When I first moved to Birmingham in 1980, I was asked by several people if I were Italian. I would say “no, why?” …and the person asking would say something like, “well, you have such dark eyes and dark hair.” I had no idea at the time that there was a large Italian community in Birmingham and that this community has been present since the turn of the last century.
About a month ago, I received an invitation to attend a media event at Vulcan Park and Museum for an exhibit called “La Storia – Birmingham’s Italian Community.” This exhibit tells the story of Italian immigration to Birmingham from the late 1800s to the mid-20th century. Naturally, I was intrigued and anxious to learn more. So on Thursday, Nov 13th, we gathered in the Linn-Henley Gallery and heard incredibly touching stories by Dr. Phillip Ratliff, Vulcan Park and Museum Director of Education and Mary Jo Gagliano, Chair of the Exhibit Steering Committee. The gallery was filled with photos, storyboards and artifacts from the Birmingham Italian community – pulled together by the Italian American Heritage Society. I couldn’t get enough of this exhibit!!!
We quickly heard where the Italian community settled in Birmingham and how quickly it grew. The population was at about 130 in 1890 and grew to over 2,000 by 1920, settling mainly in Thomas and Ensley (steelworkers), Blocton (coal mining), and East Lake (farming). As is the case with most immigrant stories, the Italian immigrants were looked down on and took the lowest paying positions. Because of this, they formed their own close-knit communities building their own churches and schools. The Vatican sent Father John B. Canepa to Birmingham to help the community build three churches. In fact, he preached his first sermon at Our Lady of Sorrows church in Italian when he arrived in 1904. The Catholic faith was an integral part of their lives and continues to be today.
Another story that really peaked my interest had to do with religion and was the history of the St. Joseph altars. I have to admit, when I heard “altars,” it had me thinking about the Day of the Dead altars from the Mexican community. Mary Jo shared a different type of altar story with us and as a Catholic, I was surprised I had never heard of this tradition before. Each year on March 19th, the Feast of St. Joseph, Italian families prepare special foods to place on altars in their own homes. This tradition came from Sicily when after a serious drought, the Sicilian people prayed to their patron Saint Joseph for rain. When the rains came, they pledged to distribute food to the less fortunate. The tradition continues today and many believe that having a St. Joseph’s altar can bring good fortune!
I wondered why Vulcan Park and Museum would be hosting this exhibit and found out quickly that the statue (Vulcan) was designed by Italian immigrant Giuseppe Moretti. In addition, the stone tower where Vulcan currently stands was crafted by Italian stonemasons when the statue was moved to Red Mountain 75 years ago. The impact of the Italian immigrant community is felt all around us in our city beginning with the of the most visible icons – Vulcan.
As I listened to these stories, I couldn’t help but draw comparisons to the state of the current Hispanic immigrant community in Alabama. The struggles and yearning to draw acceptance is a common thread to these communities. It’s common with any newcomer. I had a chance to speak one on one with Mary Jo after the tour and she shared a few more personal stories that re-emphasized this point. We both agreed how important it is to tell our stories and keep them alive. We have so much to learn from one another…
This exhibit will run through September 2015 and there is a small admission fee for non-Vulcan Park members. Along with the exhibit, there are a number of events that will be featured through next June. I’m particularly interested in the March 12th Cooking Southern Italian – An Evening in a Sicilian Kitchen, where Mary Jo Tortorigi Gagliano of La Tavolo Sicilian cooking school and Chef Vizzina of The Vizzina Group will demonstrate techniques of Sicilian cooking. If it’s about food, it’s going to be good! Admission is $10 for this event. May 31st will feature a Sunday Afternoon Tour of Italian Catholic Churches along with two cemeteries dedicated o Italian immigrants. This event is $30 and will be presented by Dr. E. E. Campbell and world-renowned sculptor, Signoro Carlo Roppa. There are several other events that can be viewed on the Vulcan Park and Museum website. I hope I can get to all of them!
Meanwhile…here are a few shots from the exhibit…