One Quarter, Two Blocks, Three Families

Italian immigration to New Orleans was predominantly Sicilian beginning in the late 19th century and ending in the early 20th century. This phenomenon occurred due to preexisting connections between the two cities.  In the early 19th century, shipping lines fortified the commercial tie and guaranteed direct and inexpensive access to either city within 30 days. A central and fundamental identity to Sicilians is the family unit. As a result Sicilians’ movement followed family ties to New Orleans. Aside from this chain immigration, the Louisiana Immigration Association—founded in 1881—championed Sicilians to agricultural work in Louisiana. With the abolition of slavery in 1865 there was demand for low cost labor to replace the slave labor that dominated Louisiana agriculture. As foreigners, Sicilians—neither white nor black—filled the void for skilled, reliable, cheap labor. They forged a bond with New Orleans, creating a new syncretized culture–the Creole Itlaian. 

Sicilian immigrants’ presence in the French Quarter of New Orleans added to the identity and culture of the city, composing a unique portrait. These immigrants’ legacy is prominent in the food culture—the muffaletta, Roman Candy, and corner grocery stores to name a few of their lasting impacts. Yet even with all of these influences, they are a group that is traditionally marginalized in the historical narrative of New Orleans. Recently interest regarding this unique population has risen, and this scholarship seeks to continue building the narrative. The intention is to highlight this undervalued group and tell their story. This research concentrates on the 500 and 600 block of St. Philip street from the 1900s until the 1930s. Methodologically this paper combines quantitative and qualitative data. The quantitative data refers to the raw numbers collected from the US Federal Census. The data then, utilizing Excel pivot tables, created statistics and graphs that explained the general setting of the area. Qualitative research involved mining historical newspapers in order to search for a more human story through in-depth analysis of specific people.

Quantitative Research

To better understand the nature of the Sicilian French Quarter, this study made an analysis of every occupant of the 500 and 600 blocks of St. Philip Street, a part of the Quarter with a significant Italian concentration. A data set extracted from the 1900, 1910, 1920, and 1930 census yielded a granular scale portrait of the neighborhood’s demography for the first thirty years of the twentieth century. Situated in the city’s fifth and sixth wards, St. Philip stretches through various enumeration districts (from the river to… the lake). This required combing through each page within each ward through the four censuses. For each address located in the census, the names and associated data for each occupant entered the data set using Microsoft Excel. The greatest challenge to building an accurate data set came as census workers often misspelled the names of Italian families, requiring a combination of detective work and informed guesswork to correct these century-old errors.

The next step entailed the utilization of Excel to generate statistical analysis to better reveal trends of immigration within the neighborhood. One query examined the nativity of the person and that of their parents. For clarity, this study subcategorized the numerous geographical locations into the broader headings of : Italy, Europe, Louisiana, America, Latin America, and Other. As depicted by  the graph, descendents of Italy dominated the 1900 census and peaked a decade later in 1910. Nativity from Italy decreased in the 1920s and dropped significantly in the 1930s. In the 1930 census, Louisiana decent is the primary category by a significant margin of 140 out of 321. Sicilian immigration began in the 1840s and peaked from the 1890s until 1910s—a timeline which the graphs reflect. An exploration of gender revealed even more interesting results. . This data set defies the typical chain migration theory which states that the male heads arrive first and once secure they would then send for their families. As such, one would expect the first two decade male dominated, but that is not the case. This is a perplexing anomaly; however, when factored into account, age qualified the results. In each decade the most common listed age group is that of children. The most prevalent ages throughout each of the censuses are: in 1900 14 people were seven and four years old, in 1910 18 people were four years old, in 1920 13 people were nine years old, and in 1930 ten people were 29 years old. The exception of the 1930 census links to the nativity question. Sicilian families left the French Quarter to follow the “suburban exodus.” As seen through the nativity graph, immigration from Italy decreased significantly while Latin America immigration rose. This rising of immigrants from Latin America followed the typical chain migration. These “Creole Italians” succeeded in the Quarter, some even enough to purchase property.

The next query conducted involves relationship status. Possible categories for relationship status include: married, widowed, divorced, or single. Interestingly, the statistics remained relatively stagnant throughout the decades. The most notable change occurred in the 1930 census where there are six individuals listed as divorced. Out of the 1,455 people listed on all four censuses, only seven ever divorced. In terms of  the racial portrait that these two blocks painted through the census, it is overwhelming caucasian. Only three options occurred: “white,” “negro,” and “mexican.” The largest numbers of african americans appeared in the 1900 census totaling 16 individuals, or five percent. “Mexicans” are not mentioned until the 1930 census, and only six individuals received this classification—three percent. The 1920 census’ racial portrait concluded with 100 percent caucasian. This is also the decade when the nativity portrait is likewise the most hegemonies: 65 percent were of Italian heritage, 30 percent were from Louisiana, and four percent were of European decent. The creation of graphs and analysis of trends concludes the quantitative aspect of this scholarship.

Qualitative Research

Quantitative research centered around raw data and numbers, the focus of this investigation shifts now towards qualitative concentrating on select individuals living on each block. This human level research attempts to place the data in context and seeks a complete understanding of this neighborhood. After choosing names from the Excel sheet that occur consistently throughout the timeline, the primary research began. Once again this scholarship turned towards Ancestry with their impressive database and archived Louisiana newspapers. In total seven families received this attention, but not all successfully. Some individuals have common names that ensured it impossible to distinguish in newspaper articles. For others no results appeared at all. The families and individuals discussed below are the ones with the most information discovered: Ruffino, Greco, and D’Anna.

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