Part III: The Italian Community of Cleveland

Chapter 8: The Italians in Cleveland: Prohibition to World War II


Four notable Cleveland Italians, from left to right, Capt. Emilio Ardito, Count Cesare Gradenigo, Dr. Gigi Maino, and Dr. Cosimo Menzalora of the Dante Alighieri Society, April 8, 1935.
Four notable Cleveland Italians, from left to right, Capt. Emilio Ardito, Count Cesare Gradenigo, Dr. Gigi Maino, and Dr. Cosimo Menzalora of the Dante Alighieri Society, April 8, 1935.


“Italians did join together because of discrimination during Prohibition and the depression. They supported me because they felt they had no representation. I fought against the search of homes and the destruction of property . . . against the discrimination of the quota system.”

(Alexander DeMaioribus, Cleveland Councilman, 1927-1947, Ward 19)

The years following the first World War were marked by heated exchanges between the Italian community and the various news media over such issues as Prohibition, crime and the rise of fascism in Europe. These confrontations would produce a reaction in the Italian press which resulted in an affirmation of Italian culture while questioning the intent of the Cleveland press, and an almost unwavering support of Mussolini’s regime until the mid-thirties.

The Issues of Prohibition and Crime

Crimes, especially those related to the making, selling and consumption of alcohol, began the ferment. Murray Hill was “known” for its involvement with “bootleg” liquor even though those who transported the illegal booze were relatively minor figures who profited little for their efforts. In general Italians, like most ethnic groups, were opposed to Prohibition and were vocal in their sentiments. The consumption of wine was a natural part of a meal, an essential component of life. To deprive a man of his vino would be like prohibiting the Englishman his tea or the American his coffee. It was barbaric but it was the law.

Arrests for liquor violations were frequent during the twenties and made up the crime which would inflate Cleveland’s arrest totals by about 30% each year. Italian involvement in the liquor trade was common. The Plain Dealer routinely published the names of those arrested for violations while La Voce detailed those crimes involving Italians. In February of 1920 La Voce reported that an Italian from Murray Hill was arrested on Euclid Avenue for requesting a drink with “kick,” while the same issue ran an editorial against Prohibition, calling it a “theft of people’s liberty.”[1]

In another editorial La Voce commented on the local press coverage of criminal arrest reporting, complaining that the identification by ethnic group was not necessary. Although it was a fairly common practice in official and non-official reports to designate the nativity of the criminal, La Voce strenuously challenged the propriety of such coverage:[2]

Our dissension is in the misuse of the word “Italian.” Why is it necessary to always bring this to the fore when an unfortunate of this race is caught in the coils of his own act and brought to the bar? Then why the discrimination? If a Pole commits a murder do our fatuous press brazen forth the culprit’s nationality?

Why can’t we say John Ferraro, or John Smith, or Ivan Ivanovich did this thing and he alone should suffer.

La Voce’s plea went unheeded because it seemed to be the very intent of the press to saddle the various immigrant groups with the bulk of the crimes committed in the city.

For example, the Cleveland Association for Criminal Justice, a group of concerned professionals, felt that law enforcement in the city needed to pursue a more aggressive program. In each of its quarterly Bulletins, the association issued a crime statistics table for the city, as well as detailed the exploits of selected criminals, negligent judges and unethical lawyers.




Though not necessarily an anti-Italian group, the association did underscore the relative criminality associated with the foreign born of the city.

During the last three months of 1922 it reported that 923 whites had been arrested for felonies, 477 “colored,” and 610 foreign born of whom 96 were Italian. That same issue also featured the careers of three notorious Italians, guilty of various murders, rapes and assorted felonious escapades.[3] The following year’s Bulletin described Calmer S. as “another ignorant foreigner” arrested for liquor violation. A later Bulletin would devote its entire coverage to the exploits of a “second generation Italian” criminal.

