History of the Order of AHEPA 1922 - 1972

Arguments for Immigration & Immigrant National Identity

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There have always been, and always will be opposing arguments on the questions of language, heritage, ethnic culture and national identity. Some arguments favoring the maintenance of the native ethnic language, heritage, culture and ethnic identity include several selected articles.

In 1915, Horace M. Kallen published "Democracy Versus the Melting Pot" and stated that American society constituted a federation of cultures. He denied that it was possible or desirable for the immigrant groups to lose their identity and argued that our culture had much to gain by permitting each of them to develop its own particular tendencies. He said:

Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or lesser extent: they cannot change their grandfathers. Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, in order to cease being Jews or Poles or Anglo-Saxons, would have to cease to be. The self-hood which is inalienable in them, and for the realization of which they require "inalienable" liberty, is ancestrally determined, and the happiness which they pursue has its form implied in ancestral endowment. This is what, actually, democracy in operation assumes.

The common language of the commonwealth, the language of its great political tradition, is English, but each nationality expresses its emotional and voluntary life in its own language, in its own inevitable aesthetic and intellectual forms. The common life of the commonwealth is politico-economic, and serves as the foundation and background for the realization of the distinctive individuality of each natio that composes it. Thus "American civilization" may come to mean the perfection of the cooperative harmonies of "European civilization", the waste, the squalor, and the distress of Europe being eliminated-a multiplicity in a unity, an orchestration of mankind. As in an orchestra, every type of instrument has its specific timbre and tonality, founded in its substance and form; as every type has its appropriate theme and melody in the whole symphony, so in society each ethnic group is the natural instrument, its spirit and culture are its theme and melody, and the harmony and dissonances and discords of them all make the symphony of civilization, with this difference: a musical symphony is written before it is played; in the symphony of civilization the playing is the writing, so that there is nothing so fixed and inevitable about its progressions as in music, so that within the limits set by nature they may vary at will, and the range and variety of the harmonies may become wider and richer and more beautiful. But the question is, do· the dominant classes in America want such a society?

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The Literacy Test

President Woodrow Wilson vetoed the Literacy Bill in 1915 and again in 1917, as Presidents Cleveland and Taft had done before him. In 1917, however, the Act was passed by Congress over his veto. Wilson commented on the passage of the bill he had opposed:

In two particulars of vital consequence this bill embodies a radical departure from the tradition and long-established policy of this country; a policy in which our people have conceived the very character of their government to be expressed, the very mission and spirit of the nation in respect of its relations to the peoples of the world outside their borders. It seeks to all but close entirely the gates of asylum which have always been open to those who could find nowhere else the right and opportunity of constitutional agitation for what they conceived to be the natural and inalienable rights of men; and it excludes those to whom the opportunities of elementary education have been denied, without regard to their character, their purposes, or their natural capacity."

"Americanizing" the Immigrant

In 1919 C.H. Grabo caustically comments on efforts being made to "Americanize" the immigrant:

Despite the fine work done by Hull House in Chicago, and similar agencies, we do not as a people make any effort to understand our immigrants or to aid them … The American point of view is compactly expressed in the remark cited from the report of a group of social workers: "Not yet Americanized; still eating Italian food." … those patriotic Americans who feel that the best and quickest way to naturalize the foreigner is as soon as possible to make him forget his native speech."

The Native Languages

Horace J. Bridges went further into the subject of "Americanizing the Immigrant" by writing:

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The children of foreign extraction learn English and, as very little is done in school to make them keep up the language of their parents, they soon forget it, with the result that their home life is destroyed … It is sad to notice the patronizing attitude that the child assumes towards his father and mother after a few months in the public schools … When I discuss the matter with teachers in the public schools, I become aware that they possess a holy horror of teaching children the language and history of Italy. In my opinion, the way to preserve the home life of the children of immigrants is to teach through the language and history of their fathers that in every country men and women have always been ready to sacrifice their personal interest for the sake of their country. By making these children realize that they are connected by blood with a race of glorious traditions, and by adoption have come to belong to a country which has also a glorious past, the love for America will be kept in their hearts without their acquiring a feeling of contempt for their fathers' country.

