Dark Legacy

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Five years ago, while researching the Italian-American experience, filmmaker Heather Hartley stumbled onto one of the uglier episodes in American history: the lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans in March of 1891. Like most Americans, Hartley, assistant professor of communications at Penn State, had never heard of the incident. Intrigued, she resolved to make it the focus of a short film.

As she proceeded, however, Hartley's research turned up another lynching of Italians, then another. "The more I looked, the more I uncovered," she remembers. Accounts told of lynchings in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida, Colorado, Kentucky, Illinois, Washington, and New York between the years of 1885 and 1915, some 50 killings in all.

To Hartley, these incidents seemed clearly of a piece with a sorrowful, and much larger, legacy—one involving mostly African Americans as victims. But this was a part of the story that hadn't been told. Her resolve to correct that situation has resulted in the documentary Linciati: Lynchings of Italians in America.

Archives in New Orleans, Colorado, and Florida helped her piece together evidence from contemporary newspapers and illustrated magazines with government documents and interviews with regional historians. At Tuskegee University, where an archive details almost 5,000 recorded instances of lynching in the United States, she learned that a lynching does not necessarily involve hanging. "And it's not the same thing as a hate crime," she says. Rather, lynching is "the use of violence by a mob of three or more to injure or kill a person accused of a crime in order to prevent legal arrest, detention, trial, or punishment." According to Cynthia Wilson, a curator of the Tuskegee archives who appears in the film, the definition turns on "due process of law denied, primarily because of race."

Hartley posits a number of reasons for the targeting of Italians. Economic hardship had caused a souring of attitudes toward the immigrants recruited as cheap labor for mines, railroads, and sugar-cane fields. In many cases, Italians remained apart, choosing not to assimilate as readily as other new groups did. In the South, especially, they also stirred resentment by freely serving African Americans in their businesses and mingling with them as social equals, the film states. All of these factors aggravated existing stereotypes of southern Italians as "beggars, organ grinders, and criminals."

Under such conditions, the potential sparks to violence were many. In Tampa, Florida, in 1910, after a shooting during a labor dispute in the city's fractious cigar industry, two Italians were taken from a jail and hanged. In Tallulah, Louisiana, in 1899, a dispute between neighbors over a goat ended with five Italians dead and two more driven from their homes.

The most egregious example, in New Orleans, was precipitated by a rivalry between two groups of Italian dockworkers. When the city's police chief was shot and killed shortly before he was to testify against one of these groups, Italian males in the city were rounded up indiscriminately. The New Orleans Times-Democrat captured the mood: "The little jail was crowded with Sicilians," the paper reported, "whose low, receding foreheads, repulsive countenances and slovenly attire proclaimed their brutal nature."

Nine Italian men were tried and acquitted of murder. In response, a large mob led by some of the city's leading citizens stormed the parish prison, shot nine men as they cowered in their cells, then dragged out and hanged two more. It was the largest lynching in American history, and although no one was indicted for the crime, President Benjamin Harrison subsequently paid reparations of $25,000 to the Italian government.

Hartley's challenge in recreating such events, she says, was to give them full weight in a film that would yet be bearable to watch. "The lack of photographic documentation actually helped me," she says. "I don't think anyone could sit through a 51 minute film of images of bodies hanging." She had to find other ways to evoke the violence— audio effects, newspaper sketches, and an animation technique she developed to mask archival footage. The narrative is powerfully matched with original music composed by Penn State graduate student Peter Buck.

"People of other groups were lynched, too," Hartley stresses, "especially people of color. That's a point I want people to take away. Italians were victimized, in part, because they weren't considered white." In contemporary newspaper accounts, she notes, the perpetrators of these crimes were typically unrepentant: They were protecting white supremacy; their victims were not human beings, but "vermin," a criminal class.

Why is this history relevant now? Hartley ends her film with that question, and an answer. Where people are placed under suspicion merely because of skin color or nationality; detained without due process of law; or executed without adequate representation, she suggests, elements of lynching may remain.

Heather Hartley, M.F.A., is assistant professor of communications in the School of Communications, 116 Carnegie Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-2176; Her film, Linciati: Lynchings of Italians in America, was produced with funding from the College of Communications, the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, Outreach and Cooperative Extension, and the President's Fund for Undergraduate Research.

Last Updated May 01, 2004