The myth of the immigrant criminal, exploited by various national and local media, was attacked not only by the ethnic communities themselves but received substantial attention from foreign observers as well. One distinguished reporter, Sir A. Maurice Low, began a series of articles for the London Morning Post on “America the Lawless.” During the latter part of 1927 his reports concluded that the idea of the “immigrant as a criminal” was nothing more than fabrication.[4] He specifically dealt with several major cities in America, Cleveland being one of those selected. While the crime rate was high his findings concluded that it was the native born American who was the overall culprit perpetrating the most serious crimes in the country as a whole. Unfortunately his conclusions had little impact in Cleveland.

By the end of the twenties a short lived but highly influential publication appeared in Cleveland which further promoted the cause of Italian culture while condemning Prohibition and insults against Italians. It was called The Latin World and began publication in 1929 for “Americans of Latin extraction.” Although Italian-oriented material predominated, articles in French and by non-Italian authors were usually found within its pages. It was an impressive cultural magazine edited by Alfred Deflorentis and included among its Honorary Membership City Manager William R. Hopkins, Benjamin Nicola, Stefano Ardito, Frank Celebrezze and Antonio Milano.[5]

The Latin World soon became a publication of cultural significance and intense involvement in the political and social activities of Cleveland. When the Met arrived in 1929 The Latin World ran articles on the Italian performers. The functions of the Italian Woman’s Club of 1929 were noted, as was the case when J.G. Lombardo was created Chevalier of the Crown of Italy in June of the same year.

During the short-lived career of The Latin World almost every issue contained advertisements for grapes for winemaking, even though Prohibition was still a very real part of American society. A limited amount of winemaking was permitted only for home consumption but it is questionable whether this kind of advertising appealed to the home winemaker. The Volstead Act of 1919 prevented the manufacture of any beverage in excess of one-half of one percent of alcohol. Whatever could legally be produced would be little more than grape juice.

The Latin World opposed Prohibition as a “Bugaboo of Truth and Normality,” and attorney Blase A. Buonpane editorialized on this topic. According to Buonpane there were too many abuses being committed against Italians in the name of Prohibition. He condemned the self-appointed purists and questioned the integrity of the prohibitionists: “What human feelings are crushed at the sight of an orderly group of convivial persons who are taking drinks at their party?” He concluded that imbibing in a social drink or two was normal and that absolute temperance was a cultural aberration.[6]

Opposition to Prohibition took more tangible form in the disregard for the law and the consumption of alcoholic beverages. The local police responded to such liquor violations in a variety of actions, from overlooking minor infractions to all-out warfare against notorious offenders. In Murray Hill during the late 1920’s the safety forces formed roadblocks at all the entrances to the neighborhood, searching cars and persons for liquor without warrants. Protests to the mayor, the chief of police and the papers had no effect. This neighborhood had “earned” the reputation of being a major source for “bootleg” liquor and drastic measures had to be assumed to curb this threat. It was but one step to stigmatizing the entire community for the activities of some within its boundaries.

The Italian press was aware of the criminal element within the settlements and was quick to reveal those persons responsible for crimes against society. Yet the paper also warned its readership and the English-speaking community that any links between isolated instances of crime and any “organized mobs” were nonsense:[7]

Recently the city has been more or less startled by a series of crimes correctly or not attributed to “a mythical organization” labeled the “Black Hand.” We say mythical because it is such . . . We are for law and order. But in extenuation of our neighbors . . . and law abiding citizens who must bear the stigma of the acts above noted . . . we can not help but sound a note of satisfaction in our positive knowledge that extermination from its own festering hands is foreshadowed for those who are the outragers of the decent and law abiding.

The Latin World published an editorial in September of 1929 in Italian which questioned the conviction of Angelo Amato, accused in the Sly-Fanner murders. It was a reasonably thought-out piece which concluded that, despite Amato’s conviction, he was being sentenced on the testimony of another “paranoid” murderer. “Italian justice, pure and blameless in its knowledge of this situation, will get to the bottom of this case.”