It is an astonishment to me that so few Americans seem aware of the great educational opportunity which lies at their doors, through contact with their fellow-citizen of alien origin. One would have expected a priori that familiarity with foreign languages would be more general among Americans than among any other people. Yet the fact, I fear, is precisely the opposite of this. My impression, tested on a fairly large scale, is that among native-born Americans there are comparatively few who are really at home in the language and literatures of continental Europe … We blame our foreigners for their clannishness. We resent the fact that they sequester themselves among people of their own race, and do not take the trouble to understand our language or our history and institutions; but we are guilty of an exactly analogous piece of provincialism when we betray our unwillingness to learn from them, while expecting them to learn from us.

Mr. Bridges objects to the figure of speech, "the melting-pot," as one utterly unsuited to define the Americanizing process. "There is," he observes, "no such thing as humanity-in-general, into which the definite, heterogeneous, living creature can be melted down … There is no human mould in America to which the spiritual stuff of the immigrant can be patterned. Not only is there as yet no fixed and final type, but there never can be." He adds that "the very genius of democracy, moreover, must lead us to desire the widest possible range of variability, the greatest attainable differentiation of individuality, among our population … The business of America is to get rid of mechanical uniformity, and, by encouraging the utmost possible differentiation through mental and psychic cross-fertilization, to attain to a higher level of humanity."

Mr. Bridges would have the foreign-language press fostered rather than discouraged, not only to afford Americans an opportunity to learn of their neighbors, for he would have every American read at least one foreign language paper, but also as a means to genuine Americanization of the foreign-born and their acquaintance with the spirit and ideals of the Republic. Foreign societies are likewise one of the best means to Americanization and serve another purpose only less important:

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Let them keep alive Italian and German music and literature, Balkan handicrafts, and the folk-lore and folk dances of the Old World not for the sake of the Old World, but as elements contributory to American culture. Let them spend as much time in bringing the spirit and meaning of American institutions home to their members as in bringing home to Americans the spirit and meaning of their European traditions.


In 1912, Percy Stickney Grant described the adaptation of the immigrant to his new home:

The rapidity with which the democratic ideas are taken on by immigrants under the influence of our institutions is remarkable. Not only do these races bring with them most desirable qualities, but they themselves are subjected to new environment and strongly influential conditions. If working-people are obliged to live in unhealthful tenements situated in slums or marshland, if the saloon is allowed to be their only social center, if they are fought by the rich ·in every effort to improve their condition, we may expect any misfortune to happen to them and also any fate to befall the state. Not colonial independence, not federal unity, but racial amalgamation is the heroic problem of the present, with all it implies in purification and revision of old social, religious, and political ideals, with all it demands in new sympathy outside of blood and race, and in a willingness to forego old-time privileges.

The Life of the Immigrant

Immigrant life in America was a desperate existence for most, a story of long hours of steady toil at menial jobs until they were able to establish themselves financially, and years of living in the dim background of American life before they finally became full-fledged members of American society.

Edward A. Steiner, a Hungarian immigrant who became a professor at Grinnell College in Iowa, wrote several books about his experiences as an immigrant, and his travels among immigrant groups throughout the country after he became an educator. His book, "The Immigrant Tide" was ·published in 1909, and in 1914 he published "From Alien to Citizen."

In the following pages, I quote liberally from Steiner's books. Steiner wrote with a pure passion against the hardships and suffering imposed upon various immigrant groups, which he felt keenly since he had experienced the same oppressive treatment during his early years in America. He writes with a firsthand knowledge of these immigrants, since he spent a great length of time visiting with them, and also lectured in various cities before civic groups and churches in behalf of better treatment and understanding of those millions of immigrants who had only recently come to America.

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Steiner also made trips back to his former country, in the company of immigrants who were returning to their homelands throughout Europe, having given up all efforts to make their way in America. Thousands of such immigrants gave up the battle yearly, to return home, unable to endure the killing labor of the coal mines, steel mills, railroad labor.

