In the 127 pages of the newly released book, “Images of America: Little Italy,” a community is frozen in time. The roughly 200 featured photos represent more than just the people of the past — it captures their spirit of hard work, faith and family that still lingers in the tight-knight Italian immigrant founded-community about 30 miles from Little Rock. Today, its population hovers around 150.
Chris Dorer, chairman of the Department of Social Studies at Little Rock Central High School, was the catalyst to keep this history alive. The 33-year-old, born and raised in Little Italy and still attending St. Francis of Assisi Church, signed a publishing deal with Arcadia Publishing to make Little Italy a part of a series called Images of America, which celebrates the history of neighborhoods, cities and towns throughout the U.S.
“It was sort of a unique experience,” growing up in what Dorer calls a “big extended family.” “For Little Italy, St. Francis (Church) is still that focal point of the community. For my family and I growing up, a lot of what we did was centered around the church … and our relationships in the town were built because of that.”
It is the second book Dorer, who is not Italian, has written about his beloved home. In college, he recorded, transcribed and compiled oral histories of community members who were children of the original immigrant families who came in 1915. The book was released in 2002.
“I wanted to include what few oral histories there were left in the community,” he said. “I’m grateful I had the opportunity to do that.”
Even though Dorer said Little Italy is his “specialty focus area,” he swore he would not write another book, despite urging from the community. After all, in addition to his chairman duties, he teaches six history classes and has family obligations with his wife, Samantha and 10-year-old daughter Allison.
Then Arcadia entered the scene. A deal was signed at the end of 2014 to have the project completed by March 2015. The book features a variety of photos, including land receipts, family photos, advertisements from The Guardian, photos of people working the land, community gatherings and the church. Dorer explained that there are only about 350 photos of Little Italy in existence from the past, making the collection a unique compilation.
One of the most important aspects of Little Italy’s history is the era of prohibition, Dorer said. In Central Arkansas at the time, the immigrants had many social strikes against them in addition to being originally from Europe, and then from Chicago.
“A lot of people initially thought, ‘OK, these are mafia people, gangsters, they’re coming from Chicago, they’re Italian and they’re Catholic,’” Dorer said.
Suddenly though, they became respected for their highly sought-after commodity — alcohol.
“Across the country, you had companies that were making really, really harmful elixirs and medicines to get drunk off of. … Eventually those things caused paralysis and death,” Dorer said. “But for Arkansas, Central Arkansas especially, they didn’t worry about that … if you wanted clean, reliable alcohol that’s where you went.”
While the book is about the past, Dorer said it still relates to the struggle of today’s immigrants.
“In this era of, in a lot of ways anti-immigration, people often forget (that) unless you’re a full-blooded Native American, you’re an immigrant,” Dorer said.
As Little Italy prepares to celebrate its centennial in September and continues working toward becoming an incorporated town, the book is just another way to celebrate the heritage, Dorer said.
“It’s to cement that message that Little Italy existed,” Dorer said. “It’s still here, it’s still a vibrant faith community, it’s still a vibrant community in general. The people need not be forgotten; their struggle need not be forgotten.”
The book is available at major outlets, including Arcadiapublishing.com, Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com for $21.99. Little Italy will host a centennial celebration at An Enchanting Evening winery Sept. 11 at 6:30 p.m. where Dorer will host a book signing and sell the book for a discounted price. Tickets are $12.
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