YOUNGSTOWN - Second-generation immigrant Margaret Pallante vividly recalls the fear she felt as her father scrambled through their Niles home, dimming the lights as men in white robes stood in single file lines outside.
"We all had to move into the dining room and keep quiet," the 90-year-old said during an interview Thursday night.
Italian immigrants were entering Trumbull County in droves during the early 1900s, but not everyone embraced them with open arms.
"It was the Ku Klux Klan," Pallante said of the frightening experience. "They were all marching down Warren Avenue, and that's where we lived. We were all afraid, obviously."
Now, eight decades later, Pallante's experiences were used as one of many sources for a senior project done by her great niece Paula Schaeffer, a student at Youngstown State University.
The project looked at the Italian immigration experience from 1890 to 1924, focusing mainly on the Niles Fire Brick Co., which employed immigrants during that period, and the Smoky Hollow neighborhood in Youngstown.
"There was a lot of information available for those two areas," Schaeffer said. "That made putting together the research a little easier."
Schaeffer, with the help of a $2,000 grant from the Ohio Humanities Council, held a public presentation of the project to a roomful of interested spectators on Thursday evening at the Historical Center of Industry and Labor.
"It's funny, because when you say you're from Niles, everyone just assumes you're Italian," Schaeffer laughed. "I wanted to find out why all of these people fit into this area."
According to Schaeffer's research, a shift to industrialization in the northern areas of Italy in the late 1800s left the more agricultural south lagging behind in education and with much higher poverty rates.
For this reason, many families living in southern Italy went searching for better opportunities. With the industrial boom reaching its apex in the Mahoning Valley, a wave of southern Italian immigrants flooded the area.
"The most interesting thing I found when doing this project was how different this area was compared to big cities when it came to the actual immigrant populations," Schaeffer said. "In big cites, Italians didn't really make the American connection quite as well. But, people from Mahoning wanted to assimilate and become American, so they made sure to learn the language and things like that."
According to Pallante, her mother forbade speaking Italian while at home, because she wanted the family to assimilate seamlessly.
"My mother taught herself to speak English and could read a newspaper from top to bottom," Pallante said. "That was important to her."
A double major in American History and Italian, Schaeffer decided to combine her passions in deciding the project topic.
"I've taken a lot of classes that focus on the immigration process and that's always interested me," Schaeffer said.
Schaeffer's exhibit, which includes panel banners and artifacts from the period, will remain open through mid-January. In conjunction with the project, a speaker series will be held on Jan. 10 featuring three graduates of the YSU master's program.
All three attendees have done past thesis work on Italian Americans in the Mahoning Valley.
Dr. Donna DeBlasio, a professor in YSU's history department, was the director of Schaeffer's project.
"It's utterly impressive how good her project came out," DeBlasio said. "When we talked about what she wanted to do, this seemed like a natural fit for her. I'm also really pleased with the turnout."