This photograph of a group of Italians talking on Decatur Street in New Orleans, Louisiana was taken by Russell Lee for the Farm Security Administration in 1938. Learn more »
Though better known for its French, Spanish, and African ancestry, Louisiana has also been home to many Italian immigrants and their descendants. In fact, by the mid-1800s, the state had the highest concentration of Italians in North America. A large number of them, particularly those who arrived shortly after the Civil War, labored on sugar and cotton plantations. Others settled in New Orleans, especially in the city’s French Quarter, where, by the 1920s, the original Creole neighborhood had even earned the nickname “Little Palermo.” Wherever they settled, Italian immigrants retained their important cultural traditions, such as an allegiance to the Catholic Church, close ties to their extended families, and the observation of particular holidays.
Historical records indicate that several Italians from Genoa and Sardinia traveled with Hernando de Soto in the 1500s when he first arrived in the lower Mississippi River Valley. In 1686 the Neapolitan Henri (Enrico) de Tonti traveled with René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, when he reached the mouth of the Mississippi. It was not until 1718—the year Jean-Baptise Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, founded the city of New Orleans—that a significant number of Italian settlers, primarily from the northern provinces of Piedmont, Lombardy, and Liguria, began immigrating to Louisiana to live and work.
Many of these early immigrants, whose culture was influenced by nearby France, changed their names to reflect their allegiance with the French. As New Orleans flourished and regimes changed from French to Spanish and back again, the slow, steady arrival of Italian immigrants continued. Most of them were military personnel from northern Italy who married into French families of New Orleans. Francesco Maria De Reggio, for example—an immigrant from Alba, Piedmont—came to Louisiana as a captain in the Genoese Grenadiers in 1750. By the 1780s De Reggio had married Hélène Fleuriau and was serving in the Cabildo; the Civil War general P. G. T. Beauregard was his great-grandson. Other eighteenth-century Italian immigrants were deportees from France, where they had been convicted of such crimes as tobacco smuggling or deserting the army. The more adventurous among them moved north from New Orleans to Natchitoches and Opelousas, where they established families and bought land and slaves.
Italians in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana
By 1812, when Louisiana became a state, New Orleans ranked among the most important ports in the new country. Italian innkeepers and merchants, such as Pierre (originally Pietro) Maspero, the Milanese owner of the New Exchange Coffee House on Chartres Street, contributed to the city’s colorful reputation, as did Italian pirates such as the Genoese Louis Chighizola, known as Nez Coupé (Cut Nose), a member of Jean Lafitte’s crew of outlaws.
By 1830 most of the Genoese immigrants had become fruit merchants, importing and selling tropical fruits and an assortment of goods. When competition among businesses in New Orleans increased, these vendors often moved to other parishes. As the antebellum population of New Orleans grew from nearly thirty thousand to more than one hundred thousand citizens, the number of Italian immigrants also soared. The 1850 census asserted that “Louisiana, with 924 Italian-born immigrants,” had the “highest concentration of Italians on the North American continent.”
By the time of the Civil War (1861–1865) Italians in Louisiana had established themselves as entrepreneurs, grocers, poultry dealers, and even physicians. In support of the Confederacy, first- and second-generation Italians formed their own military units, including the Garibaldi Legion, which eventually became Company F in the Spanish Hunters, and the Italian Guard Battalion, which became part of the Louisiana Militia.
After the war Southern planters worked with the newly formed Louisiana Bureau of Immigration to hire cheap labor to replace slaves. Eventually, because of the popularity of Italian workers, the bureau established direct passage to New Orleans from the ports of Trieste, Naples, and Palermo. Between 1880 and 1910 the state recruited and settled hundreds of Italian men, many of whom replaced African American plantation workers who left Louisiana during Reconstruction.
Most of the immigrants from Sicily and southern Italy went to work in the sugar and truck-farming parishes of Ascension, Assumption, Iberville, St. James, and St. Mary. The cotton-producing parishes of Concordia, Red River, Madison, Ouachita, Rapides, and Tensas also recruited immigrant Italians; many of the plantation owners in these parishes encouraged the immigrants to become sharecroppers. Most owners praised the Italians as industrious, hardworking, prudent, and resourceful. Even so, immigrant life in post-Reconstruction Louisiana was not easy. Many whites initially perceived blacks and Italians as social equals because both groups had dark skin and performed manual labor. The recruitment of Italian immigrants to replace and supplement African American workers on sugar and strawberry farms led to an easy interaction among those who shared the same low socioeconomic status.
