Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Is America Really More Diverse?


 "The Last Yankee.A mainstream rural American, no doubt descended from “colonial stock,” arrives in the big city and finds himself surrounded by a motley throng of “new immigrants.” He's become a curiosity in his own country. From Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 8, 1888. 

It is often said that America is more diverse than ever before. There is no doubt this is true in an objective sense. Certainly, the population of the United States today comes from a greater variety of nations, languages, religions, and cultures than ever before. And yet, an argument can be made that we are not so diverse as we were in the early twentieth century when the majority of Americans could trace their ancestries to Europe.

To appreciate this idea, we must recognize that some of the largest countries of immigrant origin were far more heterogeneous than they are now. Germany is one example. Today, more Americans can trace their ancestry to Germany than any other country, but for most of the 19th century, Germany did not exist as a unified nation-state. What we now call a country was, in fact, a hodgepodge of more than thirty principalities and states. Immigrants who came here considered themselves Prussians, Hessians, Bavarians, and others. They differed from each other culturally and religiously. The German language may have united them, but the newcomers often spoke regional dialects and very few knew any English. 


 Today globalization has smoothed over many localized identities. Relatively few newcomers come from isolated peasant cultures. This was not the case during the great waves of European immigration when most arrivals came to America’s cities from rural backwaters. The Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and social media, in general, have brought about a cross-cultural awareness, call it a cosmopolitanism, that did not exist, say, in 1888, when Matt Morgan drew the accompanying illustration.

American immigration shifted remarkably starting in 1882 when the federal government took control of admissions. Whereas most immigrants had come from northern and western Europe, the mix suddenly changed. The “new immigrants,” as they were then called to distinguish them from the founding “colonial stock” or “old immigrants,” seemed utterly alien to many mainstream Americans.    

Opinion writers and university professors thought America was heading down a dangerous road. The nation was abandoning our Anglo-Saxon roots in favor of a dangerous diversity.  Morgan’s humorous illustration conveys a bit of this dread. Front and center is a Yankee, not unlike the familiar depiction of Uncle Sam. Our Yankee looks like a dressed-up farmer, who has come to the big city, perhaps for the first time.

In the city, the Last Yankee becomes an object of curiosity to a multicultural crowd. Most of the gawkers are European in origin. Morgan knew his ethnic types. We see Scots, Dutch, German, English, Irish and more. We even see Black, Chinese, Arab, and Jew. The signs on the surrounding businesses declare American identities, but they, too, are something new—Germans brought delicatessens and Chinese, laundries. After the crowd has ogled this strange creature, they will return to their own 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020


Dean Martin and Spaghetti

Singer Dean Martin (Dino Crocetti) with a
potful of spaghetti once thought an alien dish. 
Dean Martin was a popular singer, actor and television personality from the 1950s into the 1980s.  Born as Dino Paul Crocetti in Steubenville, OH, his parents came from Abruzzo, a province in the south of Italy.  Most Italian immigrants were from the southern part of the country, which was poorer than the north. American restrictionists often pointed this out when they criticized Italian immigration. They had to concede that Italy had a rich cultural heritage and had contributed so greatly to world art, music, and science, but they insisted that those Italians were entirely different from the immigrants who came in such numbers early in the 20th century. In 1916, Madison Grant even went so far to say that such great Italians as Dante and Michelangelo were Nordics, a racial type he claimed originated in northern Europe (Grant also claimed that Jesus Christ was Nordic. On his mother’s side, of course).  

Italian immigrants were among the poorest who have ever come to this country. Dean is said to have started public school speaking only Italian and to have taken lumps from schoolmates for his poor English.  Always proud of his immigrant background, Martin belonged to the generation that overcame prejudice against Italian-Americans. Yet, like many performers from ethnic backgrounds who came to prominence in the post-WWII years, Martin believed he needed to “Americanize” his name in order to make it. This was true, too, of such megastars as Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovitch) and Doris Day (Doris Kappelhoff ).

The photo captures Dean eating spaghetti. It was only a few decades earlier that a movie star would have refused to be caught by the camera eating such an un-American food. It’s hard to believe today, but Americans once thought Italian food was horrible stuff, and Italian immigrants—mostly their children in schools—were discouraged from eating the home cuisine. By the time this picture was taken, spaghetti and meatballs had become an American dish. One can even find photos online of Kirk Douglass and Doris Day gorging on platefuls of spaghetti. The country has changed. An actress like Renee Zellweger has kept her name and when she laments that pasta is her "food vice" the rest of us can empathize.      


