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The Immigrant Within

July 2024
16min read

The Melting Pot: Its most difficult test

As any really thoughtful statesman knows, it is one of the ironies of history that great decisions often have entirely unexpected consequences. Until men are given the gift of prophecy, “Forgive them; for they know not what they do” is an appropriate motto for those who judge political performances. But in some cases, “Congratulate them; for they know not what they do” might be as apt.

It is hard to say which version applies to the congressmen who passed the Johnson-Reed immigration restriction act of 1924. In that year they heeded a warning sounded by a New England poet some twenty years earlier. “Wide open and unguarded stand our gates,” Thomas Bailey Aldrich intoned, and through them, he warned, poured a “motley throng” of immigrants. If not checked, they would soon tear the clustered stars from Liberty’s brow and trample them in the dust.

By passing an immigration act that sharply limited the number of admissible newcomers, particularly those of Southern and Eastern European origin, the lawmakers appeared to answer the cry of Aldrich and others like him. They shut the gate on further “unassimilable” additions to the American “melting pot.” Yet at the very time of this action another wave of immigration into the great cities was gathering momentum. No restrictive laws could bar it, for it was made up of freeborn American citizens. They were black men and women, moving from a poverty-stricken South to the urban frontier.

That was the first paradox. And there was a second. The children of the “motley throng,” who presumably could not be Americanized, became, in the forty years after the gates were slammed shut, largely absorbed into the major currents of American life. But, for complex reasons, the children of the “immigrant within,” the northward-moving black, still remained unmelted.

To understand these ironies is to learn much about the meaning of success and its connection with race and nationality in the United States.


The reaction against unlimited immigration arose in part from the sheer volume of the influx after 1900. Where some fourteen million newcomers had arrived in the forty years between 1860 and 1900, thirteen million more poured in during the fifteen years that followed. Such a torrent of immigrants was bound to disturb even a relatively tolerant society, with plenty of land and jobs for all. Americans of the pre-World War I era watched the frontier’s free land disappear and wondered anxiously if the bull market for labor might not, in due course, dry up as well. Nor were they quite as tolerant as their grandfathers had been. Doubts about the economics of immigration were supplemented by unhappiness with its changing sources after 1900. Post-1900 immigrants were no longer mainly from Germany, England, Ireland, or Scandinavia. They came instead from Italy and from the undigested religious and national minorities within the sprawling Hohenzollern, Ottoman, Hapsburg, and Romanov empires. They were Jews, Catholics, and followers of the Eastern Orthodox rites.

The palpable “differentness” of the newcomers disturbed a basically Protestant population of Northern European origin. This disturbance resulted in a series of charges against them. They undermined American standards of living by working for a pittance. They were milking the United States of dollars to send home but returning nothing to their communities. They voted docilely at the summons of the ward leaders for a dollar or two a head. They were radical agitators. They crammed the jails and charity hospitals. They helplessly, hopelessly, lacked the Anglo-Saxon genius for selfimprovement and self-rule.

It was under the sway of such arguments that Congress passed not one, but a series of restrictive acts, beginning in 1917 and climaxing in 1924. But hardly was the ink dry on the lawbooks before the children of the fearfully regarded “new” immigrants began to make the grade in America, despite all the gloomy predictions. Except in the Depression era they found plenty of jobs. In the needle trades, in construction gangs, in steel mills and railroads, the Italians, Poles, Bohemians, Hungarians, Greeks, and other “ethnics” furnished muscle for growing industries. Others set up grocery stores, bars, barbershops, drugstores, laundries, or restaurants to serve the urban neighborhoods into which they moved. Still others made their way to farms, which provided food for the multiplying mouths of urban regions.


Economic success fuelled physical mobility. There were still unsettled areas around the cities that beckoned to those who disliked the crowded streets of the Promised Land. Around New York an Italian family could easily find, in Queens or Staten Island, a reasonably priced house with land enough for gardening. Or a Jewish storekeeper could escape the Lower East Side, if he had a good year or two, and find ocean breezes in Brooklyn.

Jobs and housing were two rungs of the ladder that led up from steerage. Then there were the schools. Urban classrooms were crowded, but not to the breaking point. In them, thousands of immigrant children learned the rules of civic behavior by which all Americans supposedly lived. More significantly, they acquired the skills that spelled job advancement. High-school training in basic English and mathematics equipped young new Americans for sales and secretarial work or minor civilservice posts. It was more than adequate for a skilled or semiskilled worker—a painter, plumber, or electrician. And with a little post-high-school training, say two years of night college, doors were opened to nursing, pharmacy, accounting, and even law and medicine.

