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Great-great-grandfather started his new life as a 12-year-old stowaway on a ship out of Italy


My name is Katherine Perry, Kate for short, and I am a senior at Cape Henlopen High School. I am a fifth-generation Italian American on my mom’s side (the Perry side), and on my dad’s side (though the generation may not be the same). I have never thought about this concept much before nor took an interest in it till recently. I never knew that I had a great-great grandfather who emigrated from Italy to start a new life here, until a few years ago when my mom told me the story behind the ship picture hanging in my grandparents’ home. It was the ship my great-great grandfather had traveled on during his journey to the United States.

With the encouragement of my Italian teacher Cristina Christy, I set out to learn more of my family history and  the man who started it all. Francis Perri – spelled with an “i” instead of a “y” – was born in Genoa, Liguria, Italy in the late 1800s to an Italian State Policeman (a Carabiniere) and a housewife, no doubt. They would move around the country, however, due to his father’s job, living in various regions for periods of time. It was when Francis was 12 that he was sent to work on an olive grove near Calabria (the region he was living in at the time) as an indentured servant to pay off a debt his parents owed. While there, Francis would work long days in return for scraps of food to eat and a barn to sleep in, enduring abuse throughout. At only 12 years old, Francis managed to figure out which ships from the nearby port were sailing to the United States and smuggled himself onto one. However, the ship he chose was headed for Cuba,  he was soon discovered by the crew and put to work again as a cabin boy for the ship’s officers and eventually a deck hand, becoming a sailor for a few years.

At some point the boat sailed back to Italy, but since he was a part of the ship, Francis got to stay and traveled to Ellis Island in 1900. It was there that my last name became what it is today. When Francis gave his name, the officer there wrote his last name as Perry instead of Perri without his knowing until years later. He never bothered to change it seeing that it was too expensive and too late. After Ellis, Frank would work his way from a MetLife employee in New York City to owning a couple of restaurants in Binghamton where he would make quite the name for himself in the Italian community. Frank was dedicated to helping other Italian immigrants adjust to the American life, becoming a padrone (sponsor) for new arrivals in his effort, as well as helping form the Sons of Italy Lodge in Binghamton. His endeavors gained him much influence in the community and even in local politics. Politicians of the time in that area had to be accepted by Frank in order for the Italian Americans to vote for them, which were a good chunk of the region’s population. Unfortunately, none of Francis’s accomplishments or contributions are recorded online, let alone him as a person. But his story will always be remembered by my grandpa, Jim Perry, who was raised by Francis for most of his childhood. He was very proud to talk about his grandfather, telling me many stories of Francis and memories he had while growing up with him.

Learning about Frank has made me proud of my family history. It makes me happy to know that I am related to such a brave, hardworking, and kind individual whose courage and determination allowed for my family to live here, to enjoy rights and liberties that many others do not. Frank’s story is a remarkable one, to me anyways, and it makes me proud to share with others who are willing to hear. Thank you.

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