Immigration and Refugee History: Telling the Story
What is the Library of New England Immigration?
Robert Forrant and Ingrid Hess
University of Massachusetts Lowell
Welcome to the Library of New England Immigration. This site contains much of the history of emigration to Lowell. Over time the site will be built out to cover lots of the immigration history of New England. For now, the focus is Lowell, as a representative example of that larger story. The world came to the city, changing it in dramatic ways. Religious and cultural festivals liven the city. Immigrant and refugee entrepreneurs vitalize the business community.
In celebrating its century settling immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in Lowell, the International Institute honored 100 of these people and their allies. The names of a handful of honorees make clear the incredible diversity of the people who made the Mill City home. With oral histories, images, digital animations, and text, we tell this incredible story.
Tem Chea. Vanna Khim Sik Howard. Joe Hungler. Father Stanislaus Ogonowski. Fred Abasi. Maria Cunha. Victoria Estfan. Lura Smith. George Tsaspatsaris. Tim Chan Thou. Gordon Halm. Jit Magar. Szifra Birke. Frank Carvalho. Deolinda Mello. Luis Pedroso. Sovanna Pouv. Phalea Chea. Hugh Cummiskey.
An immigrant proverb goes something like this: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here I found out three things. First, the streets were not paved with gold. Second, they weren’t paved at all. And, third, I was expected to pave them.” Irish immigrants dug the canals and built the mills. Thousands of newcomers from Canada and across Europe flocked here for available jobs. For example, Greek immigrant Maria Sampatakakis came to Lowell at age 12. Finding work in the Merrimack Mill’s spinning room, said this about the job. “For two weeks, I learned the job for nothing. And then they started giving just a little responsibility on the machines. The pay was $3.00 a week, working from six to six.”
Charles Antonopoulas arrived in Lowell at age 21, “…got 50 cents from a friend, and went and bought a small Greek and English dictionary and tried to learn some English words.” He eventually got a tailor job. “That shop was the ‘League of Nations,’” he said. “The owner was Jewish, the cutter and designer were French, the superintendent upstairs in the workshop was Italian. So, we were Italians, and Polish, and Jews about 25 of us working there.”
Rita Ayotte’s parents, born in Quebec, “traveled back and forth… stayed in Lowell a couple of years… making money. They would go back to Quebec. They were traveling back and forth like that. And, then, they would come back again.”
Nearly 70 years later, Colombians arrived in Lowell recruited to help revive the textile industry. As French Canadian, Greek, and Portuguese immigrants before them, they lived in crowded tenements on Merrimack and Market Streets, worked long hours, and faced tensions with native and other immigrant workers. Nevertheless, they stayed because, according to one worker, “We earned more because we worked so many extra hours, generally twelve, but there were people who worked fourteen, sixteen, and eighteen.” They also sent a portion of their wages back to Colombia.
In the 1600s, two Native settlements, the Pawtucket and the Wamesit, existed within the limits of what is today Lowell. The Native Americans were Pennacook, who’d settled in today’s New Hampshire, northeastern Massachusetts, and southern Maine. They subsisted by farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering, with the falls on the Merrimack River, a popular site during the spawning season. Inhabitants of Wamesit and Pawtucket also hunted for waterfowl, turkeys, pigeons, a variety of other birds, deer, and moose. Frequent wars in the region and fearful of attacks by colonists, many Wamesit fled north. Canals, mills, and dams on the Merrimack disrupted the environment and how the Native peoples who remained, made a living. Eventually, their lands got sold to white settlers, and the Pawtucket and Wamesit settlements ceased to exist.
Starting in the early 1820s, mainly Irish immigrant laborers built Lowell’s cotton textile mills and dug its canals. The spark came in 1821, when several Boston business people, many who had made their initial fortunes in the trade of human beings, purchased land and rights to the Pawtucket Canal. As cities like Lowell grew, the Northern economy relied on people working for a wage. In 1845, according to historian Thomas Dublin in Women at Work, close to 70 percent of Lowell’s mill hands were women. Between 1825 and 1845, profits averaged 24 percent annually as workers strained 12 hours a day. Productivity rose. Wages did not keep pace. By 1850, what had started with a handful of mills had become a vast textile empire. Though a harsh, crowded, and noisy place, Lowell offered the possibility of economic opportunity; thousands of people seized it.
Twentieth Century Decline
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, mill jobs attracted individuals and families. French-Canadian, Greek, and Portuguese neighborhoods grew. A vibrant Jewish section of the city, complete with a Hebrew school and two synagogues formed. However, the mills soon lost any advantages the city’s geography once offered. Steam engines, coal-fired furnaces, and electricity made greater competition possible, and the high tide of millwork passed. Rapid job loss resulted in a less welcoming environment. Moreover, the global economic depression in the 1930s added to the city’s troubles. Reflecting tough times and slowed immigration, the population fell from 113,000 in 1920 to 100,000 in 1930 and under 100,000 by 1940.
