Labor struggles were not the only conflicts Italian immigrants faced. During the years of the great Italian immigration, they also had to confront a wave of virulent prejudice and nativist hostility.
As immigration from Europe and Asia neared its crest in the late 19th century, anti-immigrant sentiment soared along with it. The U.S. was in the grips of an economic depression, and immigrants were blamed for taking American jobs. At the same time, racialist theories circulated in the press, advancing pseudo scientific theories that alleged that “Mediterranean” types were inherently inferior to people of northern European heritage. Drawings and songs caricaturing the new immigrants as childlike, criminal, or subhuman became sadly commonplace. One 1891 cartoon claimed that “If immigration was properly restricted, you would never be troubled with anarchism, socialism, the Mafia and such kindred evils!”
Attacks on Italians were not limited to the printed page, however. From the late 1880s, anti-immigrant societies sprang up around the country, and the Ku Klux Klan saw a spike in membership. Catholic churches and charities were vandalized and burned, and Italians attacked by mobs. In the 1890s alone, more than 20 Italians were lynched.
One of the bloodiest episodes took place in New Orleans in 1891. When the chief of police was found shot to death on the street one night, the mayor blamed “Sicilian gangsters” and rounded up more than 100 Sicilian Americans. Eventually, 19 were put on trial and, as the nation’s Italian Americans watched nervously, were found not guilty for lack of evidence. Before they could be freed, however, a mob of 10,000 people, including many of New Orleans’ most prominent citizens, broke into the jail. They dragged 11 Sicilians from their cells and lynched them, including two men jailed on other offenses. Italians worldwide were outraged, but the U.S. press generally approved of the action. It was the largest single mass lynching in U.S. history.
Anti-immigrant sentiment continued until the 1920s, when severe restrictions on immigration were put into place by the U.S. Congress. When this legislation passed, the great era of Italian immigration came to an end.