In 1889, when Hartford resident Mark Twain wrote “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,” the main character, Hank Morgan, already represented a waning demographic. The Irish had been crashing ashore in green waves for half a century, along with other immigrants.
But the 1890s would be the decade of the Italians, who surged into Connecticut in ever growing numbers. They settled largely in the booming industrial cities in the southern, central and western portions of the state, although some sought out rural suburbs where there was land to farm. Almost immediately they beckoned relatives and friends still in Italy to join the great migration.
Paul Russo was one of the early pioneers, establishing New Haven’s first Italian grocery store in 1874, at Congress Avenue and Oak Street. The 1890 Census showed 2,300 Italians in the city, but that number more than tripled in a decade to 7,780. By 1930, fully a quarter of the state’s population was either Italian-born or native-born Italian-Americans.
It hasn’t changed much: They still represent the largest single component of Connecticut’s population, 662,128 strong, according to a 2014 U.S. census report.
In fact, Connecticut narrowly trails Rhode Island as the state with the highest proportion of citizens claiming Italian-American heritage – 18.4 percent, or nearly one in every five. Three Connecticut towns – East Haven, North Haven and North Branford – are ranked among the top eight in the nation with the highest representation of Italian-Americans. More than 43 percent of East Haven residents report Italian heritage.
Anthony Riccio’s grandparents were part of the great influx. They came over in the early 1900s, from the rural Campania region of southern Italy, and settled in the Annex neighborhood of New Haven, east of the Quinnipiac River.
“It was a chain migration thing; they had people here when they arrived,” Riccio said. “They worked as tenant farmers, just as they had in Italy. My grandmother worked for a local farmer, too, and my mother, who was the oldest, would take care of her siblings.”
Like most immigrants, they came here to do better, and the vast majority did. Riccio’s maternal grandparents eventually bought a house and had their own plot of land. His father earned an accounting degree, was something of a handyman in the neighborhood and also sold insurance. A graduate of Providence College, with a master’s degree from Syracuse University, Anthony Riccio is the Yale Library stacks manager and the author of six books, including several on Italian-American history and culture in Connecticut (www.anthonyriccio.com).
He recalled that the people who lived around Townsend Avenue, including his grandparents, had a culture all their own: “The Italians who lived there carried on almost as if they were still in southern Italy. They made their own wine and they celebrated their traditional religious holidays together. They actually didn’t speak modern Italian; they spoke their own dialect, from Campania. The neighborhood stayed intact right through the 1940s and 1950s.”
The combination of political and economic turmoil in Italy in the second half of the 19th century and America’s relentless industrial growth attracted Italians here. For example, when Sargent & Co., manufacturer of locks and hardware, set up shop in New Haven in 1864, Italy was not yet a unified nation and was riven by sectional conflicts.
Before long, Sargent’s was not only employing more than 2,000 people, but also was sending agents to Italy to recruit workers. “The boat bringing Italians from New York City to New Haven literally stopped at Sargent’s,” Riccio said. “The first stop was its employment office right by the Long Wharf pier, and when they got to the Wooster Street neighborhood, someone would be waiting to get them an apartment.”
Richard Ramadei’s maternal grandfather, who migrated from Campania to the Hill section of New Haven, worked for Sargent’s for 50 years. His other grandfather, who was raised by nuns (they named him Ramadei, Latin for “Lamb of God”), had been a shopkeeper near Venice and apprenticed as a stonemason and tile setter in Germany before coming to America. He and his brothers founded their own company here, and Richard Ramadei also set tile before moving into the sales end of the business.
Now a resident of Hamden and 76, he recalled that the Hill was ethnically diverse when he grew up there in the 1950s: “It was a very mixed neighborhood; you were friends with everybody.” He added with a laugh, “Some of my best friends are Irish.”
A first generation American, Harry DeBenedet said his father also came to New Haven as a stonemason from the Veneto region, near Venice. His mother was from Le Marche on the Adriatic Coast and spoke several Italian dialects. “My mother was a seamstress,” he said. “She worked from the time she was 12 or 13 years old. She worked in the sweatshops of New Haven, and she also took work home.”
DeBenedet labored for a time with his father and brothers as a stonemason before becoming a police officer for the city of New Haven and later for Yale University. Now retired and living in East Haven, he followed the second great migration of New Haven Italian-Americans, this time out of the city to the suburbs. Urban redevelopment in the 1950s and ’60s fractured city neighborhoods like the Hill and Oak Street, and many urban residents followed the newly built highways in their new cars into new houses in the suburbs, where many jobs were migrating as well.
Today New Haven, with just 10 percent of its residents of Italian ancestry, trails its neighbors, like Hamden, where nearly a quarter of its residents claim Italian heritage.
New Haven’s and the region’s Italian-American identity, while clearly not what it once was, is still evident. There are Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s Apizza, to be sure, along with many cultural and civic organizations that host events, such as the Processione Di Santa Maria Magdalena.
Harry DeBenedet is an officer of the Santa Maria Magdalena Society, and he also is a member of the St. Andrews Society, the Campania Society, Marchejiana Society, and, the New Haven County Police Order of Centurions, an Italian-American police organization he helped to found. Richard Ramadei, who is the treasurer of the Greater New Haven Order of the Sons of Italy, reports that the group has more than 150 members — and will soon be adding “and Daughters” to its name.
Perhaps the best barometer of what Italian-Americans have meant to New Haven and beyond has been their contributions to civic life. In 1945, William Celentano became New Haven’s first Italian-American mayor, and three others followed him. In 1975, Ella Tambussi Grasso became governor of Connecticut, and Rosa Luisa DeLauro has been representing New Haven and its suburbs in the U.S. Congress since 1991.
When John DeStefano Jr. left office in 2014, after 20 years as New Haven’s mayor, he had held that post longer than anyone in the city’s history. His grandparents had settled in the Morris Cove neighborhood of New Haven just before World War I. One grandfather was a stonemason; the other worked in a machine shop. One grandmother was a farmworker, and the other stayed home with the children and the household duties.
DeStefano is teaching a course at Yale on urban public policy and uses New Haven on occasion as a case study. He stressed that one important strand of the Italian-American experience has been assimilation.
“I grew up in a mixed Irish and Italian neighborhood, and there wasn’t a lot of rivalry or self-identification among the groups,” he said. “We were just local kids going to parochial school on the East Shore. For a lot of groups, then and now, America provided opportunity for our grandparents to see their kids do better than they did and their grandkids do even better. It’s a familiar American journey.”
Credit to : courant.com