Hugh MacRae, Southern Agriculture, and the Question of Selective Immigration

by J. Vincent Lowery

In 1905, Wilmington, North Carolina businessman Hugh MacRae welcomed the first European settlers onto truck farm colonies that he and the Carolina Trucking Development Company developed in the southeastern section of the state. MacRae was a prominent participant in a regional immigration movement that historian Willard B. Gatewood, Jr. contends “crested about 1905 or 1906 … [,] the work of a relatively few articulate and influential individuals who confronted the dual task of attracting immigrants to the South and persuading their fellow southerners to welcome them.” MacRae argued that African Americans were responsible for the region’s low wages and its debilitating system of tenant farming. He proposed that European immigrants would introduce small-scale, diversified, cooperative farming methods and consequently transform the agricultural economy. He predicted, “The South has everything to gain and nothing to lose in this [immigration] movement, because we would replace the lowest type of labor, that is labor obtained originally from the lowest race on earth, by a type of labor which would be so selected as to represent a standard immeasurably higher than the one we have been accustomed to.” The company chose colonists who intended to settle as families and possessed agricultural expertise, a familiarity with the climate, and a desire to become American citizens. Nativists identified southern and eastern Europeans as innately inferior and therefore undesirable, but MacRae defended the company’s settlers, among them Greeks, Italians, Hungarians, and Poles. He devoted considerable effort to the defense of the Italians of the colony of St. Helena, the largest and most prosperous settlement. Clearly responding to concerns that the company pursued undesirable settlers, MacRae explained that “the South has no cause to fear the descendants of the people who were the builders of Rome and Venice, and of Florence and Milan.”1

Group of Italian Settlers in St. Helena, NC (Pender County Public Library Digital Archive)

Group of Italian Settlers in St. Helena, NC (Pender County Public Library Digital Archive)

Yet immigration restrictions threatened MacRae’s work. Political scientist Aristide R. Zolberg argues that policymakers “designed” the nation by writing laws that permitted the entry of foreigners who possessed cultural, economic, and political value while restricting those perceived “as a threat in relation to what is deemed a fragile status quo.” In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, policy debates reflected a particular unease with the growing number of southern and eastern Europeans entering the country; nativists believed these so-called “new” immigrants were innately inferior, predisposed to disease, immorality, criminality, and anarchism. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act established the precedent for federal restrictions based on national origins, a model that would be embraced in the 1920s to limit southern and eastern European immigration. In 1921, Congress approved a temporary national origins quota system based on the 1910 census to reduce the number of “new” immigrants passing through the nation’s ports. The act also directed legislators to develop a permanent system; nativists insisted this policy must further curtail immigration.2

Photo of Hugh McRae (Village of St. Helena Website)

Photo of Hugh McRae (Village of St. Helena Website)

MacRae, a member of the Selective Immigration League, confronted restrictionists in 1924, when Representative Albert Johnson introduced a bill to implement a permanent national quota system based on the 1890 census. Johnson’s proposal would “not only reduce the total annual immigration but also choke off all but a trickle from southern and eastern Europe.” MacRae argued, however, that the bill “would … be a great calamity to the South Atlantic States, as it is purely restrictive without taking advantage of the wonderful possibilities at this time for selective immigration, through the simple process of classifying the immigrants according to their desirability.” Conceding that Congress would approve the use of the 1890 census to determine quotas, the League suggested “[t]he establishment of a minimum quota of 10,000 for nationalities that numbered 75,000 in the United States in the census,” thus creating much higher quotas and consequently admitting more immigrants than Johnson intended. MacRae and the League shared restrictionists’ desire to bar undesirable immigrants but countered that the United States should instead establish criteria that also addressed the labor needs of the country. Seeking to place greater emphasis on immigrants’ economic value, the League proposed that the quota system should give preference to farmers while making “[p]rovisions for ‘non-quota’ skilled labor and farmer immigrants when specifically asked for by State authorities; and subject to the approval of the Secretary of Labor and the Secretary of Agriculture in the case of farm experts; and the Secretary of Labor and the Secretary of Commerce in the case of skilled labor.” The League also endorsed an earlier proposal by W. W. Husband, commissioner general of immigration, who favored using naturalization records to privilege those nationalities more likely “to become assimilated as American citizens,” thus yielding to nativists’ desires to exclude immigrants who did not fit into American culture and politics. MacRae believed that these “principles … should be embodied in the Immigration Bill in order to get the great advantage of selection.”3

MacRae spoke in favor of a selective immigration policy when he testified at a senate committee hearing. He argued that a selective policy “will give an opportunity to avoid arbitrary discrimination against those nations of northern Europe which have always been regarded as the sources from which the best class of immigrants have come to the United States.” MacRae discussed his colonies in southeastern North Carolina, but he did not mention the past successes of the Italian colonists at St. Helena. This omission illustrates his awareness of legislators’ intent to greatly curtail the entry of southern Europeans and his desire to avoid antagonizing restrictionists. MacRae instead identified Dutch and Danish farmers as the most desirable immigrants. He predicted “that a few words put into your bill will add $1,000,000,000 annually to our agriculture without any harm to anyone, and it may add $5,000,000,000 a year, because I believe we can double the agricultural products of the South.”4

