Columbus Day is an appropriate time to recognize the most overlooked people in the United States: Italian Americans. From the day Columbus landed and up until the present, the contributions of this extraordinary group have been essential to America’s founding, its exploration, its formation as a free nation, and its survival.
Unfortunately, most history books have excluded or overlooked the central role they have played. Everybody knows about Columbus, and some realize that the entire western hemisphere was named after an Italian map maker, Amerigo Vespucci.
But they overlook the fact that many of the most important early explorers, including Verrazano and John Cabot, were Italian. After them came Eusebio Kino, who explored the southwest, Henry Di Tonti, who explored the Great Lakes region, Alphonse Tonty, who co-founded Detroit, and Giacomo Costantino, who discovered the route to the source of the Mississippi.
Italians laid the foundation for American freedom. Thomas Jefferson acquired the concept of “All men are created equal,” the key phrase in the Declaration of Independence, from the Italian philosopher Filippo Mazzei. The fascination of many of the founding fathers with Italian and Roman history inspired our very form of government. Two of the original signatories of the Declaration of Independence were Italian-Americans. Numerous Italian Americans joined Washington’s Continental Army, and three special regiments of Italians fought alongside him.
Speaking of foundations, some of our most important monumnets and buildings owe their existence to Italians and Italian Americans. The Piccirilli brothers, who lived in The Bronx, carved the statue of Lincoln that occupies the Lincoln Memorial. Constantino Brumidi decorated much of the interior of the U.S. Capital.
Some of the basics of the American financial system were the inventions of Italian Americans. Amadeo Pietro Giannini, founder of the Bank of America, instituted the whole concept of branch banking. He went on to finance the Golden Gate Bridge, key parts of the American film, aerospace, and agricultural industries.
Some “all American” iconic products spring from the innovations of Italian Americans. Examples include the Big Mac sandwich, invented by Jim Delligatti, the convertible sofa, invented by Bernard Castro, Mr. Coffee, invented by Vince Marotta, and the Jacuzzi, invented by the Jacuzzi family business which got its start selling propellers to the U.S. military. Even the ever-popular ice cream cone was the work of an Italian Immigrant, Italo Macioni.
The list goes on and on.
From the Revolution to modern wars, the heroism of Italian Americans is stunning. A prime example is John Basilone, the sole Marine to receive both the Congressional Medal of Honor and the Navy Cross. Indeed, numerous Italian Americans have received America’s highest military award.
The foundation of America’s nuclear deterrent came the work of Italian born physicist Enrico Fermi.
There are several organizations that are attempting to educate the nation about the overlooked and vital role Italian Americans have played in building America, including the National Italian American Foundation, an excellent source of information about Italian Americans, and the Enrico Fermi Cultural Committee which regularly produces events and infomation highlighting Italian American culture and history.