Stories from Hartford's Grassroots
Thirty-seven million people were killed in World War l from 1914 to 1918, including 1,100 from Connecticut. The United States armed forces averaged 297 casualties a day. Here was a conflict, historian Howard Zinn wrote, where “no one since that day has been able to show that the war brought any gain for humanity that would be worth one human life.”
Like many immigrants of the early 20th century, young Ulysses DeRosa came to the United States with a dream. “After reading about Carnegie and Rockefeller,” he wrote, “I was ready to become a millionaire in America.”
DeRosa left his hometown in Accadia, Italy for Hartford at age twelve, thanks to the money his older brother Antonio sent him. He arrived in May 1905. Soon after Ulysses arrived in Hartford, his brother was injured at work and returned to his home country. Ulysses DeRosa was left on his own. For a short while he was taken in by a local Quaker family. Their commitment to pacifism and Quaker principles left a lasting impression.
Most of the Italian emigrant community lived in the Front Street neighborhood, the east side section of the city bordering the Connecticut River. Previous to the Italians, Front Street had been home to impoverished Irish families for at least fifty years.
As poor as it was, Front Street bustled with life. The neighborhood had a spirit that can only be duplicated where families work together to overcome their hardscrabble existence, fueled by a common determination to succeed.
Today, Front Street — although long ago bulldozed in the name of urban redevelopment– still holds a firm place in the memories of the living, the descendants of those who succeeded, despite the disdain and rejection the original immigrants faced from the dominant Hartford WASPs.
The streets were teeming with progressive political ideas that inspired DeRosa. Various radical philosophies helped form his future beliefs and prepared him for the extraordinary dangers he would face.
DeRosa soaked in the cultural and political influences of the time. He learned English quickly, despite the humiliation of being required to attend a first-grade public school class. He attended “every free lecture, to my adulthood, on history or any other subject.”
Prejudice against Italians was common in Hartford, and the leading citizens of the day did not hesitate to publicly voice their objections. One such voice was the Reverend Howard V. Ross of the First Methodist Church. From his pulpit Ross warned his congregants that immigrants were:
“A sodden, sour, bitter mass of humanity that resists the best ideals of American and Christian civilization. From the lowest peasant class of Italy, with their ideas of low living and filth and poverty, from the Balkans with low instincts of society and womanhood. If you seek the anarchist, the Bolshevist, the wild-eyed turbulent radical, when you find him and look into his face, behold it is the face of a foreigner.”
Writing in his unpublished memoir, DeRosa explained that he “never joined a party, as such, but I felt comfortable with any group that helped lift the poor. I associated with socialists, anarchists, religious leaders, labor leaders, and all “isms” as long as they were for the betterment of mankind.”
Considering that the Italian east side contained only a total of twenty blocks, it produced more than its share of political activists and organizers, many of whose ideas and principles DeRosa absorbed.
The DeMaio family, for instance, lived on Mechanic Street. Serephine (Rucci) DeMaio was a suffragist who bridged the gap between traditional Yankees and immigrant women. Her son Ernest became one of the founders of the United Electrical workers union (UE), a left-wing labor group that aggressively organized the industrial sector.
Ernie’s father Donato and uncle Tony were arrested in Hartford during the Palmer Raids, the notorious 1919-1920 federal crackdown on immigrants and unionists. Tony had also been an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Ernie’s brother Anthony joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight for the republican cause against the fascists of Franco’s Spain.
Anarchist influence was part of the mix as well. The insurrectionist anarchist Luigi Galleani visited the city at least twice, speaking at the Venetian Hall. Galleani had a significant following the United States, although apparently not in Hartford. Galleanists adopted his strategy of “propaganda of the deed,” the use of individual acts of violence for revolutionary political purposes.
Carlos Tresca, who emigrated from Italy in 1904, would become a frequent visitor to Hartford, New Britain, and Waterbury. He spoke to an Italian audience at the Princess Theater on State Street, adjacent to DeRosa’s neighborhood. Tresca was sponsored by Girolomo Grasso who lived on Market Street (and was identified as an anarchist in a secret FBI report). DeRosa got to know Tresca when they were both living in New York and working for similar causes.
Hartford Italians mourned the 1909 execution of Spanish educator and anarchist Francisco Ferrer. The celebrated international figure had been arrested and tried by a military tribunal acting on highly questionable evidence. Ferrer was the founder of the Modern School movement which took hold in the U.S., attracting Upton Sinclair and Jack London among others. La Escuela Moderna had a great influence on subsequent experimental school reform efforts such as Summerhill.
