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New Orleans to apologize for lynching of 11 Italians in 1891, among worst in American history

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, shown here in 2018, is expected to apologize to the Italian American community for the infamous killings. (Annie Flanagan for The Washington Post)

The mob assembled promptly at 10 a.m., crammed so tightly on the pavement that the streetcars couldn’t run.

Thousands of people, among them the most prominent businessmen, lawyers, merchants and politicians in New Orleans, marched in circles around a statue of Henry Clay. The crowd was “yelling itself hoarse,” bent on a kind of justice that would be called murder today but that The Washington Post and numerous other newspapers called “vengeance” in 1891.

The mob’s victims awaited in the Orleans Parish jail, all of them Italian immigrants or children of immigrants who had just been acquitted in the shooting death of the New Orleans police chief; others still awaited trial. To this day, the chief’s killer or killers have never been identified. But on the morning of March 14, 1891, despite the not-guilty verdicts, the mob seemed certain.

“When the law is powerless,” William Parkerson, the mob’s leader and mayor’s former campaign manager, yelled to the crowd, according to a 1991 New Orleans Times-Picayune article, “rights delegated by the people are relegated back to the people, and they are justified in doing that which the courts have failed to do.”

Once the speeches finished, The Post reported then, everyone stood still for a moment, quiet just long enough for one man’s voice to catch the agitated crowd’s attention: “Shall we get our guns?”

The verdict was decisive. That morning, anywhere from 8,000 to 20,000 vigilantes armed with Winchester rifles, axes and shotguns broke down the door of the parish jail and trampled past the passive sheriff’s deputies until they captured 11 defenseless Italians and riddled their bodies with bullets. Two were dragged outside and hanged, one by a tree limb and the other by a lamp post.

Historians have called the massacre the largest mass lynching in American history. The vigilante mob escaped any consequence, and the city of New Orleans refused to take responsibility.

But now, 128 years later, the city is trying to make amends On April 12, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell (D) is expected to apologize to the Italian American community for the infamous killings — a concession that Michael Santo, special counsel to the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy, said will shore up “long-lasting wounds” among Italians. The mayor is expected to issue a formal proclamation, according to the group. A spokesman for Cantrell confirmed the pending apology to the Associated Press on Sunday.

“This is not something that’s too little, too late,” Santo told The Post. “This is something that has to be addressed.”

The lynchings were a product of anti-Italian sentiment and public hysteria over a shadowy “Mafia” in the aftermath of the chief’s slaying, according to a 1992 paper in the Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association by John V. Baiamonte Jr.

Jessica Jackson, a history professor at Colorado State University who specializes in early Italian immigration to the Gulf South, told The Post that, until the shooting, Italian immigrants were integrating relatively well into New Orleans communities. Local farmers and business owners had recruited them from Sicily to take over jobs on sugar plantations and in the fruit importation business, seeking to fill the void left by emancipated slaves. Before long, the immigrants had started to build businesses of their own.

But the night Police Chief David Hennessy was shot, on Oct. 15, 1890, life in New Orleans changed dramatically for Italians, Jackson said. Just before Hennessy died, rumors circulated that he blamed Italians for the shooting, using an ethnic slur.

“There was some preexisting anti-Italian sentiment that [after the shooting] people saw was then validated or justified,” Jackson said. “It was not a universal sentiment, but the discourse existed. Some were concerned with upwardly mobile Italians who then used this to capitalize on some of those fears of Italians they had.”

From then on, virtually no Italian person was safe from suspicion. Hundreds were rounded up by police and arrested, according to Jackson and newspaper archives. Ultimately, 19 were indicted on murder charges or accessory to murder charges, including a 14-year-old boy accused of blowing a whistle to alert assassins that the chief was coming.

But the evidence was flimsy. The first trial resulted in the acquittal of six men, while a mistrial was declared for three other men. They were all returned to jail anyway, where the remainder of the accused Italians were housed. The jury foreman explained to the papers afterward that jurors were skeptical of some of the alleged eyewitnesses, according to Baiamonte’s paper. Having visited the scene, they realized it would have been impossible for the chief, or anyone standing 30 to 40 feet away, to recognize the assailants’ faces in the dark.

But the public didn’t buy any of it, instead believing that Italians had somehow bought off the jury.

In the next morning’s papers, dozens of city leaders called on “all good citizens” to meet at the Henry Clay statue at 10 a.m. so they could “take steps to remedy the failure of justice.”

“Come prepared for action,” the advertisement said, according to New York Times archives.

The apparent call to arms alarmed the Italian consulate, which immediately requested extra protection for the Italian prisoners from the mayor of New Orleans. But none was to come. “Conveniently,” Jackson said, the mayor was nowhere to be found. And as the riot and the massacre unfolded, police arrived but stood idly by, according to accounts — inaction that would lead to a diplomatic crisis with the Italian government.

Santo said it was “not just the lynchings” that disturbed him. “It was the nature of cooperation and the complicit involvement of the city government at that time. In other words, who participated in this?” he questioned. “The wealthy business people, the politicians, the lawyers who ran the city."

The Post described the mob’s leaders as “cool-headed men” and “persons of influence” in an 1891 article, which Santo said disturbed him too, along with coverage in the New York Times and the local New Orleans press. Most of the coverage appeared sympathetic to the lynch mob, reflecting city leaders’ own attitudes, Santo said.

“CHIEF HENNESSY AVENGED,” read the front page of the Times, whose editorial board later called the “sneaking and cowardly Sicilians” a “pest without mitigations.”

“NO MERCY WAS SHOWN,” said The Post’s headline on Page 1, adding: “Vengeance Wreaked on the Cruel Slayers of Chief Hennessy.”

The Daily Picayune declared the violence a “marvel of moderation,” while to the New Delta, the deaths were little more than a day’s work. “This done, the people hurried back to their usual avocations, and the sun went down upon a peaceful city,” the paper wrote, before the bodies had even been buried.

The accounts published in the papers at the time revealed vile details, reported from close range. According to The Post’s account, the man hanged from the lamp post was also shot at a dozen times as he dangled lifeless in the air. The Times reported that the mob spared the 14-year-old child charged with being accessory to murder — apparently its one act of mercy — but that men seeking to broach a confession from the boy assured him his father was alive and well, believing that would relax him.

His father was in fact lying on the floor with a bullet in his head in the next room, the Times reported. It took him hours to die.

Jackson said that the lynchings are far less widely known than they should be, despite their place in a much larger American narrative of violence and intimidation waged against minority groups.

“It’s an important piece of the historical puzzle,” she said, “and I see this apology as very much an important piece of historical recovery, and reckoning with this historical record that some people don’t know very much about.”

Santo, who is 63, said that he was flummoxed upon learning of the sordid lynchings only a few years ago, feeling he had to share the history with as many as possible. The boldest action his group could think to take, he said, was to confront the city of New Orleans directly.

The Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America, the country’s largest fraternal organization of Italian Americans, was thrilled after the Cantrell agreed to confront the history, Santo said.

“One would think something like this would never happen again,” he said. “I believe it’s possible that it could. And so this should serve as a lesson, to make sure it never does happen again.”

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