Modern history

Cities, Immigrants, and the Nation



In the fall of 1905, Beryl Lassin faced a difficult choice. Living in the shtetl (a Jewish town) of Borrisnov in western Russia, Lassin had few if any opportunities as a young locksmith. Beryl and his wife, Lena, lived at a dangerous time in Russia. Jews were subject to periodic pogroms, state- sanctioned outbreaks of anti-Jewish violence carried out by local Christians. Beryl also faced a discriminatory military draft that required conscripted Jews to serve twenty-year terms in the army, far longer than their Christian countrymen. His wife's brother had already left Russia for the United States, and the couple decided that Beryl should follow his brother-in-law's example before the draft caught up with him. The couple couldn't afford two steamship tickets, so with the understanding that his wife would follow as soon as possible, Beryl set sail for America alone on the steamship Zeeland, which sailed from Antwerp, Belgium, on October 7, 1905. He was crammed into the steerage belowdecks with hundreds of other passengers, most of them fellow Jews. Ten days later, his ship chugged into New York harbor, where Beryl found a less than hospitable greeting. Disembarking at Ellis Island, the processing center for immigrants, he stood in long lines and underwent a strenuous medical examination, including a painful eye inspection, to ensure that he was fit to enter the country. He also had to prove that he had someplace to go, in his case the apartment of his brother-in-law on New York City's Lower East Side. With no money, Beryl boarded a ferry across the Hudson that took him to a new life in the United States.

Less than a year later, Lena joined her husband. Over the next decade, the couple had five children. Shortly after the youngest girl was born, Lena died of cancer. Her death threw the family into turmoil, as Beryl, now called Ben, had to place two of the three youngest children in the Hebrew Children's Home and the other in foster care. The children were reunited with their father when Ben remarried, but life was still difficult. Ben was injured at his job as a mechanic and did not work full-time again. To make ends meet, his three eldest boys dropped out of school and went to work. Still, like many other immigrants, Ben's family managed to leave the crowded Lower East Side, following a trail blazed by earlier Jewish immigrants to Harlem and then the Bronx. Ben preferred to speak in Yiddish and never learned to read English. Nor did he become an American citizen, and after World War I, as an alien, he had to register annually with the federal government. His children, however, were all citizens because they had been born in the United States.

On June 8, 1912, another immigrant followed a similar route that took her on a different journey. Seventeen years old and unmarried, Maria Vik decided to leave her home in the small village of Kiestyderocz, Hungary. As a Catholic, Maria did not experience the religious persecution that Beryl did. Like many other Hungarians who ventured to the United States at this time, Maria, the oldest daughter, left to help support her family back in the old country. She had an aunt living in the United States, and she came across with a Hungarian couple who escorted young women for domestic service in America. Her sea voyage began in Hamburg, Germany, aboard the ship Amerika, and unlike Beryl she had a cabin in second class.

Maria, too, landed at Ellis Island and passed the rigorous entry exams. Soon she boarded a train for Rochester in western New York. There she worked as a cook for a German physician, learned English, and led an active social life within the local Hungarian community. In Rochester, she met and fell in love with Karoly (Charles) Takacs, a cabinetmaker from Hungary, who, like Beryl Lassin, had come to avoid the military draft. Charles became a citizen in May 1916. By marrying him, Mary, as she was now called, became a citizen as well.

The couple moved forty-five miles west of Rochester to Middleport and purchased a small farm in a neighborhood filled with Hungarian immigrants. Because so many Hungarians lived in the area, Mary spoke mainly Hungarian and began to speak more English only when the oldest of her four children entered kindergarten.

The American histories of Beryl Lassin and Maria Vik Takacs took one to the urban bustle of New York City, the other to a quiet, rural village in western New York State. The Lassins, who rented walk-up apartments in five-story buildings and whose children had to drop out of school, did not fare as well economically as did the Takacses, who owned property and sent their three daughters to college. However, as different as their lives in America were, neither Beryl nor Maria regretted their choice to leave Europe for the United States. Like millions of other immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century, they had come to America to build better lives for themselves and their families, and both saw their children and grandchildren succeed in ways that they could have only dreamed of in their native countries. Indeed, Ben Lassin changed his surname to Lawson, and his son Murray married Ceil Puchowitzky (Parker), the daughter of another Russian-Jewish immigrant. Mary and Charles's daughter Irene married Robert Hewitt, whose family arrived from northern Europe in the nineteenth century. Murray's son, Steven F. Lawson, and Irene's daughter, Nancy A. Hewitt—the grandchildren of Beryl and Maria, respectively—became historians, got married, and wrote this textbook.

