Jennifer Barbata Jackson (Author of the book "Dixie's Italians: Sicilians, Race, and Citizenship in the Jim Crow Gulf South")

Dixie's Italians: siciliani, razza e cittadinanza nel sud-est degli Stati Uniti

Sep 01, 2021 3847 ITA ENG

At a time when we still have to painfully realize how much the racial question is an open wound in the evolution of the United States of America and a very urgent situation to be resolved, our Italian heart in love with America is also shaken by the specious and mistaken attempts to promote hostility between the African American and Italian communities.

The history of Italians in the South of the United States tells us that if there is an ethnic group that is not black that has received humiliation, discrimination, stereotypes and violence that is not at all comparable in numbers to the horrors that have been perpetrated against African Americans, but no less serious for that, that ethnic group is the Italian one. These are interesting and painful stories that no one has the right to forget or deny or, even worse, manipulate for current ideological reasons. This is why we thank Professor Jessica Barbata Jackson, author of a fundamental volume to understand these issues: Dixie's Italians: Sicilians, Race, and Citizenship in the Jim Crow Gulf South

Professor, first of all please tell us about your Italian heritage. In which Italian region are your origins?

My great-grandparents were Italian, from a small village, Ginestra degli Schiavoni in the province of Benevento in Campania. My grandfather was born in the United States. My great grandfather, Terigio, immigrated around 1910, first to Ellis Island, and then to the Bay Area near San Francisco. They were actually Barbato, originally, but there was an error at Ellis Island, and they became Barbata on paper. Italy is the only place where I never had to spell my maiden name.

My father grew up in the 1950s, and there was a push to Americanize: he was not raised very much Italian, and so it wasn't necessarily something that was passed down more directly to me. I actually studied abroad in Florence when I was at the University and then taught English for a few summers in Italy to Italian schoolchildren. So I've tried to reclaim access, I guess, to my Italian heritage through my own traveling and working experience and then with my research.

Please tell us how and why you decided to write Dixie's Italians: Sicilians, Race, and Citizenship in the Jim Crow Gulf South

Before I started graduate school, to become a history professor, I was actually a high school history teacher. I was always really fascinated with immigration history, in general. When I first started graduate school, I was not very familiar with the history of how Italians became white. And as I started doing research, there was a great deal of literature already on that subject, but something was missing. There was history of immigration in the third wave in the US in the 1880s to the 1920s, focused on Boston and New York and Chicago. We generally think of this immigrant experience just to these urban ports. But I was reading, for another course, some books on early New Orleans in Louisiana, and I became really fascinated with how race was operating, the sort of layered multi-racial experience in Louisiana. I stumbled across the story of the 1891 lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans, which was one of the largest mass lynching in US history. And so that was sort of the opening story for my dissertation work. I started to realize that there were three different kind of stories I was looking at: immigration history, Southern/Louisiana racial history, and modern Italian history—and layering them on top of each other, it became just really fascinating.

First it was a recovery of stories that we hadn't heard before, some of these lynching experiences, the voting experiences of Italians in the south: there is a complicated racial experience already going on in Louisiana, because of the French and Spanish presence.

Then we had Jim Crow laws being imposed in this time period, the segregation laws, the effort to make the South this black-white binary, when you have Italians who are kind of in between, a sort of “gray” racial experience. So what happens when the Italians arrive into what is supposed to be a binary racial structure?

And then I became really fascinated by bringing the narrative of Italian Risorgimento and unification and the fact that 90% of the immigrants I was looking at, in New Orleans, were actually Sicilian. That brought this whole other complicated story about looking at this North versus South Italians, the regional identities that these immigrants were bringing, that they were Sicilian, they didn't speak Italian, and yet they were called Italians. So it was really about just mixing together these three different immigration histories into my dissertation, which then became this book.

Are there differences between the stories of Italian and Sicilian emigration in Louisiana and those in other parts of the South?

