Italian-American associations reflect the history of a tight-knit community
Italian-Americans have been forming cultural organizations since they began immigrating to the upper Texas coast in the late 1800s, said Alfio A. Tropea, former president of the San Giovanni Italian-American Association of Galveston.
The first recorded association of this kind was formed in 1876 and called The Italian Mutual Benevolent Society, or Società Italiana Di Mutuo Soccorso, he said. Later organizations in the area included: La Colonia Italiana de Galveston; the Società Italiana Meridionale di Mutuo Soccorso; Stella d’Italia; the Sons of Italy and finally the San Giovanni Italian-American Association of Galveston, Tropea said.
The names of the organizations might have changed over the years, but their purpose has remained the same, which is to provide assistance to fellow immigrants of Italian descent and to celebrate and preserve Italian culture, customs and traditions, Tropea said.
Because Galveston was home to familiar industries like fishing, and because of land purchases by the Italian government, Italians settled in the area, Tropea said.
“Italians were attracted to Galveston because there were many opportunities here for them to support their families,” Tropea said.
Land purchases in the early 1900s secured farms for Italian-Americans. In June of 1900, a flood of great magnitude hit Bryan, Texas, where many Italian-Americans had settled. The ambassador to Italy, by direction of the Italian king, purchased land in southeast Texas and moved Italian immigrants from Bryan to Dickinson, Hitchcock and Santa Fe. After the Great Storm in September of the same year, the ambassador acquired additional land and moved Galveston Island residents to those areas as well. A total of 68,000 acres were purchased to relocate Italian-Americans in and around Galveston County, Tropea said.
“Italians were also bakers and butchers and barbers and grocers,” Tropea said. “They set up shops here with great success.”
Tropea was born and raised on Galveston Island. His grandfather and namesake came here in the 1920s and worked for Joe Grasso and Son, the shrimping industry magnate. His father, Sebastiano, owned and operated a family grocery on the corner of 16th and Church streets in the city of Galveston from 1959-1982 called Tropea Food Store.
Tropea remembers other Italian names from the early days: Omero Del Papa of Del Papa Distributing Co.; Frank Celli and Bruce Caravageli who were wholesale grocers; Jasper Tramonte who started a meat-processing company and A. Martini’s Dixie and Crystal movie theaters.
“Most of these families, or their companies, still exist today,” Tropea said.
As more Italian families moved to the area, the greater the need became for the extended family of culturally affiliated associations, Tropea said. He, and his cousin, Salvatore Arcidiacono, founded the San Giovanni Italian-American Association of Galveston in 1984.
An early project was the restoration of the Italian Vault in the Calvary Cemetery on 65th Street in Galveston. Created in 1888, the vault had fallen into disrepair and a local woman, Lena Marie De Salvo, approached the organization about spearheading a renovation. The newly restored structure was unveiled and recorded as a Texas Historic Landmark in 1992.
Most Italian-American benevolent societies are centered around the church, Tropea said. The organization continues to hold the Festa of San Giovanni, or Feast of St. John, at Galveston’s Sacred Heart Church every year on June 24. This year will mark the event’s 64th anniversary at the church.
“While our organization’s efforts concentrate on church activities and fundraising, the heart of every Italian belongs to his family,” Tropea said.
He and his wife of 43 years, Angelina Floridia Tropea, continue to live on Galveston Island.