As the early pioneers raced across the continent as part of the great westward expansion, another group of pioneers was coming ashore on the Northeast (and midwest). Perplexed, poor and lacking knowledge of the American lifestyle and language these immigrants in the words of one observing journalist, “constituted the ragged regiments of Europe.” They had fled the conditions of Europe in hopes of securing, for themselves, money to return home with or in some cases a permanent position in a country of abundant opportunity.
Between the years of 1870 and 1910, the United States saw its greatest influx of immigrants. More than twenty million immigrants entered the country during those forty years. This phenomenon resulted, at least partly, from the gains of the industrial revolution. American industries were experiencing one of their greatest booms (and that translated into a demand far more and more workers). At first the new immigrants, with much needed industrial skills and arriving mostly from northern and western Europe, were welcomed. However, the later immigrants arriving from southern and eastern Europe were not welcomed by the “native born” Americans. These immigrants—lacking skills, “good breeding” and undesired—came at a time when a large influx of unskilled labor was no longer a xenophobia that saw their “way of life” being threatened by the constant arrival of new immigrants with different values and ideas. These Americans saw their job security challenged by immigrants that were willing to except lower wages to secure jobs.
Some of these immigrants had the extra burden of having noticeable characteristics that could be exploited by anyone seeking justification to do so. Some had different skin color and/or language and then there were some with religious views that conflicted with established Protestant views. The large number of immigrants into the urban cities also put a severe strain on the housing situation. This strain—coupled with discriminatory practices—eventually led to the creation of ghettos.
The hatred and prejudice towards these immigrants led to the passing of immigration laws that greatly restricted the flow of immigration. May of 1882 saw Chinese Exclusion Act check Chinese immigration for a period of ten years. This restriction was renewed in 1892 and again in 1902. August, of the same year, the first federal immigration law, of a general nature, was adopted. This law put a head tax on all immigrant passengers and excluded the undesirables that might become a burden on society. February, 1885 a law prohibiting the importation of contract labor was inacted (called the Foran Act). The late 1880’s saw a rebirth of nativism. Finally, around 1906 leaders of the “Boston Immigration Restriction League” used the arguments of racial superiority to limit immigration. (Assimilation they argued, would weaken the old stock and rejuvenate the undesired).
As much as these immigrants were hated or disliked by the established groups, it is generally agreed that they performed a much needed service. It was their willingness to provide a cheap source of labor and to work the most difficult and menial jobs that helped enable the United States to make the economic gains that she made. It was the clashing of old world views with those of new world ideas that forced compromises that helped to advance social and political thoughts.
In this unit we will study three of those ethnic groups that made their way to the urban and industrializing cities of the Northeast (and midwest). The three groups are; Italians, Slavs and blacks. Some of the questions we intend to deal with are: What made these immigrants leave their homes and emigrate to these cities? How were they greeted and how well were they allowed to assimilate? Our time period is from the post Civil War era to the start of the first World War.