New Orleans to apologise for worst mass lynching in America’s history | US news

The mayor of New Orleans is to apologise to Italian Americans for the historical lynching of 11 Italian immigrants in what is considered the nation’s worst such incident.

“This has been a longstanding wound,” said Michael Santo of the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy. Santo said that when the city was asked earlier this year for an apology, Mayor LaToya Cantrell embraced the idea, appointing Human Relations Commission head Vincenzo Pasquantonio as liaison.

Mayoral spokesman Joseph Caruso said a proclamation would be released on 12 April and will be presented at the city’s American Italian Cultural Center.

The lynching took place in 1891 after a group were acquitted of the murder of a police chief. Correspondence among Italian, US, and state officials showed the lynching “occurred with the connivance of the New Orleans local authorities”, Patricia Fama Stahle wrote in a 2016 book.

The ensuing outcry prompted Italy to close its embassy in the US, followed by a reciprocal US Embassy closing in Italy, said Santo.

The police chief in question, Commissioner David Hennessy, was ambushed on 15 October, 1890, by four men near his home. He died, reportedly blaming Italians.

About 30,000 Italian immigrants lived in New Orleans and hundreds were arrested during the investigation that followed, Stehle wrote. Nineteen were indicted, and nine of them were tried– a trial that ended with six acquittals and jurors unable to agree in three cases.

Anti-Italian prejudice had been growing since the 1860s, when Sicilians began arriving in large numbers, said Dr Joseph V Scelsa, president of the Italian American Museum in New York and sociology professor emeritus at City University of New York. Though many originally came to work on plantations, they quickly organized businesses of their own, such as working on docks or importing fruit and vegetables from South America, he said.

A copy of a 14 March, 1891, newspaper advertisement calling for action after the acquittals in New Orleans.

A copy of a 14 March, 1891, newspaper advertisement calling for action after the acquittals in New Orleans.

Photograph: AP

At least three of those tried in New Orleans had been in trouble with the law in Italy and another was a known Mafioso, according to Stahle, but at least five had clean records. Eight of those killed were US citizens, three were Italian citizens.

After the verdict was reached on 13 March, 1891, a “Vigilance Committee” took out ads in morning newspapers calling for a meeting of people “prepared for action”, according to a 1991 article in The Times-Picayune of New Orleans.

It said thousands of people gathered around a statue of Henry Clay and heard William S. Parkerson say, “When the law is powerless, rights delegated by the people are relegated back to the people, and they are justified in doing that which the courts have failed to do.”

The mob stormed the jail. Jailers opened cell doors and told the men to run, but nine were chased down and shot. Two others were hanged, according to the article. Of the 11 dead, three had been acquitted, the jury was undecided on three others, and the remaining five had been indicted but not tried, said Charles Marsala, who is working on a documentary about Sicilian immigration to New Orleans.

In 1892, the US government paid $25,000 in reparations to victims’ families.

It “was a horrific act of collective violence inspired by ethnic prejudice, and it has a claim to constituting the largest mass lynching in US history, but it was hardly the largest act of collective violence in US history or even Louisiana history,” Michael J Pfeifer , author of books about lynching and its roots in the United States, said.

“Most lynching incidents were somewhat targeted and rarely involved more than several victims,” he wrote, while massacres and race riots killed far more people at a time.

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