The Circolo Libero Pensiero (Freethinkers Club) was a small Hartford group that enjoyed criticizing established religion and disrupting revival meetings, especially the local Italian Congregational and Baptist missions. DeRosa attended one memorable debate between a Protestant minister and an anarchist, probably Nunzio Vayana, on the question of “Religion Across History.”
The purpose of the event was to challenge the historical role of the Church in its persecution during the Inquisition, and specifically the injustices done to Italian scientist Galileo and theologian Giordano Bruno, who were both executed for their ideas. As far as Ulysses DeRosa was concerned, the anarchist won the debate hands down.
This particular event made a permanent impact on DeRosa: “the experience opened my mind to many forms of social injustice,” he would later write.
The Status of Italian Workers in Connecticut
The employment Ulysses DeRosa could find in Hartford was strictly limited. Italian workers were largely excluded from the skilled trades, and traditional unions rejected them, so they organized themselves:
In 1907, immigrants who were digging out the foundation for the new mill of the American Thread Company in Willimantic went on strike to demand an increase in wages from $1.75 to $2.00 a day;
Later that year, the Italian General Labor Union led a strike of of 5,000 railroad track workers across Connecticut. They stayed out for three weeks before they were forced back to work by a combination of a lack of financial support, no real solidarity support from other unions, and the inability to gain strength by spreading their action to Boston and Maine;
In January, 1910, tobacco workers went on strike at the Pinney farm in Suffield, demanding a twenty-five cent daily wage increase. Around this time, dozens of Italians working on the Scotland Dam in Willimantic struck when two of their leaders were fired. Italian weavers, trolley builders, ditch diggers and paper workers around the state led strikes for better wages and a nine-hour day;
The existing wages for these men were “fair pay for unskilled work twenty-five years ago,” said union leader Joseph C. Ciccosanti, but now it did not feed their families. “We are in danger of our lives every minute we are working,” Ciccosanti told a newspaper reporter. “It is hard work and in every kind of weather and we get very low pay.”
Sometimes, the noble cause of labor was not always enough to motivate the state’s Italian workforce (and in this way they were similar to all other ethnicities). Forty Italian laborers were imported to Willimantic in order to break the strike of workers on the New York, New Haven, and Hartford Railroad.
On the other hand, Italian railroad workers also convinced stonecutters at Hartford’s Union Station to join their strike, and still others, shipped into a town as strikebreakers, turned around and went home when they discovered they had been hired as scabs.
The Ludlow Massacre
Ulysses DeRosa moved to New York City to seek greater opportunity. It was in September 1913 that he read of a Colorado coal miners strike. More than eleven thousand coal miners, many of them Italian, struck the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation which was owned by the Rockefeller family.
The workers had been suffering under the tyranny of the bosses and the deprivations of the “company towns.” This scheme was set up by the boss to squeeze more profits from the miners, who were forced to buy groceries and pay rent to their employer. The strike was finally triggered when a union organizer was murdered by the company’s private police force.
The Rockefeller corporation evicted the strikers and their families from the shanty town; the United Mine Workers union rented land and set up a tent colony that kept the families warm, well-fed, and given medical treatment by union doctors.
The mining production halted and the strike survived through a tough winter, despite periodic attacks from the Baldwin-Felts private detectives who used Gatling Guns in raids on the tent colonies.
The strikers survived through the winter. But on April 20, 1914, the Colorado governor ordered the National Guard to accompany scabs across the picket lines. Undaunted, the miners continued their strike. The Guard attacked the largest tent colony, located at Ludlow, with machine guns. The miners returned fire.
At dusk, the guardsmen set fire to the tents. Thirteen men died from gunfire; eight children and two women were later found burned to death in the trenches that miners had dug to protect them from bullets.
The strike was 1,800 miles away from Ulysses DeRosa and his friends, but the injustice inflamed the young radicals as if they had personally witnessed the massacre. If they couldn’t provide direct support for the miners, they could at least confront the corporate owner.
DeRosa and the others joined anarchist Alexander Berkman and the famous writer Upton SInclair who organized protests in Tarrytown, New York, the massive estate of John D. Rockefeller.
