Supporting Fellow Immigrants
"The Mayor [Thomas Hart] allowed us to use Faneuil Hall . . .
Many people came there, about one thousand Italians . . ."
While it may have been expedient to assimilate as quickly as possible into American life, Juglaris continued to take pride in his Italian heritage and identity. He stepped forward and spoke up for the needs of the vastly increasing numbers of Italian immigrants arriving in Boston after 1880. He was particularly concerned about the well-being of indigent widows, orphans, and, more generally, young people. At one point, joined by Boston’s Italian Consul, Juglaris led a rally at historic Faneuil Hall in support of a school he hoped to found for girls. A crowd estimated at 1,000 people heard him and the Consul speak frankly about the plight of young Italians reduced to begging and prostitution because of dire poverty and lack of opportunity. Although the ambitious school proposal failed, Juglaris donated “many useful books” to a smaller evening school program. Among those whom Juglaris assisted with his overall generosity was a young sculptor and future mayor of Rome, Adolfo Apolloni.
Juglaris’s compassionate, hands-on efforts on behalf of his compatriots were so exemplary that the Italian Foreign Ministry early offered him an official vice consular position. But Juglaris refused the post. Subsequently, however, in 1885, he was honored by King Umberto I with the Knight’s Cross for his accomplishments as an artist and art educator, which brought prestige to his homeland, and for his work on behalf of Boston’s Italian community. Although Juglaris was summoned to Washington, D.C., to officially receive the order, which conferred a royal knighthood (Cavaliere dell’Ordine della Corona d’Italia or Knight of the Crown of Italy), he was too busy with his classes to travel. Consequently, the Italian ambassador dispatched a consular agent to Boston to make the formal presentation on behalf of the Kingdom of Italy. While retaining a sense of modesty, Juglaris relished the honor: it did much to enhance his reputation in America, as well as in Italy. As "Chevalier Juglaris" recalls in his memoir: "The next day all the Boston papers contained the description of my distinction and what it was and how I got it. Among the Americans it had great effect."
Juglaris continued to stand up for the honor and integrity of the Italian community. He was not afraid to speak truth to power. In June 1889 when the new Italian Consul-General in New York City became mired in public scandal, he was among those leading the recall campaign. Unfortunately, Juglaris encountered considerable push-back from the Consul-General and his supporters, which was widely covered by the three Italian-language papers published in the United States.
In a show of strength, intended to uphold his own reputation, locally as well as nationally, Juglaris decided to host a luncheon at Vercelli’s, the best Italian restaurant in Boston. His guest list for the occasion was impressive. Included were Massachusetts Governor Oliver Ames; Boston Mayor Thomas Hart; General Charles Loring, director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; Martin Brimmer, Museum president; Boston Art Club president Edgar Parker; and Boston’s own new Italian Consul, Baron Luigi Testa. Also on hand “for the champagne” were reporters from the Boston Gazette and Herald. The outcome of the controversial episode was a draw. As Juglaris explains in his memoir:
“The description of the luncheon given the next day in the newspapers put a stop to any talk on my account and [excited] great respect. [The Consul-General] did not reply to my insult and to my challenge and I too ceased all polemic on that count as well. Seeing as I had to do with people…who were outside the law it was not in my interest to deal with them. I had everything to lose and nothing to gain.”
Given his keen sense of what was right and just, Juglaris’s disappointment with the stalemate may have been one more factor in his ultimate decision to finish out his American career and return to Italy.
The Italian Community in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston
In The Boston Italians, historian Stephen Puleo notes that in 1880, the year of Tommaso Juglaris’s own arrival, Boston had 1200 Italian-born residents. All but two hundred of them lived in the city’s North End, famous as the home of the midnight rider Paul Revere. Over the next twenty years, Boston’s Italian population would swell to almost 15,000, completely dominating all the neighborhoods of the North End.
Italian emigration to Boston was driven by a plethora of socioeconomic problems on the Italian peninsula, particularly in the mezzogiorno or southern regions where the long-term impact of national unification was not always positive. Heading the list of problems was high taxation on wheat and salt, absentee landlordism, rampant unemployment, and periodic outbreaks of cholera and malaria. A widely-disseminated essay of the 1880s by an Italian writer reported that “the peasants there are in worse conditions than the serfs of the Middle Ages.” Further hardship sometimes awaited in America but, in the words of one Italian immigrant, at least “there was always bread.”
Many of the Italian immigrants who came to Boston did not expect to remain indefinitely. Instead, like Juglaris, their goal was to accumulate a nest egg that would allow them to live more securely and comfortably back in Italy. The Italian government actually encouraged such “temporary” emigration. The expectation of eventual return, coupled with the limited education of immigrants and their strongly traditional family and religious mores, created a highly insular Italian community, reinforced by the unfair prejudice experienced at the hands of other Bostonians, whether native or longer-settled. While this insularity could be comforting for Boston’s North End Italians, affirming their sense of identity and group solidarity, it reduced access to opportunities in their new American setting.
Deeply distressed by the sight of intense poverty in Boston’s Italian community, Juglaris believed that education for young people could make a critical difference. However, as Juglaris recounts in his memoir, he encountered a deep suspicion of change from parents whose children might have benefited. Thereafter, Juglaris also saw that same suspicion exploited by local community leaders who resisted any initiatives that they regarded as alien to their own traditional culture or as a challenge to their personal authority.