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Giovanni Schiavo, the pioneer of Italian American Studies

October 11, 2011 ~ We were surprised to find out that there is no Wikipedia entry for Giovanni Ermengildo Schiavo.  In the pantheon of Italian Americans who have contributed the most to Italian American studies, he must stand near the top. On this Italian American Heritage Month, we must remember Giovanni Schiavo. As Peter Sammartino, founder of Fairleigh Dickinson University, said of him, he "was the most important writer of Italian contributions to the creation of America." Perhaps this has been an oversight by our friends in the Italian American academic community.  We hope to remedy this oversight. Graduating from John Hopkins University in 1919, Schiavo became a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, but for financial reasons never completed his program.  As Professor Frank Cavaioli wtore in 2000, Schiavo was  the "pioneer" of Italian American Studies. "Though he was not part of the academic world his dedicated labor produced over thirty volumes of documentation on the subject . . . Committing himself to this intellectual endeavor in those early years must have been a lonely experience for Schiavo. Lacking an academic base, there were no graduate students to assist in gathering data, no colleagues to evaluate or critique his work, and no professional organization to promote his work."  Read Cavaioli's article below:


By by Frank J. Cavaioli

Excerpts from "The American Italian Historical Association at the Millennium', by Frank Cavaioli

"The pioneer of Italian American Studies was Giovanni Schiavo.2 Though he was not part of the academic world his dedicated labor produced over thirty volumes of documentation on the subject. This remarkable man was born May 28, 1898, at Castellamare del Golfo, Sicily, then migrated to Baltimore in 1915 where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree at Johns Hopkins University in 1919. He went on to take graduate courses in banking and economics at Columbia University and New York University. At the height of the Great Depression, he was unable to complete his doctoral studies because he did not have the money to publish his dissertation. Schiavo worked briefly for the Baltimore Sun and six years later, 1926, founded Il Corriere del Wisconsin, which failed soon after. Later, from 1932 to 1934, he worked on the editorial staffs of the New York Herald Tribune and Il Progresso Italiano, the influential Italian American newspaper which was the first Italian language daily in the United States with a circulation of 127,000 in 1920 and which was purchased by Generoso Pope in 1929. Schiavo returned to Chicago to begin a lifetime of research in recording the Italian American experience, an achievement from which past and current scholars continue to draw inspiration and guidance. 

Among his major contributions was his first volume which appeared in 1928: The Italians in Chicago, A Study in Americanization, with a Preface by Jane Addams. The following year his second book was published: The Italians in Missouri. In this book Schiavo sought to present a chronicle of the new "immigrants to the State of Missouri." In 1929 he wrote the pamphlet, What Crime Statistics Show About the Italians, in which he attempted to correct the public's misconception of crime in America. 

He established the Vigo Press in 1934, which served as the outlet for his work. From this point on, Schiavo devoted himself exclusively to the study of the Italians in the United States, and he was assured of a publisher for the fruits of his labor. Thus, in that year of 1934, the first book he published by the Vigo Press was The Italians in Chicago Before the Civil War, an important book because it focused upon the Italians who played a major role in contributing to the founding of American civilization. In the 1920s and 1930s he believed too much attention had been placed on the so-called problems of the four million Italian immigrants, mostly from the mezzogiorno, who had settled here since 1880 during a period of rapid industrialization and urbanization amid sentiments of nativism and xenophobia. He provided a major thrust in the battle to overcome stereotypical images of this large ethnic group. Nevertheless, because of the lack of an intelligentsia and a penetration into the powerful American institutions, any real gains by Italian Americans would have to wait for more than a generation. Schiavo worked at a time when there were no affirmative action programs and civil right laws to assist his ethnic group. He stated that the "book is an attempt to rescue from oblivion the names of Italians who helped build the Republic." He always maintained that the Italians' contributions to early America had gone unnoticed, and after Columbus's discovery of America there was a great leap forward to the post-1880 period of massive immigration. Research needed to be done on the contributions made by Italians in the colonial, revolutionary, and nineteenth century periods to fill in these major historical gaps. 

