Unlike other northern industrial cities, Indianapolis did not attract many European immigrants. In 1910, when Chicago’s foreign-born numbered 36% of its residents and Cincinnati’s foreigners totaled 15.6% of its population, Indianapolis residents were 8.5% foreign-born. Germans and Irish were the largest contingents within this small immigrant element. This pattern is still true today. According to the 1990 federal census, 52% of Marion County residents are of German, Irish, or English origin. In contrast with these three ethnic groups which number more than 100,000 each, Italian immigrants and their descendants are estimated at 18,589.
Although Indiana has an Italian connection from the very beginning – Enrico Tonti accompanied the explorer LaSalle in 1679 and Francesco Vigo assisted George Rogers Clark in making Indiana American a century later, only after 1880 were Italian immigrants, attracted to the state in any numbers.
The city’s first Italians originated in Lombardy, Liguria, Tuscany, and Basilicata. Then in 1882 Frank Mascari, a fisherman from Termini Imerese in Sicily, visited Indianapolis to investigate business possibilities. He opened a profitable fruit store on Virginia Avenue just south of Washington Street, and before long his three brothers and brother-in-law, their wives, children, and friends followed him. By 1910, 33 of the 54 fruit and vegetable dealers in the city were Italian. They were well represented among City Market standholders and behind the wagons and pushcarts parked around the Marion County Court House. Reputedly responsible for introducing the banana here, several were nicknamed “the banana king.”
Although the Sicilians were the largest single element among Indianapolis Italians in 1930, other noteworthy elements were tailors and barbers from Calabria and terrazzo and marble art workers from the Friuli.
After World War II, the arrival of professionals and business types from other cities and more immigrants from the old country enlarged the Italian community of old-line families. Today these three groupings, proud of their cultural identity, come together in the Italian Heritage Society of Indiana.
– James J. Divita