Professor Richard N. Juliani, a son of immigrant parents, began his research on Italians in Philadelphia while a graduate student in the Sociology Department at the University of Pennsylvania in the mid 1960s. During his long career, he has not only continued to explore the Italian American experience, but has served the academic community in a wide variety of professional activities. Most notably, after several terms as a member of its Executive Council and as vice president, Professor Juliani also served two terms as the president of the American Italian Historical Association.
Professor Juliani’s many articles have been published in scholarly journals in the United States, Canada and Italy. His doctoral dissertation, The Social Organization of Immigration: The Italians in Philadelphia, was reprinted in the series American Ethnic Groups: The European Heritage (New York: Arno Press, A New York Times Company, 1980). His later research has been published as the award winning Building Little Italy: Philadelphia’s Italians before Mass Migration (University Park, PA: Penn State University Press, 1998) and the more recent Priest, Parish and People: Saving the Faith in Philadelphia’s Little Italy (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007). The latter two books are available through bookstores or directly from their publishers.
December 8, 2007
Center for Italian Studies (U. of P.)
I am always glad to return to the University of Pennsylvania to speak about my research and writing on immigration from Italy to the United States because this is where my work began. I first came here as a graduate student and teaching fellow in the Department of Sociology forty-five years ago in the autumn of 1962 to study race relations and Civil Rights. But, partly inspired by the emerging field of Black history, I ended up studying Italian immigration. I also had the good fortune of studying under some extraordinary scholars — particularly Professors Edward P. Hutchinson and E. Digby Baltzell — who encouraged and enabled me to move in this direction. In 1968, when I started to do research for my doctoral dissertation, I began going into retirement agencies of the clothing industry and recreation centers of the City of Philadelphia, as well as private homes, particularly in South Philadelphia with a tape recorder to interview older men that I could find in such places — to record their life histories as immigrants, workers and residents of Philadelphia.
It was at a time when scholars were trying to replace the filiopietism of the past, in which the history of an ethnic group too often became an attempt to extol its virtues by focusing on the accomplishments of its most prominent representatives — which in the case of Italian Americans usually mean popular entertainers, athletes and a politician or two. Instead, I joined with the “new historians” who sought to tell this history “from the bottom up” — or through the everyday lives of the ordinary men and women who made up the masses — and were to me the real heroes of immigrant life. But as I studied their lives, I also added how they came to build the immigrant community and then the assimilation of their children and grandchildren as later generations of Italian American experience to my research agenda.
It was also the same time that I discovered and began to use the extensive, but too often neglected, records found in such public agencies as the City Archives as well as the materials of more private sectors such as the neighborhood parishes of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia — that have enabled me over the years to retrieve, document, explore, analyze — and hopefully to preserve much of the very rich history of the Italian experience in Philadelphia — a subject that I believed had been overlooked, ignored and forgotten by other scholars — as well as by the general public — and that had the risk of eventually being lost by the very people whose history it was — and who themselves could lose any memory of their own past — if it were not recorded and told in some manner.
The end result has been a long series of articles written for and published in scholarly journals — and more recently two rather extensive books. In the first one, Building Little Italy: Philadelphia’s Italians before Mass Migration (Penn State University Press, 1998), I traced the early history of Philadelphia’s Italians from the first known natives of Italy who settled here in the 1770s, to the first cluster of Italians, to the founding of institutions that marked the beginning of their community life, ending with the census of 1870..
In the second book, Priest, Parish and People: Saving the Faith in Philadelphia’s Little Italy (University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) I examined the history of the first church founded for Italians as Catholics anywhere in the United States; the role that it played as an institution in the immigrant community under the leadership of Father Antonio Isoleri, who served as both a spiritual and secular leader as its pastor for 56 years; and the adjustment of Italians as Catholics to a society dominated by Protestants and a Church dominated by Irish Catholics during the crucial period of Italian immigration from the 1860s to the 1930s.
My intention today is to share some of this information — mainly my own findings and analysis — with you, but to wrap simultaneously, although in a brief format, the special chapter of the Italian experience in Philadelphia with the history of Italians across America. It is from the point of view of someone first trained in sociology, but who became a historian as well.
But let me begin with the words of arguably the most important American poet of the 20th century.
…a people without history
is not redeemed from time,
for history is a pattern
of timeless moments.