Finally, the traditionally hospitable political machine embraced the immigrants and their children, especially as the latter reached voting age. At first given only minor slots on the tickets, Italians, Poles, and Jews gradually turned up as mayors, governors, senators, and Cabinet members—La Guardia and Lehman, Furcolo and Pastore, Gronouski and Muskie. The emergence of such men was partly a tribute to American democracy and partly a sign of the “old pols’ ” grasp of arithmetic. A Buffalo, New York, Polish ward leader explained in 1950: “Out of ritzy Humboldt Park they get two voters to a family. I get six out of my house.” In the 1930’s and 1940’s the New Deal’s willingness to overlook ethnic labels in helping the Depression-stricken won most of these voters from big families to the Democratic party.

Meanwhile, what of the blacks? As European immigrants moved upward, the wave of Negro arrivals from the South flowed into the jobs and neighborhoods, at the bottom levels of desirability, that had just been vacated. From the start, as always, the blacks marched a hard road to a different drum. The journey of black families to a Promised Land under the North Star was, in one sense, part of a universal movement. They were rural people, and everywhere in developing nations rural people pricked up their ears at the sound of the factory whistle. And the nearly nine million American Negroes who lived in the South in 1910 (and made up 90 per cent of the nation’s total black population) were predominantly a peasantry, living on farms, confronting permanent tenantry, poverty, ignorance, and disease. A government commission studying farm labor crisply summarized their plight that year: “There is absolutely nothing before them on the farm … no prospect … but to continue until they die.” From this desperation they began to flee, in a movement that still continues in the i970’s. By 1970 about half of black America lived outside what might well be called their “old country.”


They came to the cities by train in the early days, pouring onto the platforms with their bundles and their boxes, looking around, filling their eyes with the sights of Mecca. They came in response to letters and messages from relatives—or sometimes in response to nothing more than ads clipped from the Pittsburgh Courier , the Amsterdam News , the Baltimore Afro-American , or the Chicago Defender that said things like “3000 laborers to work on railroad. Factory hires all race help. More positions open than men for them.” It was very encouraging. True, the unions would not easily accept black men, so the factory jobs turned out many times to be the hardest, the dirtiest, the ones offering the smallest promise of advancement. Or else they were jobs for strikebreakers, which was a dangerous way to earn a living. Even a scab’s work was not always available, so black men (and women) had to do the traditional chores of their people in America: cooking, cleaning, fetching, and grooming for white men.

Still, it was the North. Schools were better than those open to Negroes in the South. The coarser humiliations of legalized segregation were somewhat muted. Voting was possible, and there might be a future for the young. There was an air of promise. Many black men in the city, members of Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Business League, were making money as owners of their own barbershops, funeral parlors, and livery stables. Washington’s well-known antagonist, W. E. B. DuBois, was talking about a “talented tenth” of the Negro race, which would save its future. In 1909 DuBois and other Negro leaders had helped to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, then a “radical” force fighting courtroom battles for black rights. At their side were sympathetic and brilliant whites like Mary White Ovington, Joel Spingarn, Oswald Garrison Villard, and Moorfield Storey. In 1910 the National Urban League was founded to set about opening job opportunities for blacks. A new day did seem on the way.


There were drawbacks, of course. Living quarters were scarce. Northern whites would seldom accept black neighbors except perhaps along the alleys behind their houses; so old Negro districts, cramped for expansion, grew desperately crowded. The poet Langston Hughes, born in 1902, lived with his family in Cleveland in 1916 and remembered that they always seemed to inhabit attics or basements and to pay a lot for them. When white people did finally rent to Negroes, they would cut up their houses into five or six apartments and charge goldrush prices for each—and for garages and sheds, too.

But a northern city offered a little acceptance to Negroes when they were still definitely a minority. Hughes went to Central High School. Once it had taught the children of proper Clevelanders; by 1916 it was full of the children of the foreign-born, divided mainly between mutually suspicious Jews and Catholics. When elections were held for class officers, Hughes often won as the “compromise candidate,” having apparently the advantage of being considered neither Jew nor Gentile. On a summer vacation he visited Chicago, which was also exciting. South State Street was “in its glory” in 1918, “a teeming Negro street with crowded theaters, restaurants, and cabarets. And excitement from noon to noon. Midnight was like day. The street was full of workers and gamblers, prostitutes and pimps, church folks and sinners. The tenements on either side were very congested. For neither love nor money could you find a decent place to live.”