Friday, April 3, 2020


Scott Wiedensaul's, First Frontier

I recently picked up a copy of The First Frontier, Scott Weidensaul’s lively account of America's eastern seaboard before and during early colonial times. I just finished a section on the captivity of one John Gyles, a ten-year-old boy who was taken from his home by the Abenaki in 1689. Although Gyles remained with the Abenaki for nine years, they never quite adopted him. This surprised me. I had mistakenly thought that, if captured by Indians, one's fate was either to be tortured and killed or adopted and treated kindly.

This engraving, based on a drawing by Benjamin West, 
shows Indians returning captive children to Colonel 
Bouquet after the French and Indian War. John Gyles
was older than these children when taken, and was less
warmly embraced by his captors.  
Gyles lived in a kind of purgatory between these two extremes. His captors would eventually ransom him, but for most of his captivity, he was worked hard, treated badly, and sometimes even tortured. I have accounts of long-time Indian captives who refused to be redeemed, but Gyles welcomed the opportunity. After being freed, he became a prominent military officer in New England, in part, because he had learned to speak French and a couple of Indian languages during his captivity.

Weidensaul says Gyles's account of his time with the Indians is among the very best of the genre. I just pulled it from the Internet Archive and look forward to perusing it before long. Among the best accounts of European interaction with the woodland Indians before the 19th century are the Jesuit Relations, letters, and journal entries written by Jesuit priests living among the indigenous peoples of North America.* Along with Gyles, the Jesuits remark upon Indian notions of revenge. Novelist Frank McCourt's definition of "Irish Alzheimer's"—"You forget everything except the grudge"—seems to apply.

The Jesuits asked the Iroquois why they insisted on eating the lice they took from each other's hair. The Indians responded (I paraphrase here), "Eating?, We're not eating, we're biting! The damned things bit us, how can we not bite them back!"

Weidensaul gives an account of Indians taking revenge on a trader who had cheated them through usurious credit and sharp practices like putting his finger on the scale to short-change them. Before killing the trader, each man in the raiding party insisted on "scratching out" his debt by cutting an X on the trader's chest, each declaring, "I cross out my account."  They then cut off the trader's fingers, asking him "how much his fist weighed now." 

Similar gruesome accounts are not uncommon in the literature. Many have a certain poetic justice. The modern American says, “That’s a primitive society for you!” And yet, in recent times we’ve seen similar behavior in places like Ireland, Yugoslavia, Myanmar and Rwanda, where past wrongs are remembered and old scores settled with new violence.  Yet, to build a nation, that is, to achieve a sense of "peoplehood," takes a lot of forgetting. Native Americans had a ritual to mark such forgetting. They called it "burying the hatchet." 

* The 73-volume collection of the Jesuit Relations  (1610-1791) can be found at the Internet Archives. Click here for a 1901 review of the collection.  

Monday, March 30, 2020


The Red Hot Mama & the Supreme

Sophie Tucker's career stretched from vaudeville to TV.

It’s a fascinating little mystery mentioned in a review of a biography of Sophie Tucker. Sophie Tucker was a popular singer for much of the 20th century.  Tucker (Sonya Kalish) was born in Ukraine in 1887 and came to the United States with her parents as a child. Like many Jews of that era, they escaped Czarist pogroms. She started singing professionally in 1907, often in blackface. Her career had remarkable longevity. She began in vaudeville and achieved national popularity on the radio in the 1920s, but baby boomers might remember her from appearances on television’s Ed Sullivan Show. Few people would recognize her name today.

None of the foregoing is a mystery. It’s Tucker’s connection to a black teenager that intrigues. That teenager, Florence Ballard, was born in 1943.  She’s best known as a founding member of the Supremes, the greatest girl group of all time. She was the least glamorous of the three Supremes. Diana Ross was the lead and diva. Mary Wilson was a less assertive beauty.  Florence was said to have had the best voice, but she lacked the charisma of the others. Motown Records mogul Berry Gordy is supposed to have pushed her out of the group around 1967.

Tucker’s biography reveals that in 1960 when Sophie was nearing the end of her career, she sent the 17-year-old Florence Ballard an inscribed copy of her autobiography. This was weeks before Ballard had signed a contract with Motown. Why was this old Jewish immigrant writing to the unknown black teen? Could it have been that Ballard was a Tucker admirer and had written Sophie a fan letter? 


Who knows? What we do know is that Tucker admired black music. Her performances regularly covered jazz and blues standards. As her popularity grew, she hired African-American songwriters to fill-out her repertoire. She even called herself “the last of the red hot mamas.

Florence Ballard before her departure from
The Supremes
Sophie Tucker died in 1966 at the height of Supremes fame. Florence Ballard died an alcoholic ten years later, never having recovered from getting the boot from Motown. We can only guess at the connection between these two singers, the long-lived immigrant whose Jewish family fled persecution and the Detroit-born teenager whose career would be cut short.   

