At the turn of the 20th century, a growing tide of Italians, largely from the south, immigrated to the United States where work was plentiful and land was cheap.
They left Italy in search of opportunities their homeland denied them. In southern Italy, for example, noble families owned half of all the farmland. As a result, millions of peasants were sharecroppers, lucky to find work six months out of the year because the landowners were careless about farming and productivity suffered accordingly.
When they did work, the peasants had to give as much as half their crops to the landowners. At the same time, these peasants were taxed by the government of a newly united Italy, had their sons drafted into the Italian military and watched their children die from poor nutrition and inferior medical care.
The exodus of Italians from their villages more than a century ago has no parallel in history. Out of a population of 14 million southern Italians, an estimated five million left by the outbreak of World War I. It is the largest recorded exodus of a single ethnic group in history.
Most of these immigrants came to the United States during "The Great Migration" between 1880 and 1922. In 1923, the United States restricted the immigration of southern and eastern Europeans, but by then more than 3 million Italians had become permanent U.S. residents.
Today, the descendants of those early Italian immigrants number nearly 16 million, according to the U.S. census of 2000, although through intermarriage, the number of people in the United States with at least one Italian grandparent is estimated to be about 26 million.
The U.S. Census Bureau also reports that Italian Americans are the nation's fifth largest ethnic group with two-thirds of them in white-collar positions in business, medicine, law, education and other professions.
Social scientists strive to explain how so many millions of Italian immigrants achieved success in America despite the challenges of a new language, foreign economic and commercial practices, and the initial prejudice and hostility of an American society unfamiliar with Italians and their customs.
Despite these barriers, the Italian immigrants and their children became part of American society in less than 100 years. Their story is remarkable and inspiring…and is carried on by their ancestors, today's Italian Americans.