Yesterday, I wrote a post here in which I mentioned that a few small towns in the Mississippi Delta have Italian-sounding names. Although I recall that my parents and grandparents knew a few Italian families in the Delta, and I knew others with Italian ancestry when I was growing up in Jackson, I knew very little about how or why these families or their ancestors had settled in Mississippi. I recall reading that many Italian immigrants had settled along the Mississippi River after their arrival into the Port of New Orleans, and some had traveled further north, making their way to the river towns of Natchez and Vicksburg. Since I wanted to know more about Italians in the Delta, today I decided to do a little research to answer my own question about how, and maybe why, these people had settled in the Delta. As a result of that research, with the help of my loyal friend, Google, I found "Mississippi History Now," the online publication of the Mississippi Historical Association, and in it a feature story written by Charles Reagan Wilson, Ph.D.
Wilson's story, "Italians in Mississippi," is well researched and written, and I encourage you to read the story in its entirety by using the link provided. Although Mr. Wilson's feature story more than adequately answered my original question about Italian settlers in the Mississippi Delta, I was surprised by some of what I read. I was not surprised to hear that many of the Italians who traveled up the river in the 1880's ended up working as laborers on the levees and as farm laborers. In order to have work, other immigrants worked in these types of jobs, as well. More often than not, it was the only way many could make a living after arriving in a new and different country, where their own ethnicity and language were huge barriers.
According to Wilson, however, others who settled in the Mississippi Delta went there as a result of American "labor agents" who imported them from central Italy into Ellis Island in New York. The Italians who came into the United States in this manner traveled directly from New York to the Mississippi Delta to work on plantations there, through pre-arrangements with the owners of those Delta plantations. Workers who came in by these means were already indebted to the plantation owners when they arrived, since the owners had paid for their transportation. Once the Italians began work on the plantation, their wages were withheld by the owner as repayment for what monies he had already paid to the "labor agent."
One very well-documented example of this type of arrangement occurred when Italians arrived in 1895 at Sunnyside, a plantation near Greenville, Mississippi, established by planter, lawyer, and politician, LeRoy Percy. Percy's son, poet William Alexander Percy, who was a planter himself, wrote about the work ethic and the evolving Mississippi culture of Italian workers in his book "Lanterns on the Levee: The Recollections of a Planters Son." According to Wilson's story, Tennessee Williams based one of his plays, "27 Wagons Full of Cotton," on the involvement of Italian workers in plantation life. Some may recall this Broadway play later was made into a movie named "Baby Doll."
Later, Sicilian sugar cane workers who had first settled in Louisiana after arriving at the Port of New Orleans, gradually migrated up river to the Greenville, Mississippi area. Although there were social and cultural differences between the two groups of Italians, those who had ties to the central farming region of Italy and those who were from Sicily, they were all united by their Italian ancestry and their Catholic religion. According to Wilson, Greenville, Mississippi became the home of "the largest population of Sicilian immigrants of anywhere in the Delta."
Wilson, a professor of history and the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, concludes this extensive feature story with his unbiased discussion of some of the social and cultural prejudices felt and experienced by Italians in Mississippi, including those that dealt specifically with ethnicity, skin-color, and religion.
Whether you are a Mississippian with Italian ancestry or someone who is not, this well-told story by Dr. Wilson is both enjoyable and enlightening. I hope you will read it and enjoy it as much as I did.