When Italians arrived in the American South, they were treated with disdain and suspicion by native-born whites who saw them as “foreign” and “not quite white.”1 One of the most common and most devastating phenomena was the practice of framing Italians for morally outrageous acts, such as sexual assaults or harassments of white woman or girls. These statements–which circulated in the local press–fueled anxieties about racial mixing and often incited mob violence against Italian immigrants. Although Italians had emigrated from Europe, they were often viewed as in-between white and black as well as perpetually foreign.
Newspaper articles on race relations in Alexandria, Virginia during the years of 1890-1910 reveal a myriad of supposed criminal acts that were committed by Italian immigrants against the native-born white population, which were sometimes met with violent reprisals. The question of which acts were legitimate and which were pure fabrications is not difficult to distinguish. One example was a report on June 4, 1885 in the Washington Post of an Italian immigrant named Pietro Leone sexually assaulting an eleven year old girl. Although many adults testified in court about the assault, the young girl “stoutly denied that he had taken any liberties with her or attempted to assault her.”2 Another attack took place on December 8, 1920. Joseph Caesar, against a fifteen-year old girl named Jessie Garland. What makes this account problematic was that it took over a month before it was reported. The newspapers then reported that law enforcement had to remove Caesar from Alexandria so that he would not be lynched. He was eventually found guilty and fined.3
It is clear that further research needs to be done on this subject, and there is no doubt much more to be known about the history of Italian immigrants in the U.S. South.
1 Gary Mormino, The Immigrant World of Ybor City: Italians and Their Latin Neighbors in Tampa, 1885-1985 (Champagne-Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989) 237.
2 “Alexandria,” The Washington Post, June 4, 1885.
3 “Alexandria News,” The Washington Post, November 9, 1920; December 5, 1920; and December 8, 1920.