On March 14, 1891, prominent New Orleans citizens — including future mayors and governors — led the largest lynch mob ever to assemble on U.S. soil.
Numbering in the tens of thousandsand wielding torches, rifles and rope, the mob of vigilantes stormed into Parish Prison and murdered 11 Italian immigrants, all of whom had either just been acquitted or were falsely implicated in the 1890 murder of New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy.
The victims included:
Antonio Bagnetto, fruit peddler: tried and acquitted
James Caruso, stevedore: not tried
Loreto Comitis, tinsmith: not tried
Rocco Geraci, stevedore: not tried
Joseph Macheca, fruit importer and Democratic Party political boss: tried and acquitted
Antonio Marchesi, fruit peddler: tried and acquitted
Pietro Monasterio, cobbler: mistrial
Emmanuele Polizzi, street vendor: mistrial
Frank Romero, ward politician: not tried
Antonio Scaffidi, fruit peddler: mistrial
Charles Traina, rice plantation laborer: not tried
Mob conspirators claimed that mafia influence swayed jurors, despite no evidence; and according toHistory.com, the court proceedings surrounding Chief Hennessy’s murder marked the genesis of Italian American mafia tropes that persist today (from boorishSaturday Night Livesketches, to Hollywood’s repetitivestereotypes).
Italian Americans and leaders of the Kingdom of Italy were outraged by the mass lynching. Italy broke off diplomatic relations and recalled its ambassador from Washington, D.C. Then-President Benjamin Harrison, in turn, removed the U.S. legation from Rome. The lynchings even touched off talk of war between the U.S. and Italy, according toThe Washington Post.
Prominent U.S. newspapers, includingThe New York Times, praised the lynchings. Theodore Roosevelt, in a letter to his sister, sided with the mob, writing: “Personally, I think it a rather good thing.”
With a looming presidential election and a deepening diplomatic crisis, President Harrison urged communities across the nation to celebrate Columbus and show their patriotism. It was a major success, as more than one million people gathered in New York City on Oct. 12, 1892, to honorColumbus Dayand cheer on the 40,000-strong parade (the larger-than-life NYC celebration took place exactly 400 years after the navigator first landed in what was deemed the New World, and it also jumpstarted the mass dissemination of the freshly scripted Pledge of Allegiance).
Harrison had successfully quelled the boiling diplomatic tensions, but he would ultimately lose the presidency to Grover Cleveland.
Despite the outpouring of support, Italian Americans would go on to experience crushing suppression across the U.S. At least 40 more lynchings of Italians took place on U.S. soil, and during WWII, 600,000 Italian immigrants and Italian Americanswere deemed enemy aliensby order of the U.S. government — despite the fact that more than one million Italian American soldiers were fighting and dying in Europe and the South Pacific to protect America’s freedoms.
Many of these “enemy aliens” were surveilled, stripped of their livelihoods and native language, and were forced to leave their homes; and some were even sent to internment camps. Infamously, Joe DiMaggio’s father, a fisherman in California, had his boatcommandeered by the U.S. government.
Columbus statues and monuments were installed in Italian communities across the U.S. to fuel assimilation and combat discrimination during this decades-long period of widespread racism and sedition. They were paid for, in large part, by poor Italian Americans who spent years rounding up funds to pay for the statues.
Columbus Day became a permanent national holiday in 1934 when Congress, after lobbying by the Knights of Columbus, authorized President Franklin D. Roosevelt to declare Oct. 12 as the designated date. In 1971, Columbus Day was made a federal holiday on the second Monday in October.
Despite this history, Columbus statues have been reinterpreted as symbols of hate, enslavement and colonialism by misguided reformists (the irony is astounding).
If only everyday folks knew the full story, they’d understand why a large segment of today’s Italian Americans are fighting to preserve the Columbus statues and parades.
Today, the Conference of Presidents — through its National Counsel George Bochetto — is petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear a federal, pro-Columbus lawsuitthat seeks to declare Italian Americans as a protected class under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. Such protections would aid in the preservation of Columbus statues and holidays throughout the country.
In late 2022, Bochetto won a contentious, years-long battle to save Philadelphia’s Columbus statue, which originally went up in 1876. The legal defeat was a bitter one for Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney, whowas openly criticized by Common Pleas Court Judge Paula Patrick in 2021 over his attempt at removing the statue.
In Syracuse, N.Y., theColumbus Monument Corp.won a lawsuit in March 2022 that blocked the removal of the city’s Columbus statue. Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh has appealed the ruling, and, in the process, is spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on the misguided legal effort.
In Chicago, theJoint Civic Committee of Italian Americansis working with city officials in the hopes of promoting Columbus and easing the violent crime that has plagued the city. JCCIA President Ron Onestitold WGNthat Chicago mayoral candidatePaul Vallashas agreed to hear arguments over returning a historic Columbus statue to Grant Park.
In Pittsburgh, Italian Sons and Daughters of America is suing to save the city’s Columbus statue. The suit is currently in theappeal process.
And finally, after a decade of holding class on the second Monday in October, Columbus Day will once again be celebrated during the 2024-25 school year in New Canaan, Conn.
The inaugural IAFL Conference, held in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. in January 2023, was abellwether of cultural progressthat energized a new generation of young Italian American leaders.
Several more annual IAFL conferences have been slated, and the next major IAFL event will take place on Saturday, July 1, in Toledo, Ohio, during the IFL Italian Bowl. Clickherefor initial details.
There’s much to fight for — and much to look forward to — as Italian Americans young and old come together to honor their ancestors.
Formed in 1975 and based in NYC, the Conference of Presidents of Major Italian American Organizations is comprised of 61 of the most influential, cultural, educational, fraternal and anti-defamation groups in the nation. The Conference of Presidents is a nonpartisan, not-for-profit institution.