The French Quarters in New Orleans.
The city of New Orleans announced that it will be giving an official apology to the 11 Italian-Americans who were wrongfully attacked by a public mob in 1891. The group of immigrants were beaten and lynched by residents after they had been acquitted for the murder of a local police chief.
“This has been a longstanding wound,” Michael Santo of the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy told NOLA. The campaign for a formal apology from the city was led by Italian-American community organizations like Sons Of Italy, which approached the mayor’s office about the idea.
Santo said that Mayor LaToya Cantrell was open to the campaign from the start. She elected the city’s Human Relations Commission Head Vincenzo Pasquantonio as main liaison to organize the formal event.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell.
The 1891 New Orleans lynching is still considered to be the deadliest mass lynching in U.S. history. After the Civil War ended, many Italians migrated to New Orleans in search of job opportunities. The end of the war had left many jobs unoccupied after the abolition of slavery, so Italian-American immigrants ended up taking those vacant jobs.
One night in October of 1890, New Orleans Police Chief David Hennessy was ambushed and killed by four men near his home. It is said that the dying police chief had blamed the attack on a group of Italian-Americans.
New Orleans authorities began to round up thousands of Italian immigrants based off Chief Hennessy’s allegation. Nine men were eventually sent to trial for the murder in the following year of the chief’s death. Six of the accused men were acquitted through trial, while the other three ended in a hung jury.
Angered by the unjust ruling, a local mob burst into the jail where the accused were detained. The Italians were forcefully dragged out of their holding cells and into the city’s streets, where they were lynched. Immediately after this public attack, the Italian government decided to close its embassy in the U.S. In response to the diplomatic brush-off, the U.S. also closed its embassy in Italy.
The 1891 lynching is a relatively unknown black spot in New Orleans history. For some Italian-American descendants in the community, however, like John Fratta of Sons of Italy, the formal apology is part of reparations for families of the victims and the immigrant community at large.
The New Orleans’ lynchers breaking Into the prison.
“Nobody thinks of an Italian being lynched, when it was common practice back then,” Fratta told BBC News. “So [the apology] is more of an education, especially for younger Italian-Americans.”
Public apologies for heinous acts of discrimination like this may not be able to right the wrongs of the past, but it is a start. It also serves as an opportunity to educate the public about the country’s complicated history related to race and immigration which spans centuries.
“When I teach this in class, the students are amazed – they’ve never heard of this,” CUNY Italian-American Studies Professor Fred Gardaphe said. “And sometimes they go home and tell their parents, and sometimes their parents even come to my class too.”
Gardaphe noted that although the lynching of 1891 is regarded as the largest recorded lynching in the U.S., there is still the possibility that it may not have been the biggest show of mass violence to have happened. Similar acts of oppression have often been scrubbed from public consciousness.
“We don’t know how many African-Americans or Native Americans, or Chinese people were lynched along the way because a lot of those never got recorded,” Gardaphe said.
The official apology is set to take place on April 12 where it will be proclaimed at the American Italian Cultural Center in New Orleans.