Learning the History of the Lenni Lenape

When I was in fourth grade the entire year focused on New Jersey history. As much as I disliked Mrs. Stackfleth, I will say she was great at teaching the history of the Garden State.

We spent a great deal of time learning about the Lenni Lenape, whose traditional territory spanned what is now eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Lower New York, and eastern Delaware. “Lenni-Lenape,” literally means “Men of Men”, but is translated to mean “Original People.” The two tribes we focused on the most were the Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape Tribal Nation and the Ramapough Lenape Nation; both from New Jersey. Just like most things in Jersey today, one was in what is now considered South Jersey and one was in what is now considered North Jersey.

Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape Tribal Nation is made up of descendants of Algonquian-speaking Nanticoke and Lenape peoples who remained in, or returned to, their ancient homeland at the Delaware Bay. Within the larger South Jersey tribe, there were three main groups; the Munsee (People of the Stony Country) lived in the north. The Unami (People Down River) and Unalachtigo (People Who Live Near the Ocean) lived in the central and southern part of the homeland.

The Ramapough Lenape Nation were a Munsee-speaking band, an Algonquian language-speaking people. Although the Ramapough Lenape Indian ancestors have resided in the Ramapough Mountains for thousands of years, there is little documentation in New York or New Jersey that refers to the nation. This is most commonly believed to be due to a lack of written language by the Ramapough people. As a result, most information has been passed orally from generation to generation, much of which has been lost to the ages.

The Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape Tribal Nation and the Ramapough Lenape Nation are both recognized by the New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs.

Throughout the year all the Tribal Nations in New Jersey as well as the New Jersey Commission on American Indian Affairs offer programs on their histories and original ways of life. It is a great way to learn about the original residents of Jersey.

Hoffa & Jersey: Perfect Together

“New Jersey and you… perfect together.” ~Governor Tom Kean

I remember seeing that commercial often growing up. It was a wonderful sentiment. Unfortunately, it turned into the tail end of a lot of jokes. From taxes to traffic, Jersey was perfect with a lot of things. Includes Jimmy Hoffa.

I grew up hearing the rumor he was a speed bump at Giants Stadium. That he had to be moved when the original stadium started to be built. Then, according to the book “I hear you paint houses,” Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran claimed to be the bagman who rubbed Hoffa out. However, when the house where he claimed the murder took place was searched, the DNA found did not match that of Hoffa.

Most recently, Phillip Moscato, Jr. said hitman Salvatore “Sally Bugs” Briguglio was the one who killed Hoffa. Moscato Jr. is the son of Phillip “Brother” Moscato, Sr., a Genovese crime family powerhouse in New Jersey who died of liver cancer in 2014 at the age of 79. Moscato, Sr. took the Fifth while testifying before the federal grand jury after Hoffa’s disappearance. A 1972 FBI Report described Moscaro Sr. as “one of the top loan sharks in Hudson and Bergen counties.”

A 1964 photo of Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa outside the federal courthouse in Chattanooga. (Credit: Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP, File)

Federal investigators have long stated that Hoffa was murdered in Detroit when he disappeared on July 30th, 1975, and was reportedly transported to New Jersey by the Genovese crime family. It is believed that he was buried in the large dump that Moscato’s father owned in Jersey City, the PJP Landfill, known as “Moscato’s dump.” But Phil says that after one of his father’s mafia cohorts flipped and cooperated with the FBI in November of 1975, four months after Hoffa vanished, the body was moved so that authorities would not discover it.

That claim seems to have new life as the FBI has recently searched the PJP Landfill below the Pulaski Skyway. This search is related to interviews given by Frank Cappola, who was a teenager in the 1970s and worked at the old PJP Landfill in Jersey City with his father, Paul Cappola. Cappola said his dying father explained in 2008 how Hoffa’s body was delivered to the landfill in 1975, placed in a steel drum and buried with other barrels, bricks and dirt, according to reports from The New York Times and Fox News.

Frank Cappola spoke to Fox Nation and journalist Dan Moldea before he died in 2020 and signed a document with his father’s detailed story. So, out went the FBI… again. In late October of this year, the FBI searched the landfill. There’s no confirmation whether or not the FBI removed anything from the location.

So it seems Hoffa and Jersey will be perfect together for a little bit longer.

World War I Ended 100 Years ago… In New Jersey?

While many believe “the war to end all wars” ended in 1918 when the Armistice took place, technically the United States did not formally end World War I until 1921. Where did it end you might ask? You guessed it, New Jersey.

Allow me to explain.

