As a child I thought my Grandmother and Mother grew up in neighborhoods where the entire community was Italian-American. I was very scared about going to kindergarten. Some of our neighbors told me that the children of servicemen stationed at Fort Hamilton would be amongst my classmates. These children had travelled to different countries in Europe or different states in America. Some of their mothers were from different countries. Instead of looking forward to making new friends I became unsure of myself. I told Grandma Josie and my Mom that I didn’t want to go to Public School. Instead I wanted to attend St. Bernadette where the student body consisted solely of children from Dyker Heights.
Mom and Grandma Josie shared stories of their childhood and adolescence with me in an effort to show me that they never lived in the strictly Italian-American world my 4 1/2 year old imagination created. I was told that sooner or later the bigger world would call out for me to participate in it. Going to kindergarten was the first big step I had to take.
Uncle Sammy and I decided to check out the stories Grandma Josie shared with me and compare them with the ethnic mix as recorded in the 1920 Federal Census for the Muro family in Wilmerding, PA. We then compared our own experiences of growing up in Dyker Heights and the ethnic mix we encountered throughout our school years. This exercise showed us that official records can be used to check the veracity of the family stories. In the case of the examples my Mom gave, we learned how important it is to collect as much material on a topic from each generation as possible. This personal history is sometimes never entered to published works on a community since they can be written by people who have not grown up or experienced the life of members of the community. For this reason, we believe that researchers do a great service to the genealogical community and amateur family historians when they include interviews with the people from the community they are writing about.
Josie Muro Serrapede was:
- Emily Leatrice Serrapede’s Mother
- Sammy Serrapede’s Mother
- EmilyAnn’s maternal Grandmother
Emily Leatrice Serrapede was:
- Sammy’s Sister
- EmilyAnn’s Mother
Josie Muro: Growing up in Wilmerding, PA in 1912-1929
Grandma Josie told me that although there were many Italian immigrants and their families on State Street the town called the area where the Muro family lived “Russian Hill.” This was because many immigrants from Russia and Middle Europe lived there alongside the Italian immigrants and people of other ethnic backgrounds.
Many Russian immigrants worked in the coal mines. Grandma Josie remembered seeing the men returning from work in the evening their clothes and bodies covered in coal dust.
The Muro children played and went to school with the children of immigrants from other European countries. Grandma Josie told me that although Italian was spoken at home, when she was at school with her classmates she only spoke English in their presence. The Muro family did not encourage their children to exclude their playmates on the block on the basis of which country their parents were from. This attitude was not unique. The Italian-Americans wanted to become part of the greater society within their new country. What they wanted, too, was for their children to remember their own heritage and draw strength from it. They did not want them to feel ashamed of their background.
When I was in high school, Grandma Josie came back to this topic and expanded on the subject. She told me that amongst the second generation of Italian-Americans in Wilmerding there was some degree of intermarriage with people of Middle European descent. The immigrant generation did not take to such marriages easily but in time, with the arrival of their grandchildren, attitudes changed. The concept of identity shifted from being a member of the ethnic community towards being an American which meant an emphasis on individuality.
Grandma Josie said the emergence of an individual identity did not always happen in the second generation, but she saw it developing with the third generation.
State Street in Wilmerding, PA in the 1920 Federal Census
We reviewed the census entries for all the families living on State Street as recorded in the 1920 Federal Census for Wilmerding, Pennsylvania. There were immigrant families from the countries we list, as well as American born descendants with parents from these countries:
- Asia (Turkey)
- Austrian Hungary (Slovak)
- Brazil (of Italian parents)
- Galician Austria (Polish)
- Galician Austria (Russian)
There were also entries for families with English surnames where both parents and children were born in the U.S. These residents gave the states they were born in as:
This review confirms what Grandma Josie told me about the mix of ethnicities on State Street as she was growing up.
Emily L. Serrapede: Growing up in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, NY 1930-1949
Mom grew up on a block where many of the neighbors were extended relatives and paesani from Agropoli. Some of the relatives, like Elisa and James Errico, relocated from Wilmerding to Dyker Heights. Most of Mom’s childhood friends were her cousins.
Mom attended Bay Ridge High School in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. This was an all girl’s school that had a student body which included the children of Irish, Scandinavian and European Jewish immigrants. It was further away from the neighborhood in which she grew up. Meeting girls from other backgrounds and sharing such things as which male teacher they had a crush on or what type of part-time jobs they were looking for helped Mom to make school friends outside of the Italian-American community. She told me this made her very eager to graduate, enter the workforce and learn about other cultures and lifestyles. Mom encouraged me to find out what things we shared in common and use that as a basis to make friends at school.
