The Immigrant Within

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Jobs and housing were two rungs of the ladder that led up from steerage. Then there were the schools. Urban classrooms were crowded, but not to the breaking point. In them, thousands of immigrant children learned the rules of civic behavior by which all Americans supposedly lived. More significantly, they acquired the skills that spelled job advancement. High-school training in basic English and mathematics equipped young new Americans for sales and secretarial work or minor civilservice posts. It was more than adequate for a skilled or semiskilled worker—a painter, plumber, or electrician. And with a little post-high-school training, say two years of night college, doors were opened to nursing, pharmacy, accounting, and even law and medicine.

Finally, the traditionally hospitable political machine embraced the immigrants and their children, especially as the latter reached voting age. At first given only minor slots on the tickets, Italians, Poles, and Jews gradually turned up as mayors, governors, senators, and Cabinet members—La Guardia and Lehman, Furcolo and Pastore, Gronouski and Muskie. The emergence of such men was partly a tribute to American democracy and partly a sign of the “old pols’ ” grasp of arithmetic. A Buffalo, New York, Polish ward leader explained in 1950: “Out of ritzy Humboldt Park they get two voters to a family. I get six out of my house.” In the 1930’s and 1940’s the New Deal’s willingness to overlook ethnic labels in helping the Depression-stricken won most of these voters from big families to the Democratic party.

Meanwhile, what of the blacks? As European immigrants moved upward, the wave of Negro arrivals from the South flowed into the jobs and neighborhoods, at the bottom levels of desirability, that had just been vacated. From the start, as always, the blacks marched a hard road to a different drum. The journey of black families to a Promised Land under the North Star was, in one sense, part of a universal movement. They were rural people, and everywhere in developing nations rural people pricked up their ears at the sound of the factory whistle. And the nearly nine million American Negroes who lived in the South in 1910 (and made up 90 per cent of the nation’s total black population) were predominantly a peasantry, living on farms, confronting permanent tenantry, poverty, ignorance, and disease. A government commission studying farm labor crisply summarized their plight that year: “There is absolutely nothing before them on the farm … no prospect … but to continue until they die.” From this desperation they began to flee, in a movement that still continues in the i970’s. By 1970 about half of black America lived outside what might well be called their “old country.”

 

They came to the cities by train in the early days, pouring onto the platforms with their bundles and their boxes, looking around, filling their eyes with the sights of Mecca. They came in response to letters and messages from relatives—or sometimes in response to nothing more than ads clipped from the Pittsburgh Courier , the Amsterdam News , the Baltimore Afro-American , or the Chicago Defender that said things like “3000 laborers to work on railroad. Factory hires all race help. More positions open than men for them.” It was very encouraging. True, the unions would not easily accept black men, so the factory jobs turned out many times to be the hardest, the dirtiest, the ones offering the smallest promise of advancement. Or else they were jobs for strikebreakers, which was a dangerous way to earn a living. Even a scab’s work was not always available, so black men (and women) had to do the traditional chores of their people in America: cooking, cleaning, fetching, and grooming for white men.

Still, it was the North. Schools were better than those open to Negroes in the South. The coarser humiliations of legalized segregation were somewhat muted. Voting was possible, and there might be a future for the young. There was an air of promise. Many black men in the city, members of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League, were making money as owners of their own barbershops, funeral parlors, and livery stables. Washington’s well-known antagonist, W. E. B. DuBois, was talking about a “talented tenth” of the Negro race, which would save its future. In 1909 DuBois and other Negro leaders had helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, then a “radical” force fighting courtroom battles for black rights. At their side were sympathetic and brilliant whites like Mary White Ovington, Joel Spingarn, Oswald Garrison Villard, and Moorfield Storey. In 1910 the National Urban League was founded to set about opening job opportunities for blacks. A new day did seem on the way.

 

There were drawbacks, of course. Living quarters were scarce. Northern whites would seldom accept black neighbors except perhaps along the alleys behind their houses; so old Negro districts, cramped for expansion, grew desperately crowded. The poet Langston Hughes, born in 1902, lived with his family in Cleveland in 1916 and remembered that they always seemed to inhabit attics or basements and to pay a lot for them. When white people did finally rent to Negroes, they would cut up their houses into five or six apartments and charge goldrush prices for each—and for garages and sheds, too.