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Strangers among us — Little Italy during wartime

Posted: July 6th, 2018 | Featured, Little Italy Heritage | No Comments

By Tom Cesarini | Little Italy Heritage

[Editor’s note: The Convivio “Now and Again” series comprises oral histories from Italian community members. In this excerpt from an interview with Fran Marline Stephenson, Fran discusses a dynamic experienced by many Italian-Americans during World War II.]

The war was getting really heavy, and a man in an officer’s uniform came to our door. He said, “I have some papers here, and I want you to read these. You have to leave your home and go to Oklahoma, and you’re going to go into a concentration camp. We’re going to take all the people who live near the waterfront because you’re too dangerous.” I said, “I don’t understand why we’re dangerous. My brother is in the Navy. I worked in an aircraft plant. And you’re telling me that you’re gonna put me in a camp with a bunch of people? I’m not a foreigner.” He said, “Well, your father doesn’t have second papers.” I said, “I’ll fix that, but don’t tell me you’re gonna take me out of my house. And who do you think you are, coming here and telling me … this is my country.” I just tore into him, that poor soul. And he just looked at me. He said, “All right, all right, don’t get excited.” And I said, “Excited? I’m furious to think that my government would come and tell me that they’re gonna put my family in a concentration camp. Shame on them.” He said, “Well, I’ll give you a month. If your father can write his name and go get his second papers, we’ll forgive you for that.”

Fran Marline in 1942 sits on the fender of her first car, a Chevy Club Coupe, which she purchased with her brother. (Courtesy of Fran Marline Stephenson.)

And we got out a big sheet of paper, and I gave my father a pencil and said, “You’re gonna write your name.” He said, “What? I can’t.” I said, “You’re gonna learn, starting tonight.” And his hands were so thick because he pulled in [fishing] nets all the time that he couldn’t bend them. I put a pencil in his hand and I said, “Okay, now I’m gonna show you.” I took his hand and I said, “Federico.” I wrote, “Federico.” “Now you write it by yourself.” And very slowly he copied it. He looked at it for a while and he said, “That’s my name?” I said, “Yes, Pa, that’s your name.” He said, “I’ve never seen my name written before.”

And so it was about four months later, we had to go to court, and all kinds of people were going there to get their last papers. But they had to learn to say, “The Constitution of the United States.” So we practiced it and we practiced it. “Pa, today we’re going and you have to tell the judge, say, ‘The Constitution of the United States.’” Well, I didn’t know what he’d kept in his head. But he got up in front of him and the judge said, “Mr. Marline, can you say, ‘The Constitution of the United States?’” And he goes, “Lo conna-sta-too-shon,” and that’s all he said, “Lo conna-sta-too-shon.” And the judge pounded his gavel and said, “That’s okay — at least you tried.” And he got his second papers.

Members of the Marline family, circa 1937, stand in front of their home on India Street. (Courtesy of Fran Marline Stephenson)

And he was so overwhelmed, he said, “Gee, just think, I’m an American citizen now.” He was so proud. And even before he had his papers given to him, every flag day we used to have a little flag, and he’d put that outside the window — he had a little stand for it, let everybody know that he believed in this country. And what I learned in my lifetime in Little Italy was being different, and yet the same. We’re all the same people, we’re just different color, but we’re still the same people.

Historical walking tours of Little Italy — coming this month! Learn more at conviviosociety.org.

—Tom Cesarini is the executive director of Convivio. Reach him at tom@conviviosociety.org.

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