Crime was indeed on the upsurge in Cleveland during Prohibition and some Italians were among those arrested. Yet the arrests did not reach epidemic proportions. In 1928 the following figures were reported by the Cleveland House of Corrections:[8]

Total Prisoners in House of Correction – 1928

Americans, 7304 Hungarians, 169
Austrians, 433 Russians, 124
Irish, 430 Italians, 124
Poles, 268 Germans, 122

Male juvenile offenders of Italian descent numbered 18 of the 154 boys incarcerated. Two years earlier 181 females of Italian extraction had been placed in the House of Correction for varying offenses, an astounding figure when one considers the relatively strong family ties associated with the Italian woman. Yet these were second and third generation juveniles; it is evident that a by-product of acculturation was the erosion of parental authority and the likelihood of a higher incidence of delinquency.

By the 1930’s a full-blown epidemic of “Italian racketeers” was being reported by the Cleveland Plain Dealer. In an exclusive story in the Sunday Magazine section Frank Merrick, the city’s former Director of Public Safety, offered his observations in an article entitled “Giving the Low Down on Cleveland’s Racketeers.” In this review of the city’s criminal element it was the Italians who were singled out for blame.

Complete with mug shots and drawings Merrick singled out Dominic Benigno as the mastermind behind Cleveland’s crime problem. Although he had never participated in a crime, “from his mob sprang almost every known gangster existing in Cleveland today.”[9] Along with Benigno in his “organization” of murder, theft and extortion were Frank Motto and Sam Purpera, a sixteen-year-old accomplice. To round out this mob, Mrs. Emma Colovito was included. These persons were indeed part of a criminal element, but to cite them as the only source for Cleveland’s criminality was inaccurate. To include only Italians as forming this city’s racketeers was to utter an absurdity that needs no further comment.

Italians and the Depression

The Depression was brutally experienced and painfully remembered by the Italian people in Cleveland, for many of the men had been employed as laborers, not as white collar professionals. A man was considered fortunate who worked two weeks a month for the WPA, earning about $79. In Little Italy the effects of the Depression could be felt as late as 1936 when Father Charles McBride became assistant at Holy Rosary. He recalled how young boys were forced to steal coal from the railroad cars to heat their family’s houses.

In 1936 almost 1000 families out of 1472 were on relief in the Holy Rosary Parish. It was here that many parishioners received assistance in the form of flour and potatoes. Alta House also distributed rice, barley, milk and potatoes once a week for the needy.

So intense was the feeling against the Murray Hill Italians that the Mayfield Merchant’s Association invited a Cleveland News reporter to visit the area and write about his first-hand experiences for his Cleveland readers. In July of 1935 Jack Kennon of the News began to walk among the people of Little Italy, listening to their problems and observing their life style. His conclusion was that the only title which Murray Hill did merit was Little Italy and nothing else.

He reported on the street society during the Depression, of older men sitting on the steps of the neighborhood shops discussing politics, their jobs or lack of jobs; women and children streaming to and from Holy Rosary to pray. He saw no crime, no delinquency, no street brawling. He did discover gambling when “a dozen youths were shooting craps” under a dim street light on Murray Hill Road. “And that law violation was the only one I saw during my entire tour of the district . . .”[10] It was a compact and relatively isolated area, poor during a period of extensive poverty, but surrounded by the values of family and friends.

Poverty was an integral part of Italian-American life during the Depression and was evident even in the Collinwood settlement during the thirties. In 1934 sixty percent of the family heads in the area were born in Italy, some 850 persons in all. Into Collinwood had poured the new immigrants and those others who relocated from the Murray Hill and Kinsman settlements. Collinwood had been perhaps the most affluent Italian settlement in the city prior to the Depression.

During the thirties shortages of all types were evident in the Collinwood community. Housing was especially acute, with 97% of the people renting for under $30 per month. Other figures also illustrate the extent of shortages in this predominantly Italian area. Only 30% of the 1597 families owned a simple radio in 1934, while only 7% had telephone service. Only 2% had a mechanical refrigerator, while in Bratenahl, about three miles away, 53% of the families had this appliance. About one-third of the families had an automobile, the lowest figure in the 12 census tracts comprising the entire Collinwood district.[11]

Fascism and the Italian American Community

The impact of fascism on Cleveland’s Italians is better understood if viewed with the Depression as a background. Italians had immigrated to this country by the millions and many thousands were part of the city’s population during the thirties. They had little voice in a city where their numbers should have given them some political importance. Authority was in the hands of non-paesani while very few Italians controlled their own financial destiny. Their continued immigration was controlled by law and their private lives were dominated by a Prohibitionist mentality. They were associated with a mounting criminal element and had lost much of their economic gains over the past 25 years.