Today, Jewish Americans can take special pride in that ancestral generation who arrived at New York Harbor as refugees in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. It's amazing how quickly Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe adapted to this country. The immigrant generation worked hard and if they did not themselves prosper their children often did.


Wednesday, March 4, 2020

One at a Time, Dears.

In this 1906 Life Magazine illustration, Bayard Jones depicts a Mormon patriarch being greeted by several wives on his return from a trip. The Mormon practice of plural marriages prompted federal legislation that forbade entry of "polygamous" immigrants. Young women from European countries with a Mormon mission presence were sometimes given extra scrutiny at Ellis Island. This illustration comes from "The Comedy of Life," available at the Internet Archives.
A Mormon patriarch is welcomed home by his wives.
Inspectors at Ellis Island sometimes suspected that immigrant
women destined for the West were coming to join polygamous 
husbands.  
Polygamy and Immigration
The media recently reported that Utah’s State Senate had passed a bill to decriminalize polygamy.*  Should the legislation be voted and signed into law, the practice of taking multiple wives would be reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor. The story reminded of an old Life Magazine cartoon. In “Married Life in Utah” (1906), illustrator Bayard Jones depicts a Mormon patriarch being greeted by several wives on his return from a trip. The traditional Mormon practice of plural marriages earned the ire of Congress in the 19
th century.  Lawmakers passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which President Lincoln signed into law in 1862.

The federal government has also long forbidden entry of "polygamous" immigrants to the United States. Under federal pressure, Mormon leadership issued a manifesto against polygamy in 1890, but the U.S. government remained skeptical. At Ellis Island, young women from European countries with a large Mormon mission presence were often suspect and questioned by inspectors. Back then, Muslims might also have been asked the polygamy question, but they were the rarest of immigrants. Today, immigrants and refugees from Islamic countries are more common, but taking multiple wives is rarer than in the past, particularly among educated arrivals. In sum, immigrants may still be asked if they have more than one wife and barred from entry if they do. Polygamy may also qualify as a bar to citizenship.

In the cartoon, the old man tells his wives, “One at a time, dears.” That seems to be the American consensus. Having more than one spouse is okay, but only if it’s one at a time.  

*Anthropologists use “polygyny” for multiple wives and “polyandry” for multiple husbands.




Turn-of-Century Movers and Shakers





Chauncy Depew had an illustrious career. Long-time attorney for railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, Depew would become a senator for New York State and was widely considered presidential material. In 1900, he was thought by many to be the best-known man in America. Some considered him the most persuasive and entertaining public speaker of his day. He gave the oration for the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty in 1886. At the time, the statue was called, "Liberty Enlightening the World." Depew has been falsely quoted as referring to Lady Liberty as a stern gatekeeper to America but at the time no one associated the statue with immigration.

While one could hardly recommend New York State’s Prominent and Progressive Men as a “good read,” these two-volumes (+1,000 pp.) are an interesting resource on turn-of-century New York Society, providing brief life sketches of the city and state’s most influential men. This was, of course, before women even had the right to vote. This was also the age of immigration, particularly for New York, which received more newcomers by far than any other state. Immigration may help to explain why so many of the biographies delve into the family pedigrees of the mostly Anglo-Saxon gentlemen. America’s Gilded Age was ending and the Great Wave of immigration (1880-1930) was picking up steam.

In fact, steam was in large part responsible for the many newcomers arriving on American shores.  By 1900, the steamship had cheapened and quickened passage across the Atlantic, making it possible for immigrants from southern and eastern Europe to make the trip in great numbers. Previously, northern and western Europeans had dominated arrivals. Those “old immigrants” from Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia were now greatly outnumbered by the “new immigrants” from such countries as Italy, Russia, Poland, Greece, and Hungary.

Another change was that “return immigration” was now practical. A Sicilian farmer hoping to make enough money to buy a bit of land or to afford marriage could come, work for a year or more, pinch his pennies, and return home with a small fortune. He could become a migrant worker, or, to use the language of the time, a “bird of passage.” Few Americans today realize that a significant share of early-20th century immigrants—in the case of Italy, for example, some 40%--returned to their home countries to live out their lives.

Return migration was much rarer for the old immigrants who had come before the Civil War and the steamship era. Their Anglo-Saxon descendants tended to look upon the new immigrants as inferior people. One way these Americans, particularly the gentry, set themselves apart was to stress their colonial ancestry. They formed organizations like the Sons of the Sires and the Daughters of the American Revolution to validate descent from the pioneering men and women who had founded the nation and established its institutions.


