Frank Maselli (President - American Italian Museum in New Orleans)

Gli Italiani e New Orleans: una storia da raccontare

Aug 12, 2013 4249 ITA ENG

New Orleans was the first big American city to welcome large numbers of Italian immigrants, long before the country these people left behind was officially called Italy. The stories of those immigrants pass through Ellis Island, and some of them are deeply tragic.

In 1891, 250 Italian immigrants were arrested under suspicion of having assassinated the police chief of New Orleans. 11 of these were imprisoned and acquitted in court, but a crowd of 20.000 local men stormed the prison before their release and brutally murdered them. This was the worst lynching in the history of the US. Diplomatic relations between Italy and the USA were extremely tense for some time, until the American government officially acknowledged the facts and paid an indemnity to the victims’ families.

In 1922 in Alabama, an African-American accused of the serious crime of having sexual intercourse with a white woman was eventually declared innocent when his lawyer demonstrated that the woman had changed her surname but was in fact of Italian origin and thus “not entirely white”.

It is extremely important that there is someone in New Orleans to tell the story of the Italian immigrants in the Southern US – which of course was not always tragic. We meet Frank Maselli, president of the American Italian Cultural Center and Museum.

Frank – the American Italian Museum in New Orleans is the most important institution to tell the story of the Italian immigrants in the Southeast of the US. What is its history?

Around 40 years ago, my father Joseph Maselli started to think about how to preserve and celebrate Italian and Italian American culture, as he felt like he belonged to both. He founded the Italian-American Federation of the Southeast, bringing together for the first time 30 associations from all over the region. He put together a group of successful Italian-American professionals and together they founded the American Italian Renaissance Foundation Museum and Research Library. In 1973, he also founded the Italian American Digest, a journal we continue publishing today, about the values of the Italian immigrants in the southeast: the family, hard work, education.

The American Italian Museum in the city center of New Orleans was completed in 1974. In the museum we have various records telling the stories of some of the Italians who came to New Orleans and the Southeast of the USA.

What are your main activities?

We are among the promoters of a festival of Italian culture and heritage; we run Italian language courses; we organize events, conferences, presentations, concerts, and trips to Italy; we organize an Italian film festival; we offer Italian wine tasting sessions; we help people who want to carry out genealogical research; we host researchers coming from all over the US to study our history.

The cultural center contains over 400 voice recordings that tell stories of Italian immigration, records of about 25.000 migrants, and the biggest library in the US for books on the Italian-American experience, with over 5.500 of them.

Lastly, we have an Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in which we honor around 80 Italian-American athletes who have distinguished themselves for their success in different sports in the last 100 years.

Are there many Italians in New Orleans and Louisiana today?

Around 90% of the Italians who came to New Orleans were from Sicily long before Italian Unification. In 1836 we had the first Consul from a territory that would later become part of united Italy: the Consul to New Orleans for the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.

The 1840 census showed there was a greater concentration of people who considered themselves Italian in Louisiana than the whole of the rest of the US at that time. That year, New Orleans was the richest city in America and the third largest city in terms of population. There were direct, weekly ships connecting Palermo to New Orleans. The Italians who immigrated were simple people: artisans, some sculptors, soldiers of fortune, and musicians. Nick La Rocca, a Sicilian immigrant, was the first to record a jazz album in the beginning of the last century. He brought jazz all over the US, from New York to Chicago: he was Louis Armstrong’s mentor.

I think that today there are at least 300.000 Italians in New Orleans, and at least 4/500.000 in the State of Louisiana. The mayors of New Orleans and of the other two cities that together form Greater New Orleans – Metairie and Kenner – are all of Italian ancestry. There are also famous architects, lawyers, businessmen, managers, entrepreneurs, judges, and doctors.

Is there much interest in the south for Italian products?

Certainly food, wine and clothing are the most appreciated products. And in fact, pretty much anything that has a certain style here is recognized as being “Italian”. We are witnessing a comeback of FIAT cars – you hardly saw any around in the past twenty years.

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