Vito Marcantonio and Leonard Covello Reconsidered in Italian-Language Publication
Italian Harlem, and
its two main
Covello and Vito
been brought to
literary life in
Cantore, deputy director of Rai-Tgr, Italy's television network for regional news, has published numerous books and articles on the history of Italian emigration to the United States. “Harlem, Italia,” published by Rubbetino, is an Italian-language effort intended to educate people on immigration and its history.
“Italians are getting to know the immigration problem,” said Cantore in a Feb. 10 interview. “I think knowing the history of when we were immigrants can be very useful for all of us.”
Leonard Covello was an educator in East Harlem, a veritable pillar of the community, who worked to gain respect for his people and their language. Marcantonio was a student of his who went on to become a congressman and important collaborator to Covello where the construction of Benjamin Franklin High School - and other community-based efforts - were at stake.
It has been a while since there was a big book written in this academic space. Allen Schaffer’s “Vito Marcantonio: Radical in Congress,” was published in 1966. Salvatore LaGumina’s “Vito Marcantonio: The People’s Politician,” came out in 1969. Gerald Meyer’s “Vito Marcantonio: Radical Politician” was published in 1989.
Covello’s own “The Heart is a Teacher,” was released in 1958. “Leonard Covello and the Making of Benjamin Franklin High School: Education as if Citizenship Mattered (Michael Johanek and John Puckett) is the most recent effort with a 2006 publishing date.
So, Cantore’s fresh scholarship is both needed and welcome.
In “Harlem, Italia,” he revisits the largest Little Italy in the U.S. - East Harlem - during the first half of the 20th century, with a specific focus on Covello and Marcantonio. The former was a sociologist, educator and community activist, the latter, a famous radical congressman of the American Labor Party.
Said Cantore: “Despite having the possibility, they never left their troubled neighborhood behind for fancier parts of New York City. They lived all their lives in East Harlem. This is where their friendship started, and it is here where they started a project that did not merely revolve around themselves, but around the community in general.
“Both became leaders in their respective fields, but never ceased to work for the East Harlem community’s emancipation.
Italian Americans, he noted, were an "unwelcome" people but grew, by the 1930s, into the largest ethnic community in East Harlem; figuring prominently in the political and social life of the neighborhood.
“My book,” said Cantore, “recounts that neighborhood life through significant events: the construction of the Madonna del Carmine Church on 115th Street; the activities of Harlem House; Covello's struggle to have the Italian language taught in New York's schools; LaGuardia and Marcantonio shaking up Gotham politics; the idea of a multi-ethnic society based on mutual respect and collaboration; the pedagogical project behind the Benjamin Franklin High School - the first high school in East Harlem - where Covello reigned as principal for 22 years; the realization of a massive, social housing program for thousands; civil rights campaigns; Marcantonio's electoral campaigns, and his radical ideas in opposition to consolidated powers.”
Cantore first encountered Marcantonio and Covello while studying Italian emigration. He had the good fortune of meeting with the preeminent Marcantonio scholar of the day, Gerald Meyer who argued that the importance of these two “giants” should be better known in their country of origin.
“Meyer shared books, documents, memories and encouraged me to continue my research,” explained Cantore. Gerald Meyer died in November 2021.
Cantore also studied LaGumina, Schaffer, Christopher Bell (“East Harlem Remembered” etc.), Robert Orsi (“The Madonna of 115th Street” etc.), and Italian cultural scholar Simone Cinotto (“The Italian American Table: Food, Family and Community in New York City” etc.) in constructing his story.
“I read the newspapers of the time, consulted documents, met a lot of seniors from East Harlem, and also followed the activities of the Vito Marcantonio Forum and the blog “Marcantoniana,” said Cantore.
The book, he stated, is aimed primarily at young people; school and university students, but also adults; especially those involved in education and politics. “They will be interested in knowing the story of Leo and Marc, and their long walk towards the integration of the Italian community of Harlem,” he predicted.
Cantore is maintaining a brisk schedule of public appearances with key events in Picerno, where Marcantonio has his roots, in Avigliano, so well-depicted in Covello’s aforementioned memoir, and other municipalities in the province of Basilicata, where the story is truly rooted.
“We are preparing a vast program of presentations in other Italian regions, literary fairs and colleges,” explained Cantore.
“In the end,” Cantore said, “I hope that this book will render a tribute of gratitude to Covello and Marcantonio, in Italy, for what they have done. Their example is relevant, useful, and applicable to the times in which we live. We need a renewed commitment to the poor, the needy, the immigrants who remain on the margins of the community, just as it happened for the Italian-Americans of East Harlem.”