11b-Gennaro Serrapede: To my Great-Grandfather

11b-WABCo 1906 LOC

By 1920 Gennaro’s cousin Raffaele Mattarazzo was working in a machine shop at the Westinghouse Air Brake Company in Wilmerding, PA.  This photo shows a machine shop circa 1905.

Dear Great Grandfather Gennaro:   Did you have books in the house while your children were growing up?  If you couldn’t read did your oldest daughter Filomena help you when you had to prepare your documents to travel to the United States?

I thought about all this while searching for a magazine from 1913 or 1914. I wanted to read a publication from the time period during which you travelled in America.  This was one of the surest ways to get a direct encounter with the public mood towards immigrants.   I was able to locate “The World’s Work” Vol. XXVIII May to October 1914.  Two articles in this volume were about immigration.  As I read them I could sense the effort it took for the writers to stay objective.  The first one achieved a sense of balance.  The second one descended into a scathing critique of why the immigration of Southern Italians to America had to be stopped.  The author of the article stated that immigrants were coming over in too great a number to be properly assimilated and learn American ways.

The May, 1914 issue had an article entitled “Controversies of Race and Religion”.  The author emphasized how the number of immigrants in the winter of 1913 exceeded the number of jobs available.  He also voiced the concern that Americans needed those jobs.  There was no mention of whether or not Americans wanted to do the heavy manual labor involved in building roads, working in the mines or in the factories.  No study was done either as to why employers sought out the immigrants in the first place.  In 1914, the concern was that the increasing waves of immigrants would not learn what the established society expected them to be like and that there would be trouble further down the road.

Great-Grandfather Gennaro, it was the article from the August 1914 issue of “The World’s Work” that hit me in a way I did not expect.  It was entitled, “To Keep Out Southern Italians”.  At first this article presents data and statistics in an attempt to come across as being a well thought out piece.  It states that between 1910-13, 821,000 Italians emigrated to the U.S.  Most were from Southern Italy.  The author wastes no time attacking them for what he perceived as a lack of intelligence, manners and the ability to be educated.  Aside from the statistic given for 1910-1913, the rest of the piece reads more like a combination of personal hatred and fear.  The article ends with the prediction that the United States will end up becoming more paternalistic if the number of Southern Italian immigrants increased since they are incapable of taking care of themselves.  When I thought about you in relation to this article I thought how wrong this author was!  You most certainly did not fit this description at all.  You came here to work not to have a vacation.

I cannot express how much I wanted to meet you at that moment and ask you if you were treated badly when you came here.  I was relieved when I learned about your stay with Cousin Raffaele Mattarazzo.  At least when you came here you were greeted by extended family and friends.  Though far, far away from Agropoli there would always be a link to home in the shared dialect, faith, food and family.

It was through reviewing the research results of genealogist Anthony Vermandois that I found what might be the connection between the Serrapede and the Matarazzo families:  Emilia’s maternal Grandmother Giovanna Batista Patella may have been a relation to Raffaele’s mother Maria Batista Matarazzo.  Agropoli really wasn’t a small town. It was one huge family!

If you or Grandpa Sam ever experienced any prejudice neither my Mom, Uncle Sammy or I ever heard anything about it.  It was never mentioned.  I wonder if it is because there were so many relationships by blood and marriage that were maintained even into my generation that the world was still in Agropoli mode?

I’ll tell you that what I read hurt me at a deeper level than I thought it would.  But then I thought of Grandpa Sam.  He would’ve said something like “Hey who are you talking about?  Maybe there is someone like that out there.  They’d be way out there.  I don’t know anyone like that and there’s nobody like that in my house.”

I’m very happy to say that the Serrapede family have proven the authors of those 1914 articles very, very wrong.

