During the latter part of the 1800s immigration from Italy to the United States began to increase and continued to do so into the early 1930s. With this influx, these Italian immigrants began to establish themselves in a number of major cities. Italian immigrants came looking for a better life and a chance to prosper. But, as with other ethnic groups before them, feelings of resentment and prejudice began to surface. The United States government began establishing tight quotas only on Italian immigration.
This sentiment came to a boiling point when New Orleans’ Superintendent of Police, David Hennessy, was gunned down on the evening of October 16, 1890, while walking home from work. New Orleans was home to more Italian immigrants than any other southern state at the time. It is documented that between 1884 and 1924 nearly 300,000 Italian immigrants moved to New Orleans. On this fatal night, it was reported that Hennessy, on his dying breath, said that “the Dagos shot me”, using a slur for Italians.
The fallout was overwhelming as individuals of Italian descent were arrested en masse and 19 people, including a 14-year-old boy, were eventually indicted in connection to the crime. The murder of Hennessy fueled the flames of anti-Italian sentiment throughout the United States. Even the New York Times began printing articles derogatory to Italian immigrants, declaring the nine men that would eventually go to trial as already guilty.
At the trials of those nine, six would be found not guilty and the court proceedings for the other three ended in a mistrial. The result only fueled the flames even higher, as the New Orleans Daily States newspaper wrote, “Rise people of New Orleans. Alien hands of oath-bound assassins have set the blot of a martyr’s blood upon your vaunted civilization.”
In response, March 14, 1891 became a day that would go down as one of the darkest moments in U.S. history. Thousands of angry residents, many of them prominent citizens, gathered near the jail where the Italians were still being held. Impassioned speakers whipped the crowd into a frenzy, painting all Italian immigrants as criminals who needed to be driven out of the city and the accused as needing to be properly punished. The crowd eventually broke into the city’s arsenal, grabbing guns and ammunition, and overtook the prison shouting, “We want the Dagos.”
While storming the prison, a smaller group of armed men grabbed not just the men who had been acquitted or given a mistrial, but several who had not been tried or accused in crimes. Hundreds of shots rang out as 11 men’s bodies were riddled with bullets and torn apart by the crowd. The mutilated bodies were put on display as the crowd cheered. Some corpses were hung and what remained of the others were torn apart and plundered for souvenirs.
The repercussions were overwhelming as word of the incident reached other parts of the country, including the West Coast and Europe. The acts of vigilante justice were decried by the Italian government, which demanded that the lynch mob be punished. Exchanges between the Italian Consul General and the U.S. Secretary of State were less than cordial. It prompted President Benjamin Harrison, on December 9, 1891 in a message to congress, to declare that the incident was a “most deplorable and discreditable incident”, and was “offensive against law and humanity.” He further stated, it did not “have its origins in any general animosity to the Italian people or in any disrespect to the Government of Italy, with which our relations were of the most friendliest character.” In an attempt to show there was no animosity towards Italians, the U.S. government paid reparations of $25,000 to the Italian government. Despite the political rhetoric, no formal indictment was ever brought against any individual in the New Orleans mob. In a further attempt to resolve the issue and gain favor with Italian immigrants and many who were becoming U.S. citizens, President Harrison held the first national Columbus Day celebration in 1892. But it wasn’t until 2019, over 120 years after the incident, that New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell issued a formal apology for the city’s actions during the lynchings.
As a result of the New Orleans incident and continued animosity towards Italian immigrants, Italian organizations began to form to educate their constituents and become involved in supporting their communities’ activities. Negativity, which was seen at various levels from New York to Detroit and Chicago, was also felt throughout the Bay Area. In South San Francisco, known for its industries and downtown businesses, non-Italian laborers worked full time and enjoyed benefits while local Italians, known for their hard-working ethics, would be hired to work part time with lower wages and without benefits.
In those times many Italian immigrants had ventured to the West Coastal towns and cities where their hard work and labor afforded them the opportunities not available in other parts of the country. Many Italian families would pool their resources from the work of fathers, mothers, sons and daughters to eventually open their own businesses. But, in many instances, the prejudice against them would also follow them.
Realizing the importance of knowing the English language, acclimating to the ways of the U.S. government and the importance of voting, classes were formed in homes of various Italians throughout the San Francisco Bay Area. A group of Italian immigrants, led by Giovanni Tacchi, Battista Rodondi and Pietro Mariani, formed the Italian American Citizens Club (IACC) in South San Francisco on December 7, 1916 as an incentive for those of Italian Heritage to become citizens. One of the main principals of the Club was to portray the positive image and contributions of Italians in the area.
In its efforts to unite the Italian population the IACC became a strong political club that dealt with the everyday problems confronting the communities in San Mateo County. Instead of battling prejudice and racial slurs with protests and marches, they decided to endorse candidates that were supportive of Italian communities. Through the years candidates for the school board, city council, sheriff, judges and county officials would appear before the membership asking for their support. Social events were open to the community at large. These included dinners, picnics, sponsoring of soccer teams and parades on Columbus Day and the 4th of July. Other Italian organizations and clubs of various ethnic groups from San Mateo and San Francisco Counties were invited to participate, displaying the acceptance and unity among the various groups.
