At a vacant lot on South Orange Avenue, layers of black and white subway tile are visible through the grass at this time of year. Like frescoes from ancient Rome, the tiles look back at an Italian past, right here in South Orange.
Just after the Civil War, there were fewer than 4000 Italians in this country, and only about 100 in New Jersey. By 1900, immigrants from southern Italy were, by some reckoning, the dominant immigrant group to the United States. Many immigrants came from rural southern Italy, but landed in the cities, where they worked as shoe shiners, sewer workers, and any work that could be had.
A History of Newark, written in 1913, notes that Angel Maria Mattia, who arrived in Newark in 1871, was believed to the first arrival. Perhaps he sent home a good report; by the late 1870s, Newark and the Oranges saw Italian immigration swell.
Newark and the Oranges were a draw for many immigrants for a number of reasons. First, it was close to the port where many Italians arrives. Second, Newark and Orange’s factories offered steady employment. In fact, the Oranges became home to many Piedmont-region natives, as the Essex County hat factories were open to old-country hatters. South Orange also needed the labor during the post-Civil War decades, as railroad tracks were laid, and large houses built.
Many new arrivals to South Orange lived in the area near Church and Third Streets. The neighborhood had many two and three-family homes, often with a store on the ground-floor level.
Italian fraternal organization and mutual aid (mutuo soccorso) societies were common in neighborhoods in Newark and the Oranges. Locally, the Savoia Club, or Societa Sovoia remains. The organizations provided sick and death benefits for members, as well as a social, familial community.
Still, this wasn’t an easy life. Newspaper reports only a century old describe the Italians as “hot-tempered” and “violent.” Even A History of Newark notes that the immigrants “come from sections of Italy where they and their people for generations have been forced to live lives almost diametrically opposed to all that we of these United States consider essential to good citizenship. They have had much to unlearn…”
This editor argues that New Jersey had a lot to learn, as well, from the immigrants. The story of Italians in South Orange continues; the culture is all around us, not only on Columbus Day, but daily. Like the colors of a fresco, the culture remains vibrant in South Orange.
Stay tuned for more stories on immigrants to South Orange. Share your own stories with Marcia at firstname.lastname@example.org