Italian families have been found in cities and small towns throughout Mississippi since the 19th century. Their story of coming to America shows the obstacles that immigrants to Mississippi faced in assimilating to the broader society and their achievements along the way.
The Mississippi River towns
The first Italians came to Mississippi as part of explorations the French and Spanish governments conducted in the Mississippi River Valley. They were part of Hernando DeSoto’s expedition in the 1540s, and Berardo Peloso was the first European to see Pascagoula Bay in 1558.
Italian explorers thus contributed to the early development of what would become Mississippi, but a greater impact was made in the 19th century when Italians began coming to the United States in larger numbers than before, with many entering the nation through the port of New Orleans, settling along the Mississippi River in Natchez and Vicksburg. These river towns were more open to newcomers than more rural parts of the state and Italians early became socially accepted in those places. There were only about 100 Italians in Mississippi when the American Civil War began in 1861 and they experienced the siege of Vicksburg during the war and some served in the Confederate Army.
The Mississippi Gulf Coast
The late 19th century saw the arrival of larger numbers of Italian immigrants who left Italy seeking economic opportunities. Some Italians from Sicily settled as families along the Mississippi Gulf Coast in Biloxi, Ocean Springs, and Gulfport, preserving close ties with those in their homeland. They worked in the fishing and canning industries. Others were merchants, operating grocery stores, liquor stores, and tobacco shops.
Biloxi’s prosperous tourist industry in the early 20th century created opportunities for ambitious young men like William Cruso who arrived in Mississippi penniless but soon was buying seafood from coastal fishermen and selling it to restaurants. By the 1960s, the Cruso seafood packing plant run by Cruso’s descendants was one of the largest in the South.
The Mississippi Delta
Italians also settled in the Mississippi Delta. The first immigrants came there in the 1880s, working to repair levees and staying as hired farm laborers on plantations. Some of these families became peddlers selling goods to farmers.
In 1895, the first Italians came to the Sunnyside Plantation, across the Mississippi River in the Arkansas Delta. That plantation would become the stopping off place for many Italian settlers along both sides of the river. They were mostly from central Italy and experienced in farm work. Padroni were landowners in Italy who supplied extended families with a place to live in exchange for their work on the landowners’ farms. This was a comparable situation to owners of plantations in the Delta who had tenant farmers. Italian-American labor agents developed lucrative businesses importing farm workers. Those immigrants who came from central Italy generally entered the United States at Ellis Island in New York City and then traveled directly to Delta farms.
Italian settlers came to Sunnyside already in debt because the plantation owners paid the costs of transportation to the United States, which the tenants then had to repay. As the system developed on Sunnyside, farm tenants were held in virtual peonage, lacking the knowledge of the American legal system and the financial resources to challenge efforts to hold them on the plantation.
A 1907 investigation by United States Justice Department Special Agent Mary Grace Quackenbos revealed the harshness of this system, leading to changes and movement of Italians into Mississippi. Planter, lawyer, and politician LeRoy Percy had been a founder of Sunnyside, and he facilitated the distribution of Italian workers to farmers in the Mississippi Delta, with Greenville an important place in the process. Problems of planter profiteering and dishonest dealings with Italian tenants continued to plague the Delta’s agricultural system, but Italian families gradually saved money to buy their own land, or their children left farming for business activities.
Another group of Italians who came to Mississippi was from Sicily in southern Italy. They came first to New Orleans and worked in nearby sugar cane fields. When they arrived in the Delta, they generally settled not on farms but in towns, establishing such businesses as grocery stores, fruit stands, and restaurants. Living in towns gave better access to education than for those Italians living on farms, and the Sicilians took advantage of educational opportunities, resulting in their children entering professions earlier than Italians from central Italy. Greenville had the largest population of Sicilian immigrants in the Delta.
Mississippians had a variety of attitudes toward Italian immigrants in the 20th century. They were sometimes portrayed negatively as dirty, violent people, and newspapers encouraged such stereotypes by printing sensational stories of occasional violent behavior. Mississippi was a racially conscious society, and Italians were sometimes dismissed as second-class citizens because their skins were darker than those of White people of northern European ancestry. The Italian immigrants who were tenant farmers were downgraded because they did the same work as Black Mississippians, who were at the bottom of the social scale. Italians experienced bigotry and prejudice, directed at their ethnic background. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan targeted Catholics, including Italians, for discrimination.
