Italian immigration

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Italian immigration into the Birmingham district was widespread during the late 19th and early 20th century as rural depression in southern Italy coincided with the availability of trans-Atlantic passage for immigrant laborers and industrial expansion in Alabama. Though many had arrived in the city's early days, the heaviest waves of Italian immigration occurred after 1890, coinciding with major migrations of rural whites into the district. By 1910 the Italian community was the city's largest single ethnic group, surpassing German and Irish populations which dominated the earliest influx.

Italian immigration in Birmingham, 1890-1920

year     pop.     %change

1890 |   130 |  -
1900 |   504 |  +489.3%
1910 | 1,846 |  +366.3%
1920 | 2,160 |  +117.0%

Most of Birmingham's Italians came from a small number of villages in Sicily. Bisacquino alone accounted for about a third of those arriving. Cafalu, Sutera, Campofranco, Grotte, and Palermo were also well-represented. Prior to 1898 most of those arriving came through the Port of New Orleans, eclipsed after that by New York as the primary port of entry. By the mid-1920s changes to immigration policy, including a literacy test and the establishment of national quotas sharply reduced Italian immigration.

Many of those arriving without family already in place began their stay in Birmingham at Egidio Sabatini's boarding house near the new Terminal Station. Many of the workers for that building were Italian, and appreciated his Italian cooking.

After settling in, it was easy for the immigrants to find work in the labor-starved iron and steel industries. Families distributed themselves around the various industrial plants surrounding the city proper. Unlike many American cities that saw an influx of labor, there was no single focus for the Italian community in the Birmingham district. Only Ensley saw the emergence of any sort of "Little Italy", centered on Avenue F from 12th to 17th Street. Even there, as many as 60 percent of the households were non-Italian.

Italians around Birmingham, 1910

city         pop.     

Ensley     |  800
Pratt City |  400 
Thomas     |  250 
Birmingham |  200 
Bessemer   |  150
Republic   |  100
Cardiff    |   50

In 1910 Italian immigrants, as the newest arrivals, typically worked for about half the pay commanded by their Scottish, American and African-American neighbors. They earned slightly more than Greeks and Bulgarians who immigrated in the same period. By the late 1910s several families had started operating small grocery stores or fruit markets, typically in the under-served African-American neighborhoods. By the mid-1930s there were over 300 Italian-owned groceries in the Birmingham area. Notable establishments included Cantanzano Brothers, the Grand Fish and Oyster Company, the Giardina Macaroni Company, the Italian-American Importing Company, Spina Importing, Simonetti Brothers, and the Rouss-Maenza Wholesale Company. Meanwhile a small colony of Italian farmers began growing fruits and vegetables in the area now occupied by the Birmingham International Airport. Domenico Lusco had a thriving farm near West End and organized the Farmer's Truck Growers Association.

Between 1901 and 1929 thirteen separate mutual aid societies were established to provide basic insurance against illness, injury or burial costs. The first of these was the Liberty Mutual Aid Society. Many of these clubs organized dances and other social events for the Italian community. One, the Societa Italiana Umberto Di Savoia Principe Di Piemonte (USPP) helped to get Columbus Day declared a state holiday in 1911. G. A. Firpo, vice-consul to the Italian Embassy in New Orleans established an office in Birmingham.

Before 1904 St Paul's Cathedral was the only Catholic church in Birmingham, and its services were attended primarily by Irish Catholics. John Canepa arrived in 1904 to establish St Mark's Catholic Church in Republic. He also launched St Joseph's Catholic Church in Ensley (1913) and St John's Catholic Church in East Lake (1923). Ensley was also served by protestant churches which actively recruited Italian converts, and had some success during that period when anti-Catholic intimidation was reaching a frenzy. Campaigns for restrictive "blue laws" and for prohibition often made reference to the social habits of immigrant cultures.

The Italian community supported two baseball leagues and several musical groups which performed at weddings and feasts. Notable Italian bandleaders included Philip Memoli, Bill Nappi, and Saverio Costa.

References

  • Birmingfind (1981) The Italians: From Bisacquino to Birmingham. Birmingham: Birmingfind.