Even more attractive than Chicago for many a bright young Negro was a place that had once been a quiet Manhattan suburb, “the rural retreat of the aristocratic New Yorker”—a place called Harlem. After 1900, Negro real-estate operators began to buy buildings there, hoping to open the ownership of tidy homes to worthy blacks. They undoubtedly had profits in mind, but they also hoped to avoid the creation in New York of a “Niggertown,” a “Buzzard’s Alley,” a “Bronzeville,” as Negro slums were already called in other cities. And though New York’s Negro population began to increase markedly after 1910, they seemed for a while to be succeeding. White residents, unsurprisingly, fled before the migrants, who were described by one newspaper as “black hordes … eating through the very heart of Harlem.” But they left behind a Harlem that suddenly became a magnet for black artists and intellectuals, who made it their cultural capital.

While young whites revelled in Mencken, Hemingway, Eliot, Pound, Stravinsky, cubism, and Dada, black poets and writers like James Weldon Johnson and Claude McKay and Countee Cullen, black scholars like Carter G. Woodson, Alain Locke, and E. Franklin Frazier, and black musicians like Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington sang their various lyrics of emancipation. Not all of them lived in Harlem, but for most it was at least their spiritual home. Längsten Hughes spoke for a whole black generation when he described how it was to come up from the subway under Harlem after a long absence. “I stood there, dropped my bags, took a deep breath and felt happy again.”


And yet there was another side to Harlem in the igzo’s. It might float the mirage of a “new Negro” before the eyes of intellectuals, but they quickly perceived that New York was a place where good jobs for blacks were scarce and pay was skimpy. And when, between 1920 and 1930, the city’s black population rose by another 115 per cent, good will and hope collapsed. Black and white slumlords found that milking decayed buildings for a few years was more profitable than long-time investments in repairs, and so black Harlemites endured falling plaster, exposed wiring, malfunctioning plumbing and heating systems, and rats and roaches. Disease flourished in Harlem; Negro death rates climbed.

From this squalor Negroes sought everywhere for escape. A few turned to political radicalism; more to redhot religion—Christianity melted in the crucible of memory and pain. Sometimes they pursued the anodyne of hope by gambling on a “hit” in the numbers game. Sometimes they clutched the transient solace of liquor or drugs. Each night the squeals and swoops of jazz mingled with the exhortations of preachers in storefront churches, while the pushers and whores and gamblers—black themselves—separated other blacks from what cash the grocer and landlord had left them.

And, slowly, many of the children whose parents had moved north to give them a second chance died spiritually. Small dark wraiths wandered the streets with keys on strings around their necks, while fathers who had given up the fight drifted, somewhere, and mothers scrubbed kitchens in white people’s homes. Those black youngsters who made it to school were bowed by psychological burdens that few white teachers understood. Not only were they recent “immigrants,” but they also suffered from the peculiar inadequacy of their southern background.

Despite the glamour of the “Harlem Renaissance,” the nation’s best-known black community had become by 1930 what it would remain for forty years at least—a place of enmity between policeman and community, where many local businessmen were outsiders and enemies. It was a pit of dilapidation and of fury often turned inward by blacks to become self-destruction, a center of narcotics traffic and crime. The crash and the Depression merely sealed its fate. For blacks the hard times had started early. As Langston Hughes put it, “The Depression brought everybody down a peg or two. And the Negroes had but few pegs to fall.”

Behind the immediate crisis of Negro poverty lay a question that ran deeper. The newly urbanized Negro raised as a sharecropper faced the same problem as his grandfather fresh out of slavery. How could he take a comfortable and dignified place in a rejecting society? Would the task require that he transform himself If so, what would be the cost, if any, to his sense of identity? These were questions that every immigrant group faced, but the issues were bitterly complicated for the black, not only by the unchangeable fact of his color but also by the passionate intensity of the feelings that race provoked. Could any metamorphosis of black life take place without massive white help, and would that help be encumbered by impossible reservations and conditions? Was it worth it? Would any such improvement really overcome white fears and open the way to a livable common future for both races in America?

Thinking blacks weighed such questions, and their answers took either of two general directions. One was toward black separatism, and in Harlem in the 1920’s separatism raised up a prophet in the stout figure of Marcus Garvey. Born in the West Indies in 1887, he had been trained in youth as a printer, a trade congenial to the upsetters of applecarts long before Benjamin Franklin’s time. There was a steady, economically motivated West Indian migration to the United States, and in 1916 Garvey joined it. In Harlem he founded a paper, the Negro World , to bring redemption to his people.