Like Grandma Josie, Mom revisited this topic with me each time I started a new semester at school. She told me that keeping an open mind and looking forward to what the bigger world has to offer helped prepare her for her work as a legal secretary/office manager after she graduated high school and went to work for a lawyer. It was important that I consider the experiences at school as part of the education that prepared me for life in the bigger world.
Discussion with Uncle Sammy on Sunday, October 3, 2015 11:15 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
Uncle Sammy: Over the bridge and on to Manhattan, mid-late 1950s
In Dyker Heights the student body at elementary schools P.S. 187 on 65th Street and P.S. 176 on 69th Street was mainly Italian-American. Uncle Sammy said he had many friends from the block in these schools. If he didn’t know some of the kids by name he knew them by sight. The world of neighborhood and school flowed into each other.
At Shallow Junior High School he met more Irish-American and Swedish-American children but the majority of the student body was still Italian-American. The big change came once Uncle Sammy had to select which high school he wanted to attend.
Butchie Mormando lived on 65th Street near 13th Avenue, across from Aievolli Funeral Home. Uncle Sammy knew him since elementary school. Butchie’s relatives worked in graphic arts and were members of the printer’s union. Uncle Sammy and Butchie had discussed their future professions and had the support of their parents to go to a trade school to study printing.
Uncle Sammy and Butchie enrolled in the New York School of Printing in Manhattan. This was the first time both went so far from the neighborhood and the community where they lived. The school was located in Hell’s Kitchen on West 49th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. The demographics of this part of Manhattan were changing as immigrants from Puerto Rico came up to New York and settled there. They also made up the majority of the student body at the New York School of Printing.
Uncle Sammy said that the focus of the curriculum was on learning a trade. The teaching and focus was geared towards technical and hands-on experience. He and Butchie had no issues with adjusting to the changes. The long commute to and from school had a big impact on their behavior. This left them with little time to socialize right after school or when they came home. Uncle Sammy told me that when high school was finished he had more confidence and assurance about venturing out from the familiar world he had grown up in.
EmilyAnn: The Ethnic Mix in Dyker Heights in late 1950s through 1970
Highlights from my personal experiences growing up in Dyker Heights during this time period:
–Italian-Americans were the majority.
–The first generation of Italian immigrants were older, usually living with one of their married children in a two-family house.
–Irish-Americans were not as numerous as the Italian-Americans but were important members of the community. They worked as civil servants. They usually did not have their parents living with them.
–Some marriages took place between the Irish and Italian communities. The families sometimes had the parents of the Italian-American spouse living with them.
–Norwegian-Americans were a smaller percentage by the early 1960s in Dyker Heights. There was the Norwegian Christian Children’s Home located near St. Bernadette’s Shrine Church on 82nd Street and 13th Avenue. Children from broken homes or who were orphaned lived there and attended school with me at P.S. 201 when it was a K-8 school.
–Sicilians lived amongst us but they did not reveal their identity that readily.
–There were divisions in some parts of the Italian-American community. This was caused by the regional loyalties which the first generation brought with them. Alliances to the home town and region were stronger than a sense of national identity of what it meant to be Italian.
—–There was an attitude that the further South one’s ancestral home town was the more severe the poverty from which your ancestors escaped. The poverty drove people to sometimes engage in negative behaviors.
—–Generalizations were carelessly applied by some people and used as the basis to determine if one should engage with people with family from other regions. Not every family taught their children to think this way but the generalizations were in common circulation.
—–For example, in kindergarten I learned from my classmates that people from Naples looked down on people from Calabria and visa-versa.
———-People of Neopolitan descent called the Calabrese stubborn and lazy.
———-Calabrese would come back by saying Neopolitans were all pick-pockets.
———-Sicilians were looked down upon by some Calabrese and Neopolitans because their immigrant ancestors were thought to come from an environment subjected to even more poverty than that which had existed in the South of Italy.
The stratification did not always show up at school or in public places. However, at home and in social activities some families preferred the company of those who shared ancestry from the same region in Italy.
Dating outside of the Italian-American community was not encouraged but if one met an Irish-American it was thought at least the Catholic faith could act as a common denominator in the relationship.
Exposure to these attitudes greatly decreased when I attended New Utrecht High School located slightly less than 1/2 mile away from the neighborhood where I grew up. At New Utrecht students from Latino and Black communities in downtown Brooklyn were part of the mix. From nearby Sunset Park came children descended from European Jewish immigrants. Many of the teachers also came from the Jewish community. This diversity offered me opportunities to break out and away from the small world in which I grew up.
At New Utrecht High School I had teachers who challenged me, who wanted me to ask questions and cared about me developing my own ideas on the subjects they taught. I will always remember with affection and gratitude the teachers and classmates I had during the years there. They proved that what Grandma Josie and Mom told me was correct. There was a bigger world calling me to participation. If I wanted to live a productive and satisfying life I had to be confident and conquer fear.
1920 Federal Census