By: LaTasha Baker
INDEPENDENCE- In 1852, a village named “Uncle Sam” was a project of the New Orleans and Nashville Rail Road Company. According to Bill Dorman, Amite librarian in the Genealogy Department said that these companies planned to establish a settlement and sell land to develop the area, but never got off the ground. In their plan to re-establish the village without the stigma of the failed project, they decided to rename the village “Independence”. In 1912, Independence was incorporated as a town.
Sicilian immigrants were recruited to Independence to work on the sugar cane plantations. “The work was hard and the pay was meager,” said Micheal Agnello, a local citizen of Independence and Sicilian descendant. Most were paid fifty cents a day and given a shack to live in. Michael said the Sicilian immigrants were industrious and even after working hard long hours they planted vegetable gardens. “They saved every penny they could in hopes of a better life,” said Agnello.
Agnello said most of the Sicilian fathers, grandfathers and oldest sons had come to America leaving wife and family in Sicily until they could afford to send for them. “The family members eventually received word from the relatives in Independence to come to Tangipahoa and share crop for larger landowners and to eventually own their own farm,” said Agnello.
Agnello said that as they were able, the men sent for their families and moved to Independence to raise strawberries. “The soil and the climate was much like their homeland. Hard work, integrity, honesty, and their faith in God helped them to eventually reach their goals. Due to much of their efforts and work ethics, Independence became the largest shipper of strawberries in the country,” said Agnello.
The Italian-Sicilian immigrant families from Sicily bought and occupied large sections of land in Independence. “Because the Italians and Sicilians banded together, communities were established in almost every metropolitan community or city they moved into. Eventually, for this reason, Independence became known as “Little Italy,” said Agnello.
Agnello said in 1972, the members of the Independence Italian American Cultural Association established the “Little Italy” Festival to honor the Sicilian heritage. It is now known as the Italian Festival. It is held annually at the Mater Dolorosa School Square in April. “Some of the people influential in getting the festival started was John & Jenny Masaracchia, Frank L. Anzalone, Emile Danna, John Catalano, Tony Cardaronella, Paul LaMarca and many others,” said Agnello.
The festival consists of a parade, carnival rides, games, and authentic Italian-Sicilian music. There is also street dancing with dancers from the homeland. The best Italian foods are served at the festival such as pasta, lasagna, pizza, stuffed artichokes, Italian sausage, Italian ice tea and homemade Italian cookies. “I operated the spaghetti booth for years with the Mater Dolorosa Catholic Church members,” said Valerie Agnello, wife of Micheal Agnello.
During the festival weekend, a religious tradition brought from Sicily is observed. A tribute to the Patron Saint of Sicily, Saint Joseph is honored. A alter is built and covered with traditional Sicilian foods prepared for display. “There are baked bread, cakes and delicious homemade cookies placed on the platform alter,” said Agnello. “After their prayer vigils and the coming of rains, they prayed in thanksgiving and carried the statue of St. Joseph through the streets of their villages and returned to the church for the benediction.”
Agnello said the festival is now held in two locations. “Since its inception, the festival was held at Mater Dolorosa School property, but the change in town leadership moved the festival to an area in the center of town and then to its industrial park. Under the next town administration, a disagreement between the town and the festival board caused them to move the Italian Festival to nearby Tickfaw where it has continued and thrived. Therefore, The Sicilian Festival is held in Independence and the Italian Festival is held in the town of Tickfaw,” said Agnello.
The original Mater Dolorosa Church is now the Italian Culture Museum in Independence. The museum is open throughout the festival weekend for tourists. “There are displays of artifacts, pictures of the Sicilian people’s rich history, pictures of the town of Independence history as well as live music by a singing group made up of some of their members,” said Agnello.
Agnello said among all the adversity we have gone through during the years, we are still a proud entity and have contributed to the success of Independence, Tangipahoa Parish and all the surrounding areas. “Sicilian Americans are serving in parish and state offices as well as protecting our freedom by serving in the military in every war since World War I. Because of good work ethics, honesty, integrity and the faith of our Sicilian-American forefathers, we should be proud to celebrate our cultural inheritance.