T. S. Eliot, “Four Quartets: Little Gidding”
The presence of Italians in Philadelphia has a very long history — dating back to the time of the War for American Independence — if not even earlier — when the first Italians began to show up in Philadelphia and elsewhere. It came in distinct stages — at first, adventurers and soldiers; scholars and scientists; political philosophers and writers; musicians, music teachers, and composers; artists and sculptors; language teachers; tavern keepers; food and drink merchants; importers; and impresarios among them. They helped to introduce baroque music, outdoor concerts, public dancing; fresco art and ornamental sculpture; ice cream; entertainment gardens and amusement parks; and exotic animals to the public. And they helped to transform Philadelphia from the “gray Quaker lady” into the most important, dynamic and influential city of scholarship, commerce, politics and culture of early America.
But in the early 19th century, something very different began to happen, and this history started to evolve into a new chapter. It was mainly due to natives of hill towns in the Val Fontanabuona above the city of Chiavari on the Ligurian Coast — who first arrived about 1815 — and by 1850 had begun to cluster in the townships of Southwark and Passyunk, just below what was the southern border of the original city, which was South Street at that time. It was not a migration of a privileged class, but men of more common talents — even street peddlers and musicians — who joined other small entrepreneurs in their new location — but who were nevertheless the pioneers of Italian communal life in Philadelphia.
Then others came recruited as contract laborers under the “padrone system” to work on the railroads and in the mines of Pennsylvania, and as unskilled laborers in construction jobs building houses and streets in a rapidly expanding Philadelphia — in a new form of near slavery and exploitation after slavery as an institution had been officially and supposedly abolished.
And then they came as “paesani migration” — connected in interpersonal chains through which relatives and friends who were already here or had been here assisted one another and enabled them to come — by encouraging aspirations to migrate and identifying destinations, along with more direct forms of material assistance by providing money or prepaid tickets for steamship passage, temporary lodging after their arrival, information on employment possibilities and introductions to the bosses looking for more workers — who could hire them — in the factories and mills of a very diverse and rapidly expanding industrial economy in Philadelphia.
But now they had also shifted in origins from earlier Ligurians and Tuscans to the great exodus that poured out of Southern Italy in the closing years of the 19th century — giving Philadelphia a distinct presence of the natives of Abruzzo-Molise, Campania, Basilicata, Puglia, Calabria and Sicily.
They eventually formed a huge settlement in what had become South Philadelphia, after the consolidation of the city in 1854 — the hub of Italian settlement for this city — growing to a population that would be exceeded in its size only by New York and Chicago by later years of the 19th century. It was a city within a city — with its own boundaries which contained boarding houses and restaurants, stores, banks, real estate and employment agencies, churches, beneficial societies, political organizations, newspapers, and theaters — that clearly identified “Little Italy” for its own inhabitants as well as for the newspapers, local government and other residents of the larger city.
It was made even more remarkable by the fact that the port of Philadelphia never served as a major gateway of entry to the United States — actually very few steam ships that departed from Mediterranean ports made Philadelphia their destination.
But it was larger than any other destination in its territorial boundaries — its geographical size — making it the largest Little Italy in terms of its spatial dimensions anywhere in the United States. It was, however, also a process of settlement that saw the formation of smaller, but quite visible Italian colonies in other sections of the city and outlying areas of the region — from Trenton and Bristol on its northern edge to neighborhoods of North and West Philadelphia, as well as Germantown and Chestnut Hill — and Camden and Chester on both sides of the Delaware — and westward on the Main Line to Narberth and Strafford and out as far as Coatesville — more or less “satellite communities” in their dependence and relationship to the hub of South Philadelphia.
It had grown from “a trickle to a flood” that eventually reached its peak in the years before World War I — before being shut down by the dangers of crossing the Atlantic in wartime and the suspension of passenger service in the summer of 1914 as steamships were also converted into troop ships. But after a brief “spike” in the volume of new arrivals from Italy immediately after the war, immigration from Italy was once again sharply reduced by the passage of new immigration laws that introduced the national origins quotas as American government policy in 1921 and 1924 and implicitly defined Italians and others of Southern and Eastern European backgrounds as undesirable and unfit for America. But during the Great Depression of the 1930s, more people left the United States than immigrated to it, before World War II in the next decade halted European migration entirely.
With the return of peace, Italian immigration steadily rose again — reaching a relatively high level within the overall flow of foreign born arrivals — until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 reformed immigration policy for the United States — eliminating the country by country quotas which had restricted Italian immigration — and opened the doors to an unprecedented new stage of our history which has seen a great shift to Latin American and Asian migration — that we are still witnessing today.
The migration from Italy to Philadelphia and other destinations in America had been a major part of the largest migration in human history. From 1820 to 2003, the United States has officially recorded nearly five and a half million arrivals from Italy — making it larger than for any other source except Germany and Mexico — with the peak period being from the 1880s to the early 1920s when nearly five million arrived, the peak decade being 1901-1910 when over two million entered the country — and the peak year being 1907 when nearly 286,000 came, a figure that was approached in some other years as well.