This lack of power was the main reason why Alexander DeMaioribus chose to run for Cleveland’s City Council from Ward 19 in 1927. For the next 20 years (1927-1947) he won re-election, serving as president for eight years. In an interview he commented on the situation confronting the Italian community in Cleveland during the thirties which led to his election:[12]

Yes, Italians did join together because of discrimination during Prohibition and the Depression. They supported me because they felt they had no representation. I fought against the search of homes and the destruction of property. During the Depression I fought against the discrimination of the quota system used to employ people. Little Italy was way behind. I pushed to get more employed.

The Italians rallied around DeMaioribus, a Republican, even though the Democrats were strongest among the ethnic groups. He was a man who restored pride to the people and for this reason rather than political ideology he was returned again and again to Cleveland’s City Council.

This same kind of identification with authority and the rekindling of pride was the major reason for Italian-Americans to give evidence to what appeared to be a pro-fascist sentiment during the 1930’s. The new respect Italy had achieved within the world community during the twenties and thirties acted as an antidote for the humiliation and discrimination felt during the Depression. The image of Italy, of Mussolini’s “New Roman Empire,” found eager adherents in the city as well as from various non-Italian news media.[13]

In the Cleveland Plain Dealer a rather parochial attitude toward Italy had always prevailed. Events in Italy did not concern the Plain Dealer although crime in Cleveland committed by Italians usually received good coverage. Italy was generally ignored until suddenly on October 27, 1922, the Italian Cabinet resigned . . . inspiring the PD to deliver a 13-line article! On the 28th another story described the fascisti and their leader:[14]

Benito Mussolini is a young man in his 40’s whose career has been distinguished by his virile and forceful traits of character . . . His magnetism and eloquence . . . He was wounded upwards of a hundred times and bears the scars of battle.

Actually the PD had no understanding whatsoever of the man or the political conditions which shaped him. The Plain Dealer endorsed Mussolini yet questioned his policies of violence, dictatorship and his uncompromising attitudes on Yugoslavia. The paper endorsed a personality and an ideology which seemed to provide a solution to the problem of Bolshevism in Italy. The fact remains that less than a marginal amount of investigation was done on the situation before the apparent successes of fascism were applauded by the Plain Dealer. The major thrust was that for the moment communism was destroyed in Italy and that a new era of dignity and peace was returning to the country.

Cleveland’s Italians reacted to Mussolini with very positive sentiments of patriotism. La Voce del Popolo Italiano was the largest Italian language paper in Ohio and its editor, O.G. Melaragno, was wooed by the new fascist regime. Mussolini personally requested King Victor Emmanuel to confer upon this Cleveland journalist the title of Chevalier of the Crown. For the most part La Voce during the thirties would carry articles favorable to the fascist government.

In the archives of the Western Reserve Historical Society are found microfilmed issues of La Voce from 1907 to October 7, 1922. The paper reappears in 1936 as a firm supporter of the fascist government, but even in the early years these attitudes were present. For example, the turmoil within post-war Italy was described in detail for the Cleveland community as a “madness which has infected the classes of Italy . . . It is the spread of communist fallacies . . . it is destructive, revolutionary.” La Voce’s readers were urged to write and cable friends and relatives in Italy to make any sacrifices necessary “to save their country from red revolution.”[15]


Cleveland Fascisti marching on the west side, May, 1927.
Cleveland Fascisti marching on the west side, May, 1927.


Describing the fall of the Italian government, La Voce suggested that “King Victor and his advisors may decide to call an untried man to the premiership.” The same article revealed that the fascist movement in Italy had been transformed into a political party and that Italy had finally “found herself.” The connection between the chaotic situation and the fascist solution “waiting in the wings” was obvious.

