When We Weren’t White

This blog post was actually scheduled to publish during the week of Columbus/Indigenous Peoples Day. But Mercury Retrograde was in full swing at that time, supposedly causing everything technical to go totally whack; somehow, the post never appeared. So let’s blame it on Mercury Retrograde! Here it is now, belated and totally out of sync with the holiday, but heartfelt nonetheless.

I am, as confirmed by DNA testing, half-Italian. My grandparents were each born in America, but their own families, including some older siblings, were born in Italy: Lucca, in Tuscany, and Vasto, not far from Rome.

One of my great-grandfathers actually arrived on the shores of America pre-Ellis Island, coming through Castle Garden, on the southern tip of Manhattan. Mansuetto Gregori arrived with his wife and children sometime during the 1840s or 1850s, long before Castle Garden stopped processing immigrants in 1890. Family legend, related to me by my grandmother decades ago, held that, having arrived in New York and before moving to what would eventually be Sioux City, Iowa, Mansuetto quickly changed the spelling of the family name to Gregory, hoping to be taken as “Black Irish” (the name once given to those dark-haired, olive-skinned Celts who descended from survivors of the 1588 destruction of the Spanish Armada). The Irish, as Mansuetto quickly determined, had assimilated and were accepted in America, as Italians were not. I’ve never quite understood why Mansuetto would have believed that his accent, as he learned English, would fail to identify him as Italian rather than Irish, but I suppose that logic would have been his least consideration at the time.

We Italians weren’t White, you see. We would not be considered White until 1965 (I was 11 years old), when racist quotas on Italian immigration would finally be overturned.

So although many people–people of color, indigenous people, and those of Asian, Pacific Islander or Jewish descent–might easily glance at me and think, “privileged White person”—and although I, personally, suffered quite little of the anti-Italian sentiment which was once rife in the United States–well, no, not quite. My experience falls nowhere near the same classification as that of many Jews or Asians, and certainly doesn’t even place in the same solar system as the racism experienced daily by most Black people in the United States. But it was not all smooth sailing, either, especially for my paternal Grandmother and Grandfather. As I have reported in prior blog posts, they endured terrible incidents of bigotry throughout their lives. For my Grandmother, especially, those incidents left emotional scars; I will never forget my feelings of disbelief, shock, and grief as she related the painful story of the racist remarks she suffered in her early childhood from her teacher, an Irish-American Roman Catholic nun. (See “And Speaking of Prejudice”, from January 18, 2018.)

For, yes, as Italians, we were also Roman Catholic. Few people today realize or recall just how detrimental to his campaign was the Roman Catholicism practiced by John F. Kennedy. Yet it was not long after his assassination that I sat in my fifth grade classroom, listening fearfully, as my teacher explained to the class that, should the Constitution’s guarantee of freedom of religion ever be revoked, “THEY” would come for us, just as they had murdered our President.  Fortunately for my peace of mind, there were many Catholic children in the neighborhood where I first grew up, since Holy Name church and school were literally around the block.  But the one little girl who was just my age (all the others were older or younger) wasn’t permitted to play with me, the “Car-tholic” girl.

Still, most of these fears and slights touched my life only peripherally, fading away as I grew to adulthood. Perhaps that is why I reacted viscerally to the reframing of Columbus Day as Indigenous People’s Day. Please do not misunderstand! I genuinely believe this is a long-overdue reparation for and acknowledgement of the horrific damage suffered by the native peoples following the arrival of Europeans on the American shores. Nevertheless, I also have a heartfelt personal investment in Columbus Day, as an Italian American aware of the sad truth of the origins of the holiday: that the celebration (originally intended as a one-time event) was declared by the short-lived President Benjamin Harrison in 1892, following the horrifying New Orleans lynching of 11 Italian immigrants. The murders brought Italy and the United States nearly to the point of war; the Italian consul in New Orleans left the city at his government’s direction, and Italy cut off relations with the United States until President Harrison’s paltry act of reparation.

So while I rejoice at the new national consciousness and acknowledgement of wrong doing, at the truth and justice brought to the reframing of the day, for me, personally, it can never quite be that. Columbus Day will for me, always, be known as “Murdered Italian Americans Day”. My racially-profiled ancestors are to me, you see, quite as important as yours are to you. And none of them, yours or mine, deserved to be treated as less than human because of the circumstances of their birth and heritage.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also like “You Dirty Wop”, which you can find in the Archives, below, from February 1, 2018.