Italian Couple on Front Porch in St. Helena (Courtesy of Pender County Public Library Digital Archive)

Italian Couple on Front Porch in St. Helena (Courtesy of Pender County Public Library Digital Archive)

MacRae corresponded with several senators in hopes of securing an amendment to the bill being debated in the Senate. Like Johnson, Senator David Reed proposed a national origins system, although the senator’s proposal did not explicitly discriminate against southern and eastern Europeans. North Carolina senator Furnifold Simmons introduced an amendment clearly influenced by MacRae and the League. Simmons’s proposal gave preference to immigrants “skilled in agronomy, forestry, horticulture, or animal husbandry, and to experienced farm laborers who are going to some agricultural district to engage in farming.” The amendment also permitted governors and state legislatures to appeal to the Secretary of Labor for preferential treatment for such immigrants. The amendment encountered some opposition in the Senate, but historian Peter H. Wang explained that the legislature’s eventual approval of the Simmons amendment signified “a fairly important concession to southern farm interests.”5

In 1925, MacRae returned to Congress to appeal for another amendment to the Johnson-Reed Act. He praised the law for its “scientific selection of immigrants,” but he complained that it counted farmers “within the quota.” He argued, instead, that skilled agriculturalists and their families should be identified as “nonquota” immigrants. MacRae believed that quota requirements deterred men who could not otherwise bring their families to the United States. These immigrants would end the region’s dependence on African Americans “[b]y the simple process of dilution.” MacRae asserted that African Americans were “better adapted to heavy work, say, in an iron foundry or a rolling mill. Negroes do not have the intelligence back of them to make good at scientific farming. They lower the standard of the whole agricultural situation.” The North Carolina businessman assured the House Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, “I can take a thousand families of Hollanders and Danes, or equally skilled farmers, and put them in groups throughout the South and revolutionize the agriculture of the South.” He believed this “infiltration of brains” would lead to new farming and marketing methods that he had been seeking for twenty years. Despite this appeal, Congress failed to act upon MacRae’s proposal.6

Farmers Working the land inMacon County, Alabama in 1940 (U.S. Department of Agriculture)

MacRae continued to appeal for a favorable immigration policy, but he eventually realized that the immigrants he sought could not be attained. Acknowledging that the South would have to rely on its existing labor force, MacRae argued that southern agricultural reform must account for African Americans. Although the Wilmington businessman continued to blame blacks for the economic hardships of the South, he admitted southern whites’ responsibility for African Americans’ plight since the Civil War. MacRae concluded, “The negro and his problems are our legacy. He is a fixed part of our burden, and to lift ourselves we must lift him.”7

1 Willard B. Gatewood, Jr., “Strangers and the Southern Eden: The South and Immigration, 1900-1920,” in Ethnic Minorities in Gulf Coast Society, ed. Jerrell H. Shofner and Linda V. Ellsworth (Pensacola, Florida: Gulf Coast History and Humanities Conference, 1979), 5; Hugh MacRae, Bringing Immigrants to the South: Address Delivered Before the North Carolina Society of New York, December 7, 1908 (n.p., 1908); “Hugh MacRae’s Letter to Editor Daniels,” Winston-Salem Twin City Daily Sentinel, February 12, 1907, p. 5; George S. Byrne, “Hugh MacRae’s Practical Application of Common Sense,” Manufacturer’s Record, May 30, 1912, 49-53. For more on the economic, racial, and reform dimensions of MacRae’s colonization scheme, see John Faris Corey, “The Colonization and Contributions of Emigrants Brought to Southeastern North Carolina by Hugh MacRae,” (MA Thesis, Appalachian State Teacher’s College, 1957); Paul K. Conkin, Tomorrow a New World: The New Deal Community Program (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1959), 32, 94, 109, 123, 277-294; Stanley Tebbs Prewitt, “Hugh MacRae’s Agricultural Project: An Example of the Tensions between the Jeffersonian Ideal and the Planners’ Ethic” (Honors Thesis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1974); Marcia G. Synnott, “Replacing ‘Sambo’ Could White Immigrants Solve the Labor Problem in the Carolinas?,” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1982) 77-89; W. Frank Ainsley, “‘Own a Home in North Carolina’: Image and Reality in Ethnic European Communities,” Journal of Cultural Geography 5 (1985): 61-69; W. Frank Ainsley, “Pulsating Patterns of Land Occupancy: The Impacts of Farm Colonization Experiments on the Rural South,” Pioneer America Society Transactions 10 (1987): 43-52; Marcia G. Synnott, “Hugh MacRae, Penderlea, and the Model Farm Communities Movement,” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (1988): 53-65; Tycho de Boer, Nature, Business, and Community in North Carolina’s Green Swamp (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008), 132-139; and Lauren H. Braun, “Italians, the Labor Problem, and the Project in Agricultural Colonization in the New South, 1884-1934” (Ph.D. diss., University of Illinois-Chicago, 2010), chap. 5; Timothy B. Tyson and David S. Cecelski, “Hugh MacRae at Invershiel,” (accessed April 24, 2013); J. Vincent Lowery, “The Transatlantic Dreams of the Port City Prophet: The Rural Reform Campaign of Hugh MacRae,” North Carolina Historical Review 90 (July 2013): 288-324; Thomas Luke Manget, “Hugh MacRae and the Idea of the Farm City: Race, Class, and Conservation in the New South, 1905-1935” (MA thesis, Western Carolina University, 2012), 28-58. Local historian Susan Taylor Block has written a variety of pieces on the Cape Fear region, including a book on the colony of Van Eeden and blog entries on MacRae and his other colonies. For her work, see (accessed August 6, 2014).  Wilmington journalist Charles W. Riesz, Jr. has also written an insightful account of  MacRae’s Dutch settlers, from whom he is descended.  See Riesz, Tar Heels in Wooden Shoes: Dutchmen, Daffodils, and Dairies in 20th-Century North Carolina (Wilmington, NC: Charles W. Riesz, Jr. and Joanne F. Riesz, 2012).

