Italian American legacy richer than Hollywood's Mafia image

February 23, 2000|By Gregory Kane

TODAY, CLASS, WE take a break from Black History Month to celebrate what I'm dubbing Italian- American History Day. The observance is inspired by the perpetual ignorance of non-Italian Americans -- who probably warmed up to "Goodfellas" -- about the real contributions of Italian-Americans to the nation.

I've said it before. Here's the nutshell Hollywood version of Italian-American history again: There's never been an Italian who wasn't also a Mafiaso. The real record might shock and delight you.

Here it is:

First, let's make clear that America's Italian immigrants weren't always considered white. Records show that in the construction of aqueducts and reservoirs from 1890-1893, Italian immigrant laborers were on the low end of the wage scale. In fact, there were three classifications for workers. If you were "common labor, white" you got $1.30 to $1.50 for a 10-hour day. If you were "common labor, colored" (later Negro, then black, then African-American) you got $1.25 to $1.40. If you were "common labor, Italian" bosses considered you good only for $1.15 to $1.25. That information comes from Little Italy's Roberto Marsili.

Marsili also sent an article about A.P. Giannini, a San Francisco produce seller of the early 1900s who used his entrepreneurial talent to open the Bank of Italy there in 1904. Giannini pioneered the practices of branch banking, home mortgage, car loans and general installment credit. When an earthquake hit San Francisco in 1906, Giannini drove a produce wagon to his bank, slipped $2 million in gold, coins and securities onto the vehicle and started business anew on the city docks, lending money to small businessmen and plain folks in dire need of cash to start over.

When Giannini died, his bank was the country's largest. It was called the Bank of America, which recently merged with NationsBank. Another Italian-American, film director Frank Capra, based the 1932 movie "American Madness" on Giannini's life.

The brochure, "Italian Americans in U.S. History and Culture," the National Italian American Foundation -- "dedicated to preserving the heritage of an estimated 20 million Americans of Italian descent, the nation's fifth-largest ethnic group" -- provides a wealth of information. While Hollywood -- which, ironically, Giannini financed in its early, struggling days -- was cranking out gangster film after gangster film portraying Italian-Americans as mobsters, here's what real-life Italians were doing.

Bernard Castro, who emigrated from Italy in 1931, invented the convertible sofa in 1945.

If you love Big Macs, thank an Italian-American. Pittsburgh's Jim Delligatti, who owned a McDonald's franchise, created the sandwich in 1967.

Ice cream lovers might be intrigued to learn that Italo Marcioni invented the ice cream cone in 1896. Domenico Ghirardelli "perfected a method to make ground chocolate," the NIAF brochure reads, which led to the invention of the chocolate bar.

Vincent R. Ciccone started his janitorial job at the Charms Candy Co. in the 1930s. By the time he retired, he was the president and chief executive officer. Along the way, Ciccone created the cough drop and had patents for at least 19 candies.

Alessandro Dandini invented the three-way light bulb.

Antonio Meucci developed the idea for the telephone but couldn't afford to pay the patent fees when he immigrated to the United States. Alexander Graham Bell got the credit 27 years later.

So much for inventions and innovations. How about patriotism? According to NIAF, only one man has received America's two highest military awards. U.S. Marine Sgt. John Basilone died on Iwo Jima in World War II and received the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor.

About 1.5 million Italian-Americans served in World War II. In all of America's wars, at least 39 Italian-Americans have won the Medal of Honor. Some 5,000 to 10,000 Italian-Americans fought in the Civil War for either the Union or the Confederacy.

Those of us who proudly call ourselves Americans should know the our land is named for Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. Giovanni Caboto -- better known by the Anglicized name of John Cabot -- claimed Newfoundland for England. If you cross the Verrazzano Narrows Bridge into Brooklyn, N.Y., you've traversed the structure named for Giovanni da Verrazano, who was the first explorer to reach what is now New York Bay.

If you knew few or none of these things, it may prove that while today's Italian-Americans are finally considered white, some -- like Hollywood producers -- still consider them not quite white enough.

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