Preserving and discovering Italian American history at the Western Reserve Historical Society

Gli Italiani sono uno dei più grandi gruppi immigrati in questa regione. Ci hanno dato e continuano a dare un contributo positivo in tutti gli aspetti della vita, con esperienze uniche. Il lavoro di Pamela Dorazio Dean - curatrice della Western Reserve Historical Society - con la realizzazione di una collezione di storia americano-italiana e l'educazione del pubblico su quest'ultima, preserva il patrimonio culturale degli Italoamericani in modo che possa essere ricordato e celebrato a lungo, anche in futuro.

Two hundred thirty linear feet. This number represents the approximate amount of historical records, papers and photographs relating to the history of the Italian Americans in Northeast Ohio that the Western Reserve Historical Society has collected and preserved. In addition to these paper materials, there are about 80 objects in the collection.

The Western Reserve Historical Society has been collecting materials related to the history of the Italians in Northeast Ohio since the 1970s. In 2005, the Italian American Cultural Foundation, the Order Italian Sons and Daughters of America, and the Northern Ohio Italian American Foundation provided the funds to establish the position of associate curator for Italian American history. I was hired into this position on a part-time basis in early 2006. Hiring a curator turned the efforts of collecting and preserving the history of Italian Americans from a side project into a significant focus for the historical society.

The success of a focused collections initiative is evident in the numbers. Of the total 230 feet and 80 objects and textiles, I added 120 linear feet of materials and 75 objects to the collection in just four years. A sampling of some of the materials I have brought into the historical society includes:

  • The collections of the Little Italy Historical Museum, which closed in 2007. The collection includes over 250 photographs, over 50 artifacts, and a variety of documents on the history of the neighborhood;
  • A silver fruit bowl and cigarette holder crafted by Dominick Sylvester (Domenico Silvestro), an award-winning silversmith who immigrated to Little Italy with his family at the age of 3 in 1889.  He taught himself the art of metalsmithing by reading books he took out of the Alta House Library;
  • An audio recording of Teodolinda Angelone Germano recounting her childhood experience of leaving her home in Italy in the early twentieth century, arriving at Ellis Island, and settling in Euclid, OH;
  • The book of minutes of the Associazione di Fratellazana di Campodipietra, founded in Cleveland in 1930. It was a society of immigrants and their descendants who originated from Campodipietra, Campobasso, Italy; and
  • The papers of Alexander "Sonny" L. DeMaioribus who in the 1930s was president of the Italian Cultural Garden Foundation and also served as president of the Cleveland City Council.

But what do the numbers mean and why does all this stuff matter?

To answer the first part of the question, the raw numbers illustrate the physical and spatial qualities of the collection. Essentially, knowing the size helps one to understand that the collection is extensive and that the WRHS has saved quite a bit of stuff about Italian Americans. But to answer the second part of the question, about the importance of this stuff, one needs to look at it more carefully.

Upon closer inspection, we find in the collection photographs that capture faces, places and particular moments in time, records that document business transactions and club activities, correspondence, book, and oral history recordings that explain in people's own words their happy moments as well as trials and tribulations, and a variety of objects and textiles created or used by Italian American individuals. Researchers from scholars, to genealogists, to schoolchildren, to simply curious individuals can access these materials and study them. Museums and historical societies can display them.

These materials are the physical evidence of the people, places and events of the past.  Without them, history would be elusive and it would be difficult for anyone to know what transpired. The importance of all of this stuff, then, is the fact that it preserves and tells the history of the Italian Americans in Northeast Ohio.

While the size of a collection is crucial, the aim of collecting is not purely to amass a large amount. The contents of the collection are by far more significant. "Quality, not quantity," as the old saying goes. Basically, the overall goal of a historical collecting initiative is to make certain that the collection includes materials that represent all of the essential aspects of a group's history. I do collect materials as they present themselves, but I also identify gaps in the collection through research. I then seek out those specific materials that will "complete" the collection, or allow it to represent the history more thoroughly.

For instance, many Italian Americans formed or belonged to hometown societies and other types of clubs and organizations since their early arrival in this region. WRHS has the records of 14 of these groups, including the Italian American Cultural Foundation, the Gildonese Society and the Santagatese Society. Because these organizations were and are a significant part of the Italian American experience in this region, I am working towards obtaining more materials to document them. Another topic area on which I am focusing my collecting efforts is Italian American businesses, including the construction industry and grocers. So even though the number of collection materials may seem high, much more is needed.

In addition to building a collection, I have expanded the historical society's focus on Italian American history into a comprehensive program that includes several other components. Researching the history and teaching others about it are two of these vital components.

With the help of volunteers and interns, I conduct research to uncover more and obscure layers of the history of this community in Northeast Ohio. Recently, Connie Sancetta, a dedicated WRHS volunteer, and I have been researching a little known Italian community on the West side of Cleveland colloquially referred to as "Garlic Corners." I have also been examining Italian immigrant housing in Cleveland, specifically the types of dwellings the immigrants lived in, how they acquired them, and how they used them. A third research project that may become a documentary film is an investigation of Italian American artisans (bricklayers, stone cutters and mosaic and terrazzo workers) and architects who built or helped build many of the significant structures in Cleveland, like Severance Hall.

I teach others about and help them to discover the history of Italians in Northeast Ohio in a variety of ways. To begin with, I assure that all collection materials are entered into the WRHS online catalogue so researchers can easily find them. Any materials can be reviewed in the WRHS Library Reading Room. Exhibiting items from the collection both at the historical society and at public events and festivals, conducting presentations and lectures, and holding public programs with guest speakers are other means through which I teach and share the history with others.

One exciting event held at the historical society, usually annually in October, is called the "White Glove Event." I display in an open-access area a selection of items from the Italian American History Collection. Event attendees can see the items up close and, while wearing their white gloves, can actually touch and feel the items. This event accomplishes several things. Not only does it educate attendees about the collection and allow them to discover the history of the Italian American community, it also serves as a fundraiser to help support the collection so it will be available for the generations to come.

The Italians are one of the largest groups to immigrate to this region. We have made and continue to make positive contributions in all aspects of life here and our experiences are unique. The work I do as curator, from building the Italian American History Collection to teaching others about it, preserves the history of Italian Americans so it can be remembered and celebrated long into the future.

If you are interested in learning more about the collection or would like to donate funds or materials, please contact Pamela Dorazio Dean, WRHS Associate Curator for Italian American History via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by phone at (216) 721-5722 ext. 324.