Italian Immigrants and Racial Politics in Alexandria

Many native-born whites feared Italian immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because of their supposed foreignness and racial in-betweenness. Newspapers, including the Washington Post, Alexandria Gazette, and Evening Star, played on these fears by portraying Italians as morally suspect and at the bottom of the social hierarchy. To do this, newspapers mostly reported stories on Italians committing crimes or being the victims of violence. Many crime reports focused on incidents between Italian immigrants and African Americans, which play to racist and nativist politics of the time. In response, Italians claimed white privilege so that they could be protected from Jim Crown segregation.

In the early twentieth century, Alexandria was modernizing itself, which included railroad expansion. Both African Americans and Italians, along with other immigrants, worked on railroad construction together. White-owned newspapers took advantage of African American and Italian crime to affirm the fears of native-born whites. For example, after a case in 1904, in which a group of twelve African Americans returning from the railroad camps were seeking to avenge the death of their friend by way of lynching, the Alexandria Gazette took it as an opportunity to play on the nativist fears of white Americans. The story was used to advocate for increased police presence to defend against the common occurrence of crime between these two groups as they entered the city in large numbers from the railroads. The Gazette claimed that African Americans and Italians, who were “swarming” the city, “generally flock to certain places” and when they do, “disorder occurs.”1 Police officers were expected to practice “due diligence” to conserve the peace. In doing so, the Alexandria Gazette portrayed Italian immigrants as would-be-criminals and on the bottom of the social hierarchy along with African Americans. Furthermore, the paper exaggerated the incident, making it seems as though the increased presence of Italians and African Americans into the city would cause violence and disorder.

As African Americans and Italians worked side-by-side on the railroad construction sites, Italians accused African Americans of stealing their jobs. In response, Italians made the claim that these jobs were theirs due to their whiteness. For example, the 1904 case of assault on James Winkfield by Alfonso Dantonio demonstrates the importance of whiteness for Dantonio. This story appears in both the Washington Post and Alexandria Gazette, in which Dantonio shot Winkfield, an African American. Prior to the shooting, Winkfield said that Dantonio claimed that “black man [were taking] Italian’s jobs.”2 As the shooting of Winkfield by Dantonio portrays, there was also tension between African Americans and Italian immigrants, as the immigrants were vying for superiority over the other.

Ultimately, local newspapers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century played on nativist and racist fears held by native-born whites by reporting on stories such as these.  They also point to the racial tensions between African Americans and Italian immigrants.

1 [no title], Alexandria Gazette, April 23, 1904.

2 “Shot by Italian,” Alexandria Gazette, December 5, 1904.

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