A lynch mob killed a dozen innocent people. But they were Italian Americans, so you probably didn’t know. (Op-ed)

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Our Nation is currently in a heated debate over the value and preservation of historic monuments.  I know many Americans are seeing removals of historic statutes as attempts to destroy our Republic and rewrite history.  

I agree that we must protect our history when we talk about heroes like Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant (both great Republican presidents).  Most of our complicated and tragic historical American figures who pushed racial discrimination through public policy were (are) Democrats – but that’s independent of the current statutes debate.

While some historical scholars would debate the accuracy of the barbarism of Columbus, I think it is important we examine how most of the statutes were commissioned.  

I know, in my state of Connecticut, Columbus statues were the product of local Italian American communities organizing their neighbors to honor an explorer who set sail to find a New World for Eurocentric monarchies.   These statues remain a source of pride for Italian Americans and showcase the human race’s ingenuity and spirit of exploration.

Our country has seen their own heroes and statesmen who left a significant mark on history and are also memorialized in textbooks and with statutes.  Representing a recognition, acceptance, and teachable moments for all, monuments and statues offer far more than an artistic representation of a single man.  

Persecution and racial threats/violence were common for many immigrants, from all over the world.  Tragically many Americans are unaware of the discrimination and persecution Italian immigrants faced. 

For example, in Hartford, CT at the beginning of the 19th century, every Italian who immigrated was forced to watch a silent movie produced by Mark Twain.  In the movie, an immigrant does not speak English and can only find employment doing manual labor under the watchful eye of a black man. 

The immigrant goes on to learn English and in the next scene is now overseeing the black man digging a ditch.  What the film made very clear was how the lives of blacks and Italians were interchangeable.  

As Italian Americans began to become more economically and politically powerful, statutes of Columbus became points of pride for this community.  So, for many Italians seeing the statutes torn down without discussion only demonstrates the cowardice of politicians who refuse to lead. 

But there is a solution.

In New Orleans on March 14th 1891, it was one of American’s largest, if not the largest, mass lynching in US history. 

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David Hennessy, the New Orleans police chief was murdered and his last words, when asked, was “Dagoes,” a racial slur directed at Italian Immigrants.  

In response, the Mayor stated “scour the whole neighborhood. Arrest every Italian you come across.” 

After 24 hours, 45 arrests were made and as many as 250 total arrests were made in the days that followed. The Mayor, along with other prominent New Orleans politicians, formed a committee that circulated a menacing and threatening letter to Italian residents.  This letter was signed by judges, generals, politicians and business leaders. 

It stated:

“We hope this appeal will be met by you in the same spirit in which we issue it, and that this community will not be driven to harsh and stringent methods outside of the law, which may involve the innocent and guilty alike…Upon you and your willingness to give information depends which of these courses shall be pursued” 

The city finally charged nineteen Italians with murder, even though there was little to no evidence.  Six men were eventually acquitted and a mistrial declared for the remaining. Within hours of this verdict, more than a thousand people marched to the prison where the innocent men were being held. 

Chants of “we want the Dagoes” filled the city.  The Mayor refused to quell the mob.  

As a battering ram was at the door, the prison warden let the Italian men out of their cells. 

He told them to hide the best they could.  Twelve men lost their lives that day. 

Two hung for hours on a lamppost outside the prison, their bodies beaten and riddled with bullets.  Ten others were bludgeoned to death or shot inside the prison.  Participates in this lynching mob included newspaper editors, a future governor, and the Mayor of New Orleans. 

None were ever charged.

This tragic footnote in American history is not well-known.  It is time to tell this story. 

Across America, let’s erect statutes with memorials to this event.  It will show respect to the Italian communities who donated monuments, while also highlighting the discrimination and sacrifices Italian Americans have faced and the contributions they have made in US history. 

Submitted by JR Romano

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