Like blacks, although to a far lesser extent, Sicilians in Louisiana were the victims of white violence, ignorance, segregation, and even lynching. In 1890 ten Italian men and one teenage boy allegedly responsible for the shooting of the New Orleans’ Irish police chief, David Hennessy, were lynched after a mob stormed the parish prison. The government of Italy formally protested and demanded restitution to the families of the victims. Hennessy had been investigating Sicilian businessmen for possible extortion and murder. Nine years later five more Sicilians—merchants who traded and associated with African Americans—were lynched in Tallulah for allegedly attempting to murder a local physician. These executions, however, were based on little more than rumors.
Italians in Twentieth-Century Louisiana
Though New Orleanians were proud of their French and Spanish heritage, elitism sometimes led them to perceive disadvantaged social classes, including the new Italian immigrants, as backward. In reality, Italians had few opportunities for entrepreneurship except in the confines of the decaying French Quarter, which provided the only affordable housing. In the early twentieth century Italians opened gelato and grocery stalls and worked as barbers and cobblers in the Vieux Carré. Among the most famous of these establishments is Central Grocery, which was founded in 1906 on Decatur Street by Salvatore Lupo, who also invented the store’s trademark muffuletta sandwich, a distinctively Sicilian culinary creation associated with New Orleans.
The social practices of Italian immigrants—including an allegiance to family customs and mores, the integration of family members into businesses, and the religious rituals of the Catholic Church— contributed to the ethnic community’s financial and social success. Italian laborers who moved to the farms of Tangipahoa Parish gained a reputation as resourceful, hardworking people who made Louisiana one of the major growers of strawberries in the nation. By 1913 Louisiana lumberyards and sawmills employed enough Italians to help make Louisiana the second-ranked producer of lumber in the United States.
After the turn of the twentieth century Italians formed mutual-aid societies across the state, such as Shreveport’s Moderna Club, and they eventually built Italian Hall in New Orleans. Newly wealthy Italians mimicked the debut parties of Anglo-American women in the city, forming ladies’ organizations such as The Elenian Club of New Orleans. In 1934 its members hosted the first Ballo di Natale, providing an opportunity to show that their daughters had graduated from high school or even university and were eligible for marriage. The Elenian Club gave these women, often daughters of working-class immigrants, a cultural and social status they would not have otherwise achieved. The club, the oldest Italian women’s group in the country, continues today and supports the New Orleans American Italian Museum and Library.
Jazz music was also heavily influenced by Italian performers in New Orleans, most notably Manuel Manetta, Nick LaRocca, Leon Roppolo, Sharkey Bonano, and Louis Prima, all of whom played alongside African Americans. LaRocca’s Original Dixieland Jazz Band is often credited as the first group to record a jazz song—”Livery Stable Blues” in 1917—though this point remains contested among scholars.
The shameful legacy of the Italian mafia also took root in Louisiana. The Matranga crime family, established by Charles and Antonio Matranga, was one of the earliest recorded mafia crime families in the United States, operating in New Orleans during the late nineteenth century until the beginning of Prohibition in 1920, when the crime syndicate was handed over to Sylvestro “Silver Dollar Sam” Carollo. Another mob boss, Carlos Marcello, controlled much of Louisiana’s illegal gambling network beginning in the late 1940s. He served multiple unrelated prison sentences and was at the center of conspiracy theories related to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, but Marcello died a free man in Metairie, Louisiana, in 1993.
Towns all over Louisiana are now home to organizations that celebrate Italian heritage. Relatives of several of the state’s politicians, including New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s mother, are of Italian descent. Many Louisianans participate in the Italian feast day of St. Joseph on March 19. In honor of the Catholic saint, the father of Jesus, Italian women have traditionally baked breads and sweets to place on massive altars that are assembled in private homes, churches, and businesses for public display. Food is distributed among all guests, friend and sightseer alike, throughout the day, and fava beans serve as tokens for prosperity.
Louisiana’s Italians have come from positions of influence, suffered from poverty and discrimination, and continue to proudly contribute to the state’s culture and productivity.
Cite This Entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Jones, Ginger. "Italians." In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published October 22, 2014. http://www.knowla.org/entry/632/&view=summary.
Jones, Ginger. "Italians." KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 22 Oct. 2014. Web. 21 Jan. 2017.
Would you like to learn more about this topic from books and other reading materials?
Gardner, Joel. A Better Life: Italian-Americans in South Louisiana. Lafayette, LA: American-Italian Federation of the Southeast, 1983.
Lord, Eliot, John J. D. Trenor, and Samuel J. Barrows. The Italian in America. Reprint of the 1905 edition. Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries, 1970.
Margavio, Anthony V., and Jerome J. Salomone. Bread and Respect. Gretna, LA: Pelican Publishing, 2002.
Maselli, Joseph, and Dominic Candeloro. Italians in New Orleans. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2004.
Orso, Ethelyn Gay. The St. Joseph Altar Traditions of South Louisiana. Lafayette, LA: Center for Louisiana Studies, University of Southwestern Louisiana, 1990.