Americanization During the Late 19th Century and Early 20th Century

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Between 1880 and 1930, despite heavy restrictions on immigration, millions of people from Eastern and Southern Europe emigrated to the United States. As they settled into the urban cities, native-born and second-generation American citizens saw these immigrants and their foreign values and behaviors as a threat and thus sought to “Americanize” and assimilate them into the mainstream American society. However, Americanization in the eyes of the native-born was different from how immigrants understood Americanization. There were formal institutions for learning English and the American government system but the new immigrants learned just as much about the American way of life on the factory floor from their co-workers, on the streets from gangs, and at radical political party rallies from the Socialist recruiters. The three major factors in the Americanization process were the influence of Irish American culture, the working class culture, and the “support” for a melting pot society.

The Irish were unavoidable in the urban cities of the Northeast and Midwest. By 1920, ninety percent of the urban population was Irish and they were dispersed throughout the inner city and the city limits (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 4). If a new immigrant moved to New York or Chicago, their neighbors were most likely Irish. For many new immigrants, whose lives remained within the city limits where there was work, the Irish people were American people and if they were to learn the American way of life, it was the Irish and their way of life that they observed (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 4). Irish American women played a vital role in the process of Americanization as public school teachers, as labor organizers and social reform activists, as marriage partners with men from various ethnic backgrounds, and as spouses and mothers within the Irish American community helping to produce notions of citizenship (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 6). Irish street gangs also helped Americanize the immigrants; specifically, they taught them the importance of racial boundaries. Unlike some street gangs which are mostly defensive (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 8), Irish gangs went out looking for fights, even if it meant fighting amongst themselves (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 9). As the first immigrant group to settle in American cities, they managed to gain control of much of the residential space and move slightly up the social hierarchy where they were factory foremen and store clerks. They resented any incursion by other ethnic groups for fear that their bosses would give job preferences to foreigners willing to work for little money (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 9). There was also a fear of interracial marriage and romances and a general sense of entitlement to an entire neighborhood (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 9). So, they created ethnic spaces that persisted for decades and were validated by adults. The other immigrants as well as African-American migrants learned and imitated this exclusive attitude and formed street gangs themselves. Certain streets like Wentworth Avenue in Chicago remained a site for racial conflict long after the Race Riot of 1919 (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 8). The obsession with race and racism became a part of the American identity. The Irish also tried to Americanize the Catholic Church but this Americanization was very different from the Anglo-American nativist Americanization. With the exception of the Jews, most if not all of the new immigrants were Catholic (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 4) like the Irish but their ideologies varied greatly. Most of the new immigrants considered the “Americanization” of the Catholic Church more like “Hibernicization” instead since the Irish wanted the immigrants to adhere to Irish Catholic ideologies (“The Irish and the ‘Americanization’” 19). The Irish saw the festas, folk festivals dedicated to a...
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