The experiences of the Lawson and Hewitt families, like countless others, reflect the complicated ways that immigrants were transformed into Americans at the same time that the United States was forever changed by the new additions to its population.

THE LASSINS AND the Takacses were part of a flood of immigrants who entered the United States from 1880 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Unlike the majority of earlier immigrants, who had come from northern Europe, most of the more than 20 million people who arrived during this period came from southern and eastern Europe. They entered the United States mainly through seaports in the Northeast, but some came through ports in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Key West and Tampa, Florida, in the South; across the Texas and California borders from Mexico; and through ports in San Francisco and Seattle on the West Coast. Though many moved to small towns and rural villages, most remained in cities, which experienced enormous population growth as a result. In these large urban areas, impoverished immigrants entered the political mainstream of American life, welcomed by political bosses and their machines, who saw in them a chance to gain the allegiance of millions of new voters. At the same time, their coming upset many middle- and upper-class city dwellers who blamed these new arrivals for lowering the quality of urban life.

A New Wave of immigrants

For more than three hundred years following the settlement of the North American colonies, the majority ofwhite immigrants to America were northern European Protestants. Black Americans were brought forcibly from Africa, mainly by way of the West Indies and the Caribbean. Although African Americans originally followed their own religious practices, most eventually converted to Protestantism. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, a new pattern of immigration had emerged, one that included much greater ethnic and religious diversity. These new immigrants often encountered hostility from those whose ancestors had arrived generations earlier, and faced the difficult challenge of retaining their cultural identities while becoming assimilated as Americans.

An Italian family on the ferry from Ellis Island to New York City, 1905.

Newark American Pictures/The Bridgeman Art Library

Private Collection/Peter

Immigrants Arrive from Many Lands

Immigration to the United States was part of a worldwide phenomenon. In addition to the United States, European immigrants also journeyed to other countries in the Western Hemisphere, especially Canada, Argentina, Brazil, and Cuba. Others left China, Japan, and India and migrated to Southeast Asia and Hawaii. From England and Ireland, migrants ventured to other parts of the British empire, including Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. As with those who came to the United States, these immigrants left their homelands to find new job opportunities or to obtain land to start their own farms. In countries like Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, white settlers often pushed aside native peoples—Aborigines in Australia, Maori in New Zealand, and blacks in South Africa—to make communities for themselves. Whereas most immigrants chose to relocate voluntarily, some made the move bound by labor contracts that limited their movement during the terms of the agreement. Chinese, Mexican, and Italian workers made up a large portion of this group.

The late nineteenth century saw a shift in the country of origin of immigrants to the United States: Instead of coming from northern and western Europe, many now came from southern and eastern European countries, most notably Italy, Greece, Austria- Hungary, Poland, and Russia. In 1882 around 789,000 immigrants entered the United States, 87 percent of whom came from northern and western Europe. By contrast, twenty-five years later in 1907, of the 1,285,000 newcomers who journeyed to America, 81 percent originated from southern and eastern Europe.

Most of those settling on American shores after 1880 were Catholic or Jewish and hardly knew a word of English. They tended to be even poorer than immigrants who had arrived before them, coming mainly from rural areas and lacking suitable skills for a rapidly expanding industrial society. In the words of one historian, who could easily have been describing Beryl Lassin’s life: “Jewish poverty [in Russia] is a kind of marvel for . . . it has origins in fathers and grandfathers who have been wretchedly poor since time immemorial.” Even after relocating to a new land and a new society, such immigrants struggled to break patterns of poverty that were, in many cases, centuries in the making.

Immigrants came from other parts of the world as well. From 1860 to 1924, some 450,000 Mexicans migrated to the U.S. Southwest. Many traveled to El Paso, Texas, near the Mexican border, and from there hopped aboard one of three railroad lines to jobs on farms and in mines, mills, and construction. Cubans, Spaniards, and Bahamians traveled to the Florida cities of Key West and Tampa, where they established and worked in cigar factories. Tampa grew from a tiny village of a few hundred people in 1880 to a city of 16.000 in 1900. Although Congress had excluded Chinese immigration after 1882, it did not close the door to migrants from Japan. Unlike the Chinese, the Japanese had not competed with white workers for jobs on railroad and other construction projects. Moreover, Japan had emerged as a major world power in the late nineteenth century and gained some grudging respect from American leaders by defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904—1905. Some 260,000 Japanese arrived in the United States during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Many of them first settled in Hawaii and then moved to the West Coast states of California, Oregon, and Washington, where they worked as farm laborers and gardeners and established businesses catering to a Japanese clientele. Nevertheless, like the Chinese before them, Japanese immigrants were considered part of an inferior “yellow race” and encountered discrimination in their West Coast settlements.

