Documenting our Past for the Future
At one point, Newark, NJ was the fifth largest Little Italy in the nation. At it’s height, the Old First Ward was home to over 30,000 Italian immigrants. Yet, if you look at the digitized collection of the Newark Public Library, you wouldn’t know of the long and proud history of Italians in the city.
As I reviewed what was cataloged as “Italian American,” it appears that the majority of photos and information was donated by one family; the Mattias. The Mattia family was one of the first Italian immigrant families to call Newark home. Angelomara Maria and Filomena Ilaria Mattia and their children Petrino and Richard immigrated from Calabritto, Italy to Newark around 1873. The same town my family would immigrate from about 15 years later.
The Mattia family has donated quite a treasure trove to the Newark Library. Two Mattia family members have popped up in my family tree, but how they all align is still a mystery. Don’t worry though… I’ll get it.
As I perused what is available, I came across a typed page that lists all the foreign-born residents of Newark between 1900 and 1950. Italians were the largest ethnicity in the city by a large majority. The largest total of Italian immigrants were documented in 1930. Of the 442,337 total population in Newark, 30,587 residents were Italian immigrants.
So why am I telling you all this? Stick with me.
We as a community played a key role in the development and modernization of Newark. We worked hard, faced abuse and discrimination. We changed our names and our language. We assimilated… immediately. So much so we worked to become “American” within one generation and we lost a lot of our heritage.
If you want proof, just look at the Italian collection available at the Newark Library as compared to other ethnicities and topics. If it wasn’t for the generous donations from the Mattia family, there would be close to nothing.
Newark has not done a good job preserving our history. Therefore, it is up to us to make sure we are noticed and respected. We must tell our story, because no one else will.
Take the time to talk to your older relatives. Document their stories. Take video of them as they tell you the immigration of your family. Talk to your local historical society and library. Do they have sections based on ethnicity? If so, is there a section for Italian immigration? No? Start one!
It is up to us to ensure future generations know our story.