Michael Belmont grew up knowing the basic facts of his family history: that his ancestors immigrated from Italy in the early 1900s and settled in Frankfort, NY, the small town east of Utica, where both his parents were born and raised.
But it wasn’t until this year, when Belmont, a recent UC grad and history major, began to dig deeper.
Utica College’s History Project Symposium is an annual event in which history students present a year’s worth of original research focused on a particular theme. This year’s theme, “Superheroes in the Mohawk Valley,” inspired Belmont to explore his roots — and history of Italian immigration to Frankfort, NY.
“Frankfort has one of the highest concentrations of Italian-Americans in the United States,” says Belmont, who grew up in nearby Ilion, NY. “But there isn’t a lot of historical research or information out there about how that came to be.”
Because little research had been done on the topic, Belmont found himself looking to historical documents, such as federal census data and marriage records, to fill in the holes. But perhaps his most useful sources were his own grandparents, whom he interviewed several times over the course of his project.
“It was eye-opening to hear their stories,” says Belmont. “I realized that I had never taken the time to sit down and ask these questions before.”
What he discovered were surprising—and sometime tragic—stories of his Italian ancestors.
In conversations with his maternal grandmother, Josephine Mezza, Belmont learned that his great grandmother, Angeline Sgroi, was married at 13 in Frankfort. Her husband, also a Sicilian immigrant, died from pneumonia when she was just 18, leaving her as a single mother of three children, the oldest of whom was Josephine.
Angeline later remarried and had five children with her second husband, Anthony Sgroi. Josephine’s brother, Paul Sgroi, enlisted in the Army in 1943 and was killed on Christmas Eve, 1944, when his ship was bombed by a German U-boat along the English Channel. Paul’s body was never discovered. He earned a posthumous Purple Heart for his service.
Michael's paternal grandmother, Theresa Belmont, shared stories of growing up in Naples, Italy, during the war. With her father in the military, Theresa and her mother spent years in the warzone, watching helplessly as German troops destroyed her town, under constant threat of bombings. When the war was over years later, Theresa and her family came to the U.S., establishing a home in Brooklyn, NY.
Later, during visits upstate with family members in Frankfort, Theresa met Joseph Belmont. They soon began dating and were married, and started a family of their own in Frankfort.
With a deeper understanding of his family's past, Belmont felt even more inspired to share their stories as part of his research project. Surrounded by dry historical data, the memories of his grandparents gave his research paper some much-needed detail and color.
“Once you attach these personal stories to the history, it comes alive,” he says.
In May, at the History Project Symposium, Michael presented his work, along with family photos provided by his grandmothers. He shared their stories as a way to illustrate larger trends in American immigration, and the establishment of small Italian-American communities in the United States.
“I hope my presentation showed people how individual stories matter,” he says, “They’re part of the bigger picture and part of history.”