The impact of African Americans in Italy is everywhere. As a student in Bologna, I’ve seen Americans and Italians bond on the basketball court over their shared admiration for Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Lebron James, and Kobe Bryant. Jazz greats like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald play in the background at your local café, and a live music night at a bar here is likely to feature Chuck Berry, Prince, or hip hop as much as any Italian or European artist.
The influence of African-Americans in Italy – particularly Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna – springs from deep roots, and is an integral part of the story U.S. Consulate General Florence is telling during its Insieme 200, or Together 200 Bicentennial Campaign.
During the mid 19th-century, abolitionists were an active part of the American expatriate artist colony or community in Florence. Soon after the Civil War ended in 1865, Edmonia Lewis, a Boston-based African-American abolitionist and sculptor, came to Florence and collaborated with famous sculptors such as Hiram Powers (who was also a U.S. Consul) and Thomas Ball. Lewis produced one of her most famous sculptures using Carrara marble entitled Forever Free depicting an African-American man and woman – their chains broken. Forever Free is now in the collection of the Howard University Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.
Another famous abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, visited Italy in 1887, not long before he became U.S. Ambassador to Haiti. He said that in Italy he could walk, “unquestioned among men,” and that “the longer one stays, the longer one wants to stay.”
The most deeply felt contribution of African-Americans to Italy came in the 20th century in liberating the country from fascism during World War II. The “Buffalo Soldiers,” as the 92nd Infantry Division were called, began their campaign in Southern Italy in 1944. The Buffalo Soldiers - the only African-American infantry division to see combat in Europe during World War II - marched north to the Arno River through bitter fighting to “The Gothic Line,” and broke through the Nazi defenses in early 1945.
The story of the Buffalo Soldiers has been immortalized in cinema both in the neorealist classic Paisà and the 2008 Spike Lee thriller “Miracle at St. Anna” as they saved many Italians from further violence by the Nazis after a massacre. Both films depict the friendship between Buffalo Soldiers and young Italians. “They threw us flowers and shouted, ‘Long live the Americans!’” said Buffalo Soldier Ivan J. Houston. Houston wrote the book Black Warriors: the Buffalo Soldiers of World War II (blackwarriorsbook.com) and still gives talks on his experiences in Italy. Many of the African-Americans who died fighting in Italy are now buried at the Florence American Cemetery.
In a way, African-American influence in Tuscany has come full circle as a story of friendship. It began with American art carved out of Italian stone and continues with African-American and Italian culture woven together. These peaceful bookends punctuate a common struggle for freedom and embody how we have come and stayed together over the last two hundred years.
Caroline Lupetini is a first-year graduate student at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Bologna. Caroline is also a virtual intern at U.S. Consulate General Florence. Learn more at vsfs.state.gov.