This wave of immigration changed the composition of the American population. By 1910 one-third of the population was foreign-born or had at least one parent who came from abroad. Foreigners and their children made up more than three-quarters of the population ofNew York City, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. Immigration, though not as extensive in the South as in the North, also altered the character of southern cities. About one-third of the population of Tampa, Miami, and New Orleans consisted of foreigners and their descendants. The borderland states of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California contained similar percentages of immigrants, most of whom came from Mexico.

These immigrants came to the United States largely for economic, political, and religious reasons. Nearly all were poor and expected to find ways to make money in America. U.S. railroads and steamship companies advertised in Europe and recruited passengers by emphasizing economic opportunities in the United States. Early immigrants wrote to relatives back home extolling the virtues of what they had found, perhaps exaggerating their success. However, for people barely making a living, or for those subject to religious discrimination and political repression, what did it matter if they arrived in America and the streets were not paved in gold, as legend had it? In fact, if many of the streets were not paved at all, at least the immigrants could get jobs paving them!

The importance of economic incentives in luring immigrants is underscored by the fact that millions returned to their home countries after they had earned sufficient money to establish a more comfortable lifestyle. Of the more than 27 million immigrants from 1875 to 1919, 11 million returned home (Table 18.1). One immigrant from Canton, China, accumulated a small fortune as a merchant on Mott Street, in New York City’s Chinatown. According to residents of his hometown in China, “[Having] made his wealth among the barbarians this man had faithfully returned to pour it out among his tribesmen, and he is living in our village now very happy.” Jews, Mexicans, Czechs, and Japanese had the lowest rates of return. Immigrant groups facing religious or political persecution in their homeland were the least likely to return. It is highly doubtful that a poor Jewish immigrant like Beryl Lassin would have received a warm welcome home in his native Russia, if he had been allowed to return at all.

Creating immigrant Communities

Immigrants were processed at their port of entry, and the government played no role in their relocation in America. New arrivals were left to search out transplanted relatives and other countrymen on their own. In cities such as New York, Boston, and Chicago, immigrants occupied neighborhoods that took on the distinct ethnic characteristics of the groups that inhabited them. A cacophony of different languages echoed in the streets as new residents continued to communicate in their mother tongues. The neighborhoods of immigrant groups often were clustered together, so residents were as likely to learn phrases in their neighbors’ languages as they were to learn English.

TABLE 18.1 Percentage of Immigrant Departures versus Arrivals, 1875-1914




Percentage of Departures to Arrivals

































The formation of ghettos—neighborhoods dominated by a single ethnic, racial, or class group—eased immigrants’ transition into American society. Without government assistance or outside help, these communities assumed the burden of meeting some of the challenges that immigrants faced in adjusting to their new environment. Living within these ethnic enclaves made it easier for immigrants to find housing, hear about jobs, buy food, and seek help from those with whom they felt most comfortable. Mutual aid societies sprang up to provide social welfare benefits, including insurance payments and funeral rites. “A landsman died in the factory,” a founder of one such Jewish association explained, and the worker was buried in an unmarked grave. When his Jewish neighbors heard about it, “his body [was] dug up, and the decision taken to start our organization with a cemetery.” Group members established social centers where immigrants could play cards or dominoes, chat and gossip over tea or coffee, host dances and benefits, or just relax among people who shared a common heritage. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, the largest Chinese community in California, such organizations usually consisted of people who had come from the same towns in China. These groups performed a variety of services, including finding jobs for their members, resolving disputes, campaigning against anti-Chinese discrimination, and sponsoring parades and other cultural activities. One society member explained: “We are strangers in a strange country. We must have an organization to control our country fellows and develop our friendship.”

