The rural Deep South, including Mississippi, never attracted large numbers of immigrants. There were few large cities, and would-be laborers were plagued by competition from slavery and by prejudice toward Catholic foreigners. As a result, Italian immigration was slow, concentrated in specific areas, and radiated from New Orleans.
The first Italians entered Mississippi as members of the de Soto expedition in the 1540s. Among them was Berardo Peloso, who in 1558 piloted a ship and became the first European to see Pascagoula Bay. In 1699, when the French settled the Gulf Coast in the vicinity of Biloxi and later at Fort Maurepas (Ocean Springs) and Fort Rosalie (Natchez), immigrants from the Italian Piedmont came as convicts, settlers, and soldiers. One of the more famous was Enrico Tonti, who had been born in Naples and received military training in France. Prior to his death in 1704 of yellow fever, he served as a skilled Indian agent and successful soldier when diplomacy failed.
During the nineteenth century many Italians entered Mississippi through the port of New Orleans. Carrying produce into the Mississippi Basin, they were attracted to Natchez and Vicksburg, where their small numbers and the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the communities allowed them social access. Among the Italian names appearing in city directories was L. A. Cusmani, who sold “family groceries, tobacco, cigars, liquor and plantation supplies.”
When the Civil War began in April 1861, Mississippi was home to more than one hundred Italian immigrants, and men named Grillo, Leoni, and Rietti joined the state’s Confederate cavalry and infantry regiments. They served with distinction on the battlefield, with some paying the ultimate price. During the 1863 Siege of Vicksburg, Italians and other residents lived in caves and tightened their belts as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s army threatened the city.
In the late nineteenth century, massive emigration began from Italy because of lack of economic and social opportunities and compulsory military service. Italians from Calabria, Sicily, and the Marches entered Mississippi through New Orleans, where many maintained family ties. Italians worked as farmers, merchants, or employees in the fishing and canning industries along the Gulf Coast at Biloxi, Ocean Springs, and Gulfport. The Caruso family operated one of the largest canning plants on the Gulf Coast, while the Deangelo family operated the Italian Shipyard at Moss Point (1881–1934). In Mississippi, where foreigners and Catholics were few in numbers, Italian shopkeepers took steps to maintain a low profile and sold primarily “American” goods. Italians who settled in Hattiesburg, Laurel, Granada, and other towns maintained strong ties with relatives and friends in New Orleans.
In the 1880s the first Italians were attracted to the Mississippi Delta to work on levee repair and remained to farm or work as laborers on cotton plantations. Many lived in plantation housing, and some developed small stores or “rolling stores” (wagons laden with merchandise) to serve the rural communities.
Throughout the state, Italians brought their culture with them. Families carried the tradition of baked bread, and beehive-shaped ovens appeared next to shacks and homes. To supplement their diets they developed large gardens and raised poultry and hogs. Frugal in their ways, few Italians ran up large debts at the plantation commissaries.
In 1904 Natchez had two hundred Italian residents working as merchants, small proprietors, and truck farmers, while Canton had one hundred Italians and Gulfport had thirty. In 1910 more than a thousand Italians lived in Bolivar and Washington Counties in the Delta, while another thousand were scattered around the rest of the state.
Italians established mutual benefit societies to serve as social and assimilative centers in Bay St. Louis, Clarksdale, Shaw, Greenville, Jackson, and Natchez. Although some Italians joined Protestant denominations, the majority remained Catholic, and their presence helped to expand the Catholic Church in Mississippi. Bishop Joseph Brunini, who came from a Vicksburg Italian American family, served as bishop of the Diocese of Jackson-Natchez from 1968 to 1984 and worked to promote his faith and ecumenical ties with non-Catholics. Delta cuisine often incorporates Italian tastes and recipes, as is demonstrated by the menus at restaurants such as Giardina’s and Lusco’s in Greenwood or the iconic Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville.
Beginning in the late nineteenth century, Italian Americans became involved in local and state politics. Mississippi-born Frank J. Arrighi served as Vicksburg’s city assessor around the turn of the twentieth century. The Botto family played a prominent role in the community as well. Andrew Houston Longino, born in Lawrence County to a family whose roots stretched back through eighteenth-century North Carolina to Italy, served as governor from 1900 to 1904.
In the early twenty-first century the last of the original immigrants could still be found working the land and enjoying the fruits of their labors. Younger Italian Americans continue to enter politics and the professions. In Jackson, in the Delta, and along the Gulf Coast, Italian Americans maintain their cultural and social ties and their traditions.
- Russell M. Magnaghi, Louisiana History (Winter 1986)
- Emily Fogg Meade, South Atlantic Quarterly (1905)
- Girolamo Moroni, Bollettino dell’Emigrazione (1913)