Historic marker pays homage to Richmond’s Little Italy.
by Charles McGuigan
We are a commonwealth of immigrants, just as we are a nation of immigrants. And we always will be just that, as long as we refuse to succumb to imaginary fears, and the demons of intolerance and prejudice, the impassioned cries of populism and misguided nationalism. Our power and our glory spring from the diversity our immigrant populations, which continue to enrich our free soil to this day. That’s the case with Richmond, too, which is more or less a “sanctuary city”, which means it embraces all our new arrivals, and cherishes their contributions.
For the first time ever, the State Department of Historic Resources has erected a marker recognizing an immigrant community in Virginia. The marker was unveiled May 5, and pays tribute to Northside’s “Little Italy” where about one hundred Italian-American families lived in a tightly woven community just a stone’s throw from the historic marker’s permanent home at Ann Hardy Plaza in North Highland Park.
“We broke a barrier,” says Brenda Stankus. “And it’s a shame that barrier wasn’t broken earlier.” Brenda, along with Ray Gargiulo, did the research and petitioned the DHR, which ultimately led to the placement of the marker in North Highland Park. “It was Ray’s idea,” Brenda says.
That initial spark may have come from Ray, but Brenda became fired up about it immediately, and the pair began looking for documents and oral histories to support their claims that such a community existed in the not-too-distant past.
Richmond already had an Italian-American community by the 1850s, according to Brenda. Nearly a century before that Thomas Jefferson sponsored some of the first Italian immigrants to Virginia. He brought them here to grow grapes and harvest them and ferment their juices and bottle the wine. Jefferson’s grapes shriveled on the vine, but the Italian family that settled in Ablemarle County flourished, and their name Giannini continues to sprout up in Virginia from the mountains to the tidewater. Unlike Jefferson’s grapes, they were fruitful and multiplied.
Almost all of the Italians who settled in North Highland Park during the early decades of the last century were from Tuscany. The two gifts they brought with them—a knowledge of food and stone cutting—utterly transformed this fairly provincial Southern city.
There were two men in particular who would ultimately become godfathers of a sort, men who helped and aided the continuing waves of immigrants rippling in from Italian shores. Their names were Ferrucio Legnaioli and Umberto Balducci, and they came to Richmond during the first decade of the twentieth century.
When they arrived in Richmond, they probably moved to Navy Hill now occupied by VCU’s medical campus, either that or to Shockoe Bottom. In those days, that’s where the Italian immigrants lived. They may have even taken up temporary residence in one of the apartment buildings owned by Mrs. Pardini, fixtures in Navy Hill.
Not long after his arrival, Umberto asked other immigrants who had already settled in Richmond what sort of work he should do. When he told them that both he and his wife could cook, they told him to open a restaurant.
“How can I open a restaurant?” Umberto asked. “I can’t speak a word of English.”
“Put up some pictures,” someone suggested. “They can order from the pictures.”
So Umberto opened his first restaurant in Shockoe, using pictures in place of menus. That first restaurant was extremely successful, so he began opening others—one on Belvedere, one on Broad, another down by the old John Marshall Hotel.
“He got the four restaurants going and he was doing well,” says Brenda. “So he became one of the first Italian immigrants to move to Highland Park. They were just building homes there on Florida, Delaware, Maryland and Carolina. Those were the streets that most of the Italians lived on.” Umberto Balduccii with his wife.
Umberto began sponsoring other immigrants, and the Little Italy on Northside began to grow.
On about the same time Umberto settled in Richmond, Ferruccio Legnaioli arrived. He brought with him a different set of skills. As an artist and sculptor who worked in stone, he could, with a chisel and hammer, coax a human form out of block of marble. Like Umberto, Ferrucio also sponsored Italian immigrants. “They were a group of young men from Italy who were a little higher than craftsmen in their artistic abilities,” Brenda tells me.
At one point, Ferrucio employed as many as 35 craftsmen, most of them from Tuscany, at his studio in Scott’s Addition. He was the man who would create the statue of Christopher Columbus that stands to this day at the head of the Boulevard in Byrd Park.
