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Remembering a time when Italians were targets of anti-immigrant sentiment

While researching a "prequel" novel to Mario Puzo's "The Godfather," Virginia Tech English professor Ed Falco came across some disturbing bits of long-buried Italian American history. Among other things, he learned that anti-Italian sentiment during the late-19th century wave of immigration from Europe was uglier and more violent than he had realized, with lynchings, rioting and mass arrests of Italian immigrants, he writes. In an essay for CNN, Falco writes that he was reminded of present-day sentiments against Muslims and other immigrants:

In addition to prejudice based on ethnicity, Italian immigrants also had to face an older hostility toward their religion. In earlier centuries, Catholics in America were in a position similar to today's Muslims.

In 1785, when Catholics proposed building St. Peter's Church in the heart of Manhattan, city officials, fearing the papacy and sinister foreign influences, forced them to relocate outside the city limits. In this incident, it's easy to hear echoes of the Murfreesboro protests, as well as the ongoing protests against an Islamic center proposed for 51 Park Place in contemporary Manhattan.

On December 24, 1806, two decades after St. Peter's was built on Church Street, where it still stands, protesters surrounded the church, outraged by mysterious ceremonies going on inside, ceremonies we now commonly understand to be the celebration of Christmas. The Christmas Eve 1806 protest led to a riot in which dozens were injured and a policeman was killed.

The decades go by, they turn into centuries, and we forget. We've forgotten the depth of prejudice and outright hatred faced by Italian immigrants in America. We've forgotten the degree to which we once feared and distrusted Catholics. If we remembered, I wonder how much it might change the way we think about today's immigrant populations, or our attitudes toward Muslims?

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