Celebrating Italian American Heritage Month

By Iftekharul Kabir, Bronx Library Center
October 29, 2020

In the early 1900s, thousands of Italian immigrants came to the United States, searching for a better life just like many other immigrant groups. About 5.5 million Italians immigrated to the U.S. between 1820 and 2004. The greatest influx of migration took place between 1880 and 1920 when over 4 million Italians came to America. We celebrate Italian American Heritage and Culture month every year to honor the successes and valuable contributions of Italians Americans.

The largest influx of Italian immigrants arrived when coal mining companies were recruiting thousands of men to work the deep mines of West Virginia; Italian immigrants also found work on railroads and farms. Usually, the men came first, then sent for their wives and children after they had saved enough money.

By the second half of the century, Italian Americans excelled in every career field, including law, medicine, teaching, and the arts. Religion and family have continued to be an important part of their heritage. In the new millennium, more Italian Americans are rediscovering their roots, returning to Italy to seek out a relative, baptismal records, or any other family reference. 

Mother with son and two young daughters in front of pile of luggage

Italian family looking for lost baggage, Ellis Island. NYPL Digital Collection, Image ID:  79878

Notable Italian Americans

Italian Americans have gained success and esteem in all professional fields. Here is just a small sampling of a few who have become influential:  

Anthony Fauci was born in Brooklyn in 1940 and since 1984 has been Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NAID). He has served the American public for more than 50 years and has advised every US President since Ronald Reagan. Although his undergraduate degree (B.A.) was in Classics (Latin and Classical Greek), he graduated first in his class at Cornell with a Doctor of Medicine degree in 1966. Dr. Fauci has made vital contributions in the battles against HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and recently, of course, against Covid-19, for which he was the original leader of the Corona Virus Task Force. His many awards are too numerous to recite.

Geraldine Ferraro likewise grew up in New York City, at one point in the South Bronx. She was an American politician, diplomat, and attorney, and was in the House of Representatives for six years. Ms. Ferraro became the Democratic Vice-Presidential nominee in 1984, the first female for a major political party. During her long career, she was also a journalist, author, businesswoman, and public school teacher. She graduated in Law with honors at Fordham University. Throughout her entire adult life, she championed the causes of women and was the recipient of ten honorary degrees.

Anthony Scalia was a Supreme Court Justice for 30 years and was considered not only the intellectual among conservative judges but one of the most important jurists in the history of the Supreme Court, where he was the first Italian American. He espoused the powers of the executive branch and believed in the strict interpretation of the Constitution. The younger Scalia’s educational accomplishments were most impressive; he was class valedictorian at Georgetown University, where he obtained his summa cum laude B.A. in history. At Harvard, Scalia was the Notes Editor of the Law Review and graduated magna cum laude from that institution. He became a professor of Law first at the University of Virginia, and subsequently at the University of Chicago. Although opposite in personality and even more divergent from legal points of view, Scalia was a close personal friend of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, sharing with her a profound love of opera, epicurean dining, and socializing with friends.

Frank Sinatra is most famous as a singer, but he was an excellent actor and producer as well. The son of Italian immigrants, he sang with most of the Big Band leaders: Harry James, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie, and Duke Ellington. Among his many honors were an Academy Award, two Golden Globe Awards, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal, and 11 Grammys. Sinatra was very active politically and socially, fighting for equal rights for African Americans and Jews. Although he performed popular and jazz music, little known is the fact that he loved classical music as well. Despite his fame, he was often modest, such as when he declared a fellow Italian American, Tony Bennett, “the best singer in the business”.

Enrico Fermi, although born in Italy, became a naturalized American citizen as soon as immigration law allowed. He is world-famous as a physicist and creator of the world’s first nuclear reactor and co-inventor of the nuclear bomb. He was a child prodigy: Fermi studied autodidactically a 900-page physics textbook in Latin! At 17, he wrote an entrance exam essay for university so advanced he was initially accused of forgery. Once again on his own, Fermi studied and mastered general relativity, quantum mechanics, tensor calculus, and atomic physics. At age 20, he received his Laurea. Fermi excelled in both theoretical and experimental physics and won the Nobel Prize in 1938 at the age of 37. So great a teacher was he that no less than 8 of his students went on to likewise earn Nobel Prizes of their own. Please note that there is a small, illustrated Enrico Fermi display, including biographical books, at the Belmont Library in Little Italy of the Bronx.

Clam Seller In Mulberry Bend, New York.

Clam Seller In Mulberry Bend, New York. NYPL Digital Collections: Image ID: 806197

Featured E-Resources: Databases and Websites

http://www.iitaly.org/ is a tv, a print magazine and multimedia, bilingual web project runs by a group of journalists, academics, and “public intellectuals” determined to create an authoritative point of encounter, information, and debate on the internet concerning Italy and Italian America. It focuses on three major fields:

  • Information and discussion on current, social and cultural events
  • In-depth examination and cultural debate, hosting opinions, comments, columns, analyses, and reviews
  • Community building/social networking

https://aais.wildapricot.org/  is an American association for Italian studies (AAIS) dedicated to encouraging, supporting, and conducting research and pedagogical activities in Italian culture.

https://tv.cuny.edu/show/italics  a City University of New York's television station, CUNY TV, has been educating and informing viewers for more than three decades. Established in 1985, the station has steadily increased its ambition and scope, in 2009 transitioning to high definition and adding over-the-air broadcasting to its existing cable distribution. Now reaching 7.3 million broadcast households in the New York metro area, CUNY TV is committed to extending the academic mission of the university to offer lifelong learning opportunities to all New Yorkers.

Italian Genealogy Group provides free databases and vital record indexes for New York City Births (1878-1909), Marriages (1866-1937), and Deaths (1862-1948). Dates of coverage vary by borough/county. Other databases available through the site are Alien Statements for New York and New Jersey, Naturalizations for select New York and New Jersey counties, Fresh Pond Cremation and Interment index (Suffolk County, NY), and other genealogical data. 

Corriere Della Sera: an Italian newspaper available online

Dante Project (Dartmouth): a searchable collection of texts including the Italian text of the Divine Comedy and commentaries. Many record collections from Italy have now been microfilmed, digitized, and published online for free!

How to Find Italian Civil Records Online

  • FamilySearch Italy Research Page. This Italy research page has a list of all the indexed Italian collections available on FamilySearch.org, a list of image-only Italian collections, and a list of major Italian collections in the FamilySearch catalog. The records available on this page will largely be from Italian courthouses, municipalities, and state archives.
  • Portale Antenati This family history website is sponsored by the Italian government to give access to Italian civil records digitized at the State Archives.

Belmont Library and Enrico Fermi Cultural Center

The Belmont Branch of The New York Public Library, located in the heart of the Little Italy of the Bronx, has been serving the public since September 14, 1981.

Also known as The Enrico Fermi Cultural Center, the three-floor branch was built as a result of the local community's strong desire and tireless efforts to create a facility dedicated to Italian American heritage.

We are home to the Enrico Fermi Cultural Center collection, which consists of materials in Italian including newspapers, books, videos, and audiobooks. Additionally, the collection includes information about the Italian American experience. In addition to offering a full range of services for adults, young adults, and children, the branch also offers special programming, exhibits, and extensive collections for borrowing and reference related to Italian and Italian-American culture, language, and history.