In 1907, my great-grandfather and Poggio Rusco, Italy native arrived at Ellis Island. Tomaso Venturini, along with a brother and sister, joined their mother and older brothers, who had arrived earlier that year. Their father (my second great grandfather) never came with them, a family mystery I continuously research to this day. Like most immigrants, they would face their share of challenges. Naturally, the first burden all immigrants dealt with was their ethnic identity. If you were Slavic, Italian, Polish or had a unique surname from a foreign land, you were at a disadvantage. It was shameful discrimination but a reality that has thankfully dwindled (though still exists) with the passage of time.
Last week, the Economist featured a post on the economics of a surname. Specifically, the post focused on a paper which studied surname changes in New York after the Ellis Island immigration period. What has been shown in study after study, as well as in this paper, is that immigrants from the Ellis Island period were disadvantaged by their names. Those immigrants from more “acceptable” cultures (ethnic groups that had previously assimilated or British immigrants) suffered less from economic and social injustice then other ethnicities. For those immigrants that were discriminated, they proudly Americanized their identities, shunning their ethnic surnames. Other American newcomers changed their surname purely out of economic necessity. Despite our nation welcoming millions, which was to our economic advantage, xenophobic attitudes were pervasive in America. Names would change, often for business, and sometimes permanently.
Such was the case for Tomaso and his family. Tom was a skilled silk dyer. As early as 1913, Thomas is listed in both American textile corporate lists and in New York City’s business directory. The surname listed was never Tomaso Venturini. In the early 1920s, Tom, his brothers Emilio, Luigi and Elvino, and his brother-in-law, Emanuel DeGiorgio, endeavored to create a silk dyeing venture in Brooklyn. Naturally, a name such as Venturini & DeGiorgio just wouldn’t be as profitable and successful an enterprise as would a company with an American name. So the silk dyers of my family opened the firm Vanter & George.
Even when my great-grandpa passed away tragically at the young age of forty-five, all his estate papers and court proceedings referencing him using Thomas Venturini, and his alias, Thomas Vanter. This discrimination continued into the 1940s for my family when my grandmother was forced to use it. One of Tom’s brothers never relinquished the Vanter name and my DeGiorgio cousins no longer use that surname but the more Americanized DeGeorge. The Vanter and George company name may be a misnomer on the family tree, it, nevertheless, established itself as a great Italian-American company in Brooklyn. Make no mistake for we are not Vanters. We are definitely Venturinis.