RI first noticed its Italians on Columbus Day, 102 years agoOctober 8th, 2012 at 9:45 am by Ted Nesi under Nesi's Notes, On the Main Site
Rhode Island is observing Columbus Day today, marking the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Bahamas. Though the holiday has been controversial here in recent years, it appeared from this morning’s light traffic that most people still celebrate it with a day off work.
Italians immigrated to Rhode Island in huge numbers during the latter half of the 1800s. In 1850, just 25 of the state’s residents were from Italy; by 1900, the number had swelled to 9,000, according to the late Rhode Island College professor Carmela Santoro and her 1990 book “The Italians in Rhode Island.”
The state first celebrated Columbus Day along with the rest of the nation in 1892, to mark the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival. But “Rhode Island scarcely realized the volume of Italian immigration, however, and also its effect in the number of Italian residents of the state, until the first observance of Columbus Day as a public holiday in 1910,” the historian Charles Carroll later wrote.
That was the year that Gov. Aram Pothier, the state’s second Catholic governor, signed a law making Columbus Day an official state holiday, partly in response to lobbying by the Knights of Columbus. The massive turnout of Italian Rhode Islanders at the subsequent celebrations opened the rest of the state’s eyes to their presence: “Rhode Island had become conscious of its Italian population in a day,” Carroll wrote.
By 1920, Census figures showed that 19% of Rhode Islanders were of Italian descent, a figure that was unchanged in 2000.
To this day, in no state do Italian-Americans make up a larger share of the population than they do here in Rhode Island, according to the National Italian American Foundation, which counted just under 200,000 Rhode Islanders of Italian heritage as of 2000. Johnston was the nation’s most heavily Italian municipality at 47% of the population as of 2000, according to an analysis of Census data by epodunk.com.
(image credit: Currier and Ives print, 1892; Library of Congress, via Wikipedia)
A version of this post originally ran on Oct. 11, 2010.