It was not always made up of a people seeking the “American Dream”, who sought a new life in this country, but of workers who had left their families in Italy because it was the only way that they could help their families — and their dream was to return “home” which would long remain somewhere in Italy with the money that would improve the lives of the families that they had left there.
Consequently, it was often made up of “birds of passage” (or “i golondrini”) who more frequently returned to their native land than almost any other group went back to their own countries of origin — we call them “transnationals” today.
But for those who remained here, what had been an Italian colony in an American city would evolve further into a new type of hybrid community — both Italian and American — until it reached yet another stage — more American than Italian — yet celebrated and cherished by those who lived in it — as was well expressed by the Sicilian who lived on Wharton Street and gave me one of my first interviews — who told me “It is better to be a poor man in South Philadelphia than a rich man anywhere else”.
And as we all know — despite the arrival of great numbers of newcomers from other parts of the world in more recent years — as well as the fact that it was always shared with other racial and ethnic groups — and that there has been a great relocation of the later generations of Italian families from their original urban neighborhoods to the suburbs and elsewhere — the Italian presence has remained a very visible and enduring part of Philadelphia.
Like other sociologists — in a field that became an empirical discipline largely through the study of immigrant life in America — I also like to emphasize the study of different generations — passing from the ordeal of the first generation of immigrants mainly seeking to survive in America — to the problem of the marginality of the second generation, the American born children of immigrant families, and their dilemma of being caught between two cultures — one that they were losing by Americanization and the other of the main stream society here that had not yet fully accepted them — and then to issues related to even more recent generations which have achieved great success in terms of education, occupation, income and other measures of material well being. And I also am now as much concerned with understanding not only what they gained, but what they lost by becoming Americans as well.
A main theme in all of this has been the continuing redistribution of Italian Americans as a population — in terms of their residential locations (where they live), their socio/economic mobility (how much wealth, prestige and power they have), and their assimilation (how American have they become; and conversely what is left of their Italian identity and culture).
More than 15.6 million Americans, representing 5.6% of our total population, identified themselves as being primarily or partly of Italian origins in the last national census in 2000. More than a half million of them lived in Philadelphia and the four nearby counties in Pennsylvania, and possibly just as many in South Jersey. Our own personal experience confirms the equally curious fact that many Americans of Italian origin, when asked what they are, still answer by saying “Italian.”
But some scholars now speak of the “twilight of ethnicity” in which what remains of what Italians once were is more a matter of being symbolic, narrowly confined to limited moments, and often of very questionable authenticity — only lingering vestiges of what once was.
And it often appears that many Americans of Italian origin widely suffer from a form of “cultural and historical amnesia” in which they remember and actually know relatively little of their own past — and perhaps even more unfortunately may not want to know much more of it.
But if so, then it is also a matter of the impact and influence of a popular culture in contemporary America — and particularly on the part of the “gatekeepers” in our mass media — that does not allow us to know much of our past — or to know it only in a distorted form — such as a preoccupation with organized crime — too often rationalized as being a high level of literature or theater. For whatever history that scholars study, write about and try to tell, the history that we hear is determined by power.
So what of the future?
For myself, that’s the easiest question to answer — I intend to continue my work — principally through another book that I’ve been working on that will deal with the continued evolution of the community life of Philadelphia’s Italians and the Americanization process in the 20th century. I am now concerned with what enabled them to become Americans — but just as much with what they lost by becoming Americans.
If someone asks me about what my work is about:
— to rescue Italian Americans from obscurity, caricature and defamation.
— and to restore their history, consciousness and identity
— but it still represents only the beginning of what needs to be done.
For the study of Italian Americans as a field of scholarly endeavor, what of the future? — that’s a harder question to answer — but we need your help. For instance, there is an unique and extraordinary collection of records of community life — the records of almost all the organizations of the immigrant community — filling an entire floor of a building in South Philadelphia that is withering away in neglect — because of our inability to convince the building owners of what these documents represent — and to allow them to be properly preserved and available to researchers. But I sometimes fear that we who study the Italian experience have marginalized ourselves in an area that no one, including Italian Americans, really cares about.
So for Italian Americans in general — what of the future? — this may be the hardest question to answer — but I would invite you to join me in helping to find the cure for the historical amnesia that I mentioned — and for Italian Americans to find their past and their way back to their own origins as well as their future.
I would like to end my remarks by quoting the concluding lines of the same poem by T.S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot, “Four Quartets: Little Gidding”
And maybe we, by our working together, will not leave future generations in that twilight of ethnicity that can only become a greater darkness — but make it instead — to quote our own great poet — only the darkness that precedes the dawn.