The same impulse to band together occurred in immigrant communities throughout the nation. On the West Coast, Japanese farmers joined kenjinkai, which not only provided social activities but also helped first-generation immigrants locate jobs and find housing. In Ybor City, Tampa’s cigar-making section, mutual aid organizations rose to meet the needs of Spaniards, Cubans, Afro-Cubans, and Italians. El Centro Espanol sponsored dances catering to Spaniards, only to be outdone by the rival El Centro Asturiano, which constructed a building that contained a 1,200-seat theater with a 27-by-80-foot stage, “$4,000 worth of modern lighting fixtures, a cantina, and a well stocked biblioteca (library).” Cubans constructed their own palatial $60,000 clubhouse, El Circulo Cubano, with lovely stained-glass windows, a pharmacy, a theater, and a ballroom. Less splendid and more economical, La Union Marti-Maceo became the home away from home for Tampa’s Afro-Cubans. Besides the usual attractions, the club sponsored a baseball team that competed against other Latin teams. The establishment of such clubs and cultural centers speaks to the commitment of Tampa’s immigrant groups to enhance their com- munities—a commitment backed up with significant financial expenditures.

Besides family and civic associations, churches and synagogues provided religious and social activities for ghetto dwellers. The number of Catholic churches nationwide more than tripled—from 3,000 in 1865 to 10,000 in 1900. Churches celebrated important landmarks in their parishioners’ lives—births, baptisms, weddings, and deaths— in a far warmer and more personal manner than did clerks in city hall. Like mutual aid societies, churches offered food and clothing to those who were ill or unable to work and fielded sports teams to compete in recreational leagues. Immigrants altered the religious practices and rituals in their churches to meet their own needs and expectations, many times over the objections of their clergy. Various ethnic groups challenged the orthodox practices of the Catholic Church and insisted that their parishes adopt religious icons that they had worshipped in the old country. These included patron saints or protectresses from Old World towns, such as the Madonna del Carmine, whom Italian Catholics in New York’s East Harlem celebrated with an annual festival that their priests considered a pagan ritual. Women played the predominant role in running these street festivities. German Catholics challenged Vatican policy by insisting that each ethnic group have its own priests and parishes. Some Catholics, like Mary Vik, who lived in rural areas that did not have a Catholic church in the vicinity, attended services with local Christians from other denominations.

Religious worship also varied among Jews. German Jews had arrived in the United States in an earlier wave of immigration than their eastern European coreligionists. By the early twentieth century, they had achieved some measure of economic success and founded Reform Judaism, with Cincinnati, Ohio, as its center. This brand of Judaism relaxed strict standards of worship, including absolute fidelity to kosher dietary laws, and allowed prayers to be said in English. By contrast, eastern European Jews, like Beryl Lassin, observed the traditional faith and went to shul (synagogue) on a regular basis, maintained a kosher diet, and prayed in Hebrew.

With few immigrants literate in English, foreign-language newspapers proliferated to inform their readers of local, national, and international events. Between the mid-1880s and 1920, 3,500 new foreign-language newspapers came into existence. These newspapers helped sustain ethnic solidarity in the New World as well as maintain ties to the Old World. Newcomers could learn about social and cultural activities in their communities and keep abreast of news from their homeland. German-language tabloids dominated the field and featured such dailies as the New Yorker Staatszeitung, the St. Louis Anzeiger des Westens, the Cincinnati Volkesblatt, and the Wisconsin Banner.

Like other communities with poor, unskilled populations, immigrant neighborhoods bred crime. Young men joined gangs based on ethnic heritage and battled with those of other immigrant groups to protect their turf. Adults formed underworld organizations—some of them tied to international criminal syndicates, such as the Mafia—that trafficked in prostitution, gambling, robbery, and murder. Tongs (secret organizations) in New York City’s and San Francisco’s Chinatowns, which started out as mutual aid societies, peddled vice and controlled the opium trade, gambling, and prostitution in their communities. A survey of New York City police and municipal court records from 1898 concluded that Jews “are prominent in their commission of forgery, violation of corporation ordinance, as disorderly persons (failure to support wife or family), both grades of larceny, and of the lighter grade of assault.”

Crime was not the only social problem that plagued immigrant communities. Newspapers and court records reported husbands abandoning their wife and children, engaging in drunken and disorderly conduct, or abusing their family. Boarders whom immigrant families took into their homes for economic reasons also posed problems. Cramped spaces created a lack of privacy, and male boarders sometimes attempted to assault the woman of the house while her husband and children were out to work or in school. Finally, generational conflicts within families began to develop as American-born children of immigrants questioned their parents’ values. Daughters born in America sought to loosen the tight restraints imposed by their parents. If they worked outside the home, young women were expected to turn their wages over to their parents. A young Italian woman, however, displayed her independence after receiving her first paycheck. “I just went downtown first and I spent a lot, more than half of my money,” she admitted. “I just went hog wild.” Thus the social organizations and mutual aid societies that immigrant groups established were more than a simple expression of ethnic solidarity and pride. They were also a response to the very real problems that challenged the health and stability of immigrant communities.

