Exploiting Immigrants Old School in Arkansas-Mississippi Delta

Ottawa   Almost every month for the last 3 ½ years I’ve driven through the Lake Village area of southern Arkansas and more recently back and forth across the bridge to Greenville, one way or another, as well. Along the lakeside past the fishing docks, the boat launches, the catfish and barbecue places I’ve often done a double take when I see Regina’s Pasta Shop, heralding the “Italian Tradition” on the banks of Lake Chicot, and thought to myself, “what in the world is that doing here” in the middle of cotton and soybean country?

The mystery was both solved and deepened as the layers of the answer to that question were revealed in an uncharacteristically long piece in The Economist of all places. The eyebrow, headline and sub-head of the story tell a lot of the tale in a spoiler alert. The eyebrow said: “Immigration’s forgotten history.” The headline was “Moses in the Ozarks.” The subhead was: “The ordeal of Italian labourers is a parable of race and migration in the Deep South.” The dateline was both Lake Village in the south and Tontitown in Ozarks of Arkansas near Springdale, the city now famous as the worldwide headquarters of Walmart.

The story starts in 1861 at the Sunnyside plantation owned by Elisha Worthington who shocked the local community not by fathering two children by a slave, but by recognizing them. After the Civil War the plantation passed hands several times ending up with Austin Corbin, described by the business-conservative Economist as “a robber-baron financier and railroad speculator, who, as a founding member of the American Society for the Suppression of the Jews, barred them from the hotel he built on Coney Island.” He couldn’t find labor so he imported families from Genoa, Italy through New Orleans and up the Mississippi River to Sunnyside on a land contract scam, where they bought acreage with sharecropping credit on future cotton crops. Many died. All of the Italians lived through terrible discrimination against them that was common at the time and well into the 1930s, highlighted by the infamous lynching of 11 Italians in New Orleans in 1891.

The “Moses” of this story was a Jesuit priest from Italy sent as a missionary to Native Americans in Montana and later assigned to New York to “minister to put-upon Italians,” as they write. He bought land west of Springdale, Arkansas in the Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma. Forty families ditched their land contracts and somehow traversed Arkansas in an arduous and lengthy journey. The pioneers founded Tontitown, named after Henri de Tonti, a 17th century Italian explorer. Despite the neighbors hostility, which included burning down the first Catholic church, Father Bandini was the “town’s teacher, band leader and first mayor, as well as its priest.” Grapes were imported and despite the poorer soil, the cooler temperatures led to a wine industry still present in the area.

As for the Sunnyside shame and scandal, the Justice Department sent an investigator down in 1917 who stopped the importation of Italian immigrants. Their footprints are deep though. There is a part of Greenville called Little Italy. Lake Village became home to many where churches and traditions survived. Discrimination also grew there from the Ku Klux Klan. On the receiving end of prejudice, as The Economist writes, “is a sort of shadow version of African-Americans’, the hardship milder and the ending sweeter.”

There are still modern lessons to be learned from the hidden history of places like these all around us.

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