As It Happens

'It's never too late': New Orleans mayor apologizes for 1891 mass lynching of Italian-Americans

The mayor of New Orleans apologized on Friday for the grisly murder of 11 Italian-Americans by a gun-toting mob 128 years ago. 

128 years ago, a mob killed 11 people acquitted in the murder of a police commissioner

New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell, left, issues a proclamation with an official city apology for the mass murder of 11-Italian Americans in 1891 to Italian Consul General Federico Ciattaglia, on April 12, 2019. (Submitted by Michael Santo)

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The mayor of New Orleans apologized on Friday for the grisly murder of 11 Italian-Americans by a gun-toting mob 128 years ago. 

"The city government at that time declined to seek justice for our people and, in fact, was implicated in the violence," Mayor LaToya Cantrell said.

"That's why I'm here and that's why I'm standing. What happened to those 11 Italians, it was wrong and the city owes them and their descendants a formal apology."

For Michael Santo, the lawyer who requested the apology, it was an emotional moment.

"I really was in awe. I knew the mayor was embracing our request for an official apology, and there's a lot of ways that she could have reacted," Santo, a member of the Sons and Daughters of Italy, told As It Happens guest host Duncan McCue.

"But she reacted with such grace and dignity and conviction that it really floored us."

First a murder, and then a mob

The story of the mass lynching begins with the Oct. 15, 1890, murder of New Orleans police commissioner David Hennessy, who was ambushed by four men near his home.

It's rumoured that Hennessy used his final breath to blame "the dagos" — a derogatory term for Italians.

About 30,000 Italian immigrants lived in New Orleans at the time, and hundreds were arrested during the investigation that followed, Patricia Fama Stahle wrote in her 2016 book The Italian Emigration of Modern Times.

Nineteen were indicted, and nine of them were tried — a trial that ended with six acquittals and jurors unable to agree in three cases.

This photograph, taken Jan. 30, 2016, and provided by AWE News, shows a copy of a March 14, 1891, newspaper advertisement as shown in the Musee Conti Wax Museum exhibit about the lynching of 11 Italian immigrants, three of whom had been acquitted a day earlier in the murder of the city's police chief. (AWE News via Associated Press)

When the verdict was reached on March 13, 1891, a "Vigilance Committee" met that night and took out ads in morning newspapers calling for a March 14 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 statesman Henry Clay and heard lawyer 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.

Eight of those killed were U.S. citizens, while three were Italian citizens.

Nobody was ever held accountable for the killings, and newspapers painted it as an act of community justice.

"In the New York Times it was a headline that said [the] Hennessy killing was avenged by the mob killing ... and in the editorial the very next day, they basically suggested that mob rule was important to avenge the death of Mr. Hennessy," Santo said.

"It was a farce. It was just a farce."

City officials were complicit 

According to Stahle's book, correspondence among Italian, U.S., and state officials shows that the lynching "occurred with the connivance of the New Orleans local authorities."

"They were involved," Santo said. "The attitude of this anti-Italian sentiment was very strong, and that's why justice was never done."

Santo himself had never heard of the killings until just a couple years ago.

"It was embarrassing for me to only find that a few years ago. I'm 62. I'm a practicing lawyer. I've been involved with Italian-American issues all my life," he said.

"But once we did find out about it we said it's not too late to act. It's never too late to act and to help heal this wound of the Italian American fabric and the city of New Orleans and the country."

There were thousands of lynchings in the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries. The vast majority of victims were African-American. 

Even more than a century later, Santo said the mayor's words resonated.

"Too little too late? No, I don't think so," he said. "One hundred and twenty-eight years, in a historical context, is just a little blip on the screen."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Michael Santo produced by Kevin Robertson.