Yes, there is a difference. I would put Mississippi and Alabama in one category, because even if there aren't lynching and Alabama, I do have some stories taking place in Alabama. The difference is that the largest Italian population is in Louisiana and starts spreading out first in New Orleans and then to plantation industries throughout Louisiana. But the biggest difference is that New Orleans is a very cosmopolitan Creole city. And I say Creole in the sense that there is a multiplicity of races coming together with French and Spanish heritage. When we look at how Italians are being perceived in New York, anti-Catholicism is actually a big part of what is driving some of the anti-Italian sentiment. But that is not at all the case in a place like New Orleans where there was a greater acceptance for Catholicism, greater acceptance for these different groups coming together. And I would say that is not the case in Mississippi and Alabama.

So the anti-Italian sentiment in the story I followed in Mississippi with these Italian schoolchildren, actually is about anti-Catholicism: an effort to move out the Catholic Italians, together with the Ku Klux Klan movement in Mississippi, where one of their driving forces is their anti-Catholicism. The differences are partly due to demographics, because Italians are working in different industries, but is also due to their ability to integrate: this is why the anti-Italian sentiment is going to be driven by very different factors in Louisiana with respect to those in Mississippi. In Mississippi the Italians were working in the timber industry, while they were working in the mining industry in Birmingham, Alabama. But if we look at the relationships between Italians and people of color in New Orleans, it’s a very different scenario from the one in Alabama and Mississippi.

Let's talk about lynchings. It's bad enough that not everyone knows the story of the 1891 one in New Orleans, but there have been others that are virtually unknown to those who haven't read your book....

True. About two dozen Italians were lynched in the South in this time period, even if, of course, by no means this even comes anywhere close to the lynching of Black Americans. Nine out of ten lynchings are of Black Americans, but to me, it's very striking that Italians are the only Europeans who have been lynched in large numbers. So even when we look outside of the South, and we look at other sites of lynching, the West, Texas, even Colorado, the lynching victims are Black Americans, Native Americans, indigenous persons, Mexican, Chinese, and Italians.

Why did this happen? Why is this particular group being rendered non-white enough they could be privy to a very racial violence, a very vigilante racialized violence, like lynching? I specifically looked at the lynchings in Mississippi and Louisiana, and then I tried to uncover the time and place context. Or rather, by trying to understand why Italians are being lynched, I discovered that there were very contextual factors going into each of these lynching.

Part of the argument I tried to make is that it's not that Italians are being lynched specifically because they are Italian; but because they are Italian, they could be lynched. And then it's the time and place context that leads to these particular forms of violence. So you have 1896, in Hahnville, Louisiana, you have three Italians, Sicilians actually, who are lynched. Two of them, just because they happen to have been in jail at the time that a prominent Louisianian had been killed. And even if the person accused of killing him was in jail, they end up lynching all three of these Sicilians.

Then Louisiana in 1899, there's five Sicilians who are lynched. And the story here is really complicated. Three of them are brothers. They are accused of killing a doctor in the town, even if in the end the doctor survives. Maybe there's some deep-seated fears of economic competition. So it's almost as though the lynchings are not because these men are Italians, or Sicilians, but because they find themselves in situations where they could be guilty of something because of their economic situation, but not because they are Italians.

I’ve always been very fascinated by the story of miscegenation (the crime of racial mixing) and in particular the Jim Rollins story, also because it happens incredibly in 1922, the same year when in Italy the promotion of our country as a strong white nation is very popular…

The actual story is a bit more complicated of how the story is generally told. So, Jim Rollins is an African American man, he and Edith Labue, a white woman, have a consensual relationship. Her husband goes off to fight in World War One. He comes back and she's pregnant: it could be her husband's child, depending on the time line, but maybe it's not.