On May 31st, he and some friends took the train to Tarrytown. Almost as soon as they disembarked, DeRosa was assaulted by police and then arrested. Despite a complete lack of evidence, the local magistrate sentenced him to three months in prison.
DeRosa served on Hart’s Island (part of the Bronx), located in Long Island. The island was known as Potters Field, where over one million people, mostly indigent, had been buried. The place had a variety of functions over the decades; by the time DeRosa arrived it was a boys’ reformatory.
This was his first introduction to the criminal justice system; a prison that subjected them to bad food, poor medical treatment, and brutal treatment by guards. It was good training for what was come a few years later.
Ulysses DeRosa developed his skill as a milliner, working at the Georgette Hat Company on Hudson Street on the lower east side. On July 17, 1918 DeRosa appeared at the induction center along with several of his friends and a group of women (mostly mothers and sisters) who were “weeping and wailing.” He made it clear that he would not cooperate with induction process, including a refusal to be fingerprinted. DeRosa was sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas on July 25th.
DeRosa refused to wear an army uniform or cooperate with any military orders so he was labeled an “absolutist,” in contrast to other objectors who agreed to non-combat duty. He and other conscientious objectors (C.O.s) served their time along with groups of Mennonites and Molokans (a Russian spiritual christian sect) who resisted the war on religious principles.
The young war resister and eighteen other conscientious objectors were brutalized and tortured over two months by Army officers and guards, according to an investigation by Roger Baldwin and the National Civil Liberties Bureau (later known as the ACLU), which intervened on their behalf.
The men all received severe physical injuries; some of them suffered mental breakdowns as well. They were punched in the face, knocked to the ground and kicked, hit with rifle butts, prodded with bayonets and smashed against walls. In addition, they were forced into ice cold showers, awakened every two hours at night and forced to stand outside, and had large amounts of laxatives surreptitiously placed in their food. Once, in order to break their hunger strike, an army officer forbid them drinking water for three days.
The C.O.s refused noncombatant service because, they reasoned, it would allow the military to free up other draftees who would then be sent to the battlefield. They would not march or salute, they refused direct orders to work, and resisted any action that would make them part of the Army. They were assigned to serve as waiters for the officers’ mess hall, but refused. As punishment, they were forced to camp in the nearby woods with tents but no food.
At no time during their imprisonment did the C.O.s portray themselves as victims. Their hunger strikes were strategic: their ability to act in concert helped them maintain solidarity and a measure of dignity. They received a stove and utensils by refusing to eat bad food prepared by guards. Abusive behavior by army guards slowed down or halted when it was found to be ineffective. One soldier, ordered to hit a prisoner repeatedly, stopped after a few blows and could not continue. Another time, a soldier hit DeRosa with his gun butt– instead of bayoneting him as an officer had demanded.
Some of the conscientious objectors (known in the press as “slackers” or obstructionists) maintained diaries of their treatment. Here are two excerpts:
“We were ordered to take a cold shower. DaRosa [sic], feeling that cold showers are detrimental to him, and having taken a bath but one-half hour previous to the issuing of the above order, refused to undress. The Corporal of the Guards thrust him under the spray with his clothes on.
DaRosa returned to the guard room, wearing his dripping clothes. The Corporal ordered him to undress and take a thorough shower. When DaRosa again refused, the Corporal tore his clothes from his body and at the same time delivered upon him some telling and effective blows. He was then placed under the cold shower.
We were compelled to take a cold shower once in the morning and once in the afternoon. A guard stood watch and checked each man.”
“Ott [another prisoner] and DeRosa, both materially weakened by their hunger strike, were forcibly dressed and put on exercise in the afternoon. Ott was shoved around a while and then left unmolested.
DeRosa was pushed about, then thrown to the wet ground, punched, kicked, and spat at by the guards.
He was then raised to his feet and dragged around some more. Presently he was dropped and one guard seized him by the hair and rubbed his face in and banged his head on the ground. His cheek and forehead were bruised, leaving two ugly skin wounds.
Four guards carried him to the shower room, stripped him of what little clothes remained on his person, placed him on the cold cement floor, in an exhausted condition, and turned the cold spray on him. The soldiers then scrubbed him viciously with filthy brushes and brooms… He was finally brought back to the squad room in a semi-conscious state.”
On September 17th, DeRosa and other C.O.s were formally arrested and sent to solitary confinement for refusing an order to clean out a large pile of trash. This order triggered a pre-determined plan by which the Army could ultimately court martial them.