The United States entered the Great War in April of 1917, almost three years after the War began. New Jersey would send 72,946 conscripts and 46,960 volunteers to fight. Camp Dix, later Ford Dix, opened in July of 1917, and the 78th “Lightning” Division was activated there one month later. Many New Jersey-born African Americans joined the 369th Infantry Regiment, a unit organized in nearby New York that went onto become the first black regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Force.

The women of New Jersey also made significant contributions to the war effort. New Jersey was the training site for approximately 300 women who served in the Army Signal Corps as bilingual long-distance operators. Jersey ladies campaigned in Liberty Bond efforts as well as volunteering to serve with aid organizations such as the Red Cross. Dupont hired countless women to work as munition makers at plants in Carney’s Point, Salem County.

From Salem County to Morris County, manufacturing was everywhere. In 1915, Hercules Powder produced 150,000 pounds of cordite per day at the company’s Kenvil plant (not far from where I live currently in Ledgewood). Even Singer Sewing Machine in Elizabeth converted their normal production to wartime materials. By 1918, New Jersey was the largest supplier of munitions in America.

Ultimately, New Jersey paid a heavy toll. Our beloved state lost 3,836 New Jerseyans to combat, accident and disease. You can find over 160 monuments dedicated to our brave fighters. A total of nine New Jerseyans were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, including Marine Gunnery Sgt. Fred William Stockham of Belleville, my hometown, better known to those of us as The Motherland.

So, how did the United States officially end involvement in WWI?

On November 11, 1918, Germany signed the Armistice at Compiègne, ending World War I. In January of 1919, the Paris Peace Conference began. In June of 1919, Allied and German representatives signed Treaty of Versailles. The United States signs a treaty of guaranty, pledging to defend France in case of an unprovoked attack by Germany. However, the first time the Treaty of Versailles was presented to Congress in November of 1919, it failed. Yes, I’m serious.

The marker where the American involvement of World War I ended. Credit: atlasobscura.com

The Treaty of Versailles was presented to Congress for a vote again in March of 1920 and failed… again. No, I’m not kidding.

Ultimately, the Knox-Porter Resolution was signed by President Warren Harding to officially end American wartime involvement in July 1921. It was signed in Raritan, New Jersey on July 2, 1921.

I would love to tell you President Harding picked New Jersey to sign the Resolution as a thank you for all the contributions our great state made to the success of the war effort, but I would be lying. The President was visiting Senator Joseph Frelinghuysen of New Jersey to play golf. The papers were delivered to the Raritan Country Club, where the President signed the resolution and officially ended World War I… during a break from his golf game.

Now all that remains from that famous spot is a marker just off the Somerville Circle, not far from (you guessed it) a shopping mall. It’s funny and sad at the same time.

So what have we learned?

First, as I have always known, we are an awesome state. Our ancestors played a key role in the success of War.

Second, as I have mentioned in previous posts, it is important we protect our historic landmarks. A marker on the side of a busy traffic circle is undignified. Protect our Jersey history. Our future generations are depending on us.

Finally, and most importantly, our state paid a heavy price. We owe our vets a debt that can never be repaid. So make sure this Veteran’s Day to thank a vet. Shake their hand, pick up their check at the diner, or buy them a cup of coffee while on line to pay at Dunkin Donuts. We owe them far more, especially those who gave their last full measure of devotion. May God bless them and their families.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: You!

For my last post for Italian Heritage Month, I felt I needed to highlight a very important person that is part of Italian heritage in New Jersey: you!

And when I say you, I mean the collective you; the Italian-American community in New Jersey.

All month I’ve shared stories of amazing New Jerseyans of our past and those who represent our future. Well, you represent that future as well!

There is a very specific reason I decided to make this post about our community. Not too long while scrolling through Twitter (yeah, I know), I came across a post from a woman who is a journalist and of Italian descent. She wrote an opinion piece about Columbus and how the holiday should be eliminated. I was curious as to what she had to say, so I clicked through to her article and read her piece. I disagreed with her premise, but hey, everyone is entitled to their own opinion. At the end of the piece, there were links to her other articles. I checked out some of her other articles and I quickly noted a pattern. First, I don’t think she has written anything happy. From Mother’s Day to Thanksgiving, she hates it all. Second, just about every article painted her heritage in a very poor light. I really felt like she is a self-hating Italian-American. It made me sad.

