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The “Privileged Dago”?: Race, Citizenship and Sicilians in the Jim Crow Gulf South, 1870-1924

  • Author(s): Jackson, Jessica Barbata
  • Advisor(s): Brundage, David
  • et al.

Although the Jim Crow South is usually considered a story of the black/white color line, it is also an immigration story. This dissertation recovers a history of immigrants in the South who were not totally “white” but who were not “black” either. Where did they fit? And on which side of the color line were Italians relegated when southern states started imposing their Jim Crow laws, like voting restrictions and interracial marriage bans? While not barred from officially naturalizing as U.S. citizens but denied “unofficial” access to citizenship, what can the narrative of the Italian in the Gulf South tell us about the historical construction of race and citizenship?

This dissertation expands the geographic boundaries and traditional focal points of immigration history and southern studies, rectifying the consistent exclusion of the Italian/Sicilian diaspora from southern history, and closes a significant gap in the existing scholarship on Louisiana and the Gulf South. Additionally, I trouble a reliance on strictly nation-state constructions of citizenship and broaden a point of inquiry for deconstructing race. Furthermore, by using a transnational approach, I reconfigure what we have previously understood about the story of Italian immigration: I analyze the lynchings of Italians, the impact of disenfranchisement efforts upon Italians, attempts to segregate Sicilian children from “white” schools, and the inconsistent way that Sicilians and other Italians were racially categorized within turn-of-the-century miscegenation statutes.

Ultimately, I provide a new framework for understanding the liminal status of racially-marked immigrants like Italians/Sicilians, who I term “racially transient.” This transiency meant that Italians moved among and between racial communities, as they slipped back and forth across the color line in ways that both reinforced it and revealed its instability. This transiency also caused southerners to paradoxically constitute their color and race; the lynchings of Italians represent moments when their “color-status” was contested, meaning Italians were vulnerable to being treated like other “non-whites,” while other moments subverted the racial questionability of Italians’ and progressively aligned them more fully within the “white” mainstream. Close readings of these historical moments reveal both the racial transiency of Italians and that context was crucial.

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