At the same time, other observers looked favorably upon Italians in Mississippi. A magazine writer, Emily Fogg Meade, said in 1905 they were a “frugal, moral and industrious people.” She insisted they were “hard, patient workers, willing to do any kind of work, and to do it thoroughly.” Writing in 1941, Greenville planter and poet William Alexander Percy concluded that Italians in the Delta “brought from the Mediterranean thrift and industry, unhurried energy, a sober and simple culture, earthy and warm.” He complained, though, that their offspring were losing these virtues, rivaling native Mississippians, he said, in “vulgarity and loudness.”
One of Mississippi’s greatest writers, Tennessee Williams, wrote often of Italians in the state, and his portrayals show the complexity of views about the group. Williams’s play, The Rose Tattoo, resulted from his appreciation of the life he saw along Italy’s Mediterranean Coast and from his vivid memories of Italians he had known in south Mississippi. The play is about a group of Sicilians in a mythical Gulf Coast community between New Orleans and Mobile. Serafina delle Rose is an earthy seamstress living in a rundown house in an Italian neighborhood. She is one of the most memorable characters in literature, portrayed with a passion for life that Williams admired and saw as characteristically Italian. “I think Italians are like Southerners without their inhibitions,” Williams later wrote, insisting that their “vitality is so strong, it crashed through them.”
Another Tennessee Williams play, 27 Wagons Full of Cotton, was produced on Broadway in New York City in 1955, and it portrayed another literary character, Silva Vacarro, as a violent Sicilian superintendent of a plantation syndicate in the Delta. The film version of the play, Baby Doll, humanized Vacarro, stressing the hostility he faced because he was foreign-born in a society that looked suspiciously upon outsiders.
Their cultural life
Italians developed a distinctive cultural life in Mississippi, preserving traditional ways from their European ancestry and yet adapting to the culture of the American South. Families have continued to cook Italian food, with recipes long passed down from grandmothers and beyond. Italians in the state made homemade wine to go with their pasta dishes and “home brew” as well, which usually meant homemade beer. Festivals such as Saint Joseph’s Day in March continue to be built around food customs, with home altars decorated with baked goods displayed along with religious images and statues.
Italians established restaurants that helped popularize Italian food in the state. Greenwood, in particular, has several restaurants with deep Italian connections. Lusco’s and Giardina’s both trace back their ancestry to families from Cefalu in Sicily. Charles and Marie Lusco were first generation Italian immigrants, who established a grocery store in 1921. Local cotton farmers spent time there, playing cards in the back, eating the dishes that Marie prepared, and drinking Charles’s homemade wine. Like many Italians in the state, the Luscos lived in Louisiana before coming to the Delta, and their restaurant food soon became a fusion of Creole, Italian, and Southern foodways.
Italians in Mississippi came from a predominantly Roman Catholic country, and the church has provided vital institutional support to them through generations. The overall Catholic population in Mississippi is relatively small, but Italians are a prominent group within many Catholic churches across the state. One of the most prominent Italian families in Mississippi, the Bruninis of Vicksburg, produced a respected Catholic religious leader, the late Joseph Bernard Brunini, who was bishop of the Natchez-Jackson Diocese from 1966 to 1984. His father, John Brunini, was a Vicksburg attorney who was active in the church, and his mother, Blanche, was originally from Louisiana but attended St. Francis Xavier Academy, run by the Sisters of Mercy, and married John Brunini in 1895. Bishop Brunini played an important role in promoting civil rights in Mississippi, supporting civil rights workers in Greenwood, chairing the Mississippi Religious Leadership Conference, and promoting the integration of Catholic parochial schools in the state.
Religion, family life, farming, business management—all have been central concerns of Italians who came to Mississippi and carved out new ways of life that drew from their inherited traditions but also responded to the challenges and opportunities of a new society. The Italian population in places like the Mississippi Delta has declined in recent years. Shaw, for example, had over 100 Italian families in the 1930s, but the population there has declined since the 1950s, hard hit by the same agricultural problems in the Delta that have led to general population loss in the area. Still, Italians made their mark throughout the state, and Mississippi Italian heritage societies continue to preserve the legacy of their past into the future.
Charles Reagan Wilson, Ph.D., is a professor of history and the director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause, 1865-1920 and is co-editor of Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.
Canonici, Paul V. The Delta Italians. Madison, Miss.: No publisher, 2003.
Carpenter, Barbara, ed. Ethnic Heritage in Mississippi. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
Cobb, James C. The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Magnaghi, Russell M. “Louisiana’s Italian Immigrants Prior to 1870.” Louisiana History (Winter 1986), pp. 43-68.
Meade, Emily Fogg. “Italian Immigration into the South.” South Atlantic Quarterly (1905), pp. 217-223.
Percy, William Alexander. Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1941.