Prior to a family reunion a couple of years ago, a relative of mine ran across an interview with my maternal grandfather, Claude Smeraglia, from July of 1968. At the time, he lived and worked in an Italian-American enclave adjacent to the airport in Birmingham, Alabama. The interview was conducted by a Samford University student at the East Side Drug Company, a pharmacy he owned and operated. I’m guessing the student’s thesis was a comparison of past cultural discrimination with the racial discrimination and unrest that dominated the headlines at the time. To put his remarks in context, you need to remember the social and political turmoil of 1968. His thoughts on the growing entitlement mentality and Americans’ demands for cultural assimilation seem eerily prescient.
She interviewed him for the better part of an hour and half. Just so you know, Smeraglia is pronounced “smer-AL-ya.” If you’d like to put a face with the name, here’s a picture of Claude on his wedding day:
These are her notes, so there are some misspellings and grammar mistakes throughout:
Both parents born in Italy from the village of Castelvetrano, about 100 miles inland from Palermo, Italy. Father, Antonio Smeraglia, did truck gardening in Sicily. Father came to America in 1894, arrived with other men Port of New Orleans, worked in sugar cane fields for $1.00 a day from sun-up to sun-down, and re-hired each day for the benefit of the employer, culling out those who worked hard from those who did not. Employment was not steady, therefore he saved his money. Six months later, he brought wife (Martha Spallina Smeraglia) to New Orleans. Heard about TCI ore mines between Bessemer and Tuscaloosa (Russellville), Alabama, where employment was steadier than in Louisiana. Mr. Smeraglia, the interviewee, was born Feb. 3, 1905 in that area of Russellville, Alabama. He was the fourth of six children (3 older brothers Louis, Joe & Frank, 2 sisters Lil Smeraglia Lett and Bessie Smeraglia Tommasello). Antonio saved his money, bought property, and started vegetable/garden farming. First son Louis was born in Castlevetrano, Italy, next sons Frank and Joe were born in Donaldsonville, LA. Antonio’s daughters Lil and Bessie were all born in Russellville, Alabama. Once Antonio and Martha established the farm they never moved away.
Claude Smeraglia is second generation, attended Barrett School in 1913. Italian dialect was spoken at home. Parents had little need of English as they lived among other Italians, and attended the Catholic Church, everyone around them spoke Italian. The immigrants learned English by picking up words here and there while doing business, and through the children as they were enrolled in school, but – Italian was spoken in the home, their Sicilian dialect. There were some English classes available to the immigrants in Birmingham taught by volunteers – enough to answer the questions necessary for successful completion of naturalization to become a citizen of the United States of America. He does not remember exactly what year his Father became naturalized, but is almost sure that it was before World War I. Mother, Martha was naturalized through her husband.
When the children started speaking English, they had a hard time communicating with their parents, trying to find the “right” Italian word for what they were trying to say. His parents did not formally learn English any other way except by working on the farm, enough to be self-sufficient. The six children in the family all helped with work on the farm. As a farmer, Antonio dealt with, and was instrumental in helping to create – thus being a charter member – of the produce association which was in several locations before finally settling on Findley Avenue, where it remains today as the Farmers’ Market.
Antonio Smeraglia gained much knowledge from the two Italian newspapers he subscribed to – one from New Orleans and the other from New York. There was no Birmingham Italian newspaper at the time.
Antonio’s children attended public school as parochial schools were not in vogue at the time. Besides, as it was, there was no parochial school in existence then, so there was no other alternative. Claude began Barrett School in 1913. Prior to first grade, he had played with neighborhood children occasionally, and they did get along – once they got to know each other. Italian was never taught in the public schools. Everyone adapted. However, he as well as his siblings came into contact with real discrimination when they began school, not only classmates but distinctly remembers the teachers’ attitudes and that of the principal, not direct and official, but rather “indirect and sensed”. If there was trouble or an actual fight, the Italians were treated as the “guilty or suspected” ones. They were called names like crossbacks (Catholics), fish eaters, spaghetti eaters, dago, made fun of our names, religion and nationality. It was understood that they felt the Italian immigrant was inferior.
Claude was conscious of his Italian heritage, and of his parents’ background being different from Americans’, immigrant children felt that their parents were stricter, it was evident that they were respectful for the “older” generation. When the children experienced disagreements and/or fights at school because of name calling, they would not tell their parents unless they were left with a physical mark. As far as the immigrants (from the adults to the children) were concerned, it was understood that the “Americans” or “natives” thought them foreigners, did not understand them, the Italian children felt that their classmates and “American” children in general felt sorry for them in a way, were naive in their name calling and were just repeating what they had picked up from their parents. Claude and his siblings attended Woodlawn High School. Their parents always felt that education was important for success.
