Italians of the Delta

Paul V. Canonici was born of Italian immigrant parents in the heart of the Mississippi Delta — Shaw to be exact.

After being educated in the public schools of Shaw, Canonici headed to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain to study with the Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, La.

He also studied at St. Meinrad Seminary in Indiana.

Canonici obtained a master’s degree from Notre Dame and his doctorate in sociology from Mississippi State. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1957 and was the superintendent of Catholic schools in the state of Mississippi from 1970-83.

After leaving that post, Canonici became the founding pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Madison, Miss. Following his retirement in 1999, he devoted much of his time to researching and writing the book “The Delta Italians.”

The book provides an in-depth account of the lives of the Italian immigrants, their children and grandchildren in the Delta regions of Arkansas and Mississippi.

In an earlier post, I discussed the Chinese immigrants to the Delta. Far more than Arkansas towns to the west, Delta towns along the Mississippi River were melting pots. There were the Jewish merchants who came up the river from New Orleans and down the river from St. Louis. There were the Syrians, the Lebanese and the many other immigrants who used Ol’ Man River as their artery to travel into the American heartland.

Places such as Chicot County became the home of Italian immigrants, Chinese immigrants and others whose ancestors continue to contribute to their communities. Canonici writes extensively about the Sunnyside Plantation, which was near Lake Village.

A New York speculator named Austin Corbin had purchased more than 10,000 acres in far southeast Arkansas in the late 1800s. He consolidated several plantations in the area and named Sunnyside after an earlier plantation that had been established in the 1830s.

Corbin soon found that he was short of labor. Cotton is a labor-intensive crop, and there weren’t enough people to farm the huge plantation. So Corbin entered into an agreement with the mayor of Rome, Prince Ruspoli, to bring 100 Italian families to Sunnyside each year for five years.

The first party of more than 500 Italians reached the plantation in late 1895. Corbin died in 1896, but another group of Italians arrived in January 1897.

Canonici says his book is “based on the premise that Italians who went to the Sunnyside Plantation, and subsequently to other plantations in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, had similar characteristics and experiences. … Italians who settled on Delta plantations were mostly from central Italy, with a few from the northern provinces. Most were experienced farmers in a well-structured farming system called mezzadria.”

Under this system, extended families lived under one roof on land that belonged to the man known as the padrone. They shared the harvest with the owner of the land.

“They worked hard and lived simply, but generally there was sufficient food to sustain the family,” Canonici writes. “There was a saying in the Marche region that one might work himself to death but he did not starve to death. Their reason for leaving their native soil was to search for a better life. Many crossed the Atlantic with the intention of returning and would have returned if they had had the means.”

Canonici notes that unlike some cultures, where the men came first for several years, Italians immigrated as family units.

“Once in the Delta, the extended family maintained close ties but no longer lived and worked under the same roof,” he writes. “Most had become indebted to Delta planters before they arrived because they had been forwarded travel and living expenses. They began as tenant farmers, and although disillusioned by the living conditions they encountered, they continued to work hard.

“Italian settlers in the Delta had large families, an advantage for farmers who wanted to save money and improve their lifestyle. They formed their own social and religious communities, retained their Italian language through the first generation in America and remained faithful to their Catholic faith. They married among themselves, and there was minimal divorce.

“Once in the Delta, the Italians struggled to free themselves from debt. Those who were unable to pay off their debts sometimes escaped in the dark of night to avoid foreclosure. Families made numerous moves in search of the better life. Eventually many saved sufficient money to free themselves from tenant living. Some established themselves on their own farms, some found work in cities in the North, East and West, a few returned to Italy. Most did eventually find the better life they sought, although not in the exact model of their dreams.”

Canonici recounts a visit to the historic Hyner Cemetery near Lake Village that he made late on the afternoon of Sept. 7, 1994. It was his first visit to the cemetery, which is about six miles north of the bridge that connects Mississippi and Arkansas.

Here’s how Canonici describes the scene: “Soybean fields border the front and west sides of the cemetery. Fifty yards to the front are the road and the power lines that seem to follow the river. … Across the road, cotton fields are almost ready for picking, a reminder of the early days when these rugged, precious Italians were introduced to the crop that would be their livelihood for posterity. Occasionally a car or truck speeds by, breaking the silence of this holy place that contains the dust and bones of our brave ancestors.

“The sinking sun is surrounded by light clouds, forming a bright, flaming horizon. I am totally imbued by the spirit of Sunnyside as I brush my feet against the sandy loam dust just outside the cemetery gate and gaze on that eternal flame over the horizon. The spirit of the settlers of 1895 cries out to me from every side: ‘Come and see, come and see.’ So I walk past the historic marker, down a cotton row. The cotton stalks brush against my armpits and healthy cotton bolls slap against my legs. I think to myself, ‘What would they say about this crop?’ Then, as the sun sinks completely over the cotton fields of Sunnyside, I hear those voices again. Now they say, ‘Write on, write on, Paul.'”

Write he did.

Canonici produced a volume of more than 200 pages with dozens of historic photographs. The book finally came out in 2003 with a second printing in 2005.

“For years I have wanted to write an account of the experiences of my people, who came from the shores of the Adriatic to settle the swamplands of the Mississippi River, which form the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta,” Canonici remembers thinking during that cemetery visit. “Through the years, I seemed never to have found the time to write, or rather I never took the time to write. How shall I begin? What shall I write?

“I realize that I’ve procrastinated too long. Our original settlers are dead. I do have some taped interviews, begun in the ’70s, of people who were children at the turn of the last century. This task should have been accomplished 30 or 40 years ago when the old-timers were still alive. Nevertheless, there’ll be no better time than today to start. So I begin my account this evening, standing on the dust of those courageous people who paved for us the way to that better life they sought. How sad that most of them never lived to experience the better life.”

The story of the Delta Italians is fascinating. Go to a Delta town such as Lake Village and visit with some of them. They’re rightly proud of their roots.

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