Thursday, September 7, 2017

A Brief History of the Abruzzese Society and Italian-American Fraternal Organizations in Schenectady

This post was written by Archives Assistant Angela Matyi. Angela processed our collection of Abruzzese Society records through a Documentary Heritage Program Grant provided by the New York State Archives.

Officers of the Abruzzese Society, undated. Courtesy of the Abruzzese Society Collection.
In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, the city of Schenectady saw a massive influx of Italian immigrants.  Like many immigrants to America, they came seeking work and opportunities for economic and social advancement, things that were not altogether difficult to find thanks to the dynamic presence of the General Electric and American Locomotive companies which pulled in laborers by the thousands.  However, opportunity alone does not an easy life make. 

America was an unfamiliar country, with unfamiliar customs and an unfamiliar language.  Adaptation to it all was difficult at the best of times.  It was not long before the Italian immigrants felt keenly the need to establish some kind of organization that would provide immigrants and their descendants a place to engage with fellow Italians, creating and reaffirming bonds of fellowship and, later, providing financial assistance in the event of illness or injury.  The first of these fraternal communities to be founded was the Societa’ Unione Fratellanza, in 1892.  By 1900 it boasted forty members, though these were mainly comprised of the “prominenti,” those men who had already achieved some level of economic success, particularly in business. 

The turn of the century also saw the founding of Schenectady’s second Italian-American fraternal society, the Societa’ Giuseppe Garibaldi.  Though this organization was a combination of a political (GOP) club and a mutual benefit society, there was frequent crossover between it and the simpler Fratellanza, perhaps most noticeably when the Fratellanza’s first president, Stephen Abba, went on to become in the first president of the Garibaldi Society as well.  He was not long for the post.  The position of president in these societies had become one of prestige within the Italian-American community, as well as a vehicle for exercising a degree of true political influence; the result being three leaders of the Garibaldi Society in as many years.

Contributing to this sudden prominence was the spike of Italian immigration to Schenectady in the early twentieth century, which both allowed for and necessitated a sudden motley assortment of region-specific fraternal organizations.  This was as much a consequence of the geographical and social makeup of pre-1900 Italy itself as the desire for community felt by the new Italian-Americans and their children.  For centuries, “Italy” was a more abstract concept than a geopolitical reality; a vaguely understood umbrella title used for the collection of the various kingdoms and city-states that happened to call the Italian peninsula home.  Though the “Kingdom of Italy” was officially declared in 1861, it was not until 1870 that full political unification within the borders of a geographically recognizable modern-day Italy was technically complete.  Even then, a few hundred years of social habit was hard to break.  For decades afterwards, many people still identified themselves socially and politically with a specific region rather than with the nation-state.  With regional customs and, especially, dialects slow to give way to pushes for standardization, cultural fragmentation was still the Italian norm into and past 1900.

It was this mindset that the Italian immigrants brought with them to Schenectady, preferring to refer to themselves as Calabresi (Calabrians); Siciliani (Sicilians); or Napoletani (Campanians, or “Neopolitans”).  Although the Fratellanza and Societa Garibaldi were open to all Italians regardless of origin, this wave resulted in the founding of multiple regional fraternal societies.  Curiously, none dedicated solely to peoples coming from Campania were ever founded, despite their soon accounting for about 60% of Schenectady Italians; though a society for immigrants from the Campanian town of Alvignano, confusingly located in the province of Caserta, was formed, the Society of the Laboring Men of Alvignano.  In any case, regional societies founded after 1900 included the Benevolent Brotherhood of the Sons of Northern Italy (popularly referred to as the “Alta Italia Society) in 1902, several organizations for Calabrians and Sicilians in the 1920s, and the Societa Laziale for Roman Italians in 1930.

Members of the Abruzzese Society during an annual meeting, undated. Courtesy of the Abruzzese Society Collection.
Into this mix was added the Abruzzese Society (Societa Abruzzese) in 1912, established for immigrants from the (then combined, now separate) regions of Abruzzi and Molise in southern Italy.  This was the first regional mutual benefit society formed for any part of the Italian-American community, and not a moment too soon.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the greatest employers of the immigrants’ unskilled labor, the General Electric Company and the American Locomotive Company, were also the greatest source of injury to their (overworked and underpaid) employees.  To address this issue, the Abruzzese Society followed the typical model of mutual benefit societies. 

 In this model, members would pay a small monthly due so that, in the case of illness or injury, they would be entitled to a certain amount of money per week for up to twelve weeks, and a larger amount of money in the event of a death.  During the Society’s earliest days, the due was one of $0.50, the weekly payout of $6.  If a member of the Society did indeed die, a sum of $50 would be given to the deceased’s family to cover the funeral costs.  Furthermore, all other members would be required to attend the funeral service, with a fine of $5 imposed for failure to attend.  Since the first members of the Society were relatively young and in good health, this mortuary fund was little used in the early years.  Poignantly, though, one does see small expenses for things such as wreaths ($10) and a carriage to carry Society representatives ($15), usually for the funeral of a member’s child.  

Handbook for the Abruzzese
Society. Courtesy of the
Abruzzese Society Collection.
Admission to the Abruzzese Society was restricted to males between the ages of fourteen and forty-five, with initiation fees increasing with the age of the initiate; the idea being that young children and those verging into seniority would be more likely to fall ill, and thus constitute a drain on the Society’s finances.  For this reason, admission was further contingent upon good physical health and “spotless reputation” (though exceptions, decided by an assembly, could be made in the case of minor misdemeanors), and members were not entitled to benefits for injuries or illnesses brought about by brawling, venereal disease, or drunkenness.  Within a few years of its founding, the Abruzzese Society could boast seventy-two members, and its example was being followed by other regional groups.

Many of Schenectady’s Italian-American fraternal and mutual benefit societies continued well into the mid-twentieth century.  However, after this point they started gradually to decline and disappear.  The Abruzzese Society was the only one, along with the national Sons of Italy organization, to remain in operation into the twenty-first century, celebrating its Centennial in 2012.  Nevertheless, its membership continued to dwindle, and in early 2016 the last ten members of the Abruzzese Society decided to disband the organization.

Boxes of the Society’s records were donated to the Schenectady County Historical Society, and now offer a unique look into a defining part of Schenectady’s history and culture.

No comments:

Post a Comment