July 29, 1911

Foster Furcolo, State's First Italian American Governor, Born

PRIMARY SOURCE: Newspaper, 1948
Share this story

On this day in 1911, Foster Furcolo was born in New Haven. Raised in Connecticut and educated at Yale, Furcolo moved to Springfield after World War II. In 1948 he won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served one term in Congress before being elected the first Italian-American governor of Massachusetts. Other Italian-Americans followed him into state government, including two more governors, John Volpe and Paul Cellucci. At a political gathering in 2005, with the newly elected Senate President Robert Travaglini and Speaker of the House Salvatore DiMasi in attendance, a legislator was heard to remark, "The Italians are taking over . . . It's never been better . . . But I'm not talking about politics, I'm talking about the food."

Foster Furcolo worked as a truck driver, waiter, dishwasher, and painter to put himself through college and law school at the local university, which happened to be Yale.

When Foster Furcolo was born, the only Italian Americans likely to be found working in the State House were the skilled masons and artisans hired to construct and adorn the capital building. Before the 1890s, there were very few Italian immigrants living in Massachusetts. The first immigrants from Italy were mostly artists, musicians, and intellectuals who arrived in the mid-1800s and blended quickly into the mainstream. They were followed by a small number of merchants who settled with their families in Boston's North End. In 1880 the city had only 1,200 Italian-born residents.

But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, economic and political conditions in southern Italy caused millions of Italians to leave their homeland. Between 1890 and 1920, 6,000,000 Italians came to the United States. Boston was a major port of entry, and many Italians could not afford to travel further. They joined their countrymen in the North End.

Living conditions for the newcomers were miserable. The once-prosperous neighborhood had already absorbed huge numbers of impoverished Irish immigrants. As soon as they could afford to, the Irish moved out of the overcrowded, dilapidated neighborhood and left the North End to the city's newest immigrants, eastern European Jews and Italians. When huge waves of Italians arrived in the early 1900s, the densely populated neighborhood became almost exclusively Italian.

The first immigrants from Italy were mostly artists, musicians, and intellectuals who arrived in the mid-1800s and blended quickly into the mainstream.

Boston was not the only part of the state to feel the impact of immigration from Italy. Some Italians found jobs in cities such as Lowell, Fitchburg, and Springfield. Others who had come from coastal villages settled in the fishing towns of Gloucester, New Bedford, and Fall River. By the time Congress curtailed immigration in 1924, Italian-Americans were well established in Massachusetts.

In spite of their large numbers, Italian-Americans were slow to take an active role in politics. They faced several obstacles. Especially in Boston and in the state's other industrial cities, the Irish already dominated local government, while the older Protestant elite still controlled most government positions on the state level. Had Italian immigrants formed a voting block, they could have had considerable clout; however, most identified with their native region (Sicily or Calabria, for example), rather than with Italy. But the greatest impediment to Italian advancement was a persistent negative stereotype: first and second generation Italian-Americans were assumed to be either radical anarchists or connected to the Mafia.

It took decades for Italian-Americans to overcome this ethnic prejudice. In the 1920s and 1930s, Italians began getting jobs in urban public works and building departments, but they remained largely excluded from electoral politics. But after World War II, Springfield trial lawyer Foster Furcolo rocketed onto the political scene; he opened the door for others to follow.

Had Italian immigrants formed a voting block, they could have had considerable clout; however, most identified with their native region (Sicily or Calabria, for example), rather than with Italy.

A Connecticut native, his father was better off than most immigrants, since he was a trained surgeon. Foster Furcolo worked as a truck driver, waiter, dishwasher, and painter to put himself through college and law school at the local university, which happened to be Yale. After serving in World War II, he settled in Springfield and opened a law practice. Within two years, he had won a seat in the U.S. House. Eight years later, he ran for governor. Easily elected in 1956, he served two two-year terms before making an unsuccessful run for the U.S. Senate. His commitment to higher education for all students resulted in the creation, during his time in the governor's office, of the state's community college system. Another of his legacies was the first state Department of Natural Resources, now the Department of Conservation and Recreation.

In 1960 another Italian-American was elected governor. John Volpe was born in Winchester to working-class immigrant parents. Because his background was much more typical than Furcolo's, the Italian-American community viewed Volpe as their breakthrough candidate. Representative Silvio Conte, who served in Congress for 30 years, was another prominent Italian American politician.

In 1997 William Weld resigned and Paul Cellucci became Acting Govenor. For the first time in Massachusetts history, the governor and the mayors of Boston, Worcester, and Springfield were all Italian-Americans. A few years later, after decades of Irish-American dominance, Italian-Americans also held the most powerful positions in the state legislature. Boston's St. Patrick's Day celebration in 2005 was attended by more politicians whose names ended in a vowel than began with an O'. When Robert Travaglini of East Boston was elected as Senate President in 2003, he became the first Italian-American to lead a legislative branch in the 223 years since the creation of the Great and General Court.

Location

This Mass Moment occurred in the Western and Greater Boston regions of Massachusetts.

Sources

Boston Herald, November 12, 1994; July 6, 1995.

The Boston Globe, May 26, 1990; July 9, 1995; April 27 and May 9, 1997; March 21, 2005.

La Storia: Five Centuries of the Italian American Experience, by Jerre Mangione and Ben Morreale (Harper Collins, 1992).

Italian Americans of Greater Boston: A Proud Tradition, by William P. Marchione (Acadia, 1999).

"The Godfathers," by Jon Keller, in Boston Magazine, March 2003.

Related Moments

Mass Moments is a project of Mass Humanities, whose mission is to support programs that use history, literature, philosophy, and the other humanities disciplines to enhance and improve civic life throughout the Commonwealth.

Please consider helping us towards our goals with a donation today.

Interested in sponsoring Mass Moments?

Please calculate 1 plus 3.