Now, Lowell’s mills could not compete with Southern textile mills with their new machines, new technology, new production methods, and cheap non-union labor. In 1935, only 8,000 people worked in Lowell’s textile mills, roughly the same number who did so one hundred years before!
Over this period, sentiment against immigration grew, culminating with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson-Reed Act), which limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the country through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the U.S. as of the 1890 national census. Immigration from eastern and southern Europe dramatically slowed.
The Long Recovery
Following passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Hart-Celler Act)—which abolished country-based immigration quotas—a renewed stream of migrants made their way here. Each country had a 20,000-person admissions cap. For Lowell, this resulted in a wave of Portuguese immigrants to join the Portuguese already here. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, immigrants needed a job right away. Many Portuguese immigrants arriving in Lowell found work at factories like Prince Macaroni Company, Grace Shoe Co., and Commodore Foods.
In the 1960s and 1970s, immigrant neighborhoods and industrial buildings fell to the wrecking ball, and highways got built through existing neighborhoods, all in the name of progress. City leaders believed that the way forward required a sharp break with the city’s industrial past. Despite the aggressive knockdown campaign, the hoped-for jumpstart never materialized. Planners, education leaders, community activists, and members of the university community began nurturing a different vision for the city’s future, one predicated on historic preservation, a restoration of the public schools, and the attraction of artists.
In 1978, the federal government located a National Park in Lowell. History became central to the city’s revitalization. Public and private investments in the repurposing of old mills for usage as business incubators, healthcare facilities, artists’ live and workspaces, housing, and retail soared. Middlesex Community College and the University of Massachusetts Lowell grew, offering educational opportunities for Lowellians while drawing new people into the city.
Following the fall of Vietnam’s capital in 1975, the United States admitted more than 400,000 Indochinese refugees within the next five years. The 1980 Refugee Act alleviated the pressure on existing refugee programs. It removed preference for refugees fleeing communist countries and adopted the definition of refugees according to the United Nations Protocol and Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It allowed for a yearly refugee admission rate set by the President and additional emergency admissions.
By 1984, four to five Cambodian families arrived in Lowell each week. The city had taken in 3,000 Cambodians at that point and expected to continue receiving large numbers. The booming job market was the main draw. Southeast Asian refugees found employment at as Wang Laboratories, Prince Macaroni, Apollo Computer Inc., and BASF Systems Corp. Lowell’s Southeast Asian population reached over 10,000 by 1986.
The new laws also established a policy based on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor to the United States. Post-1965, immigrants from places like the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Brazil livened Lowell yet again.
The Southeast Asian Water Festival takes place every August on the Merrimack River. Cambodians, Lao, and Vietnamese annually travel to Lowell from across the country for the festival, For nearly thirty years, a Puerto Rican Festival has honored the island’s culture and heritage. The celebration attracts Puerto Ricans from across New England. The Vietnamese community has hosted a Vietnamese New Year celebration since the 1980s, co-organized by St. Patrick’s Church and UMass Lowell’s Vietnamese Student Association. Since 2001, the African community has held the Greater Lowell African Festival, a celebration of African culture, music, food, dance, and traditional dress. The Water Festival, Puerto Rican Festival, Vietnamese New Year Celebration, and Greater Lowell African Festival are examples of the celebrations Lowell’s immigrant communities organize annually.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 25 percent of Lowell’s population in 2010 was foreign-born. The figure is likely to reach 30 percent in 2020. Throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the International Institute in Lowell welcomed and helped settle refugees and immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam just as they settled immigrants between 1918 and 1940. In the 1990s, refugees from the Balkans joined immigrants from Central America and Asia in the area. As the new millennium arrived, so too did immigrants and refugees from Afghanistan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, The Republic of Congo, Syria, and Iraq. Contributors to the local economy, they are participants in and creators of cultural, social, and community organizations and institutions.
Much of this history is observable today with walks through neighborhoods that contain the artifacts of the immigrant past and the city’s immigrant and refugee present. Scattered across the city are corner food stores, social clubs, Buddhist Temples, Hindu Swaminarayan, churches that serve diverse immigrant communities, mosques, and restaurants run by and catering to Southeast Asian, Latin American, African, and Indian customers. With eyes open, we see how the past weaves its way into the present. The world’s people keep arriving just as they did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
The last word goes to Clementina DeRocco, director of the International Institute in the late 1940s and early 1950s. “We’re tied together in the world today, for good or bad. If something happens in Poland, in Greece, we get a large repercussion here… The ‘one-world’ idea is nothing new to International Institute policy, for we’ve always felt that the more understanding we have of people, the better for all of us” (Lowell Sunday Sun, October 1, 1950).
The project is based at UMass Lowell. A cradle of the industrial revolution, Lowell is a quintessential immigrant city from its early 19th century inception to the present day. The Lowell story provides an entry point to the immigrant and refugee history of other communities. It provides information on New England immigrant and refugee history with a particular focus on Lowell, Massachusetts, for educators, students, researchers, and anyone interested in immigration and refugee history.