The Immigrant Tide by Edward A. Steiner (1909)

Here is a beggarly group of Bulgarians. They left their home in the richest district of that new Balkan czardom about a year ago. Like their forefathers they lived there contentedly until restlessness like a disease, crept upon them. Coming from the plains in the West, it spread its contagion over the Alps, the Carpathians and the Macedonian hills. The men mortgaged their homes, left their wives and children and took passage at Triest to gather dollars in America. On landing they were shipped West and farther West. They travelled by polluted rivers, and over mountains stripped of their verdure and robbed of the wealth of their veins. They saw the refuse of the mines left like broken trappings of war on the battlefield. They saw the glare of a thousand flaming ovens where coal was being baked into coke, and in their shadows they saw besmirched and bedraggled towns, now clustering, now trailing along, now losing themselves in the darkness, and now glowing again in the lurid light of giant flames pouring from huge furnaces. They saw day turned into night by smoke, and night turned into day by unquenched fires, and they knew not whether it was day or night, or heaven or hell to which they had come. At the end of the journey they were led into a deep ravine through which an inky river struggled, and over which hung a cloud as immovable as if the released elements were forming again into solids.

Twelve men were counted by someone who led them, or drove them, or pushed them into a hut which had once been painted some dingy color, but now was part of the gloom around it. Twelve men were made to enter another hut, and so on, until all were disposed of. By signs they were given to understand that this was home; so, they spread out their woolen coats and went to sleep. When morning came, after a breakfast of cheap whisky and poor bread, they were marched into the mill of a certain corporation. It would do no good to mention the name of this corporation, and it would do no harm. No one would be offended; for there is no one to offend. I have very dear friends who own stock in that company, but they just draw dividends -- they do not control the mill. The man and the men who run it produce the dividends; they do not own the stock, certainly not all of it. I cannot single out that corporation; it is not the only sinner nor the chief one, and that would be its only consolation, were it looking for anything so unpractical.

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My Bulgarians saw boiling pots of metal and red-hot ingots of metal and men of metal, who shouted at them in an unknown tongue, and the louder they shouted the less the men understood. Little by little, however, they grew accustomed to the tumult, and learned to walk skillfully on the inch plank which alone separated them from death and destruction. They found consolation in the bulging envelope of money which came to them at the end of the week; for it was much money, exchanged into their currency. Two-thirds of it they sent home, and lived on the other third, eating coarse meat and bread, and indulging in strong drink. Month after month they toiled in the mill, and lived in the same ravine, with the thundering, spewing, belching monsters. They lost the freshness of skin and the elasticity of movement characteristic of their race; but were happy in the fat, bulging envelope at the end of the week.

One morning, however, they came to the mill and it was silent within, as it was silent without, and the door was closed. One week and another they waited; but there was no evelope with money. Their own small change was gone and they were starving. Then came the same man who had driven them twelve by twelve into the huts, and twelve by twelve he drove them out; for they had no money with which to pay the rent, and men with hearts of metal cannot feel what it means to be driven out of a hut, even such a wretched hut, and be in the roofless street. Half-starved, the men left their miserable shelter and marched into the main street, past the stores and the churches; and they saw that the city had homes and that not all the men had hearts of metal.

Bread came in abundance, and soup and meat. Fine women were proud to serve them, and the basement of the church became their lodging place. On Sunday they heard above them the voices of little children, and then deep organ tones and a man's voice speaking loud enough for them to hear, although they could not understand. Then came a great volume of song, and if the congregation sang: "The Church's one foundation is Jesus Christ, her Lord," poetry never was more true to fact; for the church seemed buttressed upon these Slavic brothers of Jesus, in whom as in all the needy, He incarnates himself. By slow stages the men found their way back to the sea, and through the charity of their own more fortunate countrymen, they were now homeward bound. A more forlorn set of men I have never seen; emaciated, ragged, unclean and discouraged. They had paid the price.