Monthly meetings, established in 1916, were initially held in the Italian language until April 1, 1926, when English was installed. The meetings were initially held at the homes of officers and members of the Club and even consisted of English classes. Through the years the Club moved from place to place and was held, the majority of times, in an open top floor space within Gildo Rozzi’s building located at 415 Grand Avenue. Other locations used were the All Souls Catholic Church Hall (which was dedicated in 1916) and at the South San Francisco Women’s Club, also located on Grand Avenue.
On January 6, 1927, the members voted to open their meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance. The IACC kept a pulse of the political climate in the United States and Italy. Having emigrated from a country ruled by a king and witnessing the rise of fascism, two important bylaws were installed by the members over the next few years. The first, “no one person would rule the Club and the membership would vote on all items”. The President would conduct the meetings; members of the Board would chair the committees; and the membership would vote to approve or disapprove any new rules.
The second, enacted in June 1935, stated, “No member of the club that is an elected public official can have an official position in the club due to conflict of interest”. This was their way of forming an active, democratic organization, without political influence.
On July 4, 1937, an Independence Day Parade was held, which included representatives from throughout the Bay Area, and consisted of a Queen, floats and musical marching bands. A marble bust of George Washington was presented to the City of South San Francisco in celebration of the first President of the United States, who incidentally spoke Italian. The IACC made the presentation on behalf of the fact that Washington’s grandparents had immigrated from England in search of a better life like so many others of various ethnicities have done since then. Since its presentation, the bust is located on the front lawn of the old South San Francisco City Hall on Grand Avenue and continues to represent the past and current history of the Italian community in South San Francisco. The bust and pedestal were rededicated in 1991, in celebration of the 75th Anniversary of the IACC, once again in front of the Old South San Francisco City Hall.
On December 7, 1941 the United States entered into World War II and new waves of animosity towards Italian Americans and Italian immigrants raised their ugly head as Italy was part of the Axis Powers. New resentments and anti-Italian sentiment surfaced in many parts of the country, including South San Francisco and the Peninsula. Mayors of various cities began to make statements that Italian men, not married, should be sent back to Italy. Additionally, Italians who were not citizens had to remain within their city limits and in some parts of the country were being interned.
Shortly after the United States’ entrance to the war, the officers and members of the IACC decided to stop being an active organization and the Club went into a hiatus until 1946 when members were invited to rejoin. Even the San Francisco Italian Athletic Club, located in the City’s Little Italy, North Beach, removed “Italian” from its name and did not reinstall it until the late 1970s. What many did not understand was that the Italian people had been betrayed by their fascist government.
In South San Francisco, approximately 1,019 young men and women entered the military. Of these 336 were Italian Americans, sons and daughters of local IACC families that had continuously sought recognition to become accepted as Americans. Eleven of these brave individuals would eventually pay the ultimate price, never to return home. Many Italians, immigrants themselves or children and grandchildren of immigrants, contributed to the war effort.
Marine Corp Gunny Sergeant John Basilone, who had earlier served for three years in the US Army, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award bestowed in the military, for his heroic actions during the invasion of Guadalcanal in 1942. Basilone, son of Italian immigrants, was also awarded the Navy Cross in 1945 posthumously for his heroic actions during the invasion of Iwo Jima, where he was killed in action. He has had Military Base streets, facilities and two Navy Destroyers named in his honor.
Navy Seaman First Class Roy Ghilardi, born in South San Francisco to Italian parents from Lucca, Italy, was a Naval Aviator during the Battle of the Corral Sea in 1942. His actions helped sink the Japanese Aircraft Carrier, the Shoho, with a direct torpedo hit that played a role in changing the tide of the war. Ghilardi was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his “heroism and extraordinary achievement” as his actions were done under “intense anti-aircraft fire and in the face of fierce fighter opposition.” He returned to South San Francisco as a war hero selling war bonds and later became a member of the IACC.
From the late 1940s to the early 1950s meetings for the IACC were being regularly held at the All Souls Church Hall. This was interrupted when a fire destroyed the church, which was eventually rededicated in 1969.
Also during this time, the IACC went through a reorganization period. In 1953 it continued to be a force in protecting the rights of Italians, but a shift was made by the membership to became more involved in promoting social and cultural events for its members and the community. In short, the political aspect of the club was set aside. As time went by, the IACC continued to search for ideas to increase its membership and become more involved in the community.
In the early 1980s the club displayed its forward thinking and accepted member’s wives as full-fledged members of the Club. Because many of these wives were not of Italian descent, this eventually led to individuals of all ethnic groups to be welcomed members and enjoy the activities of the IACC and participate in Italian Heritage events.