But sculpture was a sideline for Ferrucio. The Legnaioli Tile, Cement & Plaster Company offered stone carving along with ornamental plaster and cement. “Legnaioli could make the plaster molds and his employees would do the installations,” says Brenda. “These Italian artisans worked on buildings on the Capitol grounds, at downtown theaters such as The Byrd and The Capitol. They did the ceiling work at The Mosque (Altria Theatre), and in downtown churches. The intricate exteriors and interiors of large homes on Monument Ave were also done by these Italian craftsmen.”
At the core of Little Italy were several institutions, including the Batini Social Club, Balducci’s villa and St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church.
“My maiden name is Giannotti,” Brenda says. “And my dad lived in Highland Park as well and my mother’s family, too, and they were Italian immigrants.”
Ferricio Legnaioli sculpting the Columbus statue later presented to the City of Richmond.
Brenda tells me the extraordinary story of how her maternal grandfather came to Richmond. In 1906, her grandfather, Angelo Lazzuri, like so many immigrants of that era, left his family in Italy came here alone to create a new life. Shortly after landing on Ellis Island, he looked for work in New York, but to no avail, so he took a train to Chicago. He didn’t like the cold climate and the work was scarce.
Angelo had heard about the community of Italians in Richmond, Virginia, and so he left the Windy City and headed south. On foot. He walked the entire way, working day jobs as a laborer or handyman, anything really, so he could buy food and continue his trek south. He eventually made it, brought his wife and children over to join him, and found a home in North Highland Park.
Brenda Stankus’s mother in North Highland Park.
Brenda’s mother was just five years old at the time, and her parents enrolled her in kindergarten at Highland Park Elementary School. Her mom didn’t speak a word of English.
“Some Richmonders did not necessarily embrace the Italians,” Brenda says. Her mother’s kindergarten teacher was one of them. She sent her young charge into what was called “the sunshine room”, which was a room in the attic of the school, and the little girl spent her days there alone. It was a place where the school housed children with learning disabilities. “But they didn’t call them learning disabilities back then,” says Brenda and she chokes up with the memory. “No on in the family knew how to get her out of that attic classroom because they didn’t speak English, and couldn’t come to the school and talk.”
That went on for about six months until a doctor who worked for the school discovered Brenda’s mother in the attic. The doctor was not pleased. “Get this child out of this attic,” he told the principal. “She can learn.”
She was put in a first grade classroom, but things did not improve. “She said the teacher was always mean to her and she would talk about something and everybody would turn around and look at her and point,” says Brenda. “My mother thought it was the color of her skin. She thought it was the shape of her nose that they were making fun of. And that she was Catholic.”
Second grade was a different story. “My mother had a teacher who taught her to speak English all by herself,” Brenda says. “That woman taught her to speak English. There was the first grade teacher who had no tolerance, no compassion. Then there was the second grade teacher who loved her, and mom excelled all the way through school.” But the girl who would become Brenda’s mother had been damaged. “Sometimes you could see that little bit of self-esteem loss coming back from the attic and kindergarten and the first grade teacher,” says Brenda, and her eyes are moist.
“But a nice thing that happened to my mother was that Father Rowan who was at St. Elizabeth’s back then rode a horse through the neighborhood,” Brenda says. “After mom got put back into the regular class, Father Rowan started coming after school to pick her up, and he would take her home on his horse. It kind of made it special; it made her feel good. What a beautiful thing for a priest to come and try to help a child that he heard might need some attention.”
Brenda, from her own childhood, remembers the smell of Italian bread baking in the industrial ovens at the Nolte Bakery on Meadowbridge Road. “We bought our bread there,” she says, closing her eyes. “The crisp hard crust and the soft stretchy insides.”
For two years, Brenda and Ray gathered information and photographs. And they interviewed more than ten people who had grown up in North Highland Park’s Italian section. With documents, photographs and oral histories in hand, they brought their findings to the Valentine. “William J. Martin (director of the Valentine) had the biggest smile on his face when we left,” says Brenda. “He was the one who directed us to the Department of Historic Resources.”
Brenda Stankus considers Richmond today, and the way in which immigrants are invited to the table of American democracy. “We have grown a lot,” she says. “But we haven’t finished growing.”