In all the industrial states, there are hundreds and thousands of graves, marked by humble wooden crosses, beneath which sleep just such toilers, snatched from life by "The broken wheel, the loosened cord." They have paid the price, the greatest price, giving their lives for the dollars, the hoarding of which we begrudged them. No less than 10,000 of these despised aliens laid down their lives in one year, digging coal, making steel, blasting stone and doing the numberless dangerous drudgeries of our industrial life.

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All that the Boston man saw was the money, the good clothes, the celluloid collars of the men, and the gaudy shams that decked the women. I could see the mouths of half a dozen mines, out of which were dragged in one year the mangled, powder-burned, asphyxiated bodies of a thousand once-breathing souls. I heard the cries and groans of hundreds of women and thousands of children; for I have seen mothers embrace bodiless limbs and limbless bodies, fragments of the sons they had borne, and although 30,000,000 dollars and more were carried home by the living, they too had paid a price beyond the hard labor they did. In the suffering they endured in damp mines, by the hot metal blasts, in cold ditches and in dark and dangerous tunnels, they paid the price, indeed.

A young Romanian, from the time he had landed in New York, he had not met a man who did not take advantage of him or ill-treat him. In Chicago, he was lured from the Union Station to a saloon on Canal Street, and when he came to himself, he was laying in an alley, penniless. He found his way to Montana where he herded sheep. Then one day came American men on ponies and killed every one of his sheep, hundreds of them, knocked him down and threatened to riddle him with bullets if he did not turn his face toward the East and march on without looking back. For days he walked, and 'No man gave unto him.' He then worked in the mines of Colorado. 'The men there," he said, "shoot, drink, and gamble, and have about as much regard for human life as for the life of sheep, and as soon as I had money enough I made ready to go home.' No more America for him, and no praise for its men.

The Montenegrin immigrant reported his complaints about treatment in America as follows: Cheated by Employment Agencies ... . Cheated by Austrian boardinghouse keepers ... Money lost by giving bribes to Irish American bosses who promised jobs which were never given ... Rough treatment by bosses … Robbed by railroad crews in Montana ... "Shanghaied" -- made to drink and railroaded from St. Louis to Southern Kansas … Robbed of money and tickets before departure for home.

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Without the Slav, the Italian and the Magyar, that which we call our industrial development would have been impossible. This development does not lessen the economic problem, it intensifies it; but it cannot be proved that no economic problem would exist if, instead of Slav and Latin, the Teutonic races were dominant in this movement. In that case I believe the problem would be more difficult of solution. The immigrant will go wherever he is wanted and a fair wage is assured him. Nor is he quite so eager to herd in cities as we imagine, and no community need be without an adequate supply of labourers, if they are needed for hard, crude labor. There is no work so hard or so dangerous that the immigrant will not attempt it.

Like their forerunners in the migratory movement of European races, the present immigrants respond quickly to the American higher standards of living, and in many cases much more quickly than some of the older groups responded. When we speak of the horrors of the East Side of New York, the crowded Ghetto and Mulberry Street with its Italian filth, we forget the days when the Irish possessed the land, "squatting" wherever they could, and living in wretched huts; when the American used to sing: "The pig was in the parlour, and that was Irish too." The pig and the goat have gone, and instead, the Irish have pianos and phonographs in their parlors; but in one generation, many Slavs and Italians, under less fayourable conditions, have achieved the same results, minus the pig and goat period."

Perhaps we need to realize as Americans we have neither invented nor discovered education, liberty, and religion. What we have accomplished is, that we have made gifts to the many, of some of those blessings which in the immigrants' country are the possession only of the few; and that is no small achievement.

A Coroner's jury reported on a man's death: "Martin Horvat, aged forty-two, came to his death by a fall of rock in Mine No. 2 on Whisky Hill (Penna.) January 30, 1908. The jury finds that the company should have provided the deceased a safe place to work in. It was not the duty of the deceased to pass on the safety of the roof. The deceased is not to blame. We further find that the place in which the deceased worked should have been properly timbered, but we do not find that the company is to blame.' Who was to blame? The deceased was not, the company was not. Somebody in Wilkes-Barre said, in answer to my query: 'These Hungarians are so ignorant.' I see now-ignorance was to blame.

