Old New Haveners often looked upon the newcomers as an invading, inferior, alien, and unabsorbable “race” of a totally different stock from the earlier English, German, and Irish immigrants to the city. One description in the
New Haven Register
purports to describe the nineteenth century beginnings of the Italian community in New Haven. The article is a description of the “peopling” of a building located at 191 Hamilton Street that had formerly housed Yankee tenants and later Irish ones. According to the newspaper’s account, the residents of Hamilton Street witnessed a strange procession:
They were dark-hued, the men with rings in their ears and women with large bundles of bedclothing on their heads, with about 50 small children. The old residents could not understand at first the meaning of the procession, but they had not long to wait, for the column marched straight into the “Bee Hive.” That was the beginning of the coming of the Italians to this city. . . .
This account may or may not be accurate, but it does reflect the sentiments of many native New Haveners about the newcomers. Nativistic prejudice fed on real and imagined fears. Many embraced the stereotype of Italians as violent, passionate knife-wielders Italians were suspected of strike-breaking. The fact that Italians spoke a foreign language and were, in the main, agricultural workers who came here looking for a temporary home made them excellent tools for employers faced with a strike. Even if the natives had been more welcoming and less suspicious, the newcomers’ lives as poor, unskilled workers in an alien land would have been difficult.
Until the early twentieth century, the Italian government itself viewed overseas settlements of Italian emigrants as its colonies. The Italian government opened consulates in cities with large Italian emigrant populations. It protested the lynching of Italian defendants in a New Orleans murder case. Essentially, Italians before 1896 were an isolated foreign settlement in a largely hostile land, placed at the very bottom of the society’s structure.