This does not deny that there were immigrants who did nothing to contribute to the betterment of society.  If you remained in Italy and did not return after 1914 it may have been for the best.  About that time the Volpe family of Wilmerding began their ascent into the ranks of crime.  By the time Prohibition was established they had a profitable bootleg whisky operation in full force.  The profits from this enabled them to enter local politics.  The Volpes were known to some as criminals and to beleaguered and fearful Italian immigrants they were something akin to folk heros.  They would provide low cost loans, help some pay off a mortgage, open a soup kitchen for the hungry.  There is a local story that cannot be verified but which says the KKK burned an effigy of an Italian one night.  The Volpes went after them and this never happened again.  I hope you never had to be in the thick of things like that, Great Grandfather Gennaro.

Love your Great Granddaughter,

EmilyAnn Frances May

Relationship Notes

11b-Gennaro Chart

 Pedigree Chart for Gennaro Serrapede.

Gennaro Serrapede was the son of Sabato and Filomena Serrapede.  He was EmilyAnn’s Great Grandfather along the maternal line.  His son, Sabato Serrapede (1900-2002) was EmilyAnn’s maternal Grandfather.

Pennsylvania during the time Gennaro came to the U.S.

11b-Pittsburgh 1900s

The Pittsburgh Skyline, 1904.

 The borough of Wilmerding is located 13 miles from the city of Pittsburgh.  Pittsburgh was known as Steel City because many large steel companies had executive offices and factories there and in the boroughs.

About the Volpe Family

The family expanded their crime network into Pittsburgh but their reign in the big city was short lived.  I highly recommend reading the compelling reportage of the family’s rise and fall in the online article at the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette.  Please see the Resources section.


Anthony Vermandois’ website ImaginesMaiorum-Ancestors from Campania

The World’s Work, May 1914 issue
Google Books
In this volume please see:

“Controversies of Race and Religion”, May 1914, pgs. 16-17.
“To Keep Out Southern Italians”, August 1914, pgs. 378-379.

The World’s Work
Wikipedia entry

The Volpe Family in Wilmerding and Pittsburgh
“Pittsburgh, The Dark Years”
by Steve Mellon
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Photo:  Machine Shop at the Westinghouse Air Brake Co., Wilmerding PA
Library of Congress
Public Domain
Related Names: Detroit Publishing Co. , publisher
Date Created/Published: [1905?]
Medium: 1 negative : glass ; 8 x 10 in.
Reproduction Number: LC-DIG-det-4a12748 (digital file from original)
Rights Advisory: No known restrictions on publication.
Call Number: LC-D4-18673 <P&P> [P&P]
Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

Photo:  Pittsburgh skyline, 1904
Library of Congress
Public Domain
Title: Skyline, Pittsburgh, Pa.
Date Created/Published: c1904
Medium: 1 photographic print.
Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-91661 (b&w film copy neg.)
Call Number: U.S. GEOG FILE – Pennsylvania–Pittsburgh [P&P]

2 thoughts on “11b-Gennaro Serrapede: To my Great-Grandfather

  1. Great work documenting the lives and times of your relatives, and thanks for finding The World’s Work, EmilyAnn. Just started out with the first article you mentioned and will continue later for sure. Recently started viewing silent films of the teens and twenties to get a feeling of life, fashions, cars during the time of my GG and Grandparents. Some of the comedies in particular are rife with racial and ethnic stereotypes. It just hit me in the gut like a sack of potatoes the first time I saw it. It’s not something you ever get used to.


    • Thanks, Carol! And thanks for your research into the tailoring books at your blog. I’ve not had time to reply because of work but I do keep up with the blogs I subscribe to.

      Yes, I understand that uncomfortable feeling you describe. I experienced that during a Billie Holliday retrospective on a local radio station last month. Listening to the descriptions of the times Billie lived in really hit home. Same for Josephine Baker. Here were two women who rose up from very difficult situations to claim a spot in the music industry. Yet if they were to go on tour they’d have to use a segregated rest room and if in public go to the back of the bus. Outrageous. Truly a sobering reminder that the “good old days” were not so good in many ways.


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