Garvey was the first to insist to his fellow Negroes that black is beautiful. “Up, you mighty race!” Negro World exhorted. “You can accomplish what you will.” And Garvey also told them: “When Europe was inhabited by a race of cannibals, a race of savages, naked men, heathens and pagans, Africa was peopled with a race of cultured black men … who, it was said, were like the gods.”

By 1919 the black community was more than ready for his message. In that so-called Red Summer, as the pressure of the Negro migration increased and black servicemen returned from France more impatient than ever with the old ways, race riots tore half a dozen cities. In Washington, troops had to be called out. In Chicago, street fighting lasted more than a week, leaving twentytwo blacks and sixteen whites dead and five hundred injured. Black emotions surged high, and Garvey fed some of their needs with pageantry. He decked himself in gaudy uniforms. He devised a flag—a black star on a red and green background: black for the race, red for its blood, green for its hopes. He collected, mostly from the poor, ten million dollars for a “Back to Africa” movement. Negroes who were working toward improving conditions in America, such as the fiery union leader of the Pullman Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, denounced Garvey as a fool and a fraud, but Garvey stirred a pot that still boils. His organization founded a Black Star Line of ships to carry the pilgrims back to the homeland, as well as a Negro Factories Corporation, an African Orthodox Church and Court of Ethiopia, a Universal Black Cross Nurses association, a Black Eagle Flying Corps, an African Legion. None of these ventures got beyond the paper stage except for the Black Star Line, whose first ship nearly sank off Newport News on her maiden voyage. Yet despite white snickers, this was much more than minstrel-show foolery. National flags and national histories and institutions and insignia were part of the paraphernalia that buttressed white self-confidence. For blacks they had to be rediscovered and even invented.

Garvey distrusted integrationists and mulattos, whom he called “hybrids of the Negro race,” and he was even baited into kind words about Klansmen for their comparative “honesty” about racial feelings. Conservative blacks believed he was milking the community for his own aggrandizement. In time, leading Harlemites took up the slogan “Garvey must go.” Finally, Garvey went — in shackles to a federal penitentiary on a charge of using the mails to defraud. In 1927 he was pardoned and deported to Jamaica: he died in London in 1040.


Was Garvey a charlatan and a false Messiah? Many blacks have now come to believe that he was a ground breaker for the militants of the i goo’s, who demanded black economic self-sufficiency, black control of black institutions, black pride, black power. In any case Garveyism was moribund by 1930. At that point the curtain rose on a period of some thirty-five years during which Negro Americans appeared to take the alternative road, away from black isolation. They used a combination of legal argument, moral suasion, economic pressure, and political influence to quicken white America’s conscience. They walked the path of coalition and integration.

The compass needle of Negro policy swung in that direction as a result of historic paradox. The Democratic party, ancient bastion of Southern segregationism, became the sponsor of the New Deal, whose programs for public relief, employment, and housing did not discriminate. The federal government under Franklin Roosevelt did not bring blacks into the Promised Land, but it did feed them some manna in the wilderness. In 1933 more than 2,000,000 Negroes were receiving some form of public aid. In 1935 the figure ran to 3,500,000. About a third of the 120,000 dwelling units built by the United States Housing Administration up to 1941 were for Negroes. Ten per cent of the Civilian Conservation Corps’ youthful membership was black. The Works Progress Administration had a marked effect on black employment rates, and a black blues singer chanted after 1936: … I went to the poll and voted, I know I voted the right way So I’m asking you, Mr. President, don’t take away that WPA.

So the Negro was swept into the New Deal coalition, along with white farmers, workers, homeowners, and small businessmen, and gave thanks at the voting machine for AAA, TVA, homeowners’ loans, bank-deposit insurance, social security, and the Wagner Labor Relations Act. Then World War II and postwar prosperity opened economic doors wider. Between 1940 and 1950 the number of Negro males in nonfarm labor went from 1.8 million to 2.8 million; ten years later it had risen to more than 3.5 million. In those twenty years the number of blacks in white-collar occupations rose from 149,000 to more than a half million; in skilled workers’ and foremen’s slots, from 130,000 to 407,000. In 1950 only 0.3 per cent of Negro families earned more than six thousand dollars a year. By 1960 that had risen to 13.9 per cent. In 1940, 4-5 per cent of blacks finished high school, and 1.3 per cent completed college. Twenty years later these percentages had nearly tripled. Blacks might see some of these figures—legitimately--as puny, but forward movement is visible.


