Many early Italian immigrants had little sense of nationality. They kept in touch with happenings in their villages. It was the village with which the immigrants identified, not the nation. The American view of all Italians as one group helped develop a sense of nationality among the immigrants. Italian communities in America were aware of events relating to Italians in other American cities. New Haven Italians knew that Italians had met hostility outside of New Haven. In 1891 a sheriff’s posse battled a group of Italian laborers in West Virginia. In 1896 a mob dragged three Italians from a jail in a small Louisiana town and hanged them. The event which probably mobilized the most protest occurred in 1891 in New Orleans. A murder trial involving Italian suspects ended in the acquittal of some and a hung jury in the cases of others. A mob gathered; leaflets were distributed and speeches were made. The mob broke into the jail and lynched eleven Italians. Even though this was not the only example of mob violence directed toward Italians, it was so infamous a deed that Italians in all major cities in the United States protested, demanding redress for the victims’ families and punishment of the murderous mob.
New Haven Register
reported in a tone which must have inflamed and hurt the sentiments of local Italians that the lynchings had not been carried out by a “wild mob,” but by a group containing the “best elements in town, including professionals and merchants.” The
editorialized that the mob had “felt it their duty to stamp out imported customs dangerous to the security of their homes and their families.” The newspaper also reported that thirty-five Italians in New Haven had met at 796 Chapel Street to consider a mass meeting to denounce the lynchers. Callers of the meeting included Dr. Botello of 111 Hill Street, an Italian physician and head of the Italian-American Democratic Club, and Donato Vece, barber, of 179 Congress Avenue. Increasing pride in the Italian heritage was shown by a massive Columbus Day celebration in New Haven on October 11, 1892, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the landing of Columbus. Many thousands took part in the parade, which extended for miles and included thirty-six bands and eleven drum corps. On the following evening a number of local Italian societies sponsored the laying of the cornerstone of a statue of Christopher Columbus in Wooster Square on Chapel Street, overlooking New Haven harbor, which at that time came up to Water Street. The monument, unveiled and presented to the city on October 21, 1892, was paid for solely by contributions from Italian-Americans.
On September 10, 1895, various Italian groups, including the Nicolari Band, the Concordia Society, the Garibaldi Society, the Mandamentale of Caiazzo & Goloni, the Victor Emmanuel Protective Society of Meriden, the Pope’s Band, the Fratellanza Society, the Queen Marghuerite Society (the last three from Hartford), and representatives from three Italian language newspapers all paraded past city hall to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of Rome and the final step in the unification of the Italian kingdom.
Italians were slow to embrace the traditional American political process. The immigrants’ Italian experience with politics, especially in southern Italy, had taught them to distrust government. The Italian American Democratic Club arose in part as a protest against the New Orleans lynchers. In 1888 Eugene S. Dol Grego had been elected Justice of the Peace, an important position since it represented American law within the Italian community.
The development of Italian participation in city politics must be seen in light of the fact that by 1910 two-thirds of the entire New Haven population were first or second generation immigrants. The Irish who immigrated in large numbers in the middle of the nineteenth century had by 1899 achieved a stronghold in the Democratic Party in New Haven. The Republican Party was the bastion of the old Yankee middle and upper-class families of the city, who had wealth and social standing but not enough numbers or popularity to win elections easily in a city of working class immigrants.
In 1910 two German-Jewish brothers, Isaac and Lewis Ullman, prominent Republicans and owners of the Strouse-Adler Corset Company, saw the possibility of building the Republican Party by recruiting the growing Italian population which had been generally ignored by the Irish Democratic ward leaders. The Ullmans carefully canvassed the heavily Italian wards and began to give Italians positions in Republican ward organizations. It is largely due to their work that a strong base of Republican support and participation was first created in the Italian community. Perhaps because of this strong beginning, the Republican Party in the city has remained competitive, if not always successful, during most of the twentieth century, especially in mayoral elections.
This solid base, which might have been expected to grow as more Italians became economically successful and moved into the middle class, was eroded in 1928 by the Democratic Presidential candidacy of Al Smith. Smith, who was a Catholic and who stressed in his campaign the problems of urban working people, drew enormous support from Italians in New Haven. The beginnings of the Depression, which followed shortly thereafter and severely affected Italian working people, tended to keep many Italians in the Democratic Party.
Shortly before the Second World War, as the economic situation improved and more jobs were available, ethnic considerations once again led many Italians to support the Republican Party. Three factors were important: 1) The Irish continued to have an iron grip on the local Democratic Party, and although Italians had made some significant inroads, they were seriously underrepresented in jobs in city government controlled by patronage; 2) the Republicans nominated for mayor in 1939 an Italian, William Celentano; although Celentano lost the election, Italians gave heavy support to the man who was the first Italian ever to run for mayor in New Haven; 3) as war became imminent, President Roosevelt, who had previously been very popular with Italians, began publicly to criticize Mussolini, offending the “old country” loyalties of many New Haven Italians.