A History of Southern Immigrants in Eighteen Objects

If you were going to tell the story of an immigrant community through artifacts – photographs, letters, newspaper articles, objects from the community’s day-to-day life – what kinds of artifacts would you choose? Would you want to make sure that your chosen objects attested to the transnational connections between the community’s old and new worlds? Or would you center the story around the lives these immigrants made, and the ways they changed (or didn’t), in their new home? Would you focus on the communal leaders, the cultural and political “ethnic brokers” who helped the newcomers and the people among whom they now lived understand and relate to one another? Or would you elevate the quotidian, showing how politics and culture could be found in even the most ordinary acts? Would you want to emphasize the creation and maintenance of communal life, or would you reveal the fissures, the conflicting ideas that needed to be negotiated?

Of course, you’d probably want to do all of these things. Now: what if you had to tell this story in only eighteen artifacts?

This was the challenge posed to me and several other local historians by Timothy Frilingos, the Exhibitions Manager of the Breman Jewish Heritage Museum in Atlanta. Founded in 1996, the Breman is the largest Jewish history museum in the southeast. They recently dismantled their longstanding permanent exhibition on Atlanta Jewish history, with the intent of developing a new space and a new concept. Mr. Frilingos asked us each to send him a list of events, physical spaces, individuals, families, and historical themes – but no more than eighteen in total – that we would choose if we were going to curate an exhibit that told Atlanta’s Jewish history. The exercise evokes the amazing book A History of the World in 100 Objects by the director of the British Museum; the number eighteen, I assume, is a reference to the numerological value of the Hebrew word “chai,” which means “life.”

As a teacher, I do this kind of selecting and excluding all the time. Every subject I choose to include in a course’s curriculum represents a hundred other subjects I’m leaving out. One might call this kind of work curatorial. But museum curation seems especially daunting to me, and when I sat down to make my list I felt a little overwhelmed and outside my comfort zone.

I began with the intent of focusing on the immigrant experience, specifically. Atlanta has hosted a Jewish population since the 1850s, and for most of the nineteenth century a majority of Jews in the city were born in central Europe. By 1900, however, Atlanta’s Jewish population was changing: hundreds of Jewish immigrants had recently arrived from the Pale of Settlement and elsewhere in eastern Europe, and the central European-born population was shrinking, both actually and relative to the newer group. This ethnic shift was entirely typical of Jewish communities all over the U.S., and Jewish historical museums have found ways to tell this story everywhere: the more established population moves to a better neighborhood, and the newcomers take their places; a new synagogue (or two or three) is founded to serve the spiritual needs of the newcomers; the “uptown” Jews look down on their poorer “downtown” brethren, and their paternalistic efforts to help inspire resentments and cultural clashes. Atlanta’s Jewish history offers plenty of evidence of all of this. So my list of eighteen began with the founding of The Temple by central European Jews in 1867, Ahavath Achim by eastern European Jews in 1886, and Or V’Shalom by Sephardim from the Ottoman Empire in 1914. It included the cemeteries where the earliest members of each of these congregations are buried, the names of the immigrant Jewish entrepreneurs who started important businesses in the city, and the secular institutions that these Jews had created. So far, so good.

But the “immigration” story soon gets more complicated. By the end of the nineteenth century, the number of American-born Jews had more than doubled, from 369 in 1880 to 876 in 1896.[i] From that time forward, native-born Jews comprised the majority of Atlanta’s Jewish population. This demographic shift is also typical, but it threw me for a loop: for a population created by immigration, when does the “immigrant experience” end? This is a question that I’ve never seen engaged in the scholarly literature (though perhaps I’ve missed it), and it seems absolutely central to anyone thinking categorically about immigrant communities.

My other hoped-for goal was to include as many events and themes as I could that denoted the “southernness” of Atlanta’s Jewish community. But again, the story got complicated soon enough. Much has been written about American Jewish attitudes toward slavery and Jewish slaveownership. But Jews owned slaves in the North, too, until those states passed manumission laws; and Jewish attitudes toward slavery – both for and against – varied within the sections. Jewish involvement in local Confederate civic and military efforts during the Civil War: that’s an easy one. Was there anything particularly southern about the world of Jewish work in Atlanta? Their occupational distribution looks nothing like that of New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia, which were all manufacturing centers and sites of robust Jewish immigrant involvement in the needle trades. In Atlanta, Jewish breadwinners were far more likely to be petty entrepreneurs and small-scale merchants than anything else. But one would find that in any American city or town without a strong manufacturing sector. So what was southern here, exactly?