Hostility toward Recent immigrants

On October 28, 1886, the United States held a gala celebration for the opening of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, a short distance from Ellis Island. French sculptors Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi and Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel had designed the 151-foot- tall monument, Liberty Enlightening the World, to appear at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Ten years overdue, the statue arrived in June 1885, but funds were still needed to finish construction of a base on which the sculpture would stand. Ordinary people dipped into their pockets for spare change, contributing to a campaign that raised $100,000 so that Lady Liberty could finally hold her uplifted torch for all to see. In 1903 the inspiring words of Emma Lazarus, a Jewish poet, were inscribed on the pedestal welcoming new generations of immigrants.

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Despite the welcoming inscription on the Statue of Liberty, many Americans whose families had arrived before the 1880s considered the influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe at best a necessary evil and at worst a menace. Industrialists counted on immigrants to provide the cheap labor that performed backbreaking work in their factories. Not surprisingly, existing industrial workers saw the newcomers as a threat to their economic livelihoods. In their view, the arrival of large numbers of immigrants could only result in greater competition for jobs and lower wages. Moreover, even though most immigrants came to America to find work and improve the lives of their families, a small portion antagonized and frightened capitalists and middle- class Americans with their radical calls for the reorganization of society and the overthrow of the government. Of course, the vast majority of immigrants were not radicals, but a large proportion of radicals were recent immigrants. During times of labor-management strife (see chapter 17), this fact made it easier for businessmen and their spokesmen in the press to advance the notion that anti-American radicalism was a chronic immigrant disease.

Anti-immigrant fears linked to ideas about race and ethnicity had a long history in the United States. In 1790 Congress passed a statute restricting citizenship to those deemed white:

Any Alien being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof on application to any common law Court of record in any one of the States wherein he shall have resided for the term of one year at least, and making proof to the satisfaction of such Court that he is a person of good character, and taking the oath or affirmation prescribed by law to support the Constitution of the United States.

This standard excluded American Indians, who were regarded as savages, and African Americans, most of whom were slaves at the time. In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled that even free blacks were not citizens. From the very beginning of the United States, largely Protestant lawmakers debated whether Catholics and Jews qualified as whites. Although lawmakers ultimately included Catholics and Jews within their definition of “white,” over the next two centuries Americans viewed racial categories as not simply matters of skin color. Ethnicity (country or culture of origin) and religion became absorbed into and intertwined with racial categories. A sociological study of Homestead, Pennsylvania, published in 1910 broke down the community along the following constructed racial lines: “Slav, English-speaking European, native white, and colored.” Russian Jewish immigrants such as Beryl Lassin were recorded as Hebrews rather than as Russians, suggesting that Jewishness was seen by Christian America as a racial identity.

Scores of races were presumed to exist based on perceived shades of skin color. In 1911 a congressional commission on immigration noted that Poles are “darker than the Lithuanians” and “lighter than the average Russian.” These were not neutral judgments, however. Natural scientists and social scientists had given credence to the idea that some races and ethnic groups were superior and others were inferior. Based on Darwin’s theory of evolution (see chapter 16), biologists and anthropologists constructed measures of racial hierarchies, placing descendants of northern Europeans with lighter complexions— Anglo-Saxons, Teutonics, and Nordics—at the top of the evolutionary scale. Those with darker skin were deemed inferior “races,” with Africans and Native Americans at the bottom. Scholars attempting to make disciplines such as history more “scientific” accepted these racial classifications. At Johns Hopkins University, the leading center of academic training in the social sciences in the 1880s, historian Herbert Baxter Adams argued that the influx of southern European immigrants threatened the capacity for self-government developed in the United States by early settlers originating from Great Britain and Germany. The prevailing sentiment of this era reflected demeaning images of many immigrant groups: Irish as drunkards, Chicanos and Cubans as lazy, Italians as criminals, Hungarians as ignorant peasants, Jews as cheap and greedy, and Chinese as drug addicts. These characteristics resulted supposedly from inherited biological traits, rather than from extreme poverty or other environmental conditions.