You’ve read my laments about the continued stereotyping of Americans of Italian descent in the media, the disrespect we face from individuals who look to demean our heritage, and just through the simple passing of time, all that makes our community special is starting to drift away. Very few actually care what past generations have contributed to our great state of the meaning of what it means to be of Italian descent. Ask five people tomorrow if they know when Italian Heritage Month is. Maybe you’ll get one correct answer, if you’re lucky. Therefore, it is up to us to make sure we pick up the flag that was handed to us by the generations before us and lift it high.

As a Gen-Xer, I usually just embrace my inner eyeroll when someone says something stupid about Italian-Americans because I know better. However, that is no longer the case. And it shouldn’t be the case for any of us.

My Uncle Chubby used to tell us to never forget where we came from. While I have always tried to heed his advice, it has brought new meaning to me over the last year. As I mentioned in my previous post, this year I joined two Italian American associations: the Italian American Once Voice Coalition and the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. I started listening to the Italian American Podcast, which provides fascinating stories and information about Americans of Italian descent. I am working on leaning Italian. Most of all, I make sure people are laughing with me, not at me.

As I have said, those of Italian descent is the last ethnic group that people not only make fun of openly, they are encouraged through negative stereotyping. Just as I started this blog to increase awareness to the wonders of New Jersey, I also am going to take a more active role in reminding people that our heritage is more than The Godfather and Goodfellas. And for the record, those idiots from Jersey Shore were from Staten Island.

So as this Italian Heritage Month comes to a close, I encourage all of us that are of Italian descent to make sure you preserve the history of your family and our collective heritage. Our future as a community depends on it.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Patrick O’Boyle

Now, I know what you are thinking. This is Italian Heritage Month. Why am I highlighting a guy with an Irish name? Stick with me and you will quickly see why.

So far this month, I have highlighted important figures who have been important parts of the foundation of Italian heritage and culture in New Jersey. But I worry about the future of what it means to be of Italian descent. It is up to us as a community to make sure we take what we have learned from the generations before us and carry it forward.

Enter Patrick O’Boyle. Yeah, I know. The name. Like I said, stick with me.

He may have an Irish last name, but he is exactly what we as a community need to make sure our history is not cast aside. To make sure our proud heritage is not forgotten or nothing more than a stereotype in movies. Even better, he is a true Jersey guy.

Originally from North Arlington, he has a strong Catholic faith. He attended Queen of Peace High School. He completed his undergraduate studies at Seton Hall University (another reason I like this guy) and received his J.D. from Seton Hall Law School. He has his own private law practice in New Jersey and is a professor of law at Montclair State University.

He may be an attorney, but I am convinced he is a teacher at heart.

As part of the ensemble that makes up The Italian American Podcast, his knowledge of Catholic history and canon law is simply impressive. His knowledge of Italian history is equally impressive; from food to culture to all that is Italian. Listening to him and the ensemble of the podcast is like sitting back and enjoying a cross between a lecture on Italian culture and eating Sunday dinner.

Patrick is working hard to protect our heritage and has been recognized for his efforts. He is the Vice-President for New Jersey of the Italian Sons and Daughters of America (ISDA) and President and Prior of the Congregazione Maria Ss. Del Sacro Monte di Novi Velia Salerno di Jersey City, NJ, a member of the Boards of the Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere and the Coccia Foundation for the Italian Experience in America, a Founding Board Member of the Sandumanghesi Del Cilento Society, the former New Jersey Area Coordinator and Member of the Youth Activities Board and Young Professionals Council of NIAF, and the Past National Youth Committee Chairman of Unico National, the nation’s largest Italian American service organization. He is also a Knight of the Order of Merit of Savoy, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre, and a Knight Official of the Sacred Military Constantinian Order of Saint George and the Order’s Vice-Delegate for the United States.

Patrick has inspired me to take a more active role in cherishing my heritage. I’ll be honest, when my Grandmother passed away, I felt like a lot of my connection with what makes me Italian was lost. A part of me died with her. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about her. Every few years I made a half-hearted attempt to learn Italian. Needless to say, it hasn’t gone well. I just started up again.

I recently joined the Italian Sons and Daughters of America. As I mentioned, I am working on learning Italian. I’ve picked up on my family history documentation in Ancestry. Years ago I made a family recipe book with all the recipes written out by hand. I’ve been adding to it with recipes that weren’t documented anywhere at the time. I joined the Italian American One Voice Coalition. I am making a conscious attempt at rediscovering and preserving my family heritage as well as my ancestral heritage.

