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Our Plural History | Springfield, MA
Many Italian immigrants to Springfield worked as manual laborers. This group is at work on Maple Street in 1900 laying tracks for the city's trolleys
Courtesy D.J. D'Amato

industrialization & immigration

Italian Immigrants in Springfield

Large numbers of Italian immigrants came to the United States in successive waves between the mid-1860s and World War I. Residents of northern Italy fled the political and social upheavals associated with the unification of modern Italy beginning in 1861, and a small community of Italian immigrants in Springfield found a comfortable niche even before they learned English, working at such diverse occupations as candy-making and teaching music.

The breakdown of feudalism, famine and economic dislocation in southern Italy sent another wave of immigrants to the U.S. beginning in the 1880s. Members of this second wave of Italian immigrants, generally less skilled and less educated, settled in a tight-knit neighborhood in Springfield's South End. Many found work on railroad gangs and construction crews, others working as fruit-sellers, peanut-vendors, bootblacks, barbers, and organ-grinders.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States was being transformed by industrialization and rapid urbanization. Much of the labor that contributed to the country's growing prosperity was supplied by foreign-born workers. As the society became more diverse with the introduction of new cultural, linguistic and religious influences, many of the native-born developed negative perceptions of the growing immigrant population. Early on, Italians were stereotyped as uneducated and violent. To counter this image, leaders of the local Italian community founded the pro-naturalization newspaper L'Eco Coloniale in 1913. This, along with the formation of Italian social clubs supporting assimilation, encouraged Italians to learn English and become citizens in greater numbers. St. Ann's Church in West Springfield opened in 1924 as a mission of Springfield's Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish to serve the growing population of Italian immigrants in the area.

Still, government propaganda and fears of espionage and subversion during World War I fed nativist sentiment and xenophobia resulting in new efforts to limit immigration to the U.S. The 1917 Immigration Act established a literacy test for immigrants, and The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 reduced annual immigration from Italy from approximately 42,000 to 3,800. "Red Raids" organized by the U.S. Justice Department in 1920 targeted members of the Springfield Italian community suspected of subversion and communist agitation. That same year, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti (once employed as a laborer in Springfield) were arrested on charges of murder and armed robbery near Boston. The subsequent trial of Sacco and Vanzetti revealed both the depths of anti-Italian animosity in the U.S. and the prejudice and hardships faced by Italian immigrants during the 1920s. Lingering anti-Italian sentiment surfaced when Italy sided with Germany during World War II, but by the 1940s most Italian-Americans felt a greater affinity for the United States than for Italy, and many from Springfield's Italian community served in the U.S. military during the war.

Over the course of the twentieth century, Italian-Americans made considerable progress. As Springfield's Italian immigrants became citizens, they became involved in politics, formed numerous Italian-centered clubs and organizations, lobbied successfully to build a park and community center in the South End, and opened a parochial school. As they became more prosperous, the descendants of Italian immigrants began moving to Springfield suburbs such as East Longmeadow, Feeding Hills, Ludlow, and Agawam. Springfield's South End still features generations-old shops selling Italian delicacies, annual festivals celebrate the Italian-American experience in the city, and in 2007 Domenic Sarno, the son of Italian immigrants, was elected mayor.

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