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Linciati: Lynchings of Italians in America (2004).

Linciati: Lynchings of Italians in America (2004)

Unlike other European immigrants who struggled initially to become "white" in America, such as the Irish and the Jews, Italian immigrants fought a hostile reception even beyond the third generation in the U.S. Despite, or perhaps because of, the nearly quintessential American familias of the Corleones and the Sopranos, young people of Italian descent are still given affirmative action scholarships, at least in New York City, to entice them to go to college and take part in the American Dream. Although European immigrants were initially granted automatic citizenship thanks to the privileging of white skin that inspired the Naturalization Act of 1790, thus leading to the large-scale immigration of Europeans of the 19th and 20th centuries, it took Italians several generations to be perceived as entirely "white" while the Irish and Jews were essentially "white" by the second generation.

Sicilian immigrants were particularly suspect: not only were they more olive-skinned then their northern European counterparts, but the timing of the arrival of the majority of Sicilian immigrants (between 1880-1921, over 4 million Italians entered the U.S.) made their initiation into the racial quagmire of the Reconstruction period in the U.S. much more rocky than other immigrant groups. Although the vast majority of lynchings targeted African Americans, and while Native Americans, Jews, Mexicans, and Chinese men were also lynched during this period, the number of Italians and the geographic range of the lynchings are astounding: there are a total of over fifty documented cases of lynchings of Italians in such places as New York, Florida, Mississippi, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Chicago, Florida, and Seattle, Washington.

In this powerful, and painful, documentary, director M. Heather Hartley illustrates the violent prejudice that many Italian immigrants and Italian Americans faced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The film examines the convergence of social, economic, and historical causes of the unspoken history of the lynching of Italians throughout the U.S. during this period, highlighting the most dramatic case of lynching that occurred in 1891 in New Orleans when eleven Italians were lynched by a mob. This event, which is widely known in Italy even today, is mentioned in a brief paragraph or footnote in most American history texts.

With the use of archival footage with animation and audio effects added, old photographs, letters, illustrated magazines, and newspaper articles, Hartley documents how conditions in Italy played a role leading up to this event: after arriving on Ellis Island, although most settled in New York and other northeastern cities, many southern Italian immigrants found their way to Louisiana where there was plantation work and where the climate was not unlike that of southern Italy.

Since many Italian men planned to work in the U.S. and return to Italy to marry and raise a family, assimilation, including any desire to learn the culture, language, and racist attitudes of their temporary home country, was not a priority: Italians in late 19th century New Orleans worked alongside blacks as laborers, and the various fish and fruit stands that Italian immigrants owned sold food to blacks; white New Orleanians of a certain class responded with hostility. By the 1890s, as many as 30,000 Italians were living and working in New Orleans, and stereotypes of Italians as criminals, beggars, or organ grinders abounded in Louisiana and throughout the U.S.

When a popular New Orleans police chief was assassinated, the hostility reached its apex, and Italians were blamed. There was a massive roundup of Italians after the murder, with nine Italian men eventually tried and acquitted of murder. The New Orleans Times-Democrat reported that "[t]he little jail was crowded with Sicilians whose low, receding foreheads, repulsive countenances and slovenly attire proclaimed their brutal nature." As Hartley notes, a lynching is when a mob of three or more people attack with intent to kill an accused person or group, usually of a specific race or ethnicity, in order to circumvent the legal system or under the assumption that the legal system would not provide effective retaliation. After the trial, city leaders actually advertised that they would be bringing justice to Chief Police Hennessey's murderers, targeting six of the Italians for lynching (future historians of the period have noted that these six Italians were probably guilty). On the appointed day, prison guards released the six men hoping they would escape and find safety, yet 150 men broke into the jail to search for the Italians. They found a total of eleven Italian men who were shot, beaten to death, and/or hung; some of the bodies had ten to forty gunshot wounds.

Hartley notes that, while the mob that killed the Italians was never charged (The New York Times had an editorial supporting the lynching as a warning to other Italian "criminals"), the U.S. government sent $25,000 to Italy as restitution, an indemnity paid after almost every other lynching of an Italian in this period. Anti-Italian immigrant sentiment grew after the lynching, with increasingly negative depictions of Italians in the press, including the common association of Italians, particularly Sicilians, with the mafia. Hartley also documents lynchings that occurred after New Orleans, such as the two DeFatta brothers and three other men in 1899 Mississippi and the lynching of two Italians in Tampa, Florida in 1910. In the latter incident, in one of the only visual pieces of evidence of the violence against Italians, photographers took photos of the two lynched men; Hartley's camera focuses in on the photographs turned into postcards.

Hartley, an assistant professor of communications at Penn State University, ends her documentary with a cautionary note, making the uncomfortable analogy between the lynchings of the past and the injustices of the justice system today: as she notes, while lynchings no longer occur, the hostility of the act is embedded in our judicial system, particularly the capital punishment system. While I initially found this to be a clunky analogy, historian Janice Hottinger Barrow has noted that mob violence and lynchings in this period were more likely to occur in states without a strong capital punishment system; thus states such as Louisiana and Maryland, both without the death penalty, had more lynchings than states with a strong death penalty system like New York. Hartley's analogy, then, becomes uncomfortably believable.

Overall, the film is a dramatic yet straightforward account of this little known dark chapter in American history with the narrator's retelling of the events impressively accompanied by mostly still or recreated images that could not be more disturbing had there been film evidence of the events.

Stacey Lee Donohue

Central Oregon Community College
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Author:Donohue, Stacey Lee
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Movie review
Date:Jul 1, 2006
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