New Orleans Latoya Cantrell will issue a formal apology on the city’s behalf on April 12th for the unprosecuted lynching of eleven Italian-Americans in 1891, in what is believed to have been the largest recorded lynching in United States history at the city’s American Italian Cultural Center, according to the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. It was a group by the name of The Order of the Sons of Italy, however that inquired about an apology from Mayor Cantrell, according to the BBC. Further reports from NOLA.com state that the mayor’s office and the Order of the Sons of Italy have been working together very closely to facilitate both the drafting and presentation of an apology from the city to its Italian-American citizens, in addition to those elsewhere in the nation, as well.
The BBC reports that both the spokesman for the Order of the Sons of Italy, John Fratta, as well as professor of Italian-American studies at the City University of New York, Fred Gardaphe both stated that the ultimate goal of the apology was to educate people first by simply letting them know that this incident occurred in the first place. Fratta told the BBC, “Nobody thinks of an Italian being lynched, when it was common practice back then. So the apology is more of an education, especially for younger Italian-Americans.” Along similar lines, Gardaphe stated, “When I teach this in class, the students are amazed – they’ve never heard of this…” Both statements, although variant in context shed light on, as well as denounce, a very specific disarticulation of ethnic violence in United States history.
The apology stands not only as a means to provide closure, albeit grossly delayed, for the racially motivated, uninvestigated violent deaths of eleven Italian-Americans, nor is it just an opportunity to teach American youth and adults alike about a particularly ugly, shielded aspect of American history. Behind the city’s willingness to issue a public apology for these instances of violence lies also the willingness to rhetorically pull back the curtain on the social construction of race and therefore racial discrimination and violence. In publicly addressing the historical lynching of Italian-Americans, not only is an apology offered for past injustice, but an admission is made concerning the chronological fluidity which defines whose body should be subject to marginalization and violence when, and by whom. Not only is it important to recognize, as Fratta does, the gap in American education concerning this incident, but it is equally, if not more necessary to consider the function which that gap performs. By admitting that Italian-Americans were once persecuted for their racial or ethnic identity in the United States significantly more than they may be today, the validity of essentialist understandings of racial identity is undermined, consequently calling out the common basis for racial prejudice, earned positionality within an inherent system of racial hierarchy.
The historical incident, which is now receiving an apology originally began in October 1890, when David Hennessy, a New Orleans police chief was murdered by four men, according to the BBC. The rumor states that Hennessy’s last words blamed his impending death on Italian immigrants, which resulted in the rounding up of thousands of the city’s Italian-American residents, who had moved in following the Civil War to perform the jobs formerly performed by slaves. After zero out of the nine defendants sent to trial for killing Hennessy were definitively convicted, and six were acquitted, it is said that a mob stormed the jail in which the men were being held, removed, lynched, and killed eleven men. These murders, according to NOLA.com, went uninvestigated and therefore unprosecuted.
This Friday’s apology in New Orleans will mark not only an attempt at reconciliation for past wrongdoing, but hopefully, in addition, an opportunity to recognize and abolish the myths which allow for continued racial discrimination in the United States.