2 John Higham, Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism, 1860-1925 (New York: Atheneum, 1973), 99-100, 112-113, 129-130, 202-204, 308-311; Mae M. Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 17-20; Robert F. Zeidel, Immigrants, Progressives, and Exclusion Politics: The Dillingham Commission, 1900-1927 (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2004), ch. 7-8; Roger Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door: American Immigration Policy and Immigrants since 1882 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2004), ch. 1-2; Aristide R. Zolberg, A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America (New York and Cambridge: Russell Sage Foundation and Harvard University Press, 2006), 1-23, 224-227, 232-238 (quotation on 17); Andrew Gyory, Closing the Gate: Race, Politics, and the Chinese Exclusion Act (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1998).

3 Higham, Strangers in the Land, 315; Selective Immigration League of America, “Purposes” and “Principles,” and Hugh MacRae to David R. Coker, January 23, 1924, David Coker R. Papers, South Caroliniana Library, University of South Carolina (hereinafter cited as Coker Papers); Selective Immigration League of America, “Purposes” (dated February 6, 1924), and Hugh MacRae to Frank H. Hampton, February 6, 1924, Box 44, Furnifold M. Simmons Papers, 1890-1946, David M. Rubenstein Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina (hereinafter cited as Simmons Papers); Congressional Record, 68th Congress, 1st sess., 1924, vol. 65, pt. 7, 6525.  On the immigration restriction debate and the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, see Higham, Strangers in the Land, 315-324; Zolberg, A Nation by Design, 258-261; Zeidel, Immigrants, Progressives, and Exclusion Politics, 142-144; Ngai, Impossible Subjects, ch. 1; Daniels, Guarding the Golden Door, 47-58.

4 Congressional Record, 68th Congress, 1st sess., 1924, vol. 65, pt. 7, 6525.

5 Hugh MacRae to Furnifold Simmons, December 29, 1923, Box 43; Simmons to MacRae, January 11, 1924; W. W. Husband to Simmons, January 23, 1924; MacRae to Frank H. Hampton, February 2, 1924 and February 6, 1924; MacRae to Simmons, February 6, 1924, all in Box 44; MacRae to Simmons, March 13, 1924; Royal S. Copeland to MacRae, March 24, 1924; Henry Keyes to Simmons, March 28, 1924; LeBaron B. Colt to Simmons, March 28, 1924; all in Box 45; Simmons Papers; Congressional Record, 68th Congress, 1st sess., 1924, vol. 65, pt. 7, 6521-6525; Peter H. Wang, “Farmers and the Immigration Act of 1924,” Agricultural History 49 (October 1975): 647-652 (quotation on 651); Synnott, “Replacing ‘Sambo,’ ” 84.

6 Hearings Before the Committee on Immigration and Naturalization, House of Representatives, Sixty-Ninth Congress, First Session, December 17 and 18, 1925 (Washington, D. C.: Government Printing Office, 1926), 1-15, 18-19, 24-27 (quotations on 5, 6, 8, and 25).  See Ngai’s Impossible Subjects and Daniels’s Guarding the Golden Door for coverage of the formulation of the national origins system.

7 Hugh MacRae, A Constructive Program for Land Settlement and Agricultural Development in the South Atlantic States (Wilmington, NC: Wilmington Stamp and Printing Company, n.d.), Coker Papers; Lowery, “Transatlantic Dreams,” 320-321. For more on MacRae’s subsequent immigration work, see Braun, “Italians,” 197-198.