The Story of the Italian Welfare League
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.
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). The League was permitted to render assistance to these “enemy aliens” and lighten their load of troubles. Fortunately, most of the Italians posed no serious threat to the United States and many of them were released after Italy surrendered in September 1943.
After war ended in 1945, the League set up the “Godparents Committee for Italian War Orphans.” This worthy group of concerned citizens set up a $250,000 fund, out of which they sent large provisions of food, clothing, money and medicine to help care for the orphaned children of postwar Italy. In 1946, a Port and Dock Committee was set up to assist Italian immigrants get through customs and immigrant inspection more easily. The League also helped to reunite people who had lost track of their relatives during the war.
In the 1960’s, the League’s immigrant aid work became less imperative and new charitable causes on behalf of Italian Americans were pursued. These included raising money to fight dangerous conditions such as blindness and thalassemia (also known as “Mediterranean Anemia”), which causes growth retardation. Money was also raised to support hospitals, nursing homes and to provide scholarships for worthy Italian Americans seeking advanced degrees.
Since its founding nearly a century ago, the Italian Welfare League has contributed richly to the Italian American communities of Greater New York – it has alleviated the troubles of countless immigrants, refugees, wartime “enemy aliens,” and war orphans; persons afflicted with delicate health, illness or disease; individuals and families struggling with poverty or personal problems, and young people seeking a higher education.
With such a past, the Italian Welfare League can look to the future with pride and confidence.