So my lesson to you is this; regardless of your heritage, take a page from Patrick’s playbook. Embrace and celebrate it.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: St. Lucy’s Church

If someone asked me what is the most important location associated with Italian heritage in New Jersey, I would say without hesitation St. Lucy’s Church.

Since its cornerstone was placed in 1891, St. Lucy’s Church in Newark has been a source of pride and devotion for the millions of Italian immigrants and the generations that followed. In 1998, St. Lucy’s Church was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

The parish namesake, Saint Lucy (Santa Lucia), martyred in Sicily in third-century is the patroness of those afflicted with diseases of the eyes.

St. Lucy’s Church is the home of the National Shrine of St. Gerard. Every October, tens of thousands of the faithful flock to pay homage to St. Gerard. St. Gerard Maiella of Avellino was born on April 6, 1726. He was the only son of Benedetta and Comenico Maiella. Because of his frail health he was not immediately accepted into the Order but, due to his insistence and persistence he was finally accepted in May of 1749 and became a lay brother of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. St. Gerard passed away on October 16, 1755. In 1977, St. Gerard’s chapel in St. Lucy’s Church was dedicated as a national shrine. While it was never made official, he is considered by many to be the Patron Saint of Mothers.

The third pastor, Msgr. Joseph Granato, served the parish with dedication and faith in God’s providence for 54 years, until June 2009. For those of us who have met Msgr. Granato, he borders on rock star status. His dedication to St. Lucy’s and the community has earned him a spot on many prayer lists of families of the parish.

At its height, over 30,000 Italian immigrants lived in the one square mile around the church, known as the First Ward. For over 80 years, that neighborhood thrived and supported their beloved church. Sadly, the neighborhood came to its end in the post-World War II period. The main factor causing the disintegration of the neighborhood came in 1953 thanks to developers and the city government. They forced people give up their homes and move against their will, bulldozing in days what took over eight decades to build. City officials often referred to the First Ward as a “slum.” The Newark Housing Authority claimed its rebuilding efforts would slow or reverse the population shift to the suburbs, however, they couldn’t have been more wrong. Approximately 15 percent of First Ward residents left the city for good (including my family) the moment they were displaced. More than half the businesses in the clearance zone ceased to exist. Those homes were replaced with large buildings providing low-income housing. As the years continued, they were a great source of crime and an example of all that was wrong with Newark. Unfortunately, the damage was done at the point. The First Ward was destroyed and one of the most vibrant Italian communities in the country was history. All in the name of progress.

People with a connection to the area, and St. Lucy’s specifically, still return regularly for church. I am the fourth generation of my family that returns to St. Lucy’s every October for the Feast of St. Gerard. It is one of only two churches in the entire state where I feel truly at peace and able to prayerfully reflect and enjoy the silence.

I tell everyone I know, if you have never visited St. Lucy’s, take the time to visit this amazing church full of beautiful art and history, as well as a strong connection to the Italian community of New Jersey.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: John Basilone

In an earlier post, I noted that Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent made up approximately 10% of the entire fighting force during World War II; more than any other ethnicity. Despite Italian immigrants kept under surveillance and some put in containment camps, they volunteered by the thousands to fight against their Motherland.

One such great child of Italian immigrants was John Basilone from Raritan, New Jersey. One of 10 children, Basilone was born in Buffalo, New York in 1916. He grew up in Raritan. At age 15 he dropped out of school to work locally for a short time before joining the military.

Staff Sergeant John Basilone
Source: Wikipedia

He first enlisted in the Army in July 1934 and completed his three-year enlistment with service in the Philippines. Basilone was initially assigned to the 16th Infantry at Fort Jay, New York, before being discharged for a day, reenlisting, and being assigned to the 31st Infantry.

After his discharge from the Army, he again worked locally for a short period of time; this time as a truck driver. He wanted to return to Manilla and serve once again, so he reenlisted; this time as a Marine.

He went to recruit training at Parris Island, followed by training at Marine Corps Base Quantico and New River. The Marines sent him to Guantánamo Bay for his next assignment and then to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands as a member of “D” Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division.

In 1943, he returned to the United States to help with the War Bond effort. He was highlighted in Life and Movietone News. His hometown of Raritan had a parade in his honor. He helped raise money for the War effort.

While he appreciated all the accolades, he really wanted to be back fighting for his country. He requested a return to active duty multiple times. He was offered a commission, which he turned down, and was later offered an assignment as an instructor, but refused this as well. When he requested again to return to the war, the request was approved. He left for Camp Pendleton, California, for training on December 27. On July 3, 1944, he reenlisted in the Marine Corps.