Antonio and Martha tried to get their children to attend school through the 12th grade but the 3 oldest boys (Louis, Frank and Joe) were not interested in higher education and quit before graduating high school, Louis quit after 6th or 7th grade, preferring to work the farm and take care of the family interests, which in turn gave Claude the chance to take advantage of the opportunity to go to college. He was originally interested in chemical engineering but from a friend got interested in the idea of pharmacy. Since Claude opened the drug store, he says he has served some former classmates in his business without talking of the past, but he remembers what they went through with the discrimination. As the immigrant children grew up, many times they were reluctant to disclose that they were Catholic or Italian because of the previous and present discrimination. Claude felt that he was automatically cut from the social circle, especially when starting Pharmacy School in 1926 at Howard College. After 3 years of Pharmacy School, 1929 Howard College lost it’s accreditation for their Pharmacy School during the Depression. The Dean of Pharmacy and six Pharmacy students (one being Claude) went to the University of Tennessee in Memphis and graduated from the School of Pharmacy in 1930.
On the other hand, he always felt that the Italians were given a “chance” because they were allowed to attend white public schools, a distinct advantage over the negro situation at the time. Italian parents accepted the negro from the southern point of view, but did not mix with them socially because they did not want to violate the customs of the community. They had no innate prejudice nor real hatred of the negroes, just trying to get along within the community.
During the First World War Claude remembers that some went back to be conscripted into the Italian army, but returned to the US when the war was over. He does not recall any incidents toward Italians then, maybe because Italy was on the “allied” side. During Mussolini’s time, Claude felt that Mussolini did much to raise the prestige of the Italians in America, which was one of the reasons the Italians in America supported him, but then felt that Mussolini spoiled it all by declaring war on France, which was a mistake. Claude felt bad personally, and remains convinced that it lowered the esteem of the local Italians in the eyes of the community.
As far as the “black hand” goes, Claude felt that it had no root in Birmingham as this was not a large enough town to make it worthwhile for any rackets. He feels that Mussolini did good in trying to stamp it out in Sicily.
The Italian immigrants settled in sections or neighborhoods by themselves where they would be able to socialize, the elders felt free to speak the language comfortable to them, where they all enjoyed the same religion and practiced the same customs. This was what was familiar to them. At the time there were basically two Italian sections in Birmingham – The airport area and the Ensley area. It was the airport area that Claude Smeraglia’s people settled. Where the airport stands today was originally truck farms set up by that section of the Italian community. The city of Birmingham bought many of the truck farms when planning and constructing the airport – because of the flatness of the land. When the airport came to be, the Italians scattered around the airport itself and on into the East Lake area. Antonio & Martha Smeraglia and their children remained at the airport, which today is that property on which is the present location of Claude’s drug store. The property was bigger at one time, but has been divided among the children. At present, there is drug store, also other two stores (grocery, niece Marie Smeraglia Barranco) and cafe (brother, Joe) along with the gas station (brother, Louis) and more property owned by Mr. Smeraglia and his siblings.
U.S.P.P. was a club in which both Claude and his Father were members. He doesn’t remember what the name stood for. It is not in existence now. He is not a member of the Sons of Italy but is aware of it. He said that the Italians tried to form a central Italian Community Center, like the Jewish have, but it never succeeded – mainly because of lack of funds. Italians did not accumulate capital as the Jews had done.
He does not think the immigrant Italians are very interested in political organizations. Not enough of them here to make their vote worth a difference to either party. He gave as an example that there was a man his Father had voted for, and when asked for a favor, made out like he did not know him. There were a few Italians ambitious politically, but does not think they are very interested as a whole in political power.
Claude said that Tony Romeo of Foremost Dairy’s personnel division did a great deal for Italians in the community. Joe Fiore, worked at the Jefferson County Court House in the Tax Division and he was uncle to Duke Rumore, who was a local radio DJ and was an Italian active politically but not in a significant way, gains were negligible. Tony and Joe were first cousins and Joe was uncle to Duke. Ironically both Tony and Joe’s sons became pharmacists.
Claude felt that World War II lowered the prestige of Italians. Firpo, Washington’s Italian consul, was well liked and helped the immigrants with translation, etc. There was no consul after Firpo. The older element was dying out and the younger generation could handle their own affairs with their better command of the English language.
The airport neighborhood was originally all truck farms and eventually the younger generation began to scatter. When Claude married, he moved away from family as he felt that it was the best way to start out. They “moved right in to a nest of rednecks” 5th Avenue North and 79th Street followed by a move again to 3rd Avenue South 73rd Street, near Cascade Plunge, from there to Division Avenue and 68th Street. At first they were isolated, went back to visit their parents and the comfort of the old neighborhood. Eventually they did establish neighborly contacts with the non-Italians but each Sunday brought its own ritual of Sunday Mass followed by large lunches with extended family at the airport.