The whole miscegenation issue is a law that says that you cannot marry someone from a race different than yours, but it’s not that police are going around trying to find these relationships: they are going to be investigating just things that are reported. So somebody would have had to report this situation. What marriage laws are trying to do in this time is to regulate visible relationships, rather than necessarily interracial sex or interracial intimacy. There's a lot of interracial relationships throughout the entire 19th century, between slave masters and enslaved persons, and the law is very much trying to render invisible these public relationships.

Anyway, the police arrives and burst into the Labue home, and they find Jim Rollins and Edith Labue in a back room, not a bedroom, but apparently it was dark: they had all the clothes on, and they arrest them. Both of them are arrested. So Edith Labue is arrested as well for violating the miscegenation laws. At this point, by the time the arrest takes place, I believe the child has already been born, because the child is used in the trial. There’s some evidence that the police coerced a confession out of Jim Rollins, they were brandishing a weapon, and forced him to confess that he had a relationship with Edith Labue.

They’re both convicted. And so Edith Labue goes to jail, too. It’s unclear to me exactly what happens to her, and I'm wasn’t able to find a whole lot of records about her, but she's released a few months later. This is 1921. In 1922, Jim Rollins goes up for an appeal case, and this is where it gets a little tricky. Most scholars and historians just read the summary of the appeal ruling: yes, his conviction was overturned, because, the summary reads, that Edith Labue was not considered a “white woman”, and therefore he hadn't violated the miscegenation statute. But I have tracked down, with the help of another historian that actually used the court transcripts, and I think the transcripts tell a slightly different story.

In the court transcripts, when they're evaluating whether or not Jim Rollins violated the statute, their only evidence is Edith Labue’s third child, and they actually bring the child into the courtroom three different times and they talk about how the child has kinky hair and how the child has darker skin. We don't have photographic evidence about the child, what we know is what they're saying: the court transcripts don't say yes or no. They talk about the child being different than the two older Labue's children.

Edith Labue’s husband is actually a witness for the prosecution, so he's actually testifying against his wife, and he also says that he is actually not Sicilian, that he's never been to Africa. He's really trying to distance himself from being Southern Italian and actually arguing that his wife is maybe from somewhere near middle Italy. He's trying to argue that she is white, specifically trying to separate himself and his wife from being Southern Italian. So there's definitely this argument going on between being Northern Italian and Southern Italian. From about 1908 for at least a decade, US Census reports are identifying North Italy and South Italy as different countries and even different races. So Edith’s husband is very much trying to make this case that she is middle Italian, she's not this sort of suspected Southern Italian, Sicilian, and so that she did, in fact, violate the miscegenation statute.

It's unclear what's going on behind closed doors, obviously, but the judge ends up ruling that the prosecution did not prove their case, because the law just says that a single act of interracial sex does not violate the statute, and that there has to be evidence of an ongoing relationship. That, to me, is what ends up overturning the ruling: that the only evidence they had was this child and therefore they only had evidence that maybe there was an interracial relationship one time, but that they didn't necessarily have evidence, or they weren't able to prove, that there was an ongoing relationship. But this doesn’t make the story less striking.

I don't read it as Edith Labue being suspectedly non-white, because they don't evaluate her race in the same way they do in other interracial or miscegenation cases. When courts are evaluating a person’s race, they would determine it based on personal interactions and behaviors, so they would say: "Well, so she went to the black church, and she had these people over to her house. So she must be non-white." They're not analyzing and evaluating her race in the same way that I see in other miscegenation cases. So I don't necessarily think it's evidence that her whiteness was sort of denied. But there definitely is a Sicilian / Southern Italian / Middle-Northern Italian narrative that's playing out here. And this is very much evidence of the complicated fact that there is this suspect conversation even going on about this sort of “in betweenness,” the racial “gray” area of Southern Italians. I find it absolutely fascinating.

Are there any anecdotes similar to Jim Rollins' that can be told to our readers to further explain the situation of Italians in the South of the United States?

