From the late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century, there was a stream of Italian immigrants driven to come to the U.S. for the opportunities the American economy provided. In Alexandria, Virginia, large numbers of Italians came to town to work on various railroad projects starting in the 1880s. Most came only temporarily, working on the railroad construction and then moving to other jobs along the line.
The local white population, however, did not always view Italians living and working in Alexandria in a positive way. According to the racial hierarchy that emerged in southern cities at this time, Italians were perceived to have a higher standing than African Americans, but also seen as unassimilable foreigners who could never truly become American. Evidence of this can be found in the news coverage on Antonio Vacara. Arrested for “peculiar behavior”, Vacara later attacked a police officer with a razor on the way to the police station. While imprisoned Vacara could not identify the police officer he attacked and began a hunger strike because he feared his food was being poisoned. Although Vacara was deemed psychologically unstable by local authorities, he was refused institutionalization because it was presumed he was Italian citizen and therefore did not have the same rights as an American. What is significant was not the law, but the fact that Dr. Joseph Spencer De Jarnette, the director of the state mental hospital at Staunton, assumed Vacara was an alien without confirming his status.
De Jarnette represented a more extreme forms of nativism tied to the eugenics movement, which believed that human intervention was required to deter the numerical expansion of supposedly inferior races. De Jarnette was a firm believer in eugenics and even acted as a witness in the Supreme Court case Buck v. Bell (1927), in which the U.S. Supreme Court decided that it was constitutional for the state to forcible sterilize a disabled person. This legalized compulsory sterilization to the “intellectually disabled”. De Jarnette even wrote a poem about eugenics, known as “Mendel’s Law: A Plea for a Better Race of Men”.
Although many southerners did not share De Jarnette’s extreme ideas, nativism was a prevalent concept in Southern society that hindered the acceptance of Italians in the early twentieth century. Vacara, despite comments questioning his immigration status, was eventually sent to Western State Hospital in Staunton where De Jarnette worked.1
1 “Tract near Alexandria Bring 75 cents an Acre,” The Washington Post September 13, 1927.