Taking ownership of a bygone controversy, New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell formally apologized Friday to the families of 11 Italian immigrants who were lynched in the city more than a century ago. She condemned anti-immigrant violence of all forms.

Cantrell blasted the long-ago attack before an enthusiastic crowd of 50 at the American Italian Cultural Center on South Peters Street in the Central Business District, wearing a white top and red pants and standing by a green section of a flag to honor Italy’s national colors.

“What happened to those 11 Italians was wrong, and the city owes them and their descendants a formal apology,” said Cantrell, the first New Orleans mayor to issue a mea culpa for the incident. “At this late date, we cannot give justice, but we can be intentional and deliberate about what we do going forward.”


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The gesture was greeted warmly by the Italian-Americans and Italians in attendance, including some who had traveled thousands of miles to receive closure 128 years after the murders capped a period of anti-Italian sentiment in the city and country.

“We hope that this serves as a building block and a platform for people to address past national tragedies and move forward,” said New York resident Michael A. Santo, special counsel to the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy in America, which says it represents 26 million Italian-Americans.

On the night of March 14, 1891, a mob of thousands gathered outside the old Orleans Parish Prison, near the present-day Congo Square, a day after the acquittals of nine Italian immigrants accused of murdering Police Chief David Hennessy.

Hennessy had developed a reputation for arresting Italian-Americans in his career on the force, according to news accounts at that time. When he was fatally shot as he walked home from work on Oct. 15, 1890, members of that community were widely blamed.

The March mob gathered in response to an ad that a “vigilance committee” had placed in the morning papers for residents to “come prepared for action” after the verdicts. A proclamation by attorney William S. Parkerson, one leader of the committee, that “when the courts fail, the people must act” riled the crowd up further.

In the end, the mob burst into the jail. They gunned down, hanged or clubbed to death at least 11 of the accused who were still inside.

Their victims were fruit peddlers Antonio Bagnetto, Antonio Marchesi and Antonio Scaffidi; stevedores James Caruso and Rocco Geraci; cobbler Pietro Monasterio; tinsmith Loreto Comitis; street vendor Emmanuele Polizzi; fruit importer Joseph P. Macheca; ward politician Frank Romero; and rice plantation laborer Charles Traina.

Bagnetto, Macheca and Marchesi had already been acquitted. Caruso, Comitis, Geraci, Romero and Traina were never tried. The cases of Monasterio, Polizzi and Scaffidi ended in mistrials, according to records provided by Santo’s group.

The rioters were never prosecuted, although the U.S. government paid $25,000 in reparations to the victims' families the following year. 

The deaths occurred during a period in which Italians, regardless of their actual affiliation, were often labeled as being in cahoots with the Sicilian mafia and were called “pests,” “bandits” and “assassins” in the American press, Santo said.

Santo's group approached the mayor's office earlier this year seeking the gesture, and worked with Vincenzo Pasquantonio, head of Cantrell's Office of Human Rights and Equity, to make it happen, he said. 

Addressing the crowd Friday, Cantrell called a city government in power long before she was born “complicit” in the murders and linked the 11 deaths to other injustices faced by members of communities of color and LGBTQ people that she said “have never … (been) addressed.”

“Some people didn’t want me to make this apology today,” the mayor said. “Some (said), ‘Will this mayor open up the floodgates? Where does it stop? Who gets an apology, and who doesn’t?'

“But I’m here today … because I have a responsibility to deal with what’s in front of me, and to speak honestly about the challenges we face, those that shape our history and, more importantly, our future.”

Cantrell called the moment a defining piece of New Orleans' legacy that will be examined for generations.

“I ask you to continue to stand with me against anti-immigrant violence, against division, and to stand up for what I have coined a ‘city of yes,’ ” she said. “And for the idea that we have a responsibility ... to be the kind of people that our children are not apologizing for 128 years from now.”


Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA​.