The fifth chapter of my book is about these miscegenation cases, to what extent Italians are intermarrying with persons of color, and I did find instances where, even in Louisiana, even when a relationship would have been illegal according to the State's marriage laws, I've found evidence of an Italian man and a woman of color who had a marriage license. This means that the State validated this relationship, gave them official sanction, so they're reading this Italian person as non-white enough to be able to have a marriage license with this woman of color. It's not just that they're living together, they received official sanction to have a legal marriage, even if whites and non-whites were not allowed to marry.

Could this be a misogynist thing? I mean, could be that back in those days a white man was allowed to have relation with a black woman, because in addition to the different treatment of people based on the color of their skin, there is also that women were not treated equally?

Yes, it could be something like that. All of this is happening at a very local level. So, yes, there are laws, but it's the marriage licensing operator who is reading the bodies, making the decisions. Certainly white men would have had more "prerogative" to do what they wanted, but it's rare in this time period when Jim Crow laws and these marriage laws are being imposed, that white men, regardless of being Italian or non-Italian, would have been granted legal sanction if it was in violation of the State's marriage laws.

Another phenomenon I discovered is the one of Italian families changing race. There's one I stumbled across that I talk about briefly in the book, the Fascio family, even if sometimes it’s spelled Facio. This man, Amerigo Fascio, in the 1880 census is listed as white. He and his entire family are listed as white. This is another case similar to when marriage licensing officers who read bodies and make determinations. Because the way the census worked in this time period is that census enumerators are going door to door, they're the ones that are making the racial determinations: they're not asking you what is your race, they're reading your body and writing down what race they see. Amerigo was born in Louisiana, but his father was born in Italy. Well, in the next census, the one of the year 1900, he and his entire family are listed as black. And then in the 1910 census, his son's family is listed as mulatto and then I start following his son who, in the 1920 census, is listed as black, but has a WWI draft registration card where he is listed as white.

There’s a number of things that could be going on here. Different people are making different racial assessments. Maybe he was allowed to check white on his registration card whereby census enumerators are making different racial determinations. Maybe one person opens the door and the census enumerator makes the racial assumptions for the entire family based off of this one person. But it's really fascinating to me that an Italian family on official documents can appear making such a transient racial change. I actually can imagine and see the family moving across town listed as white, but then the son is black, then mulatto, and then white again. Because they're Italian, their race can be moved back and forth across this line. I think I'll probably and hopefully turn this story into a paper.

This is very interesting. First of all, because I'm almost laughing while thinking about someone called Fascio, which recalls the fascist party to me, who from white “becomes” black. But I think that there’s more. Maybe I'm wrong, but in this virtual positioning in the midst of two precise and identified races and in the subsequent transition between feeling and sometimes even declaring oneself before white and then black, it seems to me that I can perhaps perceive some traits of what happens, obviously with all the differences, in the perception of one's sexual identity today... Actually, you used the word “binary” before, and now you used the word “transient”. Am I completely wrong?

What I definitely see happening historically is that there is a racial movement. And so the fact that southern States are trying to impose these very fixed racial categories, and the lived experience didn't operate that way: and very much I see the Italians moving between them, sort of complicating the situation. That's why I talked about this idea of transiency. But these categories were not static, they were actually more fluid than lawmakers wanted them to be: this is why I really wanted to emphasize the movement that's going on between all of these categories. I think in terms of the contemporary maybe we'll get there, but I don't know how much of it translates into this contemporary moment.

Who was the “Privileged Dago”?

One of the other stories I follow in the book is the fact that in the 1890s Louisiana is imposing racial limitations on who can vote. They start by discussing a sort of a literacy requirement for voting, a number of ways to limit voting that will not be in violation of the 15th Amendment, which says you cannot limit someone's right to vote based on skin color. So they're basically looking at ways to eliminate black voting rights, and they talk a lot about the illiterate ones, they're trying to eliminate immigrants, poor people who are of lower classes from the right to vote.