Jim Crow, certainly. Of course, racial segregation was not limited to the South in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But white supremacy was the organizing principle of every aspect of life in this city. Jewish responses to it, and the ways in which they were subjected to southern racial ideologies, shaped their history. The trial and lynching of Leo Frank is the most obvious example, but there are others. For instance, central European Jews who had been in the country for decades responded to the turn-of-the-century influx of eastern European Jewish immigrants in ways that betrayed profound racial anxiety: would these newcomers be seen as white enough to gain acceptance by Atlanta’s white mainstream? Another example, decades later: the bombing of The Temple in 1958 by a militant States Rights organization that accused the city’s Jews of “leading the fight to destroy segregation in Atlanta schools” and “promoting mongrelization.”[ii] In each case, the regional context, so profoundly defined by Jim Crow, suggests that there is something distinctively southern about Atlanta’s Jewish history.

In the end, my list failed to speak to “southernness” or “immigrant community” in any absolute way. I sent it in to Mr. Frilingos, and I look forward to being a part of the continuing conversation about the exhibit. But this exercise reminded me that when we think and write about southern immigration, we must question the meaning and use of our analytic categories. It’s not enough to say that immigrant communities have settled and flourished or struggled in the South; we have to ask ourselves why it matters, and what these community histories can tell us about southern and American history more broadly.

[i] Source: Steven Hertzberg, Strangers in the Gate City: The Jews of Atlanta, 1845-1915 (JPSA, 1978): 233, 241

[ii] Source: “Jews Behind Race Mixing,” http://www.southernspaces.org/2009/counterblast-how-atlanta-temple-bombing-strengthened-civil-rights-cause, accessed 8/22/2014

Immigrants Brought the Flavor

Here’s a link to a recent New York Times article that examines the immigrant provenance of a Mississippi food tradition. According to the piece, “Comeback Sauce” (a spicier and more flavorful variant of Thousand Island dressing) originally appeared in Jackson, Mississippi’s Greek-owned restaurants in the early 1900s. “By midcentury, most of this city’s mainstay restaurants were owned by Greek families,” the reporter claims. We never learn if the sauce has any culinary relationship to Greek cuisine, but other sources – especially Adallis’ Greek Merchants’ Guide, published during the 1910s – show how plentiful Greek immigrant restaurateurs (and employees) were throughout the Southeast.  And the Southern Foodways Alliance recently embarked on an oral history project documenting the Greek-owned restaurant networks of Birmingham, Alabama.

So much of the study of the American “Global South” skips over the era of mass migration at the turn of the century. As a result, studies of southern foodways too often ignore the role that early twentieth century immigrants played in the region’s culinary tastes and traditions.  Studying food culture in a more systematic and sustained way will help scholars and foodies alike better understand the region’s complexity and the role that immigrants have played in southern life.

Teaching Southeastern Immigration History with Primary Sources

Here in Georgia, as in much of the nation, the impact of immigrants upon the economy is a sore and contentious subject. In April 2011, our legislature enacted an immigration reform bill intended to severely restrict the number of undocumented immigrants in the state; it took Arizona’s similar (and similarly controversial) law as its inspiration. The law’s proponents claimed that since itinerant immigrants here illegally depressed agricultural wages and took jobs that native Georgians desperately needed, its passage would alleviate the state’s unemployment crisis. Once the law went into effect, however, native-born workers didn’t line up to pick onions and strawberries and melons in the sweltering summer sun for $8 an hour. Farmers were forced to let their crops sit and rot, instead of bringing them to market. Rather than solving an unemployment problem, the law had created the labor shortage and agricultural calamity that its critics had predicted.

The students in my “Immigrants in America” course at Georgia State University last fall were well-acquainted with contemporary debates over immigration and the regional economy. It is a topic that affects many of them directly. About 20% of them were first-generation Americans whose families came to Georgia from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. (That’s roughly the same proportion of Georgia State undergrads who identify as Asian [12%] or Hispanic [7%].) The other students, the vast majority of whom were from Georgia or neighboring states, had regular contact with the foreign born, in friendships, at school or work, or from across a retail counter. It’s fair to say that almost everyone in the class could speak of personal experiences that had heightened their awareness of immigration’s economic reverberations.

But they weren’t aware that this debate in southern history reaches back for more than a century. That’s not surprising. Even those students with knowledge of immigration history had been exposed to the topic only through the extant historiography, which skews almost entirely toward all other regions. So I assigned some older primary sources that dealt with immigrants and the immigration debate in the South, in hopes of giving our discussions of the contemporary discourse a longer history.

