Room 234 in McCool Hall was full of attendants last week, both students and spectators, as Paul Canonici told the stories of Italian immigrant families who moved to the southern United States for a better life many years ago.
Canonici is the son of Italian immigrants who moved to Mississippi in the early 1900s to work on cotton plantations.
A Mississippi State University graduate, Canonici holds a Ph.D. in sociology. Throughout his career, Canonici held teaching and administrative positions in Mississippi schools, including superintendent of the Mississippi Catholic Schools, a post he held for 13 years.
During the event last Thursday, Canonici told the stories of Delta Italian families and their pursuit of the American dream. However, this dream was not easily attainable.
Canonici said many Italians immigrated to Arkansas to work in cotton mills during the late 19th century, but they were in “terrible shape” and worked long hours. So, Priest Pietro Bandini was sent to offer his help.
In 1898, immigrants traveled and settled at a place now called Tontitown. A year later, Bandini led 35 families to the town, where they led a similar lifestyle as they had in Italy with large gardens, fruit trees and a strong atmosphere of community.
Canonici said there was a similar movement in Mississippi. He said the Italians first settled in and around Greenville, but they were always on the move. Natural disasters and financial problems forced the families to desert their homes.
“Most of the Italians that came to the Delta relocated several times before making permanent settlements,” Canonici said. “Some of the moves were caused by water floods and some were made in the darkness of night to escape unpaid debt and foreclosure.”
In spite of these hard times, there were important customs and a unique culture to keep the Italians connected, Canonici said. Some of the traditions include food, music and religion.
Canonici outlined different families, their struggles and their sense of community in his books “The Delta Italians” and “The Delta Italians Volume II.”
MSU Italian Lecturer Rosy Nigro said she enjoyed hearing the stories presented by Canonici last week.
Nigro, who organized the event, said she was searching online and came across Canonici’s name, which she quickly recognized as Italian. She believes his research on the Delta Italians is important, so she decided to bring him to MSU to speak.
“There are not many people left of his knowledge, and I think that’s important,” Nigro said. “It’s important to preserve his stories for future generations to know.”
Peter Corrigan, head of the Department of Classical & Modern Languages and Literatures, echoed Nigro’s sentiment. He said his department, along with the sociology and history departments, was proud to bring Canonici to MSU to speak.
“Dr. Canonici is a Mississippi State treasure,” Corrigan said. “Dr. Canonici’s work serves as a living testimony to the value of the humanities and the liberal arts. It’s the stories of others that help us see our own lives in a more meaningful perspective. We were honored that Dr. Canonici shared his stories with us so compellingly.”