Avarice is to my mind the basic fault in all the history of accidents in the mines of Pennsylvania. It is an avarice which thinks human life cheaper than timber, and considers it easier to pay funeral expenses than to support schools and pay teachers. It corrupts politicians to the degree that there is seemingly nothing more corrupt; and if half the charges are true that are made openly by the newspapers in the coal regions, against the mine inspectors, they certainly are hopelessly debased. Twenty-three thousand lives have been sacrificed in the coalmining industry in the United States in about ten years! Read it again! Twenty-three thousand people had to give up their lives for the light and heat and speed which we enjoy in the last ten years. Twenty-three thousand men!"  

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The Italian, the Greek, and the Syrian are usually called by the classic names "Dago," "Roundhead," or "Guinea," and the Slavs, be they Poles, Serbians, Slovaks, or Montenegrins, are called "Hunyaks," "Hunkies," and "Slabs" and I once heard the owner of a great industrial establishment call them "Bohunks." It was not an ignorant or malicious friend of mine who said of a Jew, a man of scholarly attainment and a common acquaintance, "He is a pretty decent Sheeny." I am throughly incensed that nearly every one of the names applied to them is an expression of contempt, an offhand judgment of inferiority. After all, it is not even that which makes me take up the cudgel for them, because they must and will prove for themselves that they are perfectly human like the rest of us, and that in all essential things they will grow like us as soon as they have the same privileges which we have had, who came after the first "Dago" had discovered the way to this land of opportunity.

Guinea Hill differs from Whiskey Hill in that it bears many other fantastic names and in that there are fewer saloons. The huts in which they live on Guinea Hill are even worse than those of the earlier comers from the north of the Slavic world. I am told that they were built some 30 years ago, and no sacrilegious hand has touched them since, to paint them or to change their original primitive, dry-goods-box architecture. They seem to have sunk into the refuse of the mines, and the sociological investigators, who know the housing conditions in Pennsylvania, declare them to be "the worst in the state.”

Living in these wretched huts among stunted trees, the leaves of which are shrivelled and blackened by coal dust, I found young men with whom I had walked among the olive groves near Spalato. When last I saw these youths they wore garments of red and white cloth richly embroidered, with their belts full of costly weapons of ancient pattern, and their fierce mustachios stretching out defiantly like long, double-pointed daggers. Here on Guinea Hill they all wear the sober garb of miners, their mustachios are shorn of their fierceness, their weapons have disappeared, their shooting is done in the darkness of the mine, and they rarely shed any blood but their own.

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There I found them digging coal as bravely as they had fought the Turk, but known to their American masters only as "Hunkies" or "Guineas" -- no one discovering in their open, honest faces a superior race -- every one scenting in them drunkards, brawlers and incendiaries. The usual results of such ignorance followed, in that they have been treated with an injustice which makes them quite unconscious of the fact that they have found the land of "liberty, equality, and fraternity.

After pay-days and feast-days the magistrates of the towns around seek them to arrest them, and the fine they must pay is always twice, three times and sometimes ten times as great as that iimposed upon the American offenders. After trials which make a Russian military court seem fairly decent, they are railroaded into jails and workhouses, and I now soberly confess that as a stranger I would rather fall into the hands of the police of Moscow or St. Petersburg than into those of the protectors of the law in most of our industrial centers in Pennsylvania and out of it. The citizens of Pennsylvania may be comforted by knowing that Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, in their lower courts, are as unjust to the stranger as in their own state. In one town in Ohio there is, or was, a mayor who is reputed to have made $9,000 a year out of the fines imposed upon foreigners for petty offenses, usually for drunkenness or brawling. This ingenious official arrested alien drunkards under the statute of the state which allowed him to fine them as high as thirty dollars, while the native was arrested under the statute of the town and fined three dollars for his spree.

