The impact of the Italian immigrants on Pontiac and Natick

The Italians living in Pontiac and Natick during the early twentieth century lived in areas often segregated from their neighbors. Charles Carroll in his 1932, Rhode Island: Three Centuries of Democracy, notes, "In their own residential sections the Italians maintained a racial solidarity which was almost exclusive, other races moving out as the tide of Italians flowed in."

Adjustments to the new environment were not always smooth and easy. There was a great deal of prejudice and discrimination in both the mills and the villages. Luigi Nardella, who was interviewed by Paul Buhle for his Oral History of Rhode Island Labor, tells us of some of the early prejudice. He reports, "People said 'Dago'....They'd get pelted with everything, eggs, tomatoes. They had to organize to defend themselves."
Carroll, in his history, tells us, "...the Italians were not contented with living in squalid tenement houses; as they became stronger economically, they bought other property, transferring however, generally to maintain contact with their compatriots." In this fashion, Carroll continues to tell us, "the Italian sections spread out over larger and larger areas."

In Pontiac, the Italians eventually spread from below the tracks to sections of "Mortgage Hill" where many Swedish immigrants resided. In other areas, hamlets as Natick, Luigi Nardella, one of the leaders in the Strike of 1922, noted, "…the company wouldn't allow the Italians into the tenements on Main Street, even if the tenement was vacant and the Italians needed it."

Ethnic housing

While prejudice often dictated where the Italians would live, it was also true that it was a choice made by the new immigrants. Carroll feels that, "Language was the key to the situation..." With large numbers of Italians congregating in one area, older family members felt comfortable and continued to use their native language and dialect. Carroll points out, "...the older folk among them seldom learned English....younger immigrants and children from Italian homes...learned to speak English, and a rule became bilingual."

Separate Churches

The problems of the interactions of ethnic groups extended from the mills and houses to the churches. The A & W Sprague Manufacturing Company, as early as 1839, aware that most of its workers then were Baptists, erected the Natick Baptist Church. In 1868, the Company recognized the demand of its Irish and French-Canadian workers for a Catholic Church and, as a result, donated the land for St. Joseph's Church at the intersection of Providence and Wakefield Streets. St. Joseph's served two distinctly different congregations during the latter part of the nineteenth century as both Irish and French Canadians demanded their own services in their native languages.

Early Italian immigrants attended St. Joseph's, many of them uncomfortable with both the English and French speaking services. By 1912, so many Italians had migrated to Pontiac and Natick that they were able to demand an Italian-speaking priest. Carmela Santoro, in, The Italians in Rhode Island, states that the Italians found a Catholic Church controlled by Irish priests and bishops whom they believed were hostile to the Italian concept of Catholicism. She says, "To the Irish Catholics the religious practices of the Italian immigrants were more like those of a folk religion, with a mix of superstition and worship." Santoro adds that, "The long street processions led by a marching band, with the faithful carrying statues...seemed more like pagan the austere Irish Catholics...."

Bishop Matthew Harkins, in an attempt to keep Italian immigrants within the Catholic congregations, recruited Italian-speaking priests to minister to the new immigrants. As a result, Reverend Achille Tirocchi came to St. Joseph's parish in 1912. Italians in Pontiac began to attend mass in St. Joseph's in ever increasing numbers.

The Strike

The Italians had played a key role in the strike that devastated the Pawtuxet Valley and, for all intents and purposes, ended paternalism in the area. One of the leaders in the labor movement was Luigi Nardella who, along with his brothers, started the Amalgamated Textile Workers Union in Natick in 1918.
In 1978, writer Paul Buhle asked Luigi Nardella if he remembered how the strike started. Nardella replied, "Yeah, my oldest brother, Guido, he started the strike. Guido pulled the handles on the looms in the Royal Mills, going from one section to the next shouting, 'Strike! Strike!' But I was the one who had to go out and bring in the support."

Nardella informed Buhle that when the strike started there were no union organizers. He said, "We got together a group of girls and went from mill to mill, and that morning we got five mills out." Eventually, union organizers appeared and the strike intensified. Nardella says, "We had rock throwing, scabs pushed back, electric cars pulled off the tracks."

The calling of the National Guard

Violence began to break out in many of the villages and Governor Emery J. San Souci, bewildered by the refusal of the workers to return to the mills and pressured by the mill owners, ordered the Mounted Command of the National Guard to the villages to stop the strike. During the last week in February 1922, strikers at the Natick Mill laid siege against workers and owners who were barricaded inside and bombarded the mill windows with rocks. San Souci sent the National Guard to Natick.. Over 150 troops, many of them on horseback, arrived at Brown Square in Natick to stop a riot at the mill. The word of the presence National Guard in Natick spread very quickly and a crowd of over 1000 men, women, and children gathered to face the troops. Tension mounted as many of the workers gathered stones and it appeared that the soldiers would be attacked.

Bloodshed Averted

When word reached the rectory at St. Joseph's church, Father Tirocchi, hastily donning his overcoat, came running out of the rectory and pleaded with the crowd in Italian to go home and avoid bloodshed. His plea was heeded and the crowd disappeared from the square, allowing the troops to turn their attention to the rioting at the mill.

It is doubtful that any other single individual would have met with the success of Father Tirocchi. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured as the rioters at the mill fled before the troops arrived on the scene.

The story of the immigrants in Pontiac and Natick will be continued.

To please the mill owners, Gov. San Souci called out the National Guard. Scenes, such as the one here at the B. B. & R. Mill in Pawtucket were repeated in Natick and Pontiac. Pontiac residents felt as if they were being invaded.

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