The first of these texts was the proceedings of the 1912 meeting of the Southern Settlement and Development Organization.  Organized by S. Davies Warfield, a Baltimore banker and railroad magnate, the SSDO aspired to improve and modernize the southern economy by enticing immigrants to the states of the former Confederacy. (Our timing in reading this piece was phenomenal: “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” had just run a segment on Dayton, Ohio’s current call for immigrants to come live there and bolster their economy.) Similar efforts had been made intermittently since the end of the Civil War, by regional organizations and ad hoc committees appointed by state legislatures. They didn’t have much to show for their attempts, however, and few of these bodies lasted more than a few years. But Warfield was undeterred, so convinced was he that the South desperately needed immigrant labor, both industrial and agricultural, in order for the region to become economically independent.

For this event, the SSDO’s foundational meeting, he gathered representatives of southern state governments, steamship and railroad companies, and a smattering of other New South boosters. Over the course of an afternoon at Baltimore’s Hotel Emerson, several dozen men argued about how to lure immigrants southward, which immigrants they should seek to lure, and whether this was a good idea at all.

No one in the class seemed terribly surprised that the members of the SSDO were concerned about immigrants’ racial status. As one of the men of the SSDO stated, “what has made New England and the great North and West will also make the South if you will be broad and welcome all good and honest white men, no matter from where they come.” A student took note that “the key word in the previous quotation is white … they wanted to grow the southern economy into a profitable, all-white society.” Another pointed out a “hierarchy of superior and inferior immigrants,” where northern and western Europeans were preferred over southern and eastern Europeans – a sentiment that certainly was not limited to the South.

But some of these southern economic leaders, wrote one student, did not think themselves “in a position to be choosers.” If the South was to grow economically, they needed all comers. Another student pointed to the words of a West Virginia representative: “We will take the Swedes, Norwegians, or the Italians, just so they will work.” The presence of the racial hierarchy was not in dispute, but, as this student wrote, the SSDO “wanted to bring only the ‘worthy’ immigrants, which … needs to be considered more broadly.” Another student mentioned a reference made in the SSDO meeting to Italian farming colonies that were already present, and in some places prosperous, throughout the region. One railroad executive even suggested that the presence of southern and eastern Europeans would enhance the rural population: “I believe today that the most vital benefit that could come to the South would be an admixture of black-haired European races, and I believe it would be just as vital in improving the native stock in the mountains.”

The role of race in southern culture did create some regional distinctions. Many students seemed taken aback by the SSDO’s open and undisguised interest in using immigrants to replace African-American labor. One student wrote (and many others reiterated the point) that the SSDO “demonized southern blacks by referring to their presence in the South as the ‘horror of the negro’ … the committee seeks to encourage more than immigrant migration, but also [to encourage] southern blacks to migrate away from the South.” Another student suggested that for the SSDO, immigrants were “a lesser of two evils. In the minds of these men, foreign, white-skinned laborers were more desirable than the black man.”

Some students noticed, however, that the SSDO hoped to replace black sharecroppers and low-wage agricultural workers with an idealized immigrant population. “It is truly bizarre,” wrote one member of the class, “that the committee hoped to lure literate white, middle class Europeans into agricultural jobs at the bottom of the southern class totem pole. Such a disconnect helps to illustrate the profound biases which racialized thinking leads to in otherwise rational individuals … One wonders who exactly the committee was imagining when they were wondering about attracting literate immigrants with good character who were going to immigrate to the South and adopt subsistence level agriculture or tenant farming.”

Another notable regional distinction, according to the class, was the trouble the SSDO foresaw convincing native-born southern whites to accept immigrant neighbors. Many students recognized how frequently the organization’s members referred to the need to “educate the South to the advantages that are to be obtained through foreign immigration.” A former mayor of Atlanta alerted the organization to the “prejudice against the foreigner” in his state, and suggested that they avoid using the word “immigration” in their self-promotion. A representative from North Carolina, the state with the lowest percentage of foreign-born in the nation at the time, urged the SSDO to consider primary among its tasks to convince “the people of the South to take the immigrants from wherever they are brought, and to assimilate them with the people.” Several students alluded to a railroad representative’s comment that Virginia’s efforts to encourage local farmers to grow sugar beets had failed, because “the American laborer will not do” the necessary difficult manual labor. The SSDO’s general contempt for rural southern whites is hard to miss; in their estimation, the South needed industrious and pliable laborers, and southern whites would neither do that work themselves nor welcome others who might.

The next time I introduce this document to students, I intend to pair it with a primary source on European immigration produced by African Americans. We discussed (but did not read) Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise speech, which implores white employers to hire native-born black labor rather than “the incoming of those of foreign birth and strange tongue and habits.” Arnold Shankman’s 1982 Ambivalent Friends: Afro-Americans View the Immigrant would certainly provide some helpful analysis. But I am glad to have given the class an opportunity to think about current regional immigration debates within its broader historical context.

COMING SOON … Students discuss Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person”