The Indianapolis police arrested a Slovak woman for the heinous crime of picking up coal on the tracks. On the coldest day of year, she was taken from her home and children and driven to the workhouse, in spite of the fact that she was in advanced stage of pregnancy. The terrible results of this inhuman treatment were, of course, what might be expected. Such facts have led the citizens to organize an Immigrant Protection League, which makes it its business to see that the immigrant is not exploited by the courts. On "Guinea Hill" every "Roundhead" as he is commonly called, despises the court for its undignified procedures and its perspicuous dishonesty. The judges' contempt for the immigrant, as well as that of other executive officers, rankles and hurts beyond the telling, causing people who might become staunch, loyal, and heroic citizens, to hate and despise our institutions. If in time of turmoil and economic distress they become lawless, as I firmly believe they will, we shall reap only what we have sown. In our present hysteria about Anarchy it is well to remember that it feeds on injustice, that it cannot grow-in sane minds at least -- if a nation deals out justice impartially, and that it would die out completely if as a people we would live somewhere within hailing distance of Mount Sinai.

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I do not ask any sentimental consideration in our law courts for the Slavic or the Italian offender. Deal with him firmly; punish him if punish we must; but let the man who steals a coal mine be not dealt with more leniently than the woman who picks up coal on the track. Let the Jewish thief suffer, if he has stolen the railway's old iron; but let him who steals a whole railway also suffer in proportion to the magnitude of his crime. I have asked for the aliens, and shall not cease asking until I am heard: First, that we learn to know them. I ask for common, fundamental justice; not only for the sake of the alien but for our own sake. I ask for just plain, common, every-day justice.

Of all animals, man is the most brutal. Naturalists still disagree as to the reason for his cruelty, but whatever it be, he has not often stopped to ask himself the cause. He hates and smites and slays, simply because he hates. It is true that man's historic brutalities are hidden under the gloss of what he calls patriotism or preservation of the race; but if the average man were asked the cause for his own unbridled hate of other races, he could give no intelligent answer. That race hatred is a primitive passion is no doubt true, that it is seemingly ineffaceable is also true; for neither education nor religion has obliterated it; indeed both, strange to say, seem to have intensified it.

At a recent summer school of the Y.M.C.A. it was my privilege to teach a class of young college men numbering about 150. The questions they asked, prove the rule that the average Protestant Christian is prejudiced, is grossly ignorant of the immigrant. 'Do not three martyred Presidents prove that the immigrant is an Anarchist and ought to be excluded? Is it not true that ninety per cent of the criminals in the United States are foreign born? Do not foreign governments dump their rubbish of criminals and paupers upon our shores?'

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It is now twenty-five years since I landed In the United States with a group of Slovaks from the District of Scharosh in Hungary. I remember the lonely feeling as we found ourselves like driftwood in the great city of New York, then crowding memories of hard tasks in gruesome mines and ghostly breakers, memories of dark ravines and mud banks, choked by refuse of mill and mine; the miners' huts, close together-the kindness of the poor, the hospitality of the crowded, the hostility of the richer and stronger, who feared that we would drive them from their diggings.

My faith in the dreams of the great dreamers has never wavered. I knew that the prophet's vision was not a Fata Morgana, and that the words of the Son of Man came straight from the fountain of truth. Believing in them and believing in American manhood and womanhood, in their altruism and in their faith, and believing in the essential humanity of our crowding alien host -- I believe that cosmos is being created and that chaos will disappear.

Finally, what we teach the immigrant by precept or by example, he will become. He will bequeath our virtues or our vices, not only to the next generation which will spring with virgin strength from his loins; but through thousands of invisible channels, he will send these blessings or curses to the ends of the earth. The issues of the Kingdom of God in this generation are with America.


© Copyright Order of AHEPA

George J. Leber's book is copyright protected. However, any portions of this book may be quoted at length, provided that proper credit & acknowledgement is given to the book, author, publisher, and pages.


Leber, George J. History of the Order of AHEPA 1922 - 1972. Washigton DC, Order of AHEPA, 1972.

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