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Serving the Italian

Communities of New York City

In 1920, the League set up headquarters at Lexington Avenue in Manhattan and opened a branch office on Union Street in Brooklyn. From these strategic points, it provided case work, home visitation, interpretation and translation, legal counsel, medical care, and also taught immigrants the English language, how to apply for American citizenship and about the rights and duties of citizens. Money was raised through aggressive membership drives and by throwing benefit concerts, dances, and co-sponsoring cultural events with local churches and clubs. Its efforts were quite successful thanks to the large Italian population and the enthusiastic support of the Italian ambassador, his wife, and other prominent figures such as master conductor Arturo Toscanini, operatic diva Rosa Ponselle, and tenor Jan Peerce.

Ellis Island Work

By the late 1920’s, a branch of the Italian Welfare League was opened on Ellis Island and held a unique position on the island – it had become the only aid society exclusively assisting Italians. At Ellis Island, the League helped Italians in trouble, particularly detained aliens and immigrants who were being held under warrant of deportation. America’s immigration laws and policies were laden with bureaucratic red tape which led to thousands of people being “temporarily detained”, or worse, being held for “Special Inquiry” investigations and hearings. “Temporary Detention” involved relatively minor problems such as when a “picture bride” awaited the arrival of her fiancé or when an address had to be ascertained or a telegram sent to notify a relative or friend of an immigrant’s arrival. Special Inquiry detention struck at the most vulnerable types of immigrants such as women, children, stowaways, paupers, those in poor or delicate health, the blind, the elderly, epileptics, alcoholics, and immoral persons (criminals, unwed mothers, prostitutes, and procurers). The League’s social workers provided information and guidance to all such detainees.

As such, it had a seat on Ellis Island’s influential “General Committee of Immigrant Aid” along with the Irish “Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary,” the Congregational Church, the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Church, the Y.W.C.A., the Salvation Army, the National Catholic Welfare Conference, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the

National Council of Jewish Women, and the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (W.C.T.U.). Over the years, the League’s Ellis Island workforce included Miss Katherine M. Schiapelli in the 1920s and early 1930’s; Mrs. Angela M. Carlozzi Rossi, the executive secretary from 1934 to 1954 (she retired from the League in 1973); and social worker Frank Traverso, circa 1947 to 1954.

From the 1920’s through the 1940’s, the League also stretched out a helping hand to Italian nationals who had lived in the United States for a while but had fallen on dark days and were now facing deportation for having violated one or more of the immigration laws. Some were being expelled because they had been convicted of having committed a crime, some for having fallen into a life of pauperism and beggary, others for not having a valid Italian passport or for having entered the United States illegally, and still others for having committed one of the crimes of “moral turpitude” such as “white slavery,” prostitution or giving birth to illegitimate children. For these unhappy people, the League provided advice, winter coats, clean clothing and sometimes sympathy.

Things became difficult for Italian Americans following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, and even worse, when Italy issued a declaration of war against the United States of America on December 11th. Over the next few months, the F.B.I. apprehended about a 1,000 Italians suspects and brought them to Ellis Island for investigation; among them was New York City’s outspoken pro-fascist newspaper editor Domenico Trombetta (who was stripped of his American citizenship and deported after the war) and the celebrated Metropolitan Opera star Ezio Pinza (who, after a careful investigation of his activities, was found to be completely innocent). 

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