When Italians were tricked into debt peonage in the South

In the early 1900s, a small travel agency in Greenville, Miss., began sending representatives to Italy. The dozen or so agents canvassed the arid farms and barber shops of the Abruzzo region, smiling as they passed out brochures reading, “Italians! Do not lose this great opportunity to buy tickets from me . . . for the steamer Manilla . . . for $45.30 with railroad fare paid.” The agents were selling passage to America, with the promise of jobs on arrival at a farm called Sunnyside.

But few of the Italians had the money to buy the ticket. The agents assured them they could pay it back over time. They added that every morning, the company that oversaw Sunnyside would hang a piece of fresh meat from their doorknob. For many Italians, struggling with bad land and an unstable economy, this opportunity for a new start was not only enticing, but potentially lifesaving.

The painful saga that followed – one of deceit and shattered dreams – would continue to have echoes in U.S. history, in the “Reverse Freedom Rides” orchestrated by Southern white segregationists in the 1960s and most recently in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s (R) ploy to send migrants to Martha’s Vineyard.

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But the Italians saw only opportunity when the agents from Mississippi produced an employment contract and asked them to sign. Many did. Though the brochures were written in Italian, the contracts were not. Most or all of those signing had no idea what the language meant.

The agents then handed the people a smaller piece of rolled-up paper and asked them not to mention the agreement to the officials at the Port of New Orleans. They were to memorize the words on the paper, stating that no one else had paid for their journey.

The voyage was long. On arrival, the Italians remembered their promise. After a final look, they threw the little scrolls into the sea and repeated their message.

They were then taken up the Mississippi River and onto a small steam train, which brought them to Sunnyside. It was sunny, as promised, and hotter than Italy. They were in Arkansas, alongside the Mississippi, on a peninsula jutting into Lake Chicot, which cut them off from the rest of the land.

When they got to their ramshackle cabins by the cotton fields, the version of the story they had been told in Italy began to unravel.

The Italian workers were technically paid for their labor. Families were credited $15 monthly for food. But it was the other side of the ledger that was more telling. The company, O.B. Crittenden & Co., would charge each family $6 for flour and $7 for their work mule, leaving only $2 a month for food. This did not include other expenses like medical care, rent and use of the cotton ginning equipment, not to mention the $45 debt each person was still paying off.

Workers had to do all their shopping at the company store, which accepted only the “monkey money” they were paid in, small round coins stamped with the Sunnyside seal. Since the company paid so little and operated on credit, the workers were left buried in debton which the company charged 10 percent interest. It was a carefully designed system of forced labor, 40 years after the official end of slavery.

The contract stipulated that workers could buy their way out of Sunnyside, but by controlling prices – and charging for everything, including access to the Catholic priest – the company made sure its workers could never escape their debt. Men on horseback patrolled the edges of the camp at night. A small cemetery began to fill.

Before and during the Civil War, Sunnyside used enslaved Black people to do its work. After the war ended, the land changed hands several times. One owner tried using enforced convict labor through a contract with the state. When that failed, O.B. Crittenden & Co. leased the land.

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The Italian labor force grew from 40 families in 1900 to more than 160 families in 1907. Sunnyside’s overseer, LeRoy Percy — an attorney and politician who would later serve as a U.S. senator from Mississippi — bragged about his workforce. “The Italians,” he said, “were in every way superior . . . If the immigration of these people is encouraged, they will gradually take the place of the negro without their being any such violent change as to paralyze for a generation the prosperity of the country.”

For years, Sunnyside operated in secret. After a 1907 visit to the plantation, the Italian ambassador to the United States, Edmondo Mayor des Planche, became suspicious and requested a Justice Department investigation into debt peonage — the illegal practice of indenturing workers through debt – at Sunnyside. The department deployed Grace Quackenbos, a newly minted U.S. attorney from New York City and the first woman appointed to that role.

Quackenbos had earned her position by closing peonage sites across the South. Florida was an egregious offender; Quackenbos had infiltrated a remote turpentine camp in Jacksonville disguised as an old woman selling scissors. She found unbearable conditions and had the camp shut down.

Quackenbos’s investigation into Sunnyside enraged Percy, and a local newspaper urged the Yankee woman “with the funny-sounding name” to return to the North where she belonged. Undeterred, Quackenbos produced a comprehensive report with testimony, evidence and financials, proving that Sunnyside was engaging in peonage. She gave a personal account of her findings to President Theodore Roosevelt.

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Quackenbos didn’t know that Roosevelt had also received a letter from Percy, who had once been his hunting companion in the Southern forests. The government shelved the report and took no action on Sunnyside.

But Quackenbos had already made a difference. Newspapers turned on Percy with headlines such as “MILLIONAIRE HAS SLAVES ON FARM.” Italy stopped issuing visas to citizens wishing to work in the American South. The Sunnyside grift was over.

The only reminders left on Lake Chicot are a historical marker, an old cemetery and a Catholic church built in 1939 on the site of an 1866 church. The Altar Society publishes a popular cookbook complied by Libby Borgognoni of the Italian dishes that have remained in the area, passed down through generations, including pasta with chicken and tomato sauce and a chocolate pudding called budino al cioccolato.

Brad Ricca is an award-winning author of several books of nonfiction.

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