Racism Knows No Logic

§   This post originally appeared on January 18, 2018, as a continuation of previous posts, and was titled, “And Speaking of Prejudice…”  With all that has so painfully happened in our country in recent days, it seemed an appropriate time to revisit it.  §

Marie Gregory
Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s High School  Graduation Photo

My paternal grandmother, Marie, was a full-blooded Italian American and Roman Catholic. Those two traits define her, in my mind, more than anything else.  “Grandma Gregory” was a grand old matriarch who laughed as easily at herself as at others and whose humor was often mildly bawdy, peppered with Italian phrases that I (at least as a child) rarely understood.  She taught me most of what I know about cooking, and was perfectly comfortable when I left the Catholic church because, as she explained, “I don’t care where you go to church as long as you go.”

But the very traits which most define her in my mind meant that Marie Ruggiere Gregory’s early life was not always comfortable or easy. Few people today remember, or even know, that Roman Catholicism was a reviled religion in America as late as the 1960’s.  Bias against the faith did not fade until the 1980s.  I feel sure that (knowing how unpleasant facets of  history are glossed over or rewritten in schoolbooks) young people today have never learned the truth about how great a detriment his religion was during the election of John F. Kennedy.  Being a Roman Catholic in America wasn’t at all an easy thing in the first three-quarters of the 20th century.

Nor was being an Italian American. Ask anyone about one of the larger recorded mass lynchings (to that date) in the more sordid chapters of America’s history, and they will no doubt surmise someplace in the deep south—something probably involving the KKK.  They would not guess eleven Italian Americans in New Orleans in 1891 to have been the victims of this atrocity—nor that the man who orchestrated the lynching later became governor.

My Grandma Marie was born just 14 years later, in 1905.

Indiana was not, thank heavens, New Orleans, but, as she told me many years later when I was a woman in my 20s, that didn’t mean that the Italian American community in Indy escaped prejudice completely unscathed. She had more than a few sad examples of anti-Italian bias.  It was in that light that Grandma narrated a story that has stayed with me for all the intervening decades as the most telling demonstration of the complete illogic of racial prejudice.

In Grandma’s era, children did not attend preschool or nursery school or usually even kindergarten. At age 6, a child began first grade.  And so, clothed in a frilly little dress, ankle socks and Mary Janes, perhaps bows tied into her hair (or so I have always pictured her since hearing this tale), clutching her little sack lunch, Marie Ruggiere trooped off to her first day at a parochial school in Indianapolis, to be taught by Roman Catholic nuns.

The convents of that time were full and bustling places, and the majority of nuns were trained either to teach or as nursing staff. I’m uncertain of the religious order running the school to which my Grandmother was sent—Benedictine? Franciscan?—but the most of the nuns running her school were of Irish American descent.

And so my then-six-year-old Grandmother entered her first grade classroom and took her assigned seat, eager to begin the new adventure of school.

And was yanked aside by her Irish American nun first-grade teacher to be told hatefully, “We don’t want you Wops in our school!”

Wops. Dagos.  Italian Americans.

This Irish Catholic nun owed her spiritual allegiance to a religion whose titular leader, the Pope, was (and at that time, had been for centuries) an Italian.  Yet she told the little six-year-old Italian American child that she didn’t want Wops in her school.

There was nothing the nun could actually do to expel Marie from the school, but her point had been made: You are the outsider. The other.  Unwanted.  Because of your racial heritage, I (a supposedly spiritual person, as demonstrated by my veil and rosary and the vows I made) hatefully reject you.

I’ve wondered, sometimes, how that selfsame nun would have behaved had the Pope—the Wop Pope, the Dago Pope, the very Italian Pope Pius X–arrived for a visit. But in that era, Popes did not leave the Vatican.  That Irish Catholic nun never had to run smack into the glass that was the illogic of her racism.

As I say, Grandma’s story has stayed with me in all the intervening years as a telling demonstration of the complete insanity of racial prejudice, and of the harm it does. As a 70-something-year-old woman, my Grandma Marie had not forgotten the cruel bias of the Irish Catholic nun.  It still bothered her.

It still bothers me.

And it should.

Postscript:  On April 12, 2019, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, a woman of color, did the next right thing, making an effort to heal this century-old wound by formally apologizing for the mass lynching of these innocent Italian Americans.  “At this late date, we cannot give justice, but we can be intentional and deliberate about what we do going forward,” she said.  I believe it brought peace to my Grandmother ‘s spirit that this conciliatory gesture was made, coincidentally, on the birthday of my daughter, her great-grandaughter.