This highlighting of ancestral roots is obvious in the biographical profiles of Prominent and Successful Men, almost all of which emphasize family histories. If not of Puritan or Dutch stock, we are assured that these admirable men come from long-established, distinguished roots. Even Juan Manuel Ceballos, though Spanish, is the scion of a family “of the purest blood” and resident of New York for several generations (60).

Nowhere do we get the sense that a large share of New York State’s population was foreign-born. Perhaps this is understandable in a volume dealing with the established elite. One William Nathan Cohen, son of a German immigrant and ostensibly a Jew, is among the very few we might call a minority. His biography evokes the Horatio Alger tales of rags-to-riches success, which he achieved “by dint of hard work, privations, and inflexible determination” (72).

Like any encyclopedia, these volumes are not meant to be read from cover to cover, but perusing them is interesting, especially if one is looking for background on a particular individual and wants to know how the man was viewed in his time and not as history has treated him.  In this light, the biography of Chauncy Depew is particularly interesting. It’s a good bet that virtually no American today would recognize the name Chauncy Depew. And yet, in 1900 he is described as the best-known man in New York--indeed, in America! It just goes to show that fame is indeed fleeting.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

What’s Wrong with ‘Chain Migration’?



"A Letter from Pat in America."
Immigrant letters home helped sustain the immigration flow.  
It's a shame that in the debate over how to fix America’s broken immigration system, the term “chain migration” has been distorted by politicians. Republicans are now using “chain migration” to describe the “family reunification” admissions category under which most immigrants have come to the US since 1965. It’s easy to understand the choice of words. If you want to reduce family-based admissions, calling them something that has a mechanistic ring makes sense.


In reaction, some Democrats have begun to characterize “chain migration” as an offensive term, because enslaved Africans came to America in chains. Others have condemned it as a nativist label intended to “dehumanize immigrants.” Certainly, meanings of words can and do change, but “chain migration” has for decades aptly described a major means of migration. This was particularly the case for the Irish, who were at one time its prime practitioners.

It’s a truism to say that the United States has always been an immigration nation, but during colonial times, immigrants came in relatively small numbers, a few hundred here, a thousand or two there. It was the Irish and Germans who in the 1800s gave meaning to the phrase mass immigration. By the 20th century, both countries had sent millions to America.  Yet the Irish and Germans came in different ways. The Germans traveled in family units, often as part of colonization schemes. The Irish tended to come in ones and twos. Once here, Irish pioneering immigrants, the anchors, maintained contact with families and friends at home, contributing to a massive trans-Atlantic exchange of letters. 

As early as the 1830s, the Irish of New York were sending through Liverpool some 700,000 letters per year. The numbers increased in the years following the Great Famine (c. 1845-1851). Drawing from the annual reports of the U.S. Postmaster General for the period 1854-1875, historian Arnold Schrier estimated a total of some 60 million letters sent from the United States to the United Kingdom, with the majority likely destined for Ireland.

Far fewer letters flowed in the reverse direction. The chief reason for the imbalance was that so many missives from America were “money letters” bearing small sums the emigrants had saved to relieve family distress at home. Much of the money paid rent, put food on the table, and otherwise served as a safety net for relatives left behind. Much of it was also intended to “bring out” family and friends. Historians estimate that some 40% of remittances were sent as prepaid tickets for the voyage to North America.

The immediate objective of Irish immigration was to escape grinding poverty in Ireland, but the ultimate goal was to reunite with family in America. This the Irish did better than any other immigrant group if we use Ireland’s massive transfer of population as a measure. Between 1847 and 1900, some 3 million came to the US, and Ireland’s population plummeted from 8 million to 4.5 million. The exodus has often been described as a desperate flight. That it was disorganized in the wake of the Great Hunger cannot be denied, but once the famine immigrants began to find work in America, they set about bringing over kin with deliberate efficiency.

“Chain migration,” like any metaphor, simplifies a more complex reality. We envision a single immigrant skimping and saving to bring over a brother or sister, the two then pooling pennies to send for another sibling—each a link in the chain. Yet, the chain was rarely a single-strand. It added links this way and that, pulling behind in-laws, cousins, neighbors, and friends. In To the GoldenDoor, George Potter described the process— “Behind the young Irish farm laborer or servant maid who set off alone for America was a waiting family, and behind them the friends.” Always "the friends," a term the Irish used promiscuously, often lumping together blood relatives and acquaintances.

Today, no one is talking about the admission of friends. Those days are gone. The current debate is about what kinds of immigrants we take and how many? These are not easy questions, but they should be addressed without muddling them with distorted rhetoric.