The Fabre line brings thousands from Italy to Rhode Island

The Italians, latecomers in the textile mills and villages of Natick and Pontiac, retained their ethnic identity throughout the early twentieth century. They were preceded by the British, Irish, Swedish and French-Canadians, taking the lowest paying jobs and living in the poorest housing in the village. This, as many historians indicated, was typical of most new groups coming into the mill villages.

Early Italians in America

Italians were no strangers to the New World. During the Period of Exploration, Italian mariners such as Christopher Columbus, AmerigoVespucci, John & Sebastian Cabot (Caboto), and Giovanni Verrazano led the way to the Americas. Early in colonial history Italian families had settled in what is today the United States. The Tagliaferro family settled in Jamestown, Virginia within a year of Roger Williams' founding of Rhode Island. William Paca, an Italian American who was the Representative from Maryland, signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and three Italian Americans were generals on the Union side in the Civil War.

The demand for labor to build the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s attracted great numbers of workers from Southern Italy as well as from Ireland and China. One of these, Carmine DiFranco, came to help build the railroad, lived in California for a time, and then settled in Natick where he operated a grocery store, which catered to Italian tastes and needs.

The 20th century immigration.

The major impact of Italian immigration in New England, however, was not felt until the early twentieth century. Poor economic conditions in Southern Europe and the need for inexpensive labor in the textile mills here attracted many to Rhode Island. Once the influx began, the Italians came in unprecedented numbers.

Columbus Day 1910

Charles Carroll, in his Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, says, "Rhode Island scarcely realized the volume of Italian immigration, however...until the first observance of Columbus Day as a public holiday in 1910..." He goes on to tell us, "...what in the beginning had promised to be only another parade in a city which at the time was known as the 'paradingest city,' became a big parade. For hours Italian divisions poured through the city streets in rapid succession...." Carroll dramatically sums up the situation when he says, "...the whole state gasped at the discovery, rubbed its eyes to test the reality of what seemed plausible only as a dream....Rhode Island had become conscious of its Italian population in a day."

Prejudice rears its ugly head

The migration continued at an unrelenting pace until 1921. Fear and prejudice caused Congress to pass an Emergency Quota Act in 1921 and a National Origins Quota Act in 1924. These acts, discriminating against Italians, Jews, and Slavs, helped curtail the migration from Southern Europe. Even with this being considered, however, nearly 55,000 Italians arrived at the Port of Providence from 1898 to 1932.

The demand for immigrant labor was so great that the Fabre Line selected Providence as its chief port in 1911. The U. S. Government established an immigration station at State Pier #1 and thousands came through here from Italy and Portugal. The Fabre line left Marseilles, France and made stops in Italy, Portugal, and the Azores. So many Italian immigrants from Campobasso, a province near Naples, came to Providence that Davide Senerchia was able to create his own company to bring workers from Campobasso's Fornelli area to work in the mills of Natick and Pontiac.

The impact of so many "strangers" speaking a foreign language and having different customs, met with resistance, hatred and prejudice in the villages, mills, and churches of the Pawtuxet Valley. Much of the problem stemmed from the large numbers that came within a few decades. In many cases they congregated in separate areas and established sections of their own within the villages. Natick and Pontiac were two prime examples as Italians replaced the Irish, French Canadians, and Swedes in the company housing in those villages. Italians, willing to accept jobs the other ethnic groups no longer wanted and to work for lower wages, found themselves segregated and discriminated against.

The story of the immigrants in Pontiac and other areas of Warwick will be continued.



The vast numbers of Italians in Natick and Pontiac made it possible for them to demand Italian-speaking priests and to eventually build the Sacred Heart Church in Natick. Father Tirocchi became the first pastor of the Sacred Heart Church, which conducted services in Italian.
Photo Don D’Amato 2006

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