In those years in Louisiana there is a sort of an urban/rural divide, a planters versus urban situation. And as Louisiana is passing this new voting amendment to restrict the voting, they pass a property requirement. It means that you can only vote if you have a certain amount of money or property, and an education qualification: you have to pass a literacy test. But then they also start passing clauses to allow people to vote outside of those requirements. One of the clauses ends up being dubbed the "Privileged Dago clause," which will essentially allow Italians to vote whether or not they met the property or education qualification. This has to do with the fact that there was a very powerful voting bloc of Italians in New Orleans, and the ward bosses, the Democrats, are saying “we want to make sure that our constituents can still vote because they're voting for us, and so we are going to advocate for this clause.” It ends up being given this sort of pejorative nickname because those in more rural areas or outside of the New Orleans political ring are considering this to be a way to enable Italian voters even if they don’t meet the property and education qualification. It starts in 1896 and then the Constitution is revised in 1898.

What is also pretty interesting to me is that throughout this period Italians are not just on the sidelines, they are not being passive in this: in 1896 they have a massive parade, a big meeting and then they're marching through the streets with draft horses and posters and chickens perched in cages demanding that they be allowed to vote, regardless of the voting rights laws that are passed in Louisiana. So I also find this an interesting story, because they are very much participating in this moment.

So, in the end, is it correct to say that in the South of the US the Italians, and in particular the Sicilians, have been racially profiled because of their heritage and also because of the brown tan of their skin?

Race is operating differently, in the sense that it's not just about physicality, not like we read it today. There's a race which we might think of as nationality, and then there's color. Some Italians could be seen as dark skinned even if they were not physically dark skinned, they were just perceived as dark skinned, because they were Italian.

And then there’s also the north vs south of Italy that further complicates the race puzzle. In New Orleans there was an Italian Benevolent Society in the 1840s that didn't allow Sicilians to join them. So Sicilians had to form their own Sicilian benevolent society. It’s only at the end of the century that these societies come together, and this brings a development of an Italian American sense, or at least a New Orleanian Italian American sense where these groups are coming together and they have a cake at their celebration with a picture of Dante on it, and they have an American flag and an Italian flag, and they're celebrating Garibaldi's birthday. It becomes a very interesting unification process where they're getting rid of some of those regional differences and uniting together as Italian Americans.

Is it true that Italians were particularly accustomed to consider and approach African Americans in a completely respectful way, without showing them the discrimination that other white-skinned people unfortunately had as a habitual attitude?

I think there's a couple things happening. In the 19th century race and the racial hierarchy is operating differently in Louisiana then in Italy. It's a fact that Italians and African Americans are essentially living as neighbors. In New Orleans back in those days is not like other urban centers: you have African Americans and Italians, and Germans and French, all living on the same block. And you also have Italians who, after they start moving into the business sectors, are going to open up businesses targeted to black communities. And I don't think that it's necessarily because they were more respectful, but they're seeing an available business not being in competition with white grocery stores. But this will lead further to this commingling. I think that there's something about the fact that they do see race operating differently and they're behaving in a way that is going to be seen as potentially contrary to Jim Crow mandates of the time period.

In the light of what you have studied and written for several years, and what you have been so kind as to tell our readers here today, how is it possible and what can be done to counteract the fact that today, through the attacks against Columbus, someone is trying to assert an alleged opposition between the Italian American and African American communities? 

This is a very complicated question and there's a lot of things going on.. I think it's unfortunate that this has become sort of a red herring, where we have this interracial/interethnic conflict going on when the real issue is systemic racism. I haven't done much research yet on Columbus Day, I will say that I am starting down that path because my next work is looking at Italians in Colorado, which is the other major site of lynching of Italians in the US. And this is also the State that founded the first Columbus Day, although in a very active anti-Catholic environment. That's the story that I'm going to be working on next, now that I'm in Colorado.

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