University of Massachusetts Lowell faculty and students from the History and Art & Design Depart-ments created the site. History Professor Robert Forrant and his undergraduate and graduate students researched and wrote the history content. Using creative applications, including Adobe Creative Cloud, and the web service WordPress, Assistant Professor Ingrid Hess and her Art & Design students created the website and produced the motion graphics to present that history and sup-porting photographs, maps, and links to additional resources. It is designed to be a tool for educa-tors at the middle school, high school, and university levels interested in teaching immigration and refugee history. It is also designed for ease of use by anyone in the community interested in learning more about their own or others history.
The motion graphics are a unique, creative, and compelling way to introduce immigration history to students from middle school through the university classroom. In addition, the inclusive site pres-ents the full sweep of Lowell’s human story from the Native American populations who inhabited the space, to the waves of Irish and French-Canadian immigrants who arrived in the city in the 19th century, to the Southeast Asian, Central American, Caribbean, African, and Middle Eastern immi-grants and refugees settling in the city in the 21st century.
Classroom teachers will have the resources at their disposal to teach immigration history on one multipurpose website. Their students will also find the site easy to navigate. The motion graphics, photographs, history essays, and additional supporting materials offer classroom teachers a one-stop place to gather content to make immigrant and refugee history come alive. Researchers will find the site useful for its rich and varied content. Community members interested in immigration history will also find the site accessible.
Immigrant: Immigrants chooses for any number of reasons to come to a foreign country to live their permanently. They emigrate from their home and become immigrants in their new destination. For example, while one is an émigré from Greece, they become an immigrant in the United States.
Migration: Migration is the movement of persons away from their place of usual residence. Migrants can move within their country or across international borders.
Migrant: Migrant is a term reflecting the common understanding of a person who moves from his or her place of usual residence, whether within a country or across an international border. The move may be temporary or permanent. For example, temporary agricultural workers in the U.S. are referred to as migrant farmworkers. The term also refers to people displaced by environmental disasters, civil conflict, famine, religious persecution, or large-scale development projects.
Internal Migrant: An internal migrant moves from one place to another in their country of origin. A person could relocate from rural southern Italy to industrial northern Italy looking for work.Young women from New England farms who left home to work in Lowell’s textile mills is another example of internal migration
Refugee: The United Nations defines refugees as persons who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political options, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” International law protects refugees.
The United Nations has identified three durable solutions for refugees: 1) return to their home country when the situation becomes safer; 2) integration into the country to which they have fled; and 3) resettlement to a third country, such as the United States. A years-long process, less than one percent of the world’s refugees will ever be resettled.
Asylum Seekers: Asylum seekers are persons who have fled persecution in their home country and seek legal protection in a different country. Not all who seek asylum receive it; those who do obtain the same benefits and services as persons who enter the country through the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program.
An asylum seeker is requesting international protection. However, their claim for refugee status is pending. By contrast, a refugee is recognized under the 1951 United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. The Convention defines who a refugee is and sets out the rights of individuals granted asylum and the responsibilities of nations that grant asylum.
More information about asylum seekers >
Climate Refugees: Climate refugees are individuals forced to move as a result of sudden or progressive changes in their natural environment, including drought, volcano eruptions, earthquakes, fires, and hurricanes. While these individuals may not be recognized as refugees under international law, the term ‘climate refugee’ is coming into widespread use due to the scale of the problem.
Internally Displaced Persons: IDPs are those who have left their homes to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights, or natural or human-made disasters. They do not cross internationally recognized borders and therefore do not qualify as refugees.
Push and Pull Factors: Why do people leave home? Why do they go where they go?
Push Factors: Push factors do just that; they push people away from their home country and include things like famine, drought, lack of economic opportunity, political and religious persecution, and civil war. A push factor could be an active volcano that makes living in a particular place impossible.
Pull Factors: Pull factors do just that; they pull people toward a new home. Pull factors are things like: affordable housing, available jobs, educational opportunities, family reunification, and the absence of conflict.
Explanation: Combinations of push and pull factors determine when and why people migrate and where they go. Push factors do not require a person to leave home. However, these conditions that contribute to a person’s going can be so dire that by not leaving, they could suffer financially, emotionally, or physically.
Awareness of pull factors in another country contribute to the decisions individuals and families make as to their destination. For example, ‘The Great Potato Famine’ pushed thousands of families out of Ireland. I the U.S., an expanding economy offered employment prospects.
To summarize, discrimination, religious persecution, civil strife, and a lack of economic opportunity are substantial push factors, while pull factors like access to jobs and education, medical care, and family reunification influence where people end up.
Lowell mill managers hired young, single women, mostly ages 14 to 25, from farms across New England.
However, it was not only the prospect of wealth and abundance that influenced the decision to emigrate. The Syro-Lebanese had a desire for modernity, liberty, and adventure.