A little over a hundred years ago, in October of 1918, my great-grandfather walked into a clerk’s office in West Virginia and received his citizenship, reflected in a certificate signed by court clerks A.J. Harrison and S.G. Barrett. In my mind’s eye, it is a warm October day. The clerk’s office in Clarksburg, West Virginia, has no fan, and it being 1918, no air-conditioning either. Barrett and Harrison sit behind a desk, neatly if not well dressed, maybe with hats hung on a rack behind them, wearing those skinny short ties of the era. They look a little tired, a little bored, and maybe a little frustrated with another family of non-English speaking immigrants who have come to get their citizenship.
The citizenship certificate, which now hangs on my office wall, notes James Bosso was then forty, with seven children, ranging in age from Sarah, the oldest at twenty, to Mary, then age one. James had been in the United States for almost twenty years by that point. His wife Angelina came over later, in 1903, with those of the children then born. The certificate notes the new citizen was a “subject” of Italy, with the word “citizen” crossed out. I had to check to make sure Italy was still a kingdom in October 1918, a remnant of a world about to change forever just a few weeks after James put his signature to the certificate, with the Armistice of the Great War. Appalachia was not like the southern parts of Italy the Bossos had come from. Neither James nor his wife spoke English well, until later in life, so I can imagine how strange it all must have seemed. I sometimes wonder if he even understood the oath he must have had to take. His faded signature is still visible on the certificate, surprisingly firm.
But on that October day, the older ones probably were not there, but James and Angelina had brought the smaller children with them. Mary was my grandmother, though through a process lost to memory but one familiar to many immigrants, that was not the name anyone called her at home and was not on any other official documents we have ever seen (including both her birth certificates, which were a year apart). She was Petruzella, “Roxanne,” or Priscilla, for most of her life. In between her and Sarah were the brothers. These were my great-uncles: Andy, who worked for Capone in Chicago and was in and out of prison; Victor, who abandoned the coal-mining future he thought was waiting for him and moved down to Los Angeles, and then Las Vegas, who was strangely identified as “Ventar” on the certificate; Parmy, who changed his last name from Bosso to Boso to conceal his ethnicity, and who married a Protestant girl. We all heard the story of how the KKK came calling while they were courting and burned a cross in front of the house. Parmy himself almost died in a mining accident before he left mining for good. The fourth was James, about whom little is known other than that he married a sister of Parmy’s wife and that he died at thirty-two.
Finally, there was “Agosto,” or Ogden, the only one other than my grandmother whom I got to know at all well. He served in the Army, ran a bar, caroused, and had a Jackie Gleason–type mustache. He was always impeccably dressed when I saw him as a boy and kind to his great-nephew from the big city. He visited my grandmother almost every day of his life after Priscilla’s husband, my grandfather Russell, died. Although he was not a religious man, this always stuck with me as a model of sibling charity. I was glad my wife got to meet him; by the time we were engaged most of James’ children had died.
Clarksburg, which dates from the 1780s, is the Harrison County seat and in 1918 was a thriving town built on the revenue from natural resources. The certificate records that James and all his children lived in Shinnston, a small town about ten miles from Clarksburg that now has a population of about 2,200 people and is about two hours south of Pittsburgh. No street address is given, and that is likely because the Bossos actually lived in an even smaller town nearby. That town was called Willard and no longer exists. It was basically owned by the mining company; my family, so far as we can tell, lived on Mudlick Road at the mines themselves. My grandmother used to tell us stories about walking to the company store, which was the only store in town, where they got whatever they needed with company money. Later in law school, I came across cases involving West Virginia mining towns, where the company owned everything and issued company scrip for money. Until 1946 it was unclear under federal law whether the residents even had any constitutional rights in such towns, such as free speech to lobby for better conditions, since the mining company was not, technically, the government.
At the time my great grandfather became a citizen, West Virginia was rent by anti-immigrant feeling, economic anxiety, and real poverty. October 1918 was after the mining riots of the early teens and the explosion of 1907 in nearby Monangah, the largest mine disaster in American history, but before the riots and shootouts in Matewan, West Virginia, in 1920. Protections for miners like James Bosso were slim; I do not know if he tried to join a union, but I suspect he tried to stay close with the other Italians who shared living accommodations and a common cook stove with the Bossos. FDR and the National Industrial Recovery Act and more favorable conditions for workers were still years away.