After his request to return to the fleet was approved, Basilone was assigned to “C” Company, 1st Battalion, 27th Marine Regiment, 5th Marine Division. On February 19, 1945, the first day of the invasion of Iwo Jima, he was serving as a machine gun section leader on Red Beach II. With his unit pinned down, Basilone made his way around the side of the Japanese positions until he was directly on top of the blockhouse. He then attacked with grenades and demolitions, single-handedly destroying the entire strong point and its defending garrison. He continued to fight alongside service members until the very end. It is believed he was killed by a burst of small arms fire.

His actions helped Marines penetrate the Japanese defense and get off the landing beach during the critical early stages of the invasion. Basilone was posthumously awarded the Marine Corps’ second-highest decoration for valor, the Navy Cross, for extraordinary heroism during the battle of Iwo Jima.

He was the only enlisted Marine to receive both the Navy Cross and the Medal of Honor in World War II. Two United States Navy destroyers bear his name.

He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington, Virginia. He left behind his wife, Lena Mae Riggi, who was a sergeant in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve during World War II. They met while he was stationed at Camp Pendleton.

Basilone made America proud, especially at a time when the country needed heroes. He stood up to be counted in the new homeland of his family. He made not just his country proud, but New Jersey proud, as well as those of us who count ourselves among the 1.5 million New Jerseyans of Italian descent proud. We owe him a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Joseph Rotunda

Many of us have passed by Rotunda Pool in Newark on our way to St. Lucy’s Church or coming out of Branch Brook Park and have not given it a second thought. It is, however, an important location in the community and New Jersey Italian heritage.

The Rotunda Pool plaque
Source: Newark Historical Society

Rotunda Pool is named after Private Joseph Ralph Rotunda Jr., the first soldier from Newark’s Italian-American community to die in World War II. The dedication of this pool stands a testament to his sacrifice, as well as the sacrifices of the countless Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian decent that fought on behalf of their new homeland. The official renaming from Clifton Pool to Rotunda Pool took place in 1966.

By the early twentieth-century, approximately 21,000 Italian immigrants made Newark the fifth largest Italian-American community in the country.

Private Rotunda was killed by a land mine while serving with Cannon Company, 168th Infantry, in Tunisia, Northern Africa, as part of the first invasion forces. He had only been overseas for three months. A letter to the family from Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, dated June 9, 1943, informed the family that their son was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart.

On June 16, 1943, the Newark Evening News reported on an announcement from the War Department which listed the death of Private Joseph R. Rotunda, Jr. as one of four soldiers from New Jersey to lose their lives in combat. In total 229 U.S. soldiers were reported killed in action in North Africa and 630 more wounded, 11 of whom were from New Jersey.

In February 1944, after seeking permission from Joseph Rotunda, Sr., officials from the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) designated the Pvt. Joseph R. Rotunda Jr. Post (No. 848) in honor of the “first soldier from the First Ward to be killed in action in this war.” This post became the ninth V.F.W. unit in Newark.

So next time you ride past Rotunda pool, maybe take a moment and bow your head or tip your cap to the memory of Private Rotunda.

Italian Heritage in New Jersey: Connie Francis

When I thought about who I should highlight first this year during Italian Heritage Month, I wanted to go with a local hero. Yes, she is a favorite daughter of New Jersey, but she is also a favorite daughter of my hometown, Belleville.

Connie Francis, 1961; Credit: ABC Television, under Creative Commons License

Concetta Rosa Maria Franconero, known professionally as Connie Francis, was born into an Italian-American family in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark. She attended Arts High in Newark for two years before attending Belleville High School, where she graduated as salutatorian from BHS Class of 1955. The high school auditorium is now named in her honor. Additionally, “Connie Francis Way” can be found at the corner of Greylock Parkway and Forest Street in Belleville, near the house in which she grew up.

Students sitting in that auditorium today may not know the importance of Concetta Franconero to our “Beautiful Village,” but those of us of a certain age certainly do. Early in her career, Arthur Godfrey made two recommendations to her. First that she drop the use of her accordion in her act. Second, that she change her name from Concetta Franconero changed her name to Connie Francis “for the sake of easier pronunciation.” So she officially became Connie Francis to the world.

Her life has been full of triumph and tragedy. She’s had many top songs we all know and love. I am particularly fond of Where the Boys Are and her rendition of Mama. She also acted in several movies during her young career. In the late 1960s, Francis went to Vietnam to sing for the troops. Through the years, she has performed charity work for organizations such as UNICEF, the USO and CARE.

