When the Italian tsunami swept into the North End during the late 19th century Yankee Bostonians were aghast. Bad enough they had to deal with the Irish and the Jews but this new group was even more threatening. These Italians were a strange bunch. They were clannish and only socialized with their own kind, ate unpronounceable food that smelled of garlic, spoke strange languages and dialects and quickly formed secret societies and clubs. If that wasn’t bad enough, they lived in squalid, over crowded tenement flats in the oldest part of Boston, the very streets where John and Sam Adams, Paul Revere and the Sons of Liberty started the American Revolution.
In 1900 the historian and author, Francis Adams Drake, wrote a book about old Boston landmarks. It was essentially a walking tour of Boston, the city he loved, and here is how he described North Square;
“Nowhere in Boston has Father Time wrought such ruthless changes, as in this once highly respectable quarter, now swarming with Italians in every dirty nook and corner. In truth, it is hard to believe the evidence of our own senses, though the fumes of garlic are sufficiently convincing. Past and Present confront each other here in a stare of blank amazement, in the humble Revere homestead, on one side, and the pretentious Hotel Italy (Rome) on the other; nor do those among us , who recall something of its vanished prestige, feel at all at home in a place where our own mother- tongue no longer serves us.”
Well, that does it. I’m not inviting Mr. Drake or any of his friends to my daughter’s wedding. They can eat cold roast beef at the Somerset Club.
The United States for its entire early history had essentially open borders. The country was expanding westward and needed strong arms and backs to build new cities and railroads. The ruling elite of Europe were happy to get rid of their unruly under classes and foist the problems on the upstart Americans. It was only when the European rulers needed cannon fodder for their armies that they began to reassess their enthusiasm for sending their poor abroad.
There is a story that when the President of Italy visited a small town south of Naples he noticed only a few old women were there. Assuming the young people were out in the fields, he asked the mayor when he would be able to meet them. The mayor responded that if he wanted to see the young citizens of that town he would have to travel to New York or Boston.
Between 1900 and 1924 over 4 million Italians emigrated to the United States mostly to the large eastern cities but many went all the way to California. Anti immigration fervor reached a peak in the latter years of the 19th century with the rise of nativist groups like the Know Nothing Party. The Republican Senator from Massachusetts, Henry Cabot Lodge, a Boston Brahmin whose attitudes concerning race and ethnicity would make Donald Trump blush, was the spokesman for the Immigration Restriction League and was instrumental in getting the Immigration Reform Bill of 1924 passed. This bill specified which groups were to be given favored immigration preference. Northern Europeans like Germans and British were allowed in much greater numbers than the undesirable Southern Europeans (Italians and Sicilians) or Eastern Europeans (Russian and Polish Jews).
Demonizing immigrants is an old and time honored tradition in this country, as American as apple pie. The anti immigrant rhetoric we are hearing today is alarmingly similar to an 1880 editorial in the New York Times entitled, “Undesirable Emigrants“. In it, the author condemned the, “promiscuous immigration of the filthy, wretched, lazy, criminal dregs of the meanest sectors of Italy”. Hateful words, but they reflect a commonly held attitude among the upper classes that borders on Eugenics, and we know where that led.
When you go into the voting booth this year and are tempted to “Make America Great Again” please remember that one hundred years ago other xenophobic demagogues were using the same invectives against your grandparents and great grandparents.
Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.