The United States of America began life as a British colony in the first decade of the 17th century. Three hundred years later it had become a world-renowned ‘melting pot’. Between 1880 and 1920, the US opened its doors to twenty million immigrants, mainly from Central, Eastern and Southern Europe. More than four million came from Italy alone. Much of the population of Sicily and Campania, sometimes entire villages, emigrated to the US, the “Land of Opportunity”. Italians are now the country’s seventh-largest ethnic group, with seventeen million US citizens of Italian ancestry.

American Racism

However, in the 1880s the United States was in recession. As a result, 30 per cent of Italian immigrants never moved beyond New York, founding work there digging canals, laying gas pipes, or building bridges and the subway system. Italian workers faced hostility in their new home. Accused of stealing American jobs, they were frequently attacked by mobs, who also set Catholic churches on fire. In the 1890s, over twenty Italians were reported lynched. Anti-immigrant sentiment continued until the 1920s, when the Government restricted immigration.

450 Italian american Culture Library of Congress

Native Speakers

As the 20th century progressed, the second generation of Italian-American immigrants — now English-speakers — moved from unskilled work into skilled jobs. At this time, the introduction of Prohibition in 1920 offered the Mafia, also imported from Italy, an opportunity to improve its position in the US.

World War Two

The next change in the fortunes of Italian-Americans came when the US entered the Second World War in December 1941. Millions of Italian men and women started work in war industries or Italian men served in the armed forces. The US Government, however, now at war with Italy, did not trust Italian-Americans. About ten thousand suffered compulsory re-location, while 600,000 were confined to their homes at night.

A New Era

After the war, a new era arrived for Italian-Americans. Returning soldiers used the Government’s GI Bill, intended to help war veterans, to go to college, often for the first time in the history of their families. Immigrants began to move out of the ‘Little Italies’ their ancestors had created in the US. Quickly climbing the socio-economic ladder,they became imbedded in mainstream American culture.