The Heritage Foundation this week put out an important request. Americans of all backgrounds have responded with compelling stories of their or their families’ journey in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
I have thousands of reasons why I am a proud American. Tracing my background on all sides back for hundreds of years, I find no aristocrats, no wealth, no fame. My family, however, had more than its share of hard workers, entrepreneurs, and brave soldiers.
One of the most amazing examples came from my paternal grandmother’s side of the family, who came to the United States from Italy around the time of World War I.
Stephen Annese brought his family from Southern Italy, known for centuries as a region of grinding poverty, corruption, and crime. He started his American journey working as a laborer for the State Road Commission, but had larger aspirations for himself and his family.
Only in America could a common laborer grow into the kind of success enjoyed by Annese and his family.
From his section of Italy also came a substantial percentage of immigrants who thrived in their new land. We know the names of the great singers, athletes, acting professionals, and political figures who came from this wave of immigration, but should also celebrate the business owners, working people, and strong family leaders.
They helped to make the Italian contribution a foundation for a great America in the 20th century. Many even jumped at the opportunity to take on Benito Mussolini in World War II.
Annese worked to build his business at the same time as President Woodrow Wilson helped to resuscitate the memory of the decades dead Ku Klux Klan through his praise of the film Death of a Nation. Though that 1915 film disparaged Union troops and freed blacks, the new Klan also put Roman Catholic and Jewish Americans in its crosshairs.
My grandmother, Mayme (short for Philomena) Annese was only a child when she first came to America, specifically Barbour County West Virginia. Their original home in the then bustling town of Brownton put them in the midst of a snapshot of America at the time. She remembered that one could hear several foreign languages from all over Europe as one walked down the street. The town’s Baptist church set aside time for the newly arrived Roman Catholics to hold Mass until they built their own.
Unfortunately, the devil of hatred occasionally rose against the divine. She recalled her father and his sons guarding the family business with shotguns when KKK knuckleheads conducted their marches. Their family’s success also brought burning crosses to their yards, with the result that much of the family for generations registered faithfully with the GOP.
My great grandfather and his children stood tall among friends in the new community and against the relatively small number of bigoted foes. Meanwhile, he worked to build a prosperous business and legacy. When the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad negligently left needed supplies in the rain on a delivery, he took them all the way to the West Virginia State Supreme Court of Appeals and won.
During the 20s, his enterprises in coal and storekeeping prospered. My grandmother remembered taking orangeade to the thirsty miners on their breaks. The family also moved to the nearby county seat to live in a stately three-story brick home on a hill, built of course by her father.
As with millions of others, the Great Depression tested their American Dream. The entire two-acre yard was put into vegetable cultivation to ensure that the family could get by regardless of economic conditions. By 1936, however, my great grandfather helped to establish the George-Annese Coal Company, providing an essential material for wartime use.
His children proudly served their country in the 40s and 50s. Sons served their country against the savagery of German National Socialism, Italian Fascism, and later, Mao Tse Dong’s murderous style of Communism. They understood better than many today that none of these sibling ideologies offered anything but death and despair to any country that happened to fall under their spell.
Stephen Annese’s legacy of hard work and perseverance continued in his family for generations. Children and grandchildren reached the heights of success in fields as disparate as corporate communications and football coaching. As the family spread through West Virginia to Ohio, Michigan, and elsewhere, they carried their ancestor’s dogged determination in their hearts.
His story, however, is bigger than that. Stephen Annese wrote with his life’s efforts yet another chapter of why the United States of America remains the greatest nation on earth, both now and back into history.
Opportunity, not oppression, is the true foundation of America and the story of its history. The promise of opportunity expressed in our founding documents has always eventually succeeded in breaking down oppressive structures and expanding hope for all.
There will always be those who hate without reason, who seek to destroy what others build. Our goal as Americans should be to support those who build and protect and oppose those bent on our ruin and destruction as a country and a people while constantly working toward the ideals expressed in our Founding documents.
That is how we achieve justice, unifying around the American ideals of natural rights, free markets, and opportunity even when we disagree sometimes over their implementation.