DeRosa and his comrades were court-martialed on October 22, 1918. They were found guilty of disobeying orders and sentenced to life in prison at hard labor. The penalty was later reduced to twenty-five years, since the life sentence exceeded the maximum penalty allowed by law.
During the trial, DeRosa was questioned about his political and religious beliefs. He described himself as having become International Socialist at age fourteen. His primary allegiance was to the world at large, he considered all people as equal, and he refused to do harm to anyone. He also provided a letter from the Clerk at the New York Quaker Meeting where he had first become a member of the Friends Society. The official confirmed that DeRosa had joined their meetings and was a member in good standing. DeRosa explained his pacifist stand this way:
“In these trying times the only authority that I obey is the inner light- the great ideal for which Christ gave his life, namely: Humanity. It is the spirit of reconciliation, not hate, non-resistance, not aggression, that should dominate us.”
Throughout their imprisonment, army officials would try to argue the men out of their nonviolent principles. “If a negro entered your house and assaulted your wife, what would you do?” one officer asked DeRosa.
After their court martial the men were transferred to the military prison at Fort Leavenworth. They were sent to “the hole” where they were chained by their wrists to their cell doors for nine hours a day. This proved to be especially painful to DeRosa due to his small stature.
During their entire ordeal the men occasionally found a recruit who secretly sympathized with them. This allowed DeRosa and his friends to have mail smuggled to family members on the outside.
When the conscientious objectors’ case was publicly exposed, it became a cause celebre. The officers who had been mistreating the prisoners did so in direct opposition of policies made by Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. A board of inquiry was established in Washington to examine the evidence and the behavior of the soldiers who had mistreated the C.O.s. Four officers, including the head of military police and the provost marshal of the camp, lost their jobs as a result. Ulysses DeRosa and his comrades were released from military prison after Christmas.
New York Strikes and Palmer Raids
No sooner had DeRosa been released from military prison, he was back in New York City working as a hat maker. He was active in his union. The city was roiling with strike activity: cigar makers, printers, house builders, window cleaners, shipyard workers, paper box makers, clerical workers and more. The 6,000 members of the milliers’ union who worked south of Twenty-third Street were out on the street by mid-September, 1919. By October 1st, the other 12,000 hat makers were set to go when their contract expired, adding to the 100,000 workers of various trades who were already on strike in the city.
Their demands were similar to the other union also on strike: wage increases, union recognition (requiring employers to acknowledge their duty to bargain), holiday pay, and union consent before any workers could be fired. The United Cloth and Cap Makers Union also demanded the abolition of piecework, and that women be recognized as union representatives in the various factories.
Ultimately the strike failed. DeRosa was bitter toward factory operators and the union leadership as well.
In 1919 and 1920, U.S. Attorney A. Mitchell Palmer orchestrated a nationwide roundup of thousands of trade unionists, immigrants (especially Russians) and anybody he considered too left wing on the political spectrum. According to DeRosa, a friend alerted him just in time that two characters were waiting at his apartment building. DeRosa avoided the agents and very likely missed another incarceration. He moved to Baltimore, Maryland and for ten years engaged in the manufacture of men’s clothes.
Once free from imprisonment, Ulysses DeRosa and his fellow political prisoners continued to work on behalf of the C.O.s still incarcerated.
By 1960, Ulysses DeRosa had settled in Massachusetts and raised a family. He continued his work in the garment business. His son Dean registered as a conscientious objector, and worked as a medic during WWll. Around this time Ulysses requested a
copy of his discharge papers, which he had lost. DeRosa discovered that the Army records indicated he had received a dishonorable discharge. He worked for years with the support of the Quakers to successfully correct the record.
Ulysses DeRosa wrote about this ordeal and other parts of his life in an unpublished manuscript entitled “The Odyssey of a Conscientious Objector.” The document included a letter from the “United States Disciplinary Barracks” at Fort Leavenworth prison, stating that as the Secretary of War had released DeRosa, et. al., , they were now restored to a “status of honorable discharge” as of January, 27, 1919.
During the Vietnam War in 1971, 35,000 men sought C.O. status, more than the 23,000 who were actually drafted that year. During that same time, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor a broader definition of who qualified as a conscientious objector.
Ulysses DeRosa died on March 1, 1989 at the age of ninety-seven.
Thanks to Andrew DeRosa and family for the photos of Ulysses.