In a continued effort to promote Italian Heritage, the IACC organized a sporting event in 1986 known as the “Italian American Games.” Inspired by Alvaro Bettucchi, the Games began with three events (Bocce, Bike Racing and Tennis) and was initially open to Italians and Americans of Italian descent. These Games quickly grew to host six events (Bocce, Golf, Tennis, Track & Field, a 6.5 Mile Marathon and a 30-kilometer Bike Race) and by 1989 became open to all ethnic groups. The Games continued to grow in number of events and popularity. Teams from the Italian cities of Lucca, Florence, Perugia and Bologna participated in various years and celebrities, such as actor Joseph Campanella, singer Sonny King and a classical musical quartet from Lucca, would attend the festivities. Between 1987 and 1995 additional sporting competitions (Volleyball, Badminton, Trapshooting, Power Lifting, Bowling, Billiards, Softball and Swimming) were added.
At the height of its success the Games hosted 14 different competitions, but by 1995 it became clear that the IACC could no longer handle such a large and growing event. For 1996 the Club decided to continue the Games, but with only one sport, bocce. Since then, the international game of bocce, and its variations of Punto, Raffa and Volo, became so popular that the IACC’s Italian American Games Bocce Tournament became one of the most prestigious bocce tournaments on the west coast.
The Games, over the years, were also a financial success and enabled the Games’ Bocce Committee of the IACC to contribute $90,000 to the combined financing with the City of South San Francisco for the construction of six “state of the art”, international-sized bocce courts at Orange Memorial Park. The new courts were dedicated on September 22, 1990 and replaced two secluded bocce courts, which was located in the park near the Eucalyptus trees and tennis courts.
During this time a trailer, adjacent to the new courts, was utilized by the South San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department as its office. When they moved to the newly renovated City Offices on Arroyo Drive in 1999 members of the Club approached the city and worked an agreement to lease the trailer for the Club’s officer, board and committee meetings in addition to other activities.
The IACC also agreed to work together with the SSF Parks & Recreation Department to maintain the bocce courts in a co-sponsorship agreement, which continues to this day. The IACC offers Bocce lessons at various times throughout the year, opens the courts to the public and hosts competitive bocce leagues for its members.
The IACC’s history with the sport of bocce dates back to before the current courts were built at Orange Memorial Park when members of the Club constructed a bocce court under the 300 block of Grand Avenue. In the late 1970s and into the early 1980s membership meetings were also held at the Canziani Travel Office located at 337 Grand Avenue (later becoming a cafe). A peculiar, boarded floor area led to the discovery of a stairway leading below the building and under Grand Avenue. When the area was further ventured into, it presented a vast space that could be utilized. Not wasting any opportunity, members of the Club, led by Elio Raugi and Alvaro Bettucchi, constructed a bocce court. The IACC continues to utilize the All Souls Church cafeteria facilities for their membership meetings and various Club functions. The Club purchased the old trailer from the city in 2017 and soon after made major renovations. The upgraded Clubhouse is still used for various IACC events and Board and Committee meetings.
In 2015 the Club initiated its own Festa Italiana, held at the IACC Clubhouse and Bocce Courts, and has continued to do so, with a brief interruption due to the COVID Pandemic. It is traditionally held in late September or early October, Italian Heritage Month. Club members have always been ready to volunteer and share the wonders of Italian food and Heritage with the community.
Over the years the IACC has held many festivities and social events. If has offered its members cruises to the Caribbean and Alaska, as well as tours to various locations in Italy and Europe. The IACC has brought bocce teams from Lucca and Bologna to South San Francisco, as well as theatrical and musical groups from its sister city, Lucca. Each year the popular Crab Feed Dinner is held as well as the Person of the Year and Members Appreciation events. The IACC is proud to have played a role in naming Lucca Drive (just off Hillside Blvd.) and to continue to award scholarships to graduating high school seniors that study Italian.
The IACC will always acknowledge the dedication and sacrifices that were endured by the members of the club who sought to be accepted as Americans and be involved in the community of South San Francisco. With the help of other ethnic Americans, standing side by side, the IACC has managed to become a popular and fun organization that offers a variety of activities for its members.
The IACC is an organization that helped construct the early and current history of the City of South San Francisco. Its early members sought to seek a better future, without abandoning their rich Italian Heritage, embracing the culture of their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. With members from different cultural groups, the IACC has learned to appreciate the unity of the various cultures of all its members. Political tides rise and fall but the IACC is dedicated to bringing individuals together to enjoy food, festivities, play some bocce and learn about the Italian Heritage and all it has to offer. Come and participate in the festivities by joining the Italian American Citizens Club of South San Francisco.
Bocce courts are open to the public Monday - Saturday, 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Italian American Citizens Club
Location: 783 Tennis Drive, Orange Memorial Park, South San Francisco, CA, 94080
Mail: PO Box 5674, South San Francisco, CA 94083-5674
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