Deep sadness struck her life several times, unfortunately. The first time was in Westbury, New York, following a performance at the Westbury Music Fair. Francis was the victim of a brutal rape and robbery after an intruder broke into her hotel room and held her at knifepoint. She nearly suffocated under the weight of a heavy mattress the culprit had thrown upon her. Her attacker was never caught.

In 1977, Francis underwent nasal surgery and completely lost her voice. She went through three more operations to regain her singing voice, but it took four more years to regain that lovely voice of hers.

In 1981, further tragedy struck Francis when her brother, George Franconero, Jr., with whom she was very close, was murdered by Mafia hitmen. Franconero, who had twice given law enforcement officials information concerning alleged organized-crime activities, was fatally shot outside his home in North Caldwell.

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan appointed her as head of his task force on violent crime. She has also been the spokeswoman for Mental Health America’s trauma campaign. She worked hard to turn her personal tragedy into a story of triumph and inspiration for others.

In 1984, Francis published her autobiography, Who’s Sorry Now?, which became a New York Times bestseller.

Francis continued to perform and record and prove what Belleville and Jersey tough means. That’s why I felt she deserved to be the first person I honored during this year’s Italian Heritage Month.

October is Italian Heritage Month

If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know I am a proud New Jerseyan. I am also very proud of my Italian heritage. October in Italian Heritage Month and as I do each year, I plan on writing about New Jerseyans of Italian heritage that have made a significant impact on our state or our country.

Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent have a unique history all our own. More than 1.45 million residents of New Jersey reported having Italian heritage according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The town of Fairfield is home to the most residents with Italian heritage in the United States. Seven of the top 20 towns in the United States with the most residents of Italian ancestry are right here in the Garden State.

The great migration from Italy took place between 1880 and 1914; a total of 13 million Italians came to America and made it home.

At its height, Seventh Avenue in Newark was one of the largest Little Italies in the United States with a population of over 30,000 within one square mile. The center of that neighborhood was St. Lucy’s Church, built by Italian immigrants in 1891. St. Lucy’s holds the National Shrine to St. Gerard, the patron saint of expectant mothers.

That’s where the story of my family begins. The First Ward of Newark.

Like the countless other Italians that came to America, they came to build a better life for their family and future generations. They worked hard, many changed their names to sound American, they learned English, and became citizens. My Uncles joined the military along with the 1.5 million other Italian Americans during World War II, making up 10% of the total fighting force, eager to prove their loyalty to their new home country. While they were off fighting against their homeland, however, tens of thousands of Italian immigrants in America were subject to curfews, forced from their homes, and lived in military camps without trials. They were considered Enemy Aliens.

These Italian immigrants came to America looking for a new home and were ready to prove themselves as good Americans and work. Unfortunately, they weren’t always able to find it. “Italians need not apply” was a common theme. We were looked down upon, no matter where we went in the country.

The lynching of eleven Sicilians in New Orleans in 1891 was the largest and most outrageous mass lynching in United States history. The lynchings took place on March 14, 1891. New Orleans Police Superintendent, David Hennessy was gunned down in October 1890. As he gasped his last breath, he supposedly uttered, “The dagos did it.” Officials quickly arrested numerous area Italian immigrants and attributed the slaying to “Mafia activity.” After a public meeting where people called the Italians “not quite white,” a mob gathered shouting “Hang the dagos!!” To avenge the murder of a popular police superintendent, unrestrained mobs went into the city jail and beat, clubbed, and fatally shot eleven Italian prisoners.

Dago. WOP. Guinea. Ginzo. Goombah. Just a handful of the names Italian immigrants and Americans of Italian descent have been called over the years. Each of which gets a giant eyeroll from me. They are meant to hurt. They only hurt if you let them. I remember hearing a story from my Aunt who said when they moved into a new neighborhood, a neighbor approached her mother (my Grandmother) and asked if they would be going to “our church,” to remind them they were outsiders. Without missing a beat, my Grandfather said “I though it was God’s church.”

From name calling, to lynchings, to being considered enemies of the state, to the stereotype that all Americans of Italian descent are “connected,” I say… whatever.

Let me tell you what it means to me.

Being an American of Italian descent is never forgetting where you came from and honoring it every day. It is about faith and family. It is recognizing our ethnicity is that last one it is “allowed” to be made fun of and not letting it bother us. Ours is a history of food, culture, art, and music that should be celebrated.

I am a New Jerseyan. I am an American. I am of Italian heritage. I hope you go on this historical journey on me for the next month.