Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Century of Melting Pot Frictions, Part One

Xenophobia is a word that has been used frequently in the past year. The definition, an intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries, clearly describes some of the rhetoric we've been hearing from certain political figures. Whether it's an intense fear of Syrian refugees, an irrational dislike of Mexican immigrants, or an irrational fear of all Muslims, xenophobia has been surging.

As someone who was a child during the 1970s, I have long embraced the melting pot metaphor of this country, thanks in part to a School House Rock video and Disneyland's It's A Small World ride. One of the things that makes America great is our diversity, our ability to integrate people of different faiths and customs into our country. While other nations are torn apart by warfare and genocide stemming from their inability to get along with people of different religions and ethnicities, we have dozens of religions and ethnicities living together in relative harmony. Yes, we still have room for improvement, but overall, we're doing pretty well.

As someone who has immersed herself in historical studies for decades, I have an instinct to compare current events to historical events. Despite the rosy image of the melting pot, our country's history is one in which new groups of immigrants often face a long uphill struggle toward acceptance and integration. Political rhetoric can easily turn to oppressive action. Studying what happened in the past can help us today. We can learn from the mistakes of the past and make better choices in the future.

It's fairly well known that Irish Catholics faced severe discrimination for decades after they began to arrive here in large numbers. Italians weren't considered "white" when they first arrived. Germans were vilified during World War I, to the point that some of them even claimed to be Swiss rather than German. Distrust of Russian immigrants began after World War I and continued through most of the century, thanks to the Cold War. During World War II, Japanese Americans were so distrusted, our government (their government) took away everything they had and locked them up in internment camps.

To a degree, Waterbury has historically been more welcoming of foreigners than many other communities in the United States, largely because the factories eagerly welcomed immigrant laborers to their workforce. The city's success was dependent upon the continual influx of new workers to the factories. But each new immigrant group was met with suspicion, fear, and prejudice as they made their presence known in Waterbury.

Irish Catholics

The Irish encountered severe xenophobia when they began settling here in large numbers during the 1840s. Waterbury's first Irish Catholic immigrant is believed to have been Cornelius Donnelly, who arrived in Waterbury sometimes around 1832. Waterbury's Irish Catholics faced frequent discrimination, as did Irish Catholics throughout the United States during the mid-1800s. It's well-known that many businesses refused to hire the Irish; in Waterbury, many property owners refused to sell or rent to the Irish.

Many Protestants in the United States were deeply prejudiced against Irish Catholics, believing the Catholic Church was inherently evil.

A political cartoon published by Nathaniel Currier (of Currier & Ives) in 1855 depicting the Catholic Church arriving in the United States. The patriotic figure leaning against the flag pole warns Pope Pius IX that he "cant put 'the mark of the Beast' on Americans." The Young American holding the Bible warns the Pope, "You can neither coax, nor frighten our boys, Sir! we can take care of our own worldly affairs, and are determind to "Know nothing" but this book, to guide us in spiritual things." (Collection of Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division)

The "Know Nothing" political party emerged during the 1850s to oppose the immigration of Irish Catholics, winning state and congressional elections throughout the nation. Around 1856, there were about 26,000 supporters of the Know Nothing party in Connecticut, and Connecticut's Governor William T. Minor, who served 1855-57, was a Know Nothing. Governor Minor disbanded the six Irish-only companies that were part of the state's Militia (now the Connecticut National Guard). Xenophobia ran rampant. In Norwalk, a Know Nothing mob set fire to the Irish Catholic St. Mary's Church in 1854, and tore off the cross from the steeple.

Know Nothings feared that Irish Catholics would murder Protestants in their sleep, that their only loyalty was to a foreign religious radical (the Pope), that they could not be trusted, even if they had been born in the United States. The Know Nothings trusted German immigrants slightly more, because they were Protestants (but they still didn't like them, since they were foreigners).

Cover of The Know Nothing Almanac and True Americans' Manual for 1855, with the slogan "America for Americans" at the top. (Collection of Falvey Memorial Library, Villanova University)

An editorial in the Hartford Courant, published on December 29, 1855, suggested that the U.S. should introduce a "policy that would prevent the advocates of such a tyrannical religion and its bigoted priests from entering" the country. The issue referred to by the editorial had to do with the burial of a Waterbury woman whose husband insisted she was a Protestant, but whose brothers and sisters insisted on giving her a Catholic burial. According to the widower, the Catholics stole the woman's body to give her a Catholic burial. The New York Observer and Chronicle followed up on January 3, 1856 with an editorial declaring that "Popery has covered Ireland, and its effects are seen in the unhappy island itself, and wherever, in other lands, the poor Papal Irish carry the evidences of their degradation. ... [The priests] darken their understanding, and pervert their feelings. And when the priests thus debase them as men, they then rule over them as tyrants." The editorial ended with a letter written by Martin Carnes of Waterbury, claiming that his family's priest threatened to withhold absolution if they didn't sent their children to the Catholic school. Waterbury's Irish Catholic priests were equated with religious tyranny.

Prominent political figures in Waterbury supported the Know Nothing movement. Green Kendrick, who had been a State Representative and Speaker of the Connecticut House, came out as a member of the anti-Catholic American Party (the Know Nothing's political party) in 1856, endorsing Millard Fillmore for President. Fillmore was the candidate of the American Party, although he never joined that party; he served as President from 1850 to 1853, the last member of the Whig party to be elected to that office.

James Brooks was an editor of the New York Express and supporter of the Know Nothing's American Party. (The Wilmington Daily Herald, 4 Aug 1856)

Attitudes toward the Irish began to shift during the Civil War. In Waterbury, for example, the Catholic Church encouraged its male parishioners to join the Union Army. The patriotism displayed by Irish immigrants helped improve public sentiment toward them, but it didn't happen overnight. Even in 1865, at the end of the Civil War, there was at least one Protestant minister in Connecticut who continued to fan the flames of hatred, preaching that Catholics were plotting to rise up against their  neighbors to murder, rob, and commit various other crimes against them (Republican Farmer, 21 July 1865).

By the 1890s, more than half of Waterbury was Catholic. The Irish had been joined by Catholics of German and French origin. Although still viewed as being different from their Protestant neighbors, Waterbury's Catholics were staunchly defended by many as valuable members of society.

Part One: Irish Immigrants 

Part Two: German Immigrants

Part Three: Italian Immigrants

Part Four: Russian Immigrants

Part Five: Chinese and Japanese Immigrants

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