(Author’s note: Through Facetime, I’ve joined Book Clubs around the country, answered questions about Birds of Passage, and spoke about early Italian immigrant history. I’d be delighted to have Facetime conferences with other interested Book Clubs.)
In the early 1700s, Neapolitan born, Henri de (Enrico) Tonti, a colleague of Robert de la Salle, explored Louisiana and settled in the New France colony. A leader in the community, North Tonti Street in New Orleans honors him and is located just south of Lake Pontchartrain.
After the Civil War, planters in southern states recruited Italians to replace freed blacks in agriculture and as laborers. Most of the Italian immigrants to New Orleans were farmers from Sicilian towns like Cefalu, Caccamo, Vicari, Salaparuta, and Coreleone working sugarcane and other crops.
In 1890, Italians were accused of assassinating New Orleans police chief, David Hennessy. Nine Italians were tried, resulting in six acquittals and three mistrials. The next day, a mob of twenty-thousand stormed the prison and lynched the nine and two other Italians imprisoned on unrelated charges, the largest mass lynching in U.S. history. The police arrested hundreds of Italian immigrants, on the pretext that they were all criminals.
Teddy Roosevelt, ten years from becoming president, said the lynching was “a rather good thing.” The future governor of Louisiana, John Parker, had helped organize the lynch mob and said that Italians were “worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in their habits, lawless, and treacherous.”
At the turn to the nineteenth-century, Italians were the largest immigrant population in Louisiana.
Attracted by the developing strawberry industry in Tangipahoa Parish, Italian pickers received $1.50 per day, but in a few years, many saved to purchase twenty-acre farms at forty dollars per acre. By the 1920s, Louisiana became the leading state in strawberry production.
Brothers Frank and Vincent Taormina and Joseph Uddo merged their caning operations into what became Progresso foods. Joseph, Felix, and Luca Vaccaro began the Standard Fruit and Steamship Company, later absorbed by Dole Foods.
Sam Butera and Nick La Rocca were popular jazz musicians. Entertainer Louis Prima hailed from New Orleans. Brothers Frank and Fred plus Papa Jac Assunto were the Dukes of Dixieland, the group that cut the first stereo record in 1957.
March 19th, the Feast of St. Joseph’s Day, is a New Orleans event. The muffuletta sandwich found at delis across the U.S. originated at Central Grocery in New Orleans.