In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Italian immigrants were considered “white but not quite” amongst native-born whites, leaving Italians at the bottom of a racialized social hierarchy, arguably only a notch or two above African Americans. The little acknowledgment that Italians did receive often came in the form of negative stereotypes, particularly within newspapers targeted at a white middle class audience. Examples of such discrimination can be seen particularly in Alexandria, Virginia, with a substantial Italian immigrant population during this period.
In the Washington Post from 1885 to 1942, most articles reported that Italians were suspected (or convicted) criminals, victims of criminal acts, and/or killed or maimed while working in railroad construction. In Alexandria, a June 4, 1885 news snippet described “Pietro Leone, an Italian . . . [who was] charged with attempting to commit outrage upon a little girl aged eleven years.”1 The article mentions how several witnesses claimed to have seen Leone’s attempted assault, while the girl herself denied that Leone ever did such a thing. A second news report, dated November 9, 1920, described Joseph Caersar, an Italian fruit seller, who was arrested for the alleged assault of a girl; Caersar was “waived a preliminary investigation and was immediately sent out of the city to avoid any attempt at mob violence.”2 Both of these articles seem to be set-ups for lynching in the South—African American and Italian men were often accused of sexually assaulting young white girls or women with little to no evidence as support.
A handful of articles also make mention of violence between Italians and African Americans. A Washington Post article dated December 5, 1904 accounted Alfonso Dantonio, an Italian laborer, shooting James Winkfield, who was African American. According to Dantonio himself, Winkfield reportedly robbed him “on three different occasions,” causing Dantonio to retaliate as a means of self-defense.3 The article described that Dantonio was “under the influence of liquor, and decided to have vengeance on the spot.”4 However, a previous Washington Post article, dated just one day prior, mentioned how Dantonio, only referred to as “an Italian,” also commented that a “blacka [sic] man taka [sic] white-a [sic] man’s job.”5 This reinforces the racialized social hierarchy that dominated the South; Italians recognized that they were in competition with African Americans for jobs and embraced their “white enough” status to justify their employment over others.
These reports furthered negative stereotypes of Italians as hot-headed, aggressive, drunken, and impulsive people in comparison to the supposedly “civilized” white middle classes who read the Washington Post and similar newspapers that circulated at the time. Because most native-born whites saw Italians represented in such a manner, their “white but not quite” status hindered their acceptance.
1 “Alexandria,” Washington Post, June 4, 1885.
2 “Alexandria News,” Washington Post, November 9, 1920.
3 “Alexandria News in Brief: Senator Daniel Makes Address at Elks’ Memorial Session—Italian Laborer Claims Negro He Shot Had Repeatedly Robbed Him,” Washington Post, December 5, 1904.
5 “Alexandria News in Brief: Italian Fires Two Bullets Into Negro, Seriously Wounding Him,” Washington Post, December 4, 1904.