Although the basis for the New Haven Negro population was northern blacks, there was a steady trickle of blacks from collapsing rural communities in the American South and the West Indies. The movement of people from agricultural regions to the cities was an experience Negroes and Italians shared. The early histories of both groups provide grounds for comparisons. Both groups were the victims of discrimination and bore the brunt of racist stereotypes and ridicule. Both groups reacted by developing separate institutions, such as churches, social clubs, and self help groups.
While it is tempting to emphasize the similarities of the two groups, it is important to remember certain significant contrasts in their experiences. The age of the two communities was quite different. Negroes had settled in New Haven generations before the mass migration of Italians, yet they continued to experience a more acute form of discrimination than the Italians. The sizes of the two communities’ populations were quite different: by 1930 3% of New Haven’s residents were black, 25% Italian. Since Italians spoke a foreign language, it was necessary to hire Italian foremen, giving some Italians a foothold in the local economy. Italians, though poverty-ridden, did not share the Negroes’ slave experience. Though poor they had always had some freedom of movement. They had been free to develop strong family and community institutions in Italy which they duplicated in America. These institutions no doubt were a source of strength for their participation in American life. The fact that Italians were white Catholics is significant, too. In spite of the hostility of many Irish settlers, there was a certain amount of intermarriage between the Italians and the Irish, which increased Italian influence and acceptance in New Haven.
At the time our history ends, Negroes in New Haven faced no legal segregation, but they remained the victims of a caste system based on color as well as class. They were frozen into the lowest and most marginal sectors of the economy. While suffering initially from social ostracism, Italians had gained a stabler position in the economic structure of the city. Both Italians and Negroes formed groups that remained distinctive in their own eyes and in the eyes of the larger New Haven community. As long as this viewpoint remains, ethnic history will be a valid way of approaching and studying New Haven.