“A Nation of Immigrants”

My adorable grandparents flanked by two of my grandmother’s brothers, 1950s.

Are you familiar with this phrase? It’s the title of John F. Kennedy’s 1964 book on the idea that the United States of America is a nation that was established by, and continues to be built by, immigrants. I first read this book late in my educational career, as a PhD student in the 2010s. In a class on race and ethnicity, my peers and I had been studying the history of US immigration laws, some of which limited immigration by number, and/or by country of origin. We read this book to get a feel for the cultural context of the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which changed immigration law to remove the limitation on the number of immigrants who could arrive from specific countries. Among other things, the book is an American president reminding himself and his fellow Americans of the immigrant origins that most of them (save Native Americans) share.

1668 Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, built by John Turner, son of an English indentured servant

Regardless of one’s political leanings or memories of the 1960s, whether one views the English Puritans as colonizers or immigrants, immigration has undeniably impacted the American story. And as I’ve been walking on the wharf this past couple of weeks, this phrase keeps popping up in my head.

I’ve been researching a new walking tour, one that examines the history of immigration in Salem. A client requested a private tour on this topic and it’s my chance to get back into studying immigrant history. For my PhD research I examined the public health policies and programs for immigrants in the tenement districts of New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. Now that I’m committed to my love affair with Salem, it feels great to get back into an area of research that I love, in a place that I love. My own mother is a naturalized citizen who emigrated at the young age of one, and I grew up hearing her account of studying US history as a teenager to take the citizenship test. As a side note, she still has a more comprehensive knowledge of that history than I do, even given my research interests. 🙂

Like so many other US cities, Salem has welcomed (or not) multiple waves of immigrants during its history thus far, beginning with English Puritans and including, Poles, Irish, Italians, Russians, Greek, Ukrainians, and many more. (I’m being a little cheeky here because one common thread through all major waves of immigration to the US is that sometimes the immigrants were truly welcomed and other times not. That’s a conversation for a future post.)

1922 Lydia Pinkham Memorial Clinic, established by Pinkham’s daughter Aroline Grove and Seven Gables’ founder Caroline Emmerton

My own favorite period of interest in Salem (and nationally) is the Progressive Era, the period that spanned roughly the 1890s – 1920s. During that era there was a lot going on. I know we have a lot going on now in 2022, for sure, but I mean a LOT was going on. World War I, the temperance movement, women’s suffrage, germ theory, Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management movement, President Wilson creates the National Parks Service, our love affair with automobiles truly begins, the force of nature that was Teddy Roosevelt is in the White House, the Pendelton Act, President McKinley is assassinated, the professionalization of medicine, the Armenian Genocide, the Red Scare, the Alien Land Law, muckrakers revolutionize journalism, Industrial Workers of the World is organized, the Spanish-American War, etc. This was a time when countless aspects of American culture underwent dramatic change, thousands of immigrants came, cities got super crowded, and science and technology revolutionized the way Americans lived, worked, and communicated. I wasn’t alive then, but I can say without hesitation that it was intense.

One of the gorgeous murals in the Punto Urban Art Museum, The Point Neighborhood, Salem, MA

During the Progressive Era in Salem, as I’m discovering, there was a particularly large influx of Irish, Polish, and French Canadian immigrants. As was the custom, many of these immigrants settled in neighborhoods where other immigrants had settled. The historic Derby Street neighborhood had “Polish Main Street,” the old Blubber Hollow neighborhood near the present-day Salem-Peabody line was a haven for the Irish, and French Canadians lived in The Point (El Punto) neighborhood, or as it was then called, “La Pointe.” Salem’s maritime economy had shifted to manufacturing in the 1840s, which meant primarily leather tanneries and textile mills. I’m generalizing here, but the Irish tended to work in the leather tanneries close to Blubber Hollow, the Polish and French Canadians in the tanneries near the Derby Street neighborhood and the Point, as well as Naumkeag Steam Cotton Company’s Pequot Mills. Women tended to work in the textile mills, men in the leather tanneries.

My reflections on the beginning of my research into Salem immigrant history thus far? Being an immigrant during the Progressive Era, when so many aspects of American culture and politics are in flux, really impacted an immigrant’s identity. Think about it: when you’re in your own country, it’s less likely that you’d need to be constantly aware of your national identity. There are exceptions to that of course, like when your country is at war or experiencing its own cultural and political upheaval. But you move to Salem during the Progressive Era, where some families have been established since the 1600s, and think of themselves as completely “Native” Americans. Suddenly your own language, way of speaking, religious traditions, rituals and holidays, ideals and values may become precious to you in a new way.

You don’t speak English, or you do, but Salemites can tell you have an accent, or don’t dress the same. Maybe you’re Catholic, or you narrowly escaped your home country in the midst of a conflict and have nothing but your own clothes and a small suitcase. I still have the suitcase my great-grandmother carried with her when she came to the US in the 1950s. The point is that once you arrive, I imagine you are likely so relieved to see familiar signs of home in your new immigrant neighborhood. Your old identity is still being made manifest, even in a new place, even alongside your new one as you grow attached to your new home. I know my grandparents were happy to be sponsored by a Minnesota church of their own faith, and once they moved to the Great Lakes region, to live in a neighborhood where they heard their native language.

As I walk the streets of our historically immigrant neighborhoods I think about the Polish and Irish flags I still see, the Spanish and French, and Polish language that still appears on historic house markers, street signs, and the waysides at the Salem Maritime National Historic Site. The irony is that sometimes as a culture we fixate on only one wave of immigration as a key part in “our” history, when the more recent waves go unacknowledged. Perhaps it’s natural; we assume that those who have been here the longest are the most “American,” or have impacted our culture the most.

In 1938 when the National Park Service dedicated the Salem Maritime waterfront as the nation’s first National Historic Site, it was making a statement about the value of remembering the significance of our ~150 years of maritime culture to the identity of Salem. That story was old enough for us to consider it worthy to be called “historic.” But in the process of creating the historic site, buildings that still housed Polish descendants and their small businesses were removed.

Salem Maritime National Historic Site, established 1938

I’m not criticizing the National Park Service here. What I’m doing is inviting myself and you to reflect on what we consider worthy of the name “historic” and why. To reflect on what counts as part of “our history” and how that is determined. As current scholars are happy to remind us, we all have complex and changing identities, as individuals, neighborhoods, cities, states, nations. I’m still figuring out mine, as a Midwestern former-academic transplant whose family is both recently immigrant and descended from 17th century colonists/colonizers. Preparing this new tour is giving me the opportunity to dig into the idea of identity and how the histories we tell both reinforce and change it. I am totally biased, granted, but I think Salem is a great place to do this kind of digging. From the founders of Naumkeag to the Puritans to the merchants of the Great Age of Sail to the Progressive Era factory workers, Salem has always been a place in the process of recreating its identity. For that reason and more that I discover every day, I’m really glad to be here.

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