The one picture I have of my great-grandfather shows him just outside of the mines, his clothes deeply dirty but his eyes bright in contrast. He is holding a lunch pail and has a pipe between his teeth, a detail that always gets me, since he probably spent the day breathing in enough carcinogens. He is standing next to a man my grandmother referred to only as the Big Swede. He towers over my great-grandfather, in equally dirty clothes. He may have been big, but then again that might also only have been by contrast. My grandfather was officially reported as 5’5”, and his wife was apparently even smaller.
James and Angelina are gone, their children are all gone, and their grandchildren are mostly past retirement age. The last memories of those West Virginia experiences cross over, just barely, to the beginning of my own. Childhood visits to Niagara Falls, where James had moved his family in 1929 or so, for better opportunities in the factories rather than in the mines, and to Pennsylvania where the oldest, Sarah, had settled with her husband Sam (who had also run with the mob when a young man), gave me a glimpse of that life. I remember what I can of the stories they told. (Trying to give a further shape to these memories, I once read A.J. Cronin’s once-famous 1937 novel The Citadel, though I like to believe my family’s experiences were a little better than those of the hapless Welsh coal miners Cronin depicts.)
My memories are largely scraps, of course, and inevitably softened by my own more comfortable circumstances and the vagaries of what children remember of what their grandparents tell them in the impossibly far-off time of their own youth. Nevertheless, those scraps gave me an insight into their wider world. My grandmother was full of aphorisms (“make haste slowly” was one of her favorites, never having heard of Suetonius, who recorded that from Augustus) that she had picked up. It was not until later I learned these sayings came from classical writers or Shakespeare. Her religiosity was primal and central, what I later came to call “peasant Catholicism,” which is mine too. Her house was covered in Catholic objects and imagery, both devotional and pop-cultural (“footprints in the sand,” crocheted plaques reading “seven days without prayer make one weak,”) and she had a rosary circle for decades, fielding prayer requests lifelong. At the same time, she also taught us the Sicilian “overlook” prayer to avoid the evil eye. My sister and I remember the story to this day: us calling from Brooklyn at midnight on Christmas Eve, which was the only day the prayer (more like a charm, really) could be transmitted, while my grandmother slowly sang words in an Italian dialect we could barely understand. This combination of kitsch and art, prayer and magic, cured me of later pretensions as a Catholic intellectual—that kind of approach to the faith, I felt, could never reach the coal-mine depths of hers. When I later learned arguments that Catholicism is a “tactile” religion, that it is attuned to the physical as much as to the intellectual, I already knew what that meant. Every time I touch the rosaries that belonged to her or my grandfather, or look at the candle stand saved from her parish church before all the objects were sold off, I remember. She taught me faith was power, even for the powerless, and that it was also (or the same as) love.
I took from this history not only a deep Americanness, but also an estrangement. In one sense, what could be more American than growing up in Appalachia, as my grandmother and her siblings did? Talk in recent years about Appalachia and the forgotten America have reminded me just how typical was the experience of James and his fellow miners in that era of American history. By their going both east to New York and west to Nevada and California, I felt in some sense that my family had laid claim to the entire country. No part of it should be strange to me. In fact, next to that citizenship certificate I have some postcards one of the brothers sent home of his travels out West. Growing up in a different type of ethnic enclave in Brooklyn in the 1970s and 1980s, I found some interest and, later, comfort in the sense that the wider country should not be strange to me.
But that mental picture of the clerk’s office stays with me. Among the moonshiners, farmers, and KKK members were thousands of families like the Bossos, trying to figure out what was going on and to stay out of the way. They had brought with them a foreign language and a still-strange religion. One hundred years on, I hold fairly typical views on immigration for a conservative Catholic kid who grew up in the Reagan years in New York. I do think borders mean something and that nations have a right to determine generally who gets to live within them. Two things hold me back. The first is that the teachings of my Church require me to welcome the stranger. The other is that we were the stranger: that image of that room in Shinnston, when an undocumented coal miner and his wife entered a new world.
Gerald Russello writes from New York.