By EMMALEE C. TORISK
When Roslyn Torella’s grandfather emigrated from southern Italy, he left behind a political and economic climate that was anything but desirable.
People were starving in Italy, but the U.S. was different. The U.S. was the land of opportunity.
As it turned out, Torella’s grandfather would come to the U.S. and return home to Italy twice, taking his earnings with him, before eventually settling in Lowellville as a reformed “bird of passage” on his third trip to the country. Decades later, Lowellville still means home to several of his descendants, and Torella herself is a 1984 graduate of Lowellville High School.
Now a government analyst living in Maryland, Torella realized that her grandfather’s story was similar to the stories of so many others who settled in the village in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She couldn’t stand the idea of those stories being lost to time, so at the beginning of this year, she embarked upon a project to record the biographies of as many Italian immigrants as she could.
“This is a chance for everybody to learn about their families, to ask questions,” Torella said. “Knowing where we came from and who we were, that’s really valuable.”
Those interested in sharing their family histories with Torella for the project can contact her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Participants then will be asked to complete a questionnaire and share information about when their family first arrived in Lowellville, why those family members chose to live in the village and what occupations they pursued there, for example. Torella also asks participants to share any interesting stories about living in the Lowellville of long ago, a place where many sought “good labor jobs” at the nearby limestone quarries, coal mines or blast furnace.
Torella has about 15 biographies so far, along with a smattering of historical photographs, but knows that a lot more are out there. She’s hopeful that number will have at least doubled by the year’s end, and that she’ll be able to put the completed project up on the village’s website, www.villageoflowellville.com/blog, not long afterward.
Like “Murder, Mayhem, and More” — Torella’s first book, which gathers many of the village’s most remarkable news stories from the 1850s to the 1940s — this project will be available for free.
“It’s nothing I want to make money on,” Torella said, adding that she’s also working on a second volume of stories about Lowellville, as well as a book about the Black Hand, which was an extortion racket run by Italian immigrants, and its impact locally.
Torella noted that she drew her inspiration for the project from multiple sources. One was Joseph Green Butler’s three-volume “History of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley, Ohio,” which offers biographical information about many prominent area residents.
The other was a document written by the late Steve Conti, a lifelong Lowellville resident, that included the names of many Italian immigrants who came to Lowellville between 1890 and 1924 — the year that the U.S. limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the country.
Torella used the latter source as the jumping-off point for her project, sharing the names listed within on the “Lowellville Ohio History” Facebook page.
That’s how Debbie Conti Hephner, Conti’s daughter and a resident of Lowellville, heard about Torella’s project. She immediately thought it was a “phenomenal idea,” and said she believes it will show off the pride that many past and present Lowellville residents feel about their village and their heritage.
Her father was one of those residents.
“He was very, very proud of the family and community values” in Lowellville, Hephner said.
Torella added that growing up, it seemed as though everyone in the village was Italian. A sense of belonging there also was prominent, likely dating back to the clusters of Italian immigrants in Lowellville who had their own grocers and their own barbers and took care of themselves.
“They were very close-knit,” Torella said. “That close-knitness just permeates through generations.”