The rise of fascism and the establishment of a “Young Italy” was closely reported in the Italian Press. In Cleveland the Italians experienced a resurgence of ethnic maturity, a feeling that despite the recurrence of anti-Italian discrimination in the city they could justifiably feel proud of recent developments in their homeland.

This elation in Italian achievements, however suspect it may seem in retrospect, was encouraged by the presence of Captain Count Caesar Pierre Albert Buzzi Gradenigo, and Dr. Romeo Montecchi, the two Italian consuls for the city of Cleveland. Count Gradenigo served as consul from 1930-1936 and Dr. Montecchi from 1936-1941. Their interaction with Cleveland’s Italians stimulated and directed the emerging ethnic consciousness for over a decade.

Accepting his new post in 1930, Gradenigo reminded Cleveland’s Italians not to forget their mother country:[16]

You must be loyal to the United States, the land of your adoption, but do not forget the culture and history of Italy. Italy now has a stable government that is aiming at world peace. By helping to bind the United States and Italy more closely together than they are already you can serve both countries at the same time.

In November of each year Gradenigo met with the Italian Veterans’ Association at the Hotel Statler to celebrate King Victor Emmanuel’s birthday, the March on Rome, and Armistice Day. Cries of “Viva l’America! Viva Benito Mussolini!” opened the 1934 celebration.[17] The Count reminded his audience that these annual celebrations were “decidedly not fascist propaganda but an expression of sentiment by Italian Americans toward the land of their ancestry.” This particular celebration was also attended by several non-Italians such as Judge John P. Dempsey, who remarked that “Mussolini will be recorded in history as one of the greatest political geniuses of all times.” Praise from Harold Burton of the American Legion on Italy’s war record and her contributions toward world peace were also sounded. These would be remembered as the golden years of Italian ethnic pride in Cleveland.

As with most ethnic groups, pride and self-awareness soon gave way to demands and a more aggressive position began to be adopted by the leaders and self-appointed spokesmen of the Italian community. As the membership of the Sons of Italy reached 9000 this organization demanded that the Cleveland Public Schools adopt the teaching of the Italian language in the curriculum. The Sons of Italy made it known that they would support only those board members who were favorable to this addition. The schools ultimately decided to add this language course to their curriculum in 1934.

In 1935 the Italian ambassador to the United States, Augusto Rosso, came to Cleveland to help dedicate a temple for the Sons of Italy. It was to be the first time an Italian ambassador had visited the city and it was expected to be a major event in the community. Cleveland, the Italian community was told, was seen by Mussolini not as an isolated midwest city somewhere between New York and Chicago, but as an important link in the chain of Italian communities throughout the country. The fascist government was aware of Cleveland’s initiatives and encouraged these activities by such prestigious visits. The temple of the Sons of Italy was to include a restaurant, classrooms, offices, a lounge and a 1200-seat auditorium. The Cleveland News believed that this structure was a significant milestone in Cleveland’s cultural history, while the Plain Dealer called the Temple one of the most ambitious undertakings of Italians anywhere in the United States.[18]

Rosso’s two day visit in June of 1935 was perhaps the most significant pro-Italian event in the history of the city during the thirties. His speeches were tangible evidence that Italians had no longer to fear the stigma of being part of the nondescript “huddled masses” of immigrants but that their native land was one of proud achievement. Italy was now a strong country, orderly, confident. She was “loved by many, feared by some . . . but respected by all.” And Rosso reminded his audience that this prestige was primarily the work of Mussolini.

Although Ambassador Rosso spoke of Italy he did not forget to address the situation of Italian-Americans. Of his audiences he requested that they not forget the language and culture of Italy while becoming acculturated Americans. Basically an Italian-American had a dual responsibility, to his adopted country but more so to his native land. Transported Italians should be ready to sacrifice, as others had done, to keep Italy strong and “respected by all.”

The city’s Italians had the opportunity to show their solidarity with Mussolini’s Italy in October of 1935 with the invasion of Ethiopia by Italian troops. Italian Clevelanders responded with the ardor and enthusiasm of patriots. One enthusiastic writer described the events by saying that “the love of country was alive and vibrating . . . all worked actively, all felt morally mobilized, all felt the obligation to support a work most holy and most patriotic.”[19]


Columbus Day Parade in Cleveland's Murray Hill Section, October, 1938.
Columbus Day Parade in Cleveland’s Murray Hill Section, October, 1938.


