The Story of the Italian
By Barry Moreno, Librarian, The Bob Hope Memorial Library at Ellis Island /
Statue of Liberty National Monument
The Italian Welfare League traces its beginnings to the resettlement work of the American Red Cross’s Italian Committee at the end of the First World War. At the time, thousands of Italians had just returned to their American homes after having fought in the Italian Army during the war. The Committee’s task was to help resettle these riservisti and find them civilian jobs and lodgings; they also provided them with medical care, groceries and clothing.
In the course of these duties, the Committee members became aware of how difficult life was in all too many of the Italian neighborhoods of New York City. They discovered that untold thousands of people struggled with endless poverty, family hardship, language barriers and a lack of education. Clearly, the temporary emergency work of the Red Cross was not enough. Somehow, some way a permanent organization would have to come into existence – one fully dedicated to the Italian communities of New York City. This led to the historic meeting of May 1920 out of which the Italian Welfare League emerged.
The new organization was committed to ministering to the needs of both Italian New Yorkers and their families and immigrants just off the boat from Italy. Although the League was predominantly a woman’s society, the prominent New York banker Lionello Perera (1873-1942), played a crucial role in setting it on its feet. Other founding members included Margherita de Vecchi (1887-1965), Paola Berizzi (1880-1980), Elizabeth T. Bava (1869-1966), and Perera’s wife, Carolina Allen Perera (1883-1966) who, from 1920 until 1942, served as the League’s first president.
The formation of the League came at a most crucial time for Italians. Anti-immigrant feeling was riding high in the United States. The Red Scare and the resurgence of a virulently anti-Catholic Ku Klux Klan demonstrated the starkness of the situation. In addition, federal legislation severely limiting European immigration to the United States would be adopted in 1921 and 1924. Another powerful trend that put severe pressure on the foreign-born was the potent “Americanization Movement,” which demanded that immigrants conform to Anglo-Saxon social norms, especially by speaking the English language, obtaining U.S. citizenship and adopting the manners and customs of Protestant America. Facing these sorts of challenges was daunting to the Italian Welfare League, but led by prosperous and determined Italian American women, it provided needed guidance to the newcomers.