Saturday, January 28, 2017

Xenophobia in American History

Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, in part, because he expressed the thoughts of millions of Americans who fear immigrants, especially those from the Middle East and south of the Rio Grande River. Within a week of his inauguration President Trump is giving his supporters some of what they demanded by implementing restrictions on accepting refugees and announcing that his administration will construct a wall between the United States and Mexico. For those of us who believe in an open, tolerant, and welcoming society, this is very disappointing to say the least. It rejects the vision President Ronald Reagan expressed in his first inaugural address about the United States being the "exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not have our freedom."(1) Instead, the current administration is turning its back on the Reagan vision, on American exceptionalism, as Charles Krauthammer points out here, and the promise that the United States offers the rest of the world. It may be unfashionable to admit this, but I do believe that the United States is an exceptional nation with a global mission; it is, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, "the last best, hope of earth." (2)

My own personal opinions aside, the United States has a long and ugly history of xenophobia, regardless of what may be carved into the Statue of Liberty. There is a large gap between our ideals and reality. Americans may agree that past generations of immigrants built this country, but they were often no more welcome than those fleeing to our country in our own day. The current xenophobic turn, however disturbing, is just as much a part of American mainstream history as immigration itself. Here are some examples. There are many more.

  • Even before independence, there was a suspicion against German immigrants in certain colonies, as represented by the writings of Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. 
  • 1798 Immigration Acts to limit the freedoms of of French and Irish immigrants who were thought to harbor revolutionary ideas or to be the agents of foreign governments. 
  • Before Muslims were unpopular, Catholics were considered to be the most dangerous group to the United States. This became a political movement with the rise of the Know-Nothings in the 1850s, but anti-Catholicism long preceded it. Irish Catholics were thought to be especially dangerous because they were hungry, impoverished, single, and largely illiterate. At least the German Catholics, in the minds of American nativists, tended to come as families and were more educated. 
  • An influx of Chinese immigration in the years after the Civil War was met with brutal hostility that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Although it was initially for a period of ten years, it was faithfully extended every decade. 
  • Fears of "new" and strange immigrants from eastern and southern Europe, including large numbers of  Greeks, Italians, Jews, Poles, and Russians led to a renewed xenophobia in the late 1890s through World War I. This included more stringent testing of immigrants, attempts at restriction, and patriotic societies. Even progressive institutions, such as settlement houses and public schools, considered assimilation of these new immigrants to be among their most important objectives. Not that there is anything wrong with a common culture, but these efforts could be cruel and heavy-handed attacks that completely delegitimizing the culture of the immigrants, casting them as backwards, dirty, ignorant, and lazy, among other unattractive qualities. 
  • Fears of immigrants during World War I led to a second series of Alien and Sedition Acts that targeted German immigrants and those with socialist or anarchist leanings as disloyal. This peaked with the Red Scare of 1919. 
  • The anti-immigrant sentiment peaked in the 1920s with the National Origins Acts, which instituted a visa system and greatly curtailed the the number of immigrants allowed into the United States. Furthermore, the quotas allowed from each nation were set to 1890. This tilted the flow away from eastern and southern Europe and back towards northern Europe. 
  • Changing the law was not good enough for many Americans who were were concerned by perceived threats from immigrants in their own neighborhoods who would not assimilate. Nativists bound together in the KKK, sometimes referred to as the second klan to distinguish it from the earlier version active during Reconstruction. This second klan was largely a northern, urban phenomenon that attacked Catholics, Jews, and other groups that they considered "undesirable."
  • With fewer Chinese to kick around, Japanese immigrants attracted the xenophobic sentiment on the west coast. They endured much discrimination, including segregation. Like the Chinese, the Japanese were believed to be resistant to the charms of Americanization. Fears that these unassimilated immigrants and their children who were born and educated in the United States would act as a fifth column after the Pearl Harbor attack led them to be interned (i.e. deprived of their rights, stripped of their businesses, homes, wealth, and property and placed in concentration camps isolated from any interaction with the larger community) during World War II. 
  • The National Origins Act was adopted to the Cold War with the McCarran-Walter Act of 1952. 
  • Although the National Origins system was overthrown with more open Immigration Act of 1965, discrimination persists as is evident by the experiences of migrant workers. 