Newer immigrants, marked as racially inferior, became a convenient target of hostility. Skilled craftsmen born in the United States viewed largely unskilled workers from abroad who would work for low wages as a threat to their attempts to form unions and keep wages high. Middle-class city dwellers blamed urban problems on the rising tide of foreigners. In addition, Protestant purists felt threatened by Catholics and Jews and believed these “races” incapable or unworthy of assimilation into what they considered to be the superior white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant culture. In 1890 social scientist Richard Mayo Smith wrote, “It is scarcely probable that by taking the dregs of Europe, we shall produce a people of high social intelligence and morality.”

Nativism—the belief that foreigners pose a serious danger to one’s native society and culture—arose as a reactionary response to immigration. New England elites, such as Massachusetts senator Henry Cabot Lodge and writer John Fiske, argued that southern European, Semitic, and Slavic races did not fit into the “community ofrace” that had founded the United States. In 1893 Lodge and fellow Harvard graduates established the Immigration Restriction League and lobbied for federal legislation that would exclude adult immigrants unable to read in their own language. In 1887 Henry F. Bowers of Clinton, Iowa, founded a similar organization, the American Protective Association, which claimed a total membership of 2.5 million at its peak. The group proposed restricting Catholic immigration, making English a prerequisite to American citizenship, and prohibiting Catholics from teaching in public schools or holding public offices. Obsessed with the supposed threat posed by Catholics, Bowers directed the expansion of the organization throughout the Midwest.

Proposals to restrict immigration, however, did nothing to deal with the millions of foreigners already in America. To preserve their status and power and increase the size of the native-born population, nativists embraced the idea of eugenics—a pseudoscience that advocated “biological engineering”—and supported the selective breeding of “desirable” races to counter the rapid population growth of “useless” races. Accordingly, eugenicists promoted the institutionalization of people deemed “unfit,” sterilization of those considered mentally impaired, and the licensing and regulation of marriages to promote better breeding. In pushing for such measures, eugenicists believed that they were following the dictates of modern science and acting in a humane fashion to prevent those deemed unfit from causing further harm to themselves and to society. Alexander Graham Bell (see chapter 16), the inventor of the telephone, was one of the early champions of eugenics and immigration restriction.

Others took a less harsh approach. As had been the case with American Indians (see chapter 15), reformers stressed the need for immigrants to assimilate into the dominant culture, embrace the values of individualism and self-help, adopt American styles of dress and grooming, and exhibit loyalty to the U.S. government. They encouraged immigrant children to attend public schools, where they would learn to speak English and adopt American cultural rituals by celebrating holidays such as Thanksgiving and Columbus Day. In 1892 schools adopted the pledge of allegiance, written by Francis Bellamy, which recited American ideals of “liberty and justice for all” and affirmed loyalty to the nation and its flag. Educators encouraged adult immigrants to attend night classes to learn English. Ben Lassin tried this approach sporadically, but he did not prove to be an apt pupil. Like many immigrants, he made only limited progress toward assimilation.

The Assimilation Dilemma

If immigrants were not completely assimilated, neither did they remain the same people who had lived on the farms and in the villages of Europe, Asia, Mexico, and the Caribbean. Some sought to become full-fledged Americans, like Mary Vik, or at least see that their children did so. Writer Israel Zangwill, an English American Jew, portrayed this goal and furnished the enduring image of assimilation in his 1908 play The Melting-Pot. Zangwill portrayed people from distinct backgrounds entering the cauldron ofAmerican life, mixing together, and emerging as citizens identical to their native-born counterparts. This representation of the melting pot became the ideal as depicted in popular cartoons, ceremonies adopted by business corporations, and lessons presented in school classrooms.

However, the melting pot worked better as an ideal than as a mirror of reality. Immigrants during this period never fully lost the social, cultural, religious, and political identities they had brought with them. Even if all immigrants had sought full assimilation, which they did not, the anti-immigrant sentiment of many native-born Americans reinforced their status as strangers and aliens. The same year that Zangwill’s play was published, Alfred P. Schultz, a New York physician, provided a dim view of the prospects of assimilation in his book Race or Mongrel. Schultz dismissed the melting pot theory that public schools could change the children of all races into Americans, which he found absurd.

Thus most immigrants faced the dilemma of assimilating while holding on to their heritage. Sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois summed up this predicament for one of the nation’s earliest transported groups. In his monumental The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois wrote that African Americans felt a “two-ness,” an identity carved out of their African heritage together with their lives as slaves and free people in America. This “double-consciousness . . . two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings” also applies to immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century. Immigrants who entered the country after 1880 were more like vegetable soup—an amalgam of distinct parts within a common broth—than a melting pot.


• What challenges did new immigrants to the United States face?

• What steps did immigrants take to meet these challenges?

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