By Tom Frascella
I have not written a President’s message to the membership of the San Felese Society of New Jersey in quite some time. I think we are all looking forward to 2022 giving us the opportunity to return to our organization’s core functions and activities and where we can gather to share our common heritage. We certainly all hope and pray that the lockdowns and social limits are a thing of the past.
Those limitations have forced us to curtail many endeavors over the past two years including discussions exploring our heritage and the development of a number of organizational research projects. I know from my own work that the inability to access libraries has caused me to pause my writing. During the past two years however many inquiries regarding both family heritage and our organizational history have been received via our website. So the interest from our membership and beyond remains high on those topics. As 2022 represents the 120th anniversary of the incorporation of our society in New Jersey I thought I would briefly address those two topics of inquiry in this message.
The incorporation of this Society under our official name Unione E Fratellanza Sanfelese in 1902 marks our society as one of the ten oldest continuously operating Italian-American organizations in the country. That longevity is quite an accomplishment and an indication of the dedication of our membership through the years. The 1902 date also helps highlight three important facts about our organization and its founding that might not be apparent at first glance.
First Fact: The incorporation occurred in 1902 at a time before about 80% of the Italians who would immigrate to the U.S had arrived. Much of the Italian immigration to the U.S. between 1800 and 1850 was dominated by arrivals from northern and central Italy. However, my research confirms that starting around 1850 southern Italians statistically began to dominate. In fact ultimately 80% of the 5.5 million Italians who have immigrated to the U.S. have come from southern Italy and Sicily. Consistent with that, people from the Italian State of Basilicata, where San Fele is located, began arriving in the U.S. starting in the late 1840’s with many settling in New York City. Following work opportunities some of these individuals began travelling to New Jersey and the Trenton area in the late 1850’s or early 1860’s.
Second Fact: By 1902 the Sanfelese immigrant/native community had years of residency in Trenton and other parts of the U.S. This was more than enough time for our ancestors to become familiar with the legal and economic rationale for forming a “benefit” society group. A benefit society charter is what was originally incorporated. The community by 1902 had decades to become acquainted with American society, institutions and culture. Benefit societies structured like the Sanfelese group were a common economic/social instrument in the 19th and early 20th century United States. In essence they were small collective insurance companies organized at a time before government social programs were common. The Sanfelese benefit society, like others benefit societies, would collect dues from its members and in addition to providing a social gathering network for its members would dispense a small disability/life insurance policy in case of need.
Third Fact: The Sanfelese community in Trenton was of sufficient size in 1902 as to financially support a benefit society. Estimates from 1900 indicate that there were about 2,000-2,500 people living in Trenton who were Sanfelese or Sanfelese descendants. In the census of 1900 more than half of all Italian/Italian-Americans living in Trenton were considered San Felese. In the Trenton statistics I would caution researchers that Sanfelese sometimes means what I would call “regional” Sanfelese. There are no cities or large municipalities in the rural mountains where San Fele is situated. Instead, there are many towns, villages and hamlets that are part of larger municipal entities that are called “counties”. Historically San Fele has been part of one of two counties, Melfi and Muro Lucano. People from any of the villages within these two counties seemed to have collected and at times are identified as San Felese in various writings in Trenton. As an aside, in New York City mid-19th century writings often put San Fele within the even larger regional municipal grouping of people from the Province of Potenza.
With San Felese immigration arrivals to the U.S beginning 50 plus years earlier than the founding of the Unione E Fratellanza Sanfelese in 1902 that founding should not be viewed as an initial community entity endeavor. My research indicates that there were three distinct phases to our ancestors’ immigration to the United States. In each phase it should be understood that the San Felese organized specific communal agencies to achieve success and survival in the immigration process. The first and earliest phase saw mostly young males immigrating. Organizations were created both regionally in Italy and in New York to aid these travelers regarding passage, fund transfers, employment and housing. This phase began in the 1850’s.
By the 1870’s while the U.S. was experiencing the worst economic depression in its young history San Felese men had begun to acquire steady and reliable employment in the U.S. This success did not come without native resentment and prejudice. However their successes allowed for a phase two to begin and allowed them to bring wives and family members over. Children began to be born here and neighborhoods began to develop. Again a number of organizations were formally and informally established by these Sanfelese immigrants in phase two with goals designed to solidify and enhance the community’s safety, security and assimilation. Often these organizations/agencies specifically were designed to overcome prejudices and social blockages encountered.
By the 1890’s the community was sufficiently established that the community’s organizational focus turned to long term permanent success and needs. The formation of the Unione E Fratellanza Sanfelese is one of six major institutions/entities established by the Trenton community all around the same 1900 time frame. Each of these institutions while established by primarily an immigrant base membership was designed to support, encourage and protect the community’s permanency going forward. The purpose of the “phase” three institutions was to support a community anticipated to be Americans with a need to preserve the native born “American” Sanfelese agility to function and survive in the American environment.
Growing up I frequently read about Italian immigrants arriving after 1900 and they were depicted in a certain way. What I have always found interesting is that the general narrative does not match up with the early and purposeful actions of our San Felese ancestors. Their resources were certainly limited and their culture and language disadvantages were significant but their purposeful and well thought out actions should be recognized. They designed and executed plans for both the contingencies they encountered and those that their permanent residency would require for success. Hopefully as we go forward more of what they accomplished will come to light, be discussed and be recognized for its insightfulness.
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