Jim Crow and Italian Immigrants in the American West

Immigrants arriving by boat, Galveston. Galveston Photographic Subject Files: Immigrants. Rosenberg Library, Galveston, Texas.

The 1920s saw the revival of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the West, especially in Colorado and Oregon, with its anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic platform. The Klan’s platform found support from America’s long-standing opposition to immigrants who brought with them to America that “whore of Rome,” the Catholic Church. The KKK found context as well in the pseudoscientific movement of eugenics promoted by such widely read works as Madison Grant’s The Decline of the Great Race (1916) and Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy (1920). Grant wrote the introduction to Stoddard’s work. As Daniel Okrent demonstrates, Grant “put the pieces together” of eugenics, and Stoddard defined America’s bogus “Nordic inheritance.” In the West the eugenics movement found support in Washington State’s Representative Albert Johnson, who co-sponsored the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 and who was president of the Eugenics Research Association. In California he was joined on the national stage by Stanford University professor Edward Ross, who opposed the inclusion of masses of immigrants into the US population as “race suicide,” a term that became widely used by anti-immigrant factions. The KKK’S anti-Semitic platform found support in Ole Hanson’s anti-Semitism. Former mayor of Seattle and founder of San Clemente, California, Hanson wrote that Bolshevism was in its international influence “as cosmopolitan as a Jew.” Both Bolshevism and cosmopolitan were widely used anti-Semitic tropes at the time.

In spite of the era’s xenophobia and even the Klan’s political influence in the 1920s, businessmen’s associations and state immigration offices never relented in their recruitment of immigrant labor. In time, Italians and all immigrants won over skeptics and even earned praise for their productiveness. The era’s nativism did finally result in the Johnson-Reed Act, which severely limited Italians and Jews. The Japanese and Chinese had previously been restricted. As Vincent Cannato reminds us, the Johnson-Reed Act, however, did not restrict immigration from America’s neighbors, Canada and Mexico. In addition, when the United States needed an ally in the Pacific at the beginning of World War II, the United States lifted the restriction on Chinese immigrants. Politics and economics nearly always trumped racial theory for immigrants. But immigrants often paid a high price for their high wages and the abundance of jobs in the West. Before the rise of unions, the US government was slow and ineffective in establishing safety requirements, especially in mining. Many of even the most catastrophic accidents remained for decades forgotten and unrecorded in the history of the West. Deaths in industrial accidents also had a devastating effect on wives and children, including those families left behind in Italy. But those who survived or quit work in hazardous industries were able to find available jobs or to invest in businesses and farmland.

Equally important, the arriving unmarried male Italian immigrants found culturally accommodating circumstances in enclaves. Andre Rolle challenged Oscar Handlin’s characterization of America’s immigrant masses toiling at low wages in eastern urban slums. They were not totally “strangers in the land.”

The settlement of Italian Jesuits before 1870 in advance of Italian immigration was to bring Christianity to the native populations and to establish missions. But in the decades that followed, these missions became cultural and social centers for Catholic Italians, as well as for Germans, Irish, Mexicans, and other Catholic populations. In these early churches, Italians were able to relocate familiar religious iconography from their villages, while enclaves provided some semblance of home, with festivals, folk traditions, food, and fraternal orders. Eventually, parishes built schools, and the Jesuits established Catholic colleges, which are now some of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the United States. These enclaves in the West provided a soft landing for Italians and other Catholic immigrants. Italians’ mutual-aid societies and other cultural organizations in enclaves also aided in their assimilation into American life.

Although these western settlements were at least initially populated mostly by men, Italian immigrant women made a significant contribution to immigrant success. Defying their prescribed roles in the family, Italian women became entrepreneurs, often owning boardinghouses and hotels. These women applied their domestic skills, the cultural capital that they had brought with them from the Old World. In addition, Italian women provided the necessary recipes and culinary skills in the kitchen for scores of successful Italian restaurants in the West. Just as important, Italian women were responsible for keeping a well-organized home and rearing children, so important to immigrant success. But not all women were so successful in the West. Some immigrant enclaves developed a vigorous prostitution trade that exploited and abused poor immigrant and late-generation women. These women did not share in the benefits of the immigrant narrative, that intersection of social and cultural capital that provided immigrant families and their children an opportunity to step up to America’s middle class.

