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The Truth About Italian Slaves in America – Padrone Act of 1874

With the end of the Civil War, slavery ended in the United States, or did it? It seems unbelievable, if not criminal, that the freedom of Italians and Sicilians was not granted until almost eleven and a half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862.

While slavery ended in one form with Lincoln’s Proclamation, the groundwork for another insidious form was created through the Immigration Act of 1864. Passed to encourage immigration, it created the opportunity for padrones in America and allowed manufacturers to bring in a cheap foreign labor force under contract. The abuse of southern Italians and Sicilians by the Act amounted to indentured servitude sanctioned by the United States Congress. It would take a full decade for this form of slavery to be outlawed.

The word padrone is Italian for boss or manager. The padrone system was a contract labor system used by many Italians to find employment in the United States. The system was a complex network of business relationships formed to meet a growing need for skilled and unskilled workers. Padrones were labor brokers, usually immigrants or first-generation Americans themselves, who acted as middlemen between immigrant workers and employers.

As transoceanic travel became more efficient and less expensive due to introduction of the steamship in the 1860s, the Immigration Act of 1864 created a role for labor agents who sold the dream of making better wages to individuals in southern Italy and Sicily, who did not want to make the United States their permanent home. The work was often in mines, on the railroads and in agriculture. The workers dug canals, raised livestock and toiled endlessly in coal mines. They wanted to earn money in the United States and send home as much as possible, before returning to their country themselves.

The newly-arrived workers in many cases were as powerless as slaves. In practice, many padroni acted more like slave holders than managers and preyed upon poor, unskilled labor. The padroni served as travel agents, with fees reimbursed from paychecks; as landlords who rented out shacks and boxcars; as overseers on the work sites and as storekeepers who extended exorbitant credit to their Italian laborer clientele.

The degree of corruption varied, but the padroni always profited from the relationship. Passages from Italy were on ships owned by companies with whom they had contracts. Housing was poor tenement apartments shared among many immigrants in sub-human standards. The jobs they offered in America were often extremely hard with very little pay. The padroni “banks” would often take large portions of the worker’s money for various fees. If any money was sent home to their families in Italy, it would often never arrive.

The great new jobs promised would often be far from their new homes. If they arrived in Boston, the work would often be in the woods of Maine where they would labor endlessly under the padroni, often without seeing the wages they had been promised. The Italian immigrants often found themselves lost and confused in this new country; they could not speak the language, they did not understand the customs and they were often uneducated. The services of the padroni seemed the only choice they had to simply survive. A padrone could keep workers on the job for weeks or months beyond their contracts. Some padroni built vast labor empires, keeping thousands of workers confined in locked camps, behind barbed wire fences patrolled by armed guards.

At best, Italian immigrants felt that the padroni were necessary evils. Sometimes families would contract their sons into servitude to a padrone. The terms of the contract ranged from a sum paid to the parents in exchange for passage for labor. Immigrant workers were also charged a fee for initial job placements and often had to pay a monthly fee in order to keep the position.

Although largely unheard of, the Padrone Act of 1874 tried to stop the padrone system to protect immigrants from involuntary servitude. June 23 marks the day that the Padrone Act was passed in 1874. It abolished Italian and Sicilian slavery, or the form of it known as the padrone system. It was also the United States’ first anti-human trafficking law, intended to protect Italians and Sicilians and their children from further slavery in this nation. The day should be known as Italian Freedom Day, but sadly, the padrone system continued in one form or another until the 1930s. Although no longer a sanctioned form of servitude, United States authorities did little to improve the plight of the Italian workers. At the turn of the 20th century, southern Italian immigrants were among the lowest-paid workers in the United States. Child labor was common and even small children often went to work in factories, mines and farms or sold newspapers on city streets.

Italian immigrants fought against unscrupulous management and unsafe conditions by taking organized action. Because several of the major unions barred foreign workers from membership for many years, many immigrants formed their own unions.

After the systematic exploitation of Italian immigrants sanctioned by the U.S. government, why are no Italian American groups protesting to make June 23 a national holiday? Why are no Italian Americans seeking reparations for the years of toil as indentured slaves? Why haven’t Italian Americans rioted, looted and torn down statues? Why do Italian Americans work, rather than seek handouts? The answer to each of these questions is the same – because we are Italian Americans.

Through hard work and education, the children of these exploited workers gained their foothold in American society and began the strenuous climb up the social ladder. It was by serving this country in vast numbers during WWII that the rest of American society began to begrudgingly acknowledge the spirit, bravery and patriotism of Italian Americans. Rather than seeking welfare, Italian Americans earned respect one small step at a time. It took decades and the sweat of millions of Italian Americans to achieve the stature now enjoyed by the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of the 19th and 20th century immigrants. Italian Americans do not try to erase history. Italian Americans do not play the blame game; Italian Americans do not seek welfare or handouts. Italian Americans taught their children about what had to be endured so that the lessons of the past could make for a brighter tomorrow.

Now our people hold the highest positions in the land, save the U.S. Presidency. It began ever so slowly, with our ancestors who forged a path into this country; where their Constitutional rights were denied; where their backs were nearly broken by hard work; where their heritage, culture and language were mocked, but their determination and pride were unwavering. Our forefathers represented the best ideals of this country’s founding fathers and the words of Filippo MazzeiTutti gli uomini sono per natura equalmente liberi e indipendenti – All men are by nature equally free and independent. It has taken generations of work for Italian Americans to reach this level of acceptance in society and the success of our people can be measured by our accomplishments. This is as it should be in the land of opportunity, not simply for Italian Americans, but for ALL people, regardless of race, creed or color.