My Sassanese sojourn

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The Cavallone family, 1949

Between 1893 and 1940, hundreds of Italians from Sassano, a small commune in the region of Campania in Southern Italy, settled on Armour Avenue (now known as Federal Street) between 47th and 51st streets in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago.

My sojourn began in 2002 when my oldest daughter, Elizabeth, received an assignment from her eighth grade social studies teacher, Dan Wall, to “Find out which ancestors came to America, when and why.” My father’s sister, Rosemary Cavallone, and her husband, Rosario di Miele, told the tale of Francesco “Thethen Cheek” Cavallone and Rosa Libretti, who were among the first Sassanesi to escape Southern Italian poverty and settle on Chicago’s Armour Avenue.

My daughter’s assignment concluded, but my journey down the rabbit hole of genealogy had just begun. After hiring Italian genealogist Joe di Simone and being disappointed that my great-grandfather’s birth record was not found in Sassano, I focused on what I could obtain locally, expanding my search to include other Cavallones buried in local cemeteries as well as any Italian names on Armour Avenue/Federal Street from census records. I also attended many genealogy workshops hosted by Dan Niemiec and Casa Italia.

Then, in the late summer of 2018, I discovered Peter Barbella’s Sassano Project online. The Sassano Project contains indexes of all the San Giovanni Evangelista Church records and civil records from the town of Sassano. Peter and his fellow genealogists located my great-grandfather’s birth record in the town of Vibonati, 30 miles southwest of Sassano. After learning that Francesco’s family returned to Sassano, I found his father Giuseppe’s death record, which mentioned his parents. From there, I was able to use the indexes to put together my ancestry all the way back to a record of the marriage of Giovanni Antonio Cavallone and Vittoria de Raho on Jan. 18, 1672!

With all the research I had done on the other families, I had to know if they were related. Since I had access to the records and indexes, I mapped the pedigree of each family living on Federal Street. All the Cavallones were ultimately descendants of Giovanni Antonio and Vittoria. The other families were also distant cousins of each other. Through the 250 years prior to the Chicago migration, many of the Sassano family members intermarried. According to a 1714 Stati della Anime, the Catholic Church’s annual census, there were only 1,555 souls in 300 families living in Sassano at the time.

In 2020, I came across a 1924 dissertation by Alice Quan Rood titled “Social Conditions Among the Negroes on Federal Street between 45th and 53rd Street.” This paper goes into detail about the neighborhood conditions that not only the African Americans lived in but also our Italian ancestors. How well the two ethnic groups got along was a bright spot in the paper.

This group of Italians, who came from poverty, found their way to success. Many who started out as junk dealers became grocery store proprietors, real estate investors, saloon owners and city of Chicago employees.

I’ve recently concluded obtaining all the property torrens from the homes on Federal Street and, from there, the warranty deeds that contain the terms of purchase of the properties. I enlisted the help of ChicagoAncestry.com’s Kim Stankiewicz to acquire the documents. This tract of land has a history for another reason: The Chicago Housing Authority acquired these properties in the late 1950s to build Chicago’s largest-ever public housing project — the Robert Taylor Homes.

Thanks to ChicagoAncestry.com, the Sassano Project, and DNA tests from Ancestry.com and 23 & Me, I have had the pleasure of connecting with more than 100 cousins across the country and sharing the history of the sassanesi.

Details of my research can be found at sassanochicago.org. Links to various sites where the research was found are also contained on the website. I encourage others to follow and document their Italian heritage.

The above appears in the November 2022 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

 

About John Cavallone

John Cavallone is a Chicago area genealogist specializing in Italian genealogy. He is the author of “From Sassano to 48 th & Federal Street: An Italian Migration at the Turn of the 20 th Century,” Contributing author to “Reconstructing Italians in Chicago: 10th Anniversary 2021 Edition,” contributor to “The Sassano Project” and manages his own website www.sassanochicago.org.

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