When the term “lynching” is used in the US, it is often used to refer to the ancestors of the slaves killed by mob violence. However, the largest mass lynching in the US was not against slaves, but by whites against other whites, namely Italian immigrants driven by nationalist fervor and a hatred of foreigners and which officials from the city of New Orleans were directly involved in.
You can read more about the case here, which while seldom discussed in history textbooks had a profound impact on American history, including introducing the word “mafia” to the public and also greatly straining relations between Italy and the US, going up to the highest levels of political and diplomatic operative, including P but in a historic first, the mayor of New Orleans is set to issue a formal apology to Italian-Americans for the incident:
he largest mass lynching in US history killed 11 Italians in New Orleans in 1891. And now an Italian-American group says the city’s mayor is set to offer a first-ever apology to Italian-Americans for the city’s role in the lawless murders.
At the time, the city was grappling with the murder of its popular police Commissioner David Hennessy, and during a period of anti-immigrant sentiment, fingers pointed toward darker-skinned Italians new to the city. Police rounded up more than a dozen Italians in the wake of Hennessy’s death.
But when the jury acquitted them of the killing, tensions ran high. Many demanded blood.
According to a story published in the Washington Post, on March 14, 1891, a crowd of 8,000 assembled on New Orleans’ Canal Street, “almost filling up the large space from curb to curb on each side of the boulevard.” The crowd, possessed by an “ungovernable” fury, had guns and arrived at the parish prison at 10:30 that night. Prison guards let the mob into the prison, where they eventually found the Italian prisoners. “The shotguns belched forth and the slayers of Hennessy fell dead in their tracks,” the story says.
They left the bodies “riddled by bullets or hanged to lamp posts,” the Post reported.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell is set to issue an apology, according to the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America.
CNN reached out to Cantrell’s office, but a spokeswoman for the mayor wouldn’t comment on whether Cantrell would issue a proclamation, or when it would take place.
The OSDIA Commission for Social Justice said it expects Cantrell to present the “Official Proclamation of Apology” in a ceremony on the morning of April 12 at the city’s American Italian Cultural Center.
Mike Santo, who serves as special counsel for the commission, said he’d become aware of the lynching a few years ago, realizing how the 1891 lynching was a “longstanding wound” for the Italian-American community.
He said the commission got in touch with the mayor, who was amenable to the proposal, and his group has been coordinating for weeks with a liaison in the mayor’s office to get the proclamation written.
He praised Cantrell, calling her the “right woman at the right time” to step up and acknowledge a darker aspect of her city’s history.
“It takes a lot of nerve to do that,” Santo said. “People want to see that, especially today.”
He said he personally felt the pending proclamation was “refreshing.” On behalf of Italian-Americans more broadly, he said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
A dark moment in history
Italians were regular victims of nativist hostility in the 1890s, and more than 20 were lynched in episodes around the country throughout the decade. The HBO movie “Vendetta,” starring Christopher Walken, released in 1999, tells the story of the New Orleans lynching, and is based on a book of the same name.
The Washington Post pegged the commissioner’s murder on the Mafia, a concept then only just dawning on the American consciousness.
And The New York Times ran an editorial showcasing the extreme anti-Italian sentiment in the country at the time: “These sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins, who have transported to this country the lawless passions, the cut-throat practices, and the oath-bound societies of their native country, are to us a pest without mitigations.”
Conversely, The Post characterized the mob as composed of “cool-headed men, lawyers, doctors, merchants, and political leaders, all person of influence and social standing.”
But it wasn’t just powerful figures in New Orleans who cheered the lynching. A decade before he would assume the presidency, Theodore Roosevelt wrote of a discussion about the lynching at a dinner he attended, where Italians were present. “Personally I think it is rather a good thing, and said so,” he told his sister in a letter.
Violence in the name of race, class, or national pride is a common theme throughout history. While it is true that certain actions can run in certain groups (Islamic violence, for example, being associated with communities of immigrants of ethnicities who usually practice Islam), the fact is that mob violence is almost never a good thing and almost always leads to very bad consequences.
Those who were Italians one day can easily become the Mexicans or Arabs on another day, and will likely be replaced by another group at a future time. It is important that serious issues be discussed, but also to remember the consequences of one’s actions, and to act in a way that balances mercy and justice because it is far too easy for men of evil will to take situations such as these and to abnormally emphasize either one side or the opposing in order to create tension by which they can then get power for themselves at the expense of another. This is a consistent theme throughout history, and must never be forgotten lest one be forced to repeat continually the lessons of the past.