Peter Sammartino (1904-1992), a friend of Schiavo and founder of Fairleigh Dickinson University, expressed a similar view when he edited Seven Italians Involved in the Creation of America (Washington, DC: The National Italian American Foundation, 1984). Essays in this volume detailed the remarkable accomplishments of Father Eusebio Chino, Enrico Tonti, Machiavelli and the U.S.A., Beccaria and the Reform of Criminal Justice, Mazzei's Constitutional Society of 1784, and Alfieri's Five Odes to "Free America." In attacking the myth that Italians did not come to the United States until after 1880, Sammartino stated: "If we take the sum total of the influences, of philosophy, of government, and in jurisprudence, discoveries, exploration, the influence on literature, on music, on art, on architecture and on science, then America would not have been the country it is without the contributions of Italians, and this stretches from the thirteenth century to the nineteenth centuries."3 

Other important books by Schiavo and published by the Vigo Press that are pertinent to the beginnings of Italian American studies are: 

The Italians in America Before the Civil War, 1934. 

Italian American History: Italian Music and Musicians in America Since 1757;Directory of Musical Biography; Public Officials, Vol. I, 1947. 

Italian American History: The Italian Contribution to the Catholic Church in America. Vol II, 1949. 

Philip Mazzei, One of America's Founding Fathers, 1952. (With 43 llustrations and facsimiles and 244 footnotes and bibliographical references.) 

Four Centuries of Italian-American History, 1952. (Re-published in 1993 by the Center For Migration Studies, New York.) 

Italian Dining and Shopping Dictionary, 1953. 

The Italian-American Who's Who, Editor, 1935-1967, 21 editions. 

Antonio Meucci: Inventor of the Telephone, 1958. 

The Truth About the Mafia and Organized Crime in America, 1962. 

The Italians in America Before the Revolution, 1976. 

Committing himself to this intellectual endeavor in those early years must have been a lonely experience for Schiavo. Lacking an academic base, there were no graduate students to assist in gathering data, no colleagues to evaluate or critique his work, and no professional organization to promote his work. 

Nevertheless, toward the end of his life, the achievements of Giovanni Schiavo did not go unnoticed by the newly-formed American Italian Historical Association. During its Twelfth Annual Conference at Rutgers University, New Jersey, October 26-27, 1978, where he was guest of honor, the AIHA granted him its Certificate of Merit in appreciation for his work in Italian American Studies. In the plenary session, Schiavo presented the opening paper in which he reviewed his life, work, and what needed to be done. He said, "About the research that I have done and that which must be done in the future I can tell you that my convictions are not the product of my imagination, but the product of sixty years of contacts with Italians in all parts of the United States. I have been in every Italian American community with the exception of Tontitown, Valdese, and Cumberland in Minnesota."4 

Just before his death on March 4, 1983, at the age of 85, his collection of books and papers were purchased by the American Italian Renaissance Foundation, the archival center in New Orleans. Professor Remigio U. Pane of Rutgers University memorialized Schiavo at the plenary session of the Sixteenth Annual Conference of the AIHA held in Albany, New York, November 11-13, 1983. Professor Pane spoke reverently of his long-time friend and colleague, chronicling his life and achievements. He said, "With the passing of Giovanni Schiavo we Italian Americans have lost our best champion, he has left us a rich legacy in his books and a great role model of tireless and devoted researches."5 

Contemporary scholars owe a debt of appreciation to Giovanni Schiavo for his pioneering work in Italian American Studies. It is also true that other studies had been completed during his lifetime and before the formation of the AIHA. But such work, important though it was, had also lacked a systematic pattern of development and acceptance of Italian American history and ethnicity as a legitimate aspect of American life. "

Article by Frank Cavaioli


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