(1) Paul Boyer, ed., Reagan as President: Contemporary Views of the Man, His Politics, and His Policies (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1990), 33.
(2) Don E. Fehrenbacher, Lincoln: Selected Speeches and Writings (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), 364.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

2016: The Genealogical Recap

Whatever else happened over the past year, 2016 was a great year in genealogy for me.  Here are some of my 2016 genealogical breakthroughs:

  • I finally got the line of my grandmother's mother's line, the Philbin family, straitened out. This was only possible because Ireland recently released civil records from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These records are particularly valuable because they contain much more information than previously available through church records. The inclusion of the town names and parents's names in wedding records allowed me to zero in on the correct Philbins. These records have also bulked up my tree by allowing me to add more extended family members that I can prove a connection to through the civil records of Ireland.
  • One of the biggest mysteries to me was the death dates of my grandmother's parents, Patrick Cosgrove and Bridget Philbin of Tullinahoo, county Mayo. With these records I was able to determine their death dates. The death records list the person who reported the death as well as the cause of death, which was more-or-less guessed at by the person reporting the death. In other words, they offer a clue, but aren't necessarily conclusive. What struck me in an emotional way, as few genealogical records have, was the discovery that my grandmother reported her mother's death and provided asthma as the cause of death. My grandmother suffered from chronic asthma, which was passed down to her son, my uncle, who had a really bad case of it. My grandmother's coughing fits were one of the distinctive sounds of my childhood. 
  • One of the frustrating things about genealogy is that you can learn about a person's life from the records, such as their profession, age, cause of death, etc., but not about their personality. One cannot determine from the census record if the individual was a good parent, liked by neighbors, friendly, introverted or extroverted, interested in hobbies, etc. One of the truly best moments of 2016 (not just genealogy) occurred when a distant cousin who's mother knew my great grandparents (the aforementioned Patrick Cosgrove and Bridget Philbin) provided some details about them, including his nickname of "Cog" and her's of "Beezie." What a gift to know this! My grandmother shared little about her parents. She wanted to leave her impoverished childhood behind when she came to the United States after a brief stay in England. 
  • I finally solved a longstanding mystery on the Dehler side. There is a crypt with the name Dehler on it not far from where my parents and grandparents are buried in St. John's Cemetery in Middle Village, Queens, New York. It was long a part of family lore that these people were
    related to us, but no-one  seemed to know how the connection. In April I discovered that they crypt belonged to family of Clemens Dehler, brother to my great-grandfather Aureus Dehler. I have never located Aureus's immigration record, but he consistently stated across multiple records that he immigrated to the United States from Hessen, Germany in 1872. Clemens came to the United States before his younger brother, but he was very inconsistent in stating when he did so. 
  • Over the course of the year I found two connections to World War I, although not direct ones. Through the Ireland civil records, I determined that two of my great-grandmother's (again Bridget Philbin) cousins died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme on July 1, 1916. Brothers William and John Philbin served in two different regiments, but met the same sad fate. What an unimaginably horrible day for their parents. On my father's side, his mother's father's brother, Robert F. Warmers, served in the 307th regiment, 154th brigade, 77th division. He was in the same brigade as the famous "Lost Battalion" but was not in that unit. He was in the unit that relieved them (I will post more about the 77th division in the future). Better still, I met his great-grandson who shared a copy of a letter that R.F. Warmers wrote his mother, my great-grandmother, Emily Christine Petry. 
  • This summer I visited Lutheran All Faith cemetery in Middle Village (not far from St. John's)
    and found the gravesite of my great-great-grandparents, Louis Warmers and Anna Marie Stroebel (R.F. Warmers's grandparents). The cemetery is not in good shape and I could not navigate it. Thankfully, one of the landscaping crew helped me locate their stone (to the right). Next time I visit Long Island, I will try to find time to take some pictures for Find-A-Grave. 
  • Although not a direct ancestor of mine, I got some more information about John Kilgallon, an American student of Patrick Pearse at St. Enda's who participated in the 1916 Easter Rising.  
I hope to build on these discoveries in 2017.