By September of 1936 Cleveland’s Italian organizations had donated $12,404.21 to the Italian Red Cross. Some 1000 Cleveland Italians also donated their gold wedding rings to Italy for “this holy and patriotic cause,” and received steel bands from Mussolini to wear as symbols of their faith in Italy. The new consul, Dr. Romeo Montecchi, made the presentations.[20]

To assume that Cleveland’s Italians were not impressed with the exploits of the fascist government is to grossly underestimate their enthusiasm. In 1937 over 4000 Italians gathered in Murray Hill to celebrate the first anniversary of the “Italian Empire.” Montecchi said that the rebirth of the Italian nation under Mussolini was “a true harbinger of the restoration of the old Roman Empire and the acquisition of Ethiopia was a proper step in that direction.”[21] Unfortunately few outside this circle of enthusiasts felt the same and one could almost sense that the peak of pro-Italian sentiment in Cleveland had been reached. The invasion of Ethiopia marks a turning point in the history of Italian ethnicity in Cleveland.

While Italy’s official representatives were proclaiming a new Roman Empire, Italian-Americans were expressing their sentiments on the subject of their Italian heritage. In the pages of La Voce and the local press letters were received denouncing the Cleveland papers for rejecting Mussolini and his regime. The president of the Italian War Veterans attacked the Plain Dealer for its “anti-Italian” editorial policy:[22]

Your newspaper has followed an editorial policy which had been openly hostile and abusive towards the existing government of Italy. It is un-American to enter into discussion concerning the good or the bad features of a foreign country’s policy. A nation expressing a habitual hatred or fondness for another is a slave to its animosity or its affection. We hope you will not indulge further in efforts to arouse racial passions and hatreds.

The editor of the Cleveland News printed the following letter from Raoul Spoleti-Bonanno in June of 1937 concerning recent anti-Italian editorials:[23]

Are we to understand that a good American is one who condemns everything not reflecting American political, economic, moral, and philosophical points of view? As an Italian I can not berate fascism for having developed a national consciousness . . .

There were others who saw in this renewed ethnic identification an opportunity to creatively develop Italian culture within the main current of American culture. One individual who supported this kind of positive ethnicity was Stefano Emilio Ardito, the vice-consul in Cleveland under Count Gradenigo. His letters to La Voce appealed to American youth to learn about Italy aside from the immediate political embroilments. “Do not forget your native tongue, study it wholeheartedly. You should be proud of Italy, knowing she has contributed so greatly to art, literature, and science.”[24]

Other like attorney J. Melaragno were cautious amidst this resurgence of Italian pride. He emphasized America, not Italy, in his responses to the local media. He spoke of Americanization, of being well-informed about the laws of this country. “Italians who form a part of an American cosmopolitan group seek to earn the privilege of being citizens.”[25] His was the voice of moderation and reason but was not in tune with the moment and was drowned by the exuberance of victory.

Riding on the crest of world wide recognition, some Italians in the city took advantage of the situation and became ultrasensitive to anything which appeared to conflict with their own inflated conception of Italianness. There were minor rumblings in the late thirties which were exaggerated beyond proportion in the Italian press. For example, there was an attempt to change the name of Murray Hill to Marconi Avenue. In December of 1937 letters to La Voce indicated that Italian pride depended on this name change. As it happened, many home owners and merchants on Murray Hill in fact did not want the name changed. But their “anti-Italian” attitude was “observed,” and their “stinginess” offended the entire Italian community in the city![26]

There were those who were almost paranoid when it came to “Italian Pride.” J.V. Rapone, a pro-fascist observer and frequent contributor to La Voce, was violently opposed to any disrespect, any challenging of Italian foreign exploits. Such anti-Italian sentiment was “propaganda” which came from “organizers and representatives of labor classes who believe that fascism has acquired a harmful control over labor.”[27] Indeed, any statement which was critical of the Italian government brought letters and rebuttals from Italian patriots in the city. Few voices were raised supporting American citizenship, the study of English, of the improvement of the quality of life of Cleveland’s Italians.

