On March 14, 1891, in the city of New Orleans, 11 Italian Americans were lynched by an angry mob. The anger stemmed from a jury’s failure to convict the men of killing a police officer, Daniel Hennessy. Refusing to accept the verdicts, a crowd marched to the prison where the acquitted defendants were held post-trial, broke down the doors screaming “We want the Dagoes!” and murdered the following men: Antonio Bagnetto, Joseph P. Macheca, Antonio Marchesi, Antonio Scaffidi, James Caruso, Rocco Geraci, Pietro Monasterio, Emmanuele Polizzi, Frank Romero, and Charles Traina.
It’s unlikely you’ve ever heard the names of these men — fruit vendors, longshoremen, and shoemakers — because they’ve become a footnote to history. Newer, louder, victims of hatred have taken their place and the obscurity of these 11 men is in some perverse way a reflection of the progress my people have made in modern society. With the exception of Sacco and Vanzetti, two other Italians who were crushed under the weight of anti-immigrant sentiment in the early part of the last century, we’ve come a long way, bambino.
And yet, we are victims of our own success. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, many different groups have cropped up complaining about bigotry, prejudice, white supremacy, offensive language, offensive touching, legal discrimination, insensitivity and all the other evils of a society that falls short of unrealistic utopian ideals.
Women march in pink hats and complain about grabbed pussies. Black youth march with their fists in the air, accusing white society of genocide by police. Hispanics claim that they are all labeled as “illegal immigrants” and disrespected. Muslims say they can’t practice their religion safely in the public square. Trans people make bathrooms into their moral Alamos.
These groups get the ear of the media and the elites, the people who read Howard Zinn and believe that his vision of the world is better than the one created by Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson. But we Italians, in part because we have assimilated so completely into what we were promised was a melting pot, are hesitant to claim our place among the embattled.
Some would say that’s a good thing, because Italians are not snowflakes who melt and wither in the heat of reality. But there are times when it is necessary for us to stand up and say: Remember the fruit peddlers, the longshoremen, the shoemakers and the laborers in the rice paddies who were murdered because they were “the other.” This is one of those times.
A few weeks ago, the city of Philadelphia was embroiled in a fight that revolved around Frank Rizzo’s statue. The former mayor has been hailed as a hero and a racist, beloved and reviled. His Italian identity was a part of his appeal to the many people who supported him, and most likely irrelevant to those who thought he was the devil (who, in this case, never wore Prada). But lurking at the edges of the controversy was tribal anger at having one of our own reviled and debased, bringing back as it did memories of the words “dago” and “wop” and “monkey grinder” thrown at our near ancestors. And then there were those lynchings, forgotten by most but remembered by those who had vowels at the ends of their names.
The Rizzo controversy pales in comparison with what is happening across the country: the vilification of Columbus. In New York, they want to remove the explorer’s statue from the circle that carries his name. In Los Angeles, they’ve replaced Columbus Day with “Indigenous Peoples Day.” They are following in the footsteps of Vermont, Arizona, New Mexico, Minnesota, Oregon, Washington State and Oklahoma, which all have cities that have told Columbus to fanabla.
Say what you will about Leif Erikson, he whiffed by the New World without actually knowing what it was. Christopher Columbus, better late than never, understood what he’d discovered. It was Columbus’ arrival that opened the doors of Europe to the west, and provided a gateway to the foundations of our culture.
For that reason, we still have statues bearing his likeness, cities and avenues bearing his name, and a holiday dedicated to his countrymen, Italians who labored, suffered, triumphed and, yes, were lynched by their persecutors.
When we destroy those things out of a distorted sense of “justice” and a desire to pacify those who make a good living out of their victimhood, we replace one set of victims with another. The 11 men who were lynched over a century ago were killed because of their blood, their religion and their social class. Columbus Day, first celebrated one year after that horrific incident and on the 400th anniversary of the explorer’s discovery, was in some ways a public apology for the suffering visited upon them.
No one has the right to rescind that apology, and erase our history, just to put a Band-Aid on someone else’s seeping wounds.