Meanwhile, legal and political victories made the headlines—integration of the armed forces during and after the Korean War, the Supreme Court’s schooldesegregation decision of 1954, the bus boycotts and the lunch-counter sit-ins and the freedom rides of the 1950’s and 1960’s, the breaking of a Senate filibuster to pass the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the historic Voting Rights Act as a legislative climax in 1965. The continued shift of blacks to the cities began to produce, in the customary way of immigrant groups, black faces in city government. In seven of the twelve most populous cities in the United States in 1960, Negroes formed more than 20 per cent of the population. After 1962 five such cities were sending Negro congressmen—all Democrats —to Washington. In the mid-igoo’s one Negro, Robert Weaver, was appointed Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and another, Thurgood Marshall, was named to a Supreme Court seat. Black voting strength was receiving traditional forms of recognition.

Yet by that time the picture was not all rosy. Blacks had made definite gains in an absolute sense, but relatively they were well behind the rest of societv. A white youngster was much more likely to go to college than a black. Negro professional, managerial, and clerical workers had median incomes of $3,700 in 1965, with a figure of $5,400 for comparable whites. Only one Negro highschool graduate in three landed a skilled or white-collar job, while two out of three white graduates did. The likelihood that a white college graduate would become a manager or an official or a proprietor was three times greater than it was for a college-educated black. And at the base of the economic pyramid, black unemployment, especially among young males, always far outstripped that of whites. Civil rights or no civil rights, it was still Depression time for millions of black Americans.

The Negro, in short, was getting a smaller slice of a growing pie. The frustration of the black masses seemed to melt very slowly in the intermittent sunshine of white “benevolence.” Impatience fed on aroused expectations. Wrote Langston Hughes∗:

∗Copyright 1951 by Langston Hughes. Reprinted from The Panther and the Lash , by Langsten Hughes, by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.

What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun? Or fester like a sore— And then run? Does it stink like rotten meat? Or crust and sugar over— Like a syrupy sweet? Maybe it just sags Like a heavy load. Or does it explode?

Heartsick Negroes were reaching a crossroads. At best, integration had a faint suggestion that for blacks redemption could be found only by a change of skin. “Nobodydemanded of the Irish, Italians or Jews,” said historian Oscar Handlin, ”… that they become a vanishing element.” Once more the appeal of separation was sounded in the streets—by Black Muslims and Black Panthers. Yet it was hard to know if a black world, isolated from the major tides of American society, would fare any better psychologically or economically than it had in the “integrated” underdog role.

In a sense the situation presented different problems for blacks and whites; blacks had to achieve some unity to develop a solution to their dilemma, and whites had to make their accommodation to the undying reality of black aspiration. Yet it was also a crisis for the nation as a whole, and it was, once again, an ethnic conflict presenting a familiar pattern. The union workers, the low-income homeowners on the margins of the black inner cities, the people who would literally have to move over to make room for oncoming blacks, were by and large of recent immigrant stock. They were now the “native Americans” confronting the barbarians at the gate. Many of them felt resentful. They were asked to bear, in taxes, a burden of reparation for an original sin—enslavement—that was not of their making. They were asked to commit their children to a new order that, even if they were being unreasonable, they desperately feared. They were asked to rework their values on behalf of a race that appeared to lag far behind them in the cleanly and parsimonious virtues of good Americanism—and a people, moreover, whom they disliked as if by instinct and who were now sufficiently self-aware to return the dislike openly. In many ways, particularly economically, these whites were closer as a class to poor blacks than they were to the affluent liberals who preached racial equality at them; this seemed only to deepen their sense of betrayal.

It had happened before. But the circumstances are more dangerous in 1970 than they were in 1910. There is a steadily contracting market for unskilled labor, little room for growth within the major cities, a huge public budget that keeps much of the individual’s surplus revenue from being used in entrepreneurial activities. In short, there is no frontier—literally, less room for maneuver and, it seems, less time to maneuver in. There seems to be no consensus of social values to which newcomer and old-timer can both conform. It is a violent, anxious era. The nation is fused by mass media but is not cohesive in beliefs—performers and audience, not a community. The prospects seem ominous.

Yet despair is always slow to see the first edge of sunlight on the morning horizon. Solving the dilemmas of human diversity was a task the American people met reasonably well during a long period of unrestricted immigration. There is no reason to think that the many assets the nation brought to the work have now disappeared. The restrictionists of the 1920’s were foolish to believe that by barring the doors they would solve the problems of ethnic mixture. It may be equally foolish for a crowded America fifty years later to believe that the problems cannot be solved at all.

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