It was a short-lived flirtation, almost totally based on emotionality, which luckily did not result in a lasting marriage. By 1939 the enthusiasm had worn thin. To be sure, most of the profascist sentiment was more than rhetoric but less than actual commitment to fascist ideology. As long as Italy did not collide with American interests, as long as Mussolini’s empire regulated railroad schedules, drained marshes, built bridges, bestowed awards on local Italo-Americans, and generally kept order in the country, the exuberance was a positive and unifying force in the Italian community. When the fascist government declared war on France and England on June 10, 1940, the momentum of Italian-American exhilaration halted abruptly. When the appearance of confrontation seemed inevitable, the overwhelming majority of Italian-Americans had no misconceptions as to their loyalty. On June 13, 1940, Raymond Boccia, Grand Venerable of the Sons of Italy, expressed the collective sentiments of his organization in a letter to the Cleveland Press:[28]

The members of the Sons of Italy in America are stunned by Italy’s declaration of war and are extremely sorry that Italy has felt constrained to enter the European holocaust. We have been praying for peace and hoping that this hour might never come to pass and that some solution could be found whereby this act of Italy might have been averted. But now that such a thing has happened we as Americans stand ready shoulder to shoulder with other Americans, in assuming the responsibilities of upholding and safeguarding our form of government. Our motto has been and will be “America first and above all.” We hope that the present European conflict will come to an immediate end so that America can help rebuild once again this disrupted world.

Italian American Loyalty and World War II

In the months that followed Cleveland’s Italians were stumbling over each other to prove they were loyal Americans. The editor of L’Araldo wrote, “There seems to be a stampede on by various Italian organizations to declare themselves, in no uncertain terms, that they are contrary to dealings going on in Italy and reaffirming their allegiance to the United States.”[29] International events were also affecting the Italian consul, who was noticeably absent from various ethnic ceremonies. Following the outbreak of the Greek-Italian war in October 1940, Montecchi was available only to a few close friends. In March 1941, the Italian Veterans’ Association dedicated their new hall without him and he made no appearance in September when the Italian Gardens were dedicated in Cleveland’s Rockefeller Park. In presenting the gardens to the city, Alexander De Maioribus, the prominent Italian-American politician, said that one is not an American “by virtue of any blood strain or any heritage except the heritage of freedom. We Americans are brothers in a common political faith whose fundamental concept is that all government is justified only as conserving the rights and dignities of the individual.” De Maioribus asked for an embargo on hate. It did not matter whether one’s neighbor was Italian, German, French or English:[30]

He is an American and the presumption is that he is just as good an American as the Cabots and the Lodges whose forebears came over on the Mayflower.

The dedication ceremonies closed with Cleveland’s Italians singing “God Bless America.”

Six days before Pearl Harbor, Cleveland’s Sons of Italy announced that they would invest $101,900 in defense bonds as a first step toward full support of President Roosevelt’s defense program.[31] Then when Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, Cleveland’s Italians were “struck at the heart.”

Ethnicity underwent a transformation as the Italian community redirected its energy toward the war effort. When the public schools dropped the Italian language, the Sons of Italy did not complain. Lodges that had been named after Italian royalty were renamed Abraham Lincoln, Betsy Ross, etc. Membership declined. The junior lodges were closed and in 1945 the temple that Ambassador Rosso had dedicated was for sale. Most embarrassing was the thorough examination by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Although no links to the fascist government were uncovered, one officer of the Sons of Italy admitted hiding a bust of Mussolini for fear that government agents would misunderstand. Even more annoying were the many questions of local newspapermen. Still, the order was not completely immobilized, when rumors about the treatment of Japanese-Americans spread fear in the Italian community. Cleveland’s Sons of Italy sent a special delegation to meet with President Roosevelt who promised that “the Italian people would not be touched.”