Unavoidably, in the post-World War II discourse over race, achieving success in America has too often revolved around the question of who became “white” in America. As Higham and Okrent argue, Italian Catholics were placed on the bottom of the racial hierarchy and were no less the target of degrading stereotypes than other immigrant groups. Their restriction under the Johnson-Reed Act placed a stringent quota on Italians, limiting their numbers to 3,845, or 1.3 percent of their previous annual immigration figure. From Italian immigrants’ high of 222,496 in 1910, by 1925 fewer than 2,662 passed through Ellis Island.” The act focused on Italians because they were the largest single immigrant group entering the United States at the time. In Stoddard’s words, they were a major contributor to the “rising tide of color” undermining “white world-supremacy.”

But the xenophobic attitudes toward Italians and their exclusion from the United States did not limit their success in America. There was a shortage of labor in the West, and immigrant labor was too valuable a commodity to allow racial theorizing to stand in the way of America’s industrial and agricultural development. The disparity between wages and the cost of living, including the cost of land, allowed even the day laborer in the West to invest in enclave businesses and farmland. Mining, millwork, and railroad work provided even higher wages. The social capital that circulated in what Donna Gabaccia calls “enclave markets” worked ultimately to the benefit of all immigrants! If Italians were not initially able to capitalize the opening of a business, they either received a loan from a friend or relative or formed partnerships with other immigrants.

Cultural heritage was also a major factor in Italian success. Italians brought with them from Italy a variety of artisan skills that allowed them to find work or open businesses within enclaves. Formerly peasant farmers in Italy, they became farmers with dramatic results throughout the West, especially in California. From small farmers, many of the early Italian immigrants became some of the biggest growers and largest vintners of bulk wines in the United States. Many of the early family-owned wineries are still producers of some of California’s finest wines. Italians’ development of the wine industry and their eventual dominance in the industry were unchallenged by any other immigrant group. Italians colonized the Pacific Coast fishing industry as well, which provided a multiplicity of jobs for experienced Italian fishermen coming from fishing villages in Italy. In addition, scores of Italian immigrants entered America with college degrees that allowed them to further enhance the economic, social, and cultural development of their respective enclaves throughout the West.

Workers, Italian Vineyard Company. Courtesy of Italian American Museum of Los Angeles.


Along with immigrant farmers, by 1920 African Americans owned 20 percent of the farms in and around Bryan, Texas. Under Jim Crow laws African-American farmers were impeded in their efforts to organize their industry the way Italian, Japanese, and other immigrant farmers were able to do throughout the West. By the turn of the century in the Brazos River valley, there were more than 8,000 African Americans, the majority of whom were engaged in farming. To strengthen their position as both farmers and field workers in a state that banned them from the state’s Farmers’ Alliance, African Americans in 1886 formed the Colored Farmers’ National Alliance and Cooperative Union in Houston County. They received a charter from the state of Texas in 1888 and merged with the fraternal organization the Colored Alliance and began a region-wide campaign to expand their membership, reaching more than one million members. However, they were met with strong opposition throughout the South, making it impossible for African American farmers to succeed on the same scale as their neighboring immigrant farmers.

Sicilians and African Americans lived and worked in close proximity, as they had throughout the South before 1940. Initially, Italian children were sent to segregated African American schools. As a result, Sicilians’ close relationships with local African Americans began to raise the ire of late-generation self-described “whites.” Texans, as well as southerners in other states, soon discovered that Sicilians did not honor Jim Crow regulations and began to notice that Sicilians and African-Americans often related on personal terms. Their relationship with African-Americans and their disregard of Jim Crow restrictions would not be ignored or go unpunished.

Southern Italians did not see “race” or “color” in the same way that Texans and southerners did. Southern Italians’ cultural and religious iconography was radically different from the Protestant forms of worship. Many of the saints worshipped in their villages were originally either North African or Mediterranean cult figures carved and painted in various shades of brown to black. Many of the immigrant settlers in the Bivona colony worshipped the Black Madonna in their home village. It is little wonder that they shared such a close relationship with Mexican immigrants, who worshipped Our Lady of Guadalupe. The anti-immigrant faction in America often characterized southern Italians as pagans and “foreign Romanists” who blindly followed that “reactionary despot,” the pope. Rumors of “Catholic political conspiracies” circulated among paranoid, xenophobic Protestants. The nativist sentiment against Italians erupted into violence in 1891 when eleven Italian immigrants were murdered and lynched in New Orleans. Although not the first lynching of Italians, neither would it be the last.”

