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Colonel John M. Gracie & the Italian Immigrants Experiment

Updated: Jul 19, 2023

Colonel John M. Gracie, a prominent Arkansas cotton plantation owner intent on ensuring his plantation’s success, imported families from Italy to work his plantation.

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Colonel John M. Gracie was known throughout Arkansas and the world in the late 1800s and early 1900s for being the largest cotton plantation owner in the state. Intent on finding his own means of solving the plantation labor crisis brought about by the mass exodus of Negro slaves from plantations throughout the South after the Emancipation Proclamation, Colonel Gracie visited Italy. With his considerable wealth, he decided to import more than thirty Italian families to his New Gascony plantation west of Pine Bluff.

He believed that the Negro laborers who were taking advantage of their new freedoms to move to bigger cities and do anything but laborious plantation work were lazy and irresponsible. He also believed that the Italian immigrants would be the perfect group of people to take their place and continue to make his vast plantation as prosperous as it had always been. In a 1905 Arkansas Democrat newspaper article, Gracie even said, he “expected the labor problem (to be) solved before another season.” Initially, things went well as Gracie admired the Italians' close-knit family groups and called them industrious people with “but few of the undesirable traits of other labor for the cotton fields.”

As more and more Italian families agreed to cross the ocean to work on Gracie’s farm, the Italian Department of Immigration sent inspectors to ensure that their citizens were being treated well. By all reports, Gracie was an excellent boss. Over the next few years, he imported more Italian families. By 1909, he had over four hundred Italian families on three of his seventeen Arkansas plantations. That same year though, two Italian families left Gracie’s plantation after they became dissatisfied with their housing arrangements and filed peonage charges against him. (Peonage was outlawed by Congress in 1967 as a form of debt slavery.) John Clifton Elder, an attorney from the Congressional Immigration Commission was even sent from Washington, D.C. to investigate the claims of Gracie’s former employees. Gracie staunchly contested the allegations against him, and Elder's brief investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing.

The very next year, Gracie told the Pine Bluff Daily Graphic that the Italian laborers were ingrates and of unsettled disposition and that he had hired Negro laborers on his plantations. By this time, many Italian families were choosing to actively leave Gracie’s plantations for lower-paying jobs elsewhere at considerable costs to themselves after just one or two years of working on his plantation. Gracie thought that they were money hungry and cared nothing for their contracts or their employers. He also felt put upon because he had helped many of the Italian laborers secure their passage to America. He also never completely did away with Italian laborers. Many Italian families chose to continue working on his plantations even into the start of World War I when many were called home to defend their country.

In 1997, Danelmo “Dan” Fratesi, then a 91-year-old man and one of the few surviving Italian immigrants in Pine Bluff, was interviewed by The Odessa American. Fratesi was just three months old when his family immigrated to New Gascony to work on Colonel Gracie’s plantation in 1906. The more than 30 immigrant families came with dreams of a promised land where they could work toward land ownership. Instead, they were actually inducted into a sharecropping system that made it hard for them to make any money at all. The marshy land that made for good cotton yields also carried disease and quick death in the form of malaria. Within a month of their arrival, Fratesi’s older brother and sister died of malaria. Fratesi also attests that the houses on Gracie's plantation were “so run-down that you could put your foot through the floor.” Fratesi’s wife Amalite immigrated to America just as he did and suffered under much the same conditions on the plantation.

In 1912, many of the Italian immigrants, including Fratesi’s parents, left Gracie plantation and moved to a quiet stretch of dirt road east of Pine Bluff. Known for being good workers and upstanding citizens, they secured work on nearby farms. At the end of the World War in 1918, with the rise of cotton prices, the Fratesi family was able to purchase 120 acres of land near the Toney Field Airport. The Fratesis became a respected farming family in Arkansas and were honored four times for their farming expertise in Jefferson and Lincoln County from 1963 to 1994. So, though much stood in their way, the Fratesis were among the Italian immigrant families that were able to achieve their dream of land ownership against all odds.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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