Cleveland’s Italians supported the American war effort with enthusiasm. They led the city in scrap drives and bond drives. By 1942 they sent 2500 of their sons to the United States’ armed forces. One of these, Pfc. Frank Petrarca, was the first Ohioan awarded the Medal of Honor. Many of Cleveland’s Italians had relatives fighting on both sides. Lieutenant Victor Cereno, a bombardier on a Flying Fortress, wrote to his parents:[32]

Recently, I flew over the beautiful hometown of Dr. Romano on a bombing mission. I was sorry to see a nice town like that be bombed but there was nothing I could do about it. I performed my duty as any American would do, dropped my bombs and with an aching heart observed the terrific blasting . . .

World War II was a watershed for Cleveland’s Italians. They emerged from the war with a clear understanding of their place within the framework of American pluralism. Having passed through a painful experience with chauvinistic ethnicity during the fascist heyday, they came to the realization of creative ethnicity. Cleveland’s Italians discovered in creative ethnicity that one could live not only as a rooted person but also beyond one’s roots. They began to identify themselves as Americans of Italian descent and recognized their history as the story of their roots, planted by their heroes, the immigrants.

Cleveland’s Italians had inherited a bi-cultural way of life that offered them a choice and there was much to choose from as the post war years brought many changes to the Italian community. Much of the impetus for change after 1945 came from the returning veterans. Having been exposed to experiences outside the community, they sought advanced educational opportunities, more space, a higher income and contact with non-Italians. What followed has been an increase in intermarriage, and a movement to the suburbs for better housing and educational facilities. Still, the “increases in education and income, geographic dispersion and intergroup contacts have not lessened ethnic awareness . . .” The sources of ethnic vitality, including the nationality church and the social organizations, continue to reinforce ethnicity. But ultimately it is l’ordine della famiglia that provides the basis for ethnic identification. Within the family the values and traditions continue to imbue the individual with a respect and dignity that keeps him from becoming an empty, sterile, plastic person.

  1. La Voce del Popolo Italiano, February 7, 1920.
  2. Ibid., June 25, 1921.
  3. Cleveland Association for Criminal Justice, 4th Quarterly Bulletin, 1922. See also Bulletin No. 38, 1934.
  4. The London Morning Post, November 17, 1927, "The Myth of the Foreign Criminal" and November 19, 1927, "Figures Absolve the Immigrant."
  5. The Latin World, various issues, 1929-1930.
  6. Ibid., September, 1930.
  7. La Voce, July 10, 1920.
  8. Annual Report of the City of Cleveland, Report of the House of Corrections, 1928.
  9. Cleveland Plain Dealer, August 27, 1933, p. 3.
  10. The Cleveland News, July 3, 1935.
  11. Howard Whipple Green, "A Sheet A Week," May 6, 1937.
  12. Interview with Alexander de Maioribus, Italian American political leader, March 20, 1968, conducted by Charles Ferroni.
  13. For an interesting analysis of America's brief "flirtation" with fascism see John P. Diggins, Mussolini and Fascism: The View from America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972).
  14. Cleveland Plain Dealer, October 28, 1922. See also PD, October 31, 1922.
  15. La Voce, September 11 and 18, 1920.
  16. Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 5, 1930.
  17. Ibid., November 5, 1934.
  18. Ibid., May 19, 1935, and the Cleveland News, May 30, 1935.
  19. Enzo Cotruvo, De Vittorio Veneto A Addis Abeba (Cleveland: The Tower Press, 1937) pp. 130-131 quoted by Ferroni. Mr. Cotruvo was the Editor of La Voce.
  20. Cleveland Plain Dealer, May 25, 1936.
  21. Ibid., May 10, 1937.
  22. Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 18, 1937.
  23. The Cleveland News, June 2, 1937.
  24. La Voce, May 21, 1937.
  25. Ibid., July 14, 1937.
  26. See also the Cleveland Plain Dealer, June 18, 1938.
  27. La Voce, April 2, 1937.
  28. The Cleveland Press, June 13, 1940.
  29. L'Araldo, Cleveland, July 5, 1940.
  30. The Cleveland Press, September 15, 1941.
  31. Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 1, 1941.
  32. Ibid., March 2, 1942.


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