To replace male workers lost in the Civil War, and to fuel the explosive economic growth of its industrial revolution, the U.S. encouraged immigration from other countries in the second half of the 1800s. Immigration was especially strong from 1890 to 1924, when restrictive new laws nearly halted the process. Conflicts over social behaviors and attitudes between newcomers and native-born Americans played out in politics and personal relationships, including distrust of new arrivals, sanctioned overt discrimination, and fear that poorer newcomers were going to drag successfully assimilated groups “back down.”
My ancestor Donatus Buongiorno, who arrived from Italy in 1892, was affected by all of these issues.
Discrimination Against Italians
U.S. immigration policies differentiated between “Italy” and “Southern Italy” when documenting the “nationality/country” of incoming Italians. Despite his education and professional skills, as a “Southern Italian” (being from Naples), Buongiorno suffered from the prejudices and biases commonly directed against Italian immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. Newspaper stories about Donatus Buongiorno’s activities in New York reveal the pervasive racism against Italians. Descriptions of his “wild” hair and broken English are typical denigrations.
Some Italian immigrants were seasonal workers (“birds of passage”) who “commuted” from Italy yearly as farm laborers and for other outdoor jobs. Many who came to North America returned to Italy for the winter, and took their capital with them. Also, some immigrants sent money “home” during the work year and took their savings back to Italy to buy houses and farms when they retired.
Although he held a professional job, Donatus Buongiorno was in this category. Though he became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1895, Buongiorno travelled back to Italy frequently, maintaining his Italian family and Italian business connections, and continually working in both countries. In 1919, when commercial travel resumed after WWI, he returned to Italy to live full time but travelled back to the U.S. every few years until 1931 to complete commissions.
John Valentine, a former Vice Consul of the American Consulate in Naples, wrote an article in The New York Times in 1920 analyzing the effects of tightened American immigration policies on labor shortages in the U.S., which had become apparent years earlier when immigration slowed during WWI (1914–1918.) Valentine was reacting to the first attempt at restricting entries—imposition of a literacy requirement in 1920—but conditions got even worse as the decade proceeded. From 1920 on, the laws were made more and more restrictive, culminating in the imposition of a quota system in 1924, which effectively halted immigration for decades.
Valentine bemoaned that the policies were not just restricting incomers, but were also causing an exodus of the most successful immigrants—the most desirable workers—back to Italy. He tried to warn American readers that their prejudices were based on inaccurate myths about immigrants’ behaviors and that the “baby was being thrown out with the bath water.” His description of returners in this article describes Donatus Buongiorno of 1919 precisely. See excerpt below.
My immigrant ancestors (grandparents and their siblings) were eager assimilators who truly left Italy behind. They never spoke Italian, and they did nothing to dissuade the common assumption that they because U.S. citizens as quickly as possible.
Now that I can research their naturalization applications online, I’ve learned otherwise. Their pattern was to apply for citizenship when it became relevant for a practical reason, not to “belong” or to vote.
The most common motivator was travel, because if you were a U.S. citizen, you weren’t processed through Ellis Island upon re-entry to the United States. U.S. citizens (and all passengers in non-steerage classes regardless of citizenship—yes, affluence bought this privilege) disembarked from the boat in lower Manhattan without answering questions about being anarchists and without having their health inspected.
Several members of my family, including Donatus Buongiorno, acquired U.S. citizenship one month before their first trip back to Italy.
One of the most vehemently patriotic members of my family, my grandfather’s brother, D. Paul Troisi, who emigrated in 1907, had been in the U.S. for decades before he applied. He had even served in the U.S. Army (in France) during WWI without naturalizing. (Military service did not automatically grant citizenship; one still had to apply.) In the 1920s, planning his first trip back to Italy, he applied for citizenship a month before the boat sailed.
Another motivator was marriage. My grandfather, Domenic Troisi, who also emigrated in 1907 and who also served in the U.S. Army in WWI (in England) while still an Italian citizen, became a naturalized U.S. citizen a few months before his marriage to my grandmother in 1920. She was “an American:” third-generation born-in-the-U.S., German-American, from a well-established family in her small Pennsylvania hometown (to which Domenic had moved a few years earlier.)
The lore in the family, which Domenic propagated in his memoir, was that he naturalized so she “wouldn’t have to marry a foreigner,” as if it was a sentimental choice. There was a lot more than sentiment at stake.
Until the law was changed in 1922, when an American woman married a non-citizen (“alien”) man, she lost her U.S. citizenship and “assumed his citizenship”—if her husband’s country would have her. Otherwise she became state-less. By naturalizing before the wedding, my grandfather avoided inflicting this consequence on his wife.
At the turn of the last century, the U.S. switched from a primarily tariff-based revenue system (taxes on imports) to taxes on personal income. The switchover took several generations and multiple presidential administrations from the 1880s to the 1920s, with the rules on importing art—which were relevant to Donatus Buongiorno—changing several times.
Cheaters were legion; some were famous. Art dealer Joseph Duveen and collector Isabella Stewart Gardner flouted the laws routinely and were slapped on the wrists. Banker and collector Andrew W. Mellon‘s reputation and federal service career as Secretary of the Treasury were ruined over his indictment for tax fraud. He still gave his collection to the U.S. government (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) and was exonerated of the charges after his death.
On a much smaller scale than these players, Donatus Buongiorno imported art from Italy which he resold in the U.S. In his 1970 memoir, my grandfather, Domenic Troisi, remembered that his uncle kept his importing business under the legal, non-taxable limit (which was $300 for many years) and “more than” paid for his steamship ticket on the profit he made at this enterprise.
Presumably secure in his American citizenship (having been naturalized in 1895) and apparently not afraid to be visible or political, Buongiorno actively protested against tariffs on art to protect his profits. In 1908 he signed a petition to congress on the subject. This is his statement:
Catholicism and Italian-American Churches
Italians, being predominantly Roman Catholic, arrived in the U.S. in the late 1800s to find that American Roman Catholic churches were run by other predominantly Catholic immigrant groups who had preceded them—Irish-Americans in the cities and Irish- and German-Americans in rural areas. Both of those groups practiced Catholicism differently from Italians, and did not mix well with Italians in existing churches. Italians were often relegated to the less-desirable spaces in church basements and were not permitted to install their saint statues and other church decorations.
When the Italian newcomers got their financial footing, they built their own churches, and the Vatican sent Italian priests to run them. This created Donatus Buongiorno’s largest business opportunity in the U.S. He had decorated churches in Italy, and he knew some Catholic priests through his family. In the 1900s, he started acquiring commissions to decorate Italian Catholic churches in the U.S., work which he continued to execute through the 1920s.