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”