warfare and genocide stemming from their inability to get along with people of different religions and ethnicities, we have dozens of religions and ethnicities living together in relative harmony. Yes, we still have room for improvement, but overall, we're doing pretty well.

As someone who has immersed herself in historical studies for decades, I have an instinct to compare current events to historical events. Despite the rosy image of the melting pot, our country's history is one in which new groups of immigrants often face a long uphill struggle toward acceptance and integration. Political rhetoric can easily turn to oppressive action. Studying what happened in the past can help us today. We can learn from the mistakes of the past and make better choices in the future.

It's fairly well known that Irish Catholics faced severe discrimination for decades after they began to arrive here in large numbers. Italians weren't considered "white" when they first arrived. Germans were vilified during World War I, to the point that some of them even claimed to be Swiss rather than German. Distrust of Russian immigrants began after World War I and continued through most of the century, thanks to the Cold War. During World War II, Japanese Americans were so distrusted, our government (their government) took away everything they had and locked them up in internment camps.

To a degree, Waterbury has historically been more welcoming of foreigners than many other communities in the United States, largely because the factories eagerly welcomed immigrant laborers to their workforce. The city's success was dependent upon the continual influx of new workers to the factories. But each new immigrant group was met with suspicion, fear, and prejudice as they made their presence known in Waterbury.