Concerning intermarriage, Mr. Smeraglia stated that Italians have no prejudice against marrying non-Italians but are more restrained in the question of marrying outside the Catholic religion. It is his belief that religion lasts longest between nationality and language, but nationality loses out in the mixture, even if from Italian stock. He gave as an example that his own children were brought up in a home where English was spoken, consequently his own children “know not one word of Italian.” He feels that it is better to know both languages. The children in the end missed out and that began the loss of Italian language and customs for the new generation.
When asked when he felt that Italian was no longer considered part of their “foreign colony” he answered that he believes it was just before World War II and definitely after that war. Feels that the war hastened assimilation in two ways:
- The government supplied soldiers with Catholic priests, who celebrated the Catholic mass, which made the ritual less strange, more open, and therefore more acceptable to others.
- As buddies, the mixture of Italian soldiers with “Americans”, under the pressure of wartime experiences. That broke the barriers of “strangeness” and lessened antagonism. He feels that the same will be true of the negro today.
Asked about tragic situations, many Italians during World War II whose homeland, Italy, was invaded, and their sons were sent to fight in the invasion, said “yes” it is true. Tragic because they did have feelings for the old country. You cannot erase childhood experiences, but also felt that what the immigrants went through when leaving one country and settling in another, certainly in most instances, that tore up whatever roots of allegiance there was to begin with. He mentions that his Father never had any desire to go back to the “old country”, not even for a visit. Father, Antonio still had relatives (a sister and brothers) who remained in Sicily and died there. But his Father never returned. He also never regretted coming to the USA, in fact he was proud of the fact and said many times, that after settling in American he “felt like an ox that had had its yoke taken off!”
Concerning discrimination among nationalities under immigration restriction laws:
- He feels that much of this is because of the immigrant’s occupation here and the type of “classes” coming over from the countries of southern and eastern Europe – living off of the land and coming from less developed environments, unlike northern and western countries, where technically they are more advanced with more opportunity for education. The Italians were hard working, industrious people, but did not represent the technically advanced or better educated class of people. Rather than formal education, the early immigrants brought to this country the trades of their fathers – stone mason, shoe cobbler, vegetable farming and along with that their own form of irrigation systems.
- He said that he feels the immigrants displayed “guts” in those days to go off to another country to make a “better” living for themselves and their families, not knowing the language or customs. Also important was that they were willing to break up their family relationships, even temporarily, in order to achieve their goal. He gave his Father as an example of this in that when he left for America after only six months of marriage he could not bring his bride with him then but rather sent for her later after saving money for her fare here.
- He strongly feels that when the negro becomes educated to the level of the average American, he will be accepted, HOWEVER – as long as he wants “unearned” privileges, he will not be accepted, only resented. He used the popularity of Governor George C. Wallace as evidence of resentment felt by the people. The negro will find out he needs preparation for his job, just as others did and do. America is not a sick society but does have sore spots which it has tended to overlook in the midst of other developments. However, he feels that, “there is more reason for hope than despair.”
Claude Smeraglia has no bitter feelings because of the discriminatory experiences he and his people have endured. He feels that they have had advantages in being the first generation here, with an awareness of two heritages! Again, about the negro he feels that discrimination should not discourage, but rather encourage the negro by learning and earning “some things in life that can’t be given to you”.
He noted that his son, Anthony (Bo) who attended Jacksonville State University was not aware of any discrimination and states that when son meets someone with an Italian name, he is not especially conscious of that either. He feels that that way of thinking is gone and behind us. Feels that the negro today is where the Italians were in the beginning of the 20th century!
Claude shared a story about a Polish man who saw soap being wasted at the water spigot in a mine in Pennsylvania and decided to go into the soap business, which was the beginning of Lever Brothers Company. He remembered hearing stories about the scarcity of soap in Sicily, in his parents’ home village. It was so scarce that they only used soap on Sunday mornings when going to church, then was put away and hidden for the rest of the week.
He suggested that this study be put in a book and a copy placed in the Birmingham Library as a public service. Also said that there was no other way of getting the information as this is “not in any book already”.
“America is not a sick society but does have sore spots which it has tended to overlook in the midst of other developments.” That’s a very tactful, almost poetic statement to make in a casual conversation. I think I would have gotten along pretty well with the guy. Unfortunately, he died before I was born.
When the Birmingham airport expanded in preparation for the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, most of the Italians’ land was bought out and many of the old commercial buildings were razed. A once close-knit, thriving community splintered into many pieces and eventually scattered around Birmingham and out to other cities. I guess that’s a pretty common tale.