Some Texans shared the same concern as southerners and believed that they had imported something of a political and cultural Trojan horse into their midst. Sicilians began to arouse suspicion when southerners overheard African Americans, who worked in tandem with Sicilians on southern plantations, address Sicilians by their first names. Italian immigrants’ relationships with African Americans have been dramatized in two effective historical novels, Donna Jo Napoli’s Alligator Bayou (2009) and Mary Bucci Bush’s Sweet Hope (2011). Bush’s novel treats the cooperative, working relationship between Italian immigrants and African Americans on a turn-of-the-century Arkansas cotton plantation, while Napoli’s novel focuses on the friendly relationship between Sicilian immigrants and African Americans in Tallulah, Louisiana. Napoli portrays the 1899 Tallulah lynching of five Sicilians who refused to follow the dictates of the Jim Crow social order.

In his article “The Italian: A Hindrance to White Solidarity in Louisiana, 1890-1898,” George E. Cunningham reports that in the aftermath of the lynching of three Italians in Hahnville, St. Charles Parish, in 1896, “the Italians now had the sympathy of the Negroes, for a large number of Negroes and Italians were present at the burial, and went home from the scene almost terror-stricken.” Some locals feared that with the support of African Americans, Italians would seek revenge. Sicilians’ friendly relationships with African Americans was not limited to Texas or southern states. In the eastern and northeastern urban centers, particularly in Chicago’s Near North Side, a similar relationship between Sicilians and African Americans existed. However, the friendly relationships between the two groups were at times fractured over their competition for jobs. Because of Sicilians’ threat to African Americans’ economic interests in the South, especially New Orleans, in one instance African American leaders launched an anti-Sicilian campaign that characterized Sicilians in the same xenophobic terms used by nativists at the time. Yet when two Italian immigrants were lynched in Tampa, Florida, in 1910, W. E. B. Du Bois came to their defense.

Patrizia Salvetti demonstrates that the early lynchings of Sicilians in New Orleans became part of a larger pattern of not only Italian but other immigrant lynchings throughout the United States, including Mexican and Asian immigrants. Immigrant lynchings became so widespread that one lawyer, Charles H. Watson, in a 1916 article called for national legislation to stop the assault on immigrants. He cited the most recent killings of two Italian immigrants in two southern Illinois towns. It must be emphasized that he said nothing in his article about the rampant lynchings of African Americans or Native Americans at the time.

Bertagnoli Mercantile Store. Collection of the Rock Springs Historical Museum, Rock Springs, Wyoming.

What has been difficult to document in Texas is the role that the Klan played in less dramatic moments when it felt compelled to deliver threatening messages to immigrants who defied Jim Crow restrictions. By 1920 Texas joined such western states as Colorado and Oregon in the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. As just one example, shortly before or after World War I, three men from the Bryan community visited Vincenzo Schembri to inform him that he had to stop allowing African Americans to enter the front door of his house and stop allowing them to eat at the family dinner table. Whether they were official members of the revived KKK or just three self-appointed vigilantes bent on enforcing the Jim Crow social order in Bryan is not clear. Threatened, Vincenzo relented, but not totally. He avoided the more obvious Jim Crow violation: he did not allow his African American friends to enter the front door of the family’s small house. However, he continued to host African Americans out back at the family table next to the barn, where the family more often than not took its evening meals. Whatever Vincenzo seemed to give up to the powerful and violent local men, in typical Sicilian fashion he surreptitiously took back in defiance of their demands.

Perhaps Vincenzo’s tactic was a response conditioned by Sicily’s many centuries of hostile foreign domination, including a post-unification government. In his view, the KKK was just another force, a foreign “imperium” that had always dominated Sicilians, from foreign colonists, the church, and the unification government to the Mafia. Feeling powerless to control their own destiny, in their self-deprecating folklore, Sicilians thought of their villages as merely “the footprints that God left on his way to better things.” Vincenzo resisted in the only way he could.

In spite of the xenophobia that they sometimes faced, Italians did not abandon their cultural traditions in Bryan or elsewhere in Texas. The West allowed Italian immigrants greater latitude to practice traditions and customs, which some observers believed were not in fact so at odds with Protestant American values. Italians were still able to transplant some of those festivals that their villages had celebrated for centuries. The Italians of Texas grew traditional crops for both the market and their own tables. Bringing their various folkways and horticultural traditions to America and merging and celebrating them with Catholics from other countries, they were becoming Italian Texans, as well as Americans.

Excerpt from Italian Immigrants in the American West – 1870-1940. University of Nevada Press, 2021.

Kenneth Scambray is the author of A Varied Harvest: The Life and Works of Henry Blake Fuller, The North American Italian Renaissance: Italian Writing in America and Canada, Surface Roots: Short Stories, and Queen Calafia’s Paradise: California and the Italian American Novel. Since 1978 he has served as the book and film critic for L’Italo-Americano. He is professor emeritus of English at the University of La Verne in California.

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