Polish Americans An Ethnic Community

Polish Americans: An Ethnic Community


James S. Pula

Pages 62 to 69


   Polonia in the Progressive Era, 1900-1920    


Nativism and the Creation of an Ethnic Stereotype

The first two decades of the twentieth century marked a period of unprecedented growth in immigration. As immigration increased, fears of crime, slums, and labor unrest caused the dominant group to become more hostile toward newcomers.


This was reflected, for example, in a renewed emphasis among nativist writers on the natural superiority of the so-called Anglo-Saxon race and in calls for the use of a literacy test to establish whether people could read and write as a means of limiting immigration.54 Another result was the adoption by many in the Progressive movement of the demand for an end to unrestricted immigra­tion, which it blamed for the growth of slums and bossism, the twin pariahs of urban America. The Progressives were joined in their crusade by Samuel Gompers, president of the American Federation of Labor, who in 1902 com­mented, "Both the intelligence and the prosperity of our working people are endangered by the present immigration. Cheap labor, ignorant labor, takes our jobs and cuts our wages/'55 His sentiments were echoed by his constituents when the AFL convention that year endorsed the literacy test by an overwhelm­ing vote of 1,858 to 352.


Lobbyists for the Immigration Restriction League and the American Federation of Labor renewed their efforts for a literacy test in 1906. The author of the new bill, North Carolina Senator F. M. Simmons, appealed to Congress to preserve America's Anglo-Saxon civilization from a new class of immigrants whom he described as "nothing more than the degenerate progeny of the Asiatic hoards [sic] which, long centuries ago, overran the shores of the Mediterranean/'56 This position was increasingly propagated in the press, espoused by such notables as Ellwood Cubberly "the father of school adminis­tration in the United States/' who wrote in 1909 that "these Southern and Eastern Europeans are of a very different type from the Northern Europeans who preceded them. Illiterate, docile, lacking in self-reliance and initiative and not possessing the Anglo-Teutonic conceptions of law, order, and government, their coming has served to dilute tremendously our national stock, and to cor­rupt our civic life."57


Opponents of the 1906 literacy test hoped to postpone or prevent its passage by calling for the establishment of a commission to study the entire immigration question. Thus was born the U.S. Immigration Commission. The commission employed a staff of more than 300 people for more than three years, spent better than a million dollars, and accumulated a mass of data and conclusions that it published in 42 volumes. The commission's findings supported the proponents of restriction, officially declaring for the first time that there was a distinct dif­ference between what it labeled the "new" immigration and the previous groups from Northwestern Europe, which it termed the "old" immigration. Restriction of the former, it concluded, was "demanded by economic, moral, and social conditions."58


Although based on faulty research and reasoning, these reports extended federal sanction to the stereotyping of millions of Americans. The reports appeared to "legitimize" calls for restriction. The effects can be seen in T. J. Woofter's survey of popular literature between 1900 and 1930. Woofter found that during 1907-14, "there occurred a marked change in public sentiment toward immigration" and concluded that the old restrictionist arguments based on economics were giving way to a rationale based on "the undesirability of cer­tain racial elements."59


This new rationale became a favorite of writers such as Madison Grant, whose The Passing of the Great Race, published in 1916, argued that the pure, supe­rior American racial stock was being diluted by the influx of "new" immigrants from the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and the Polish ghettos. Thinly cast in the guise of scientific theory, Grant's racist diatribe gained wide popularity among the American public and greatly influenced federal immigration legislation.


Bills for a literacy test passed Congress, only to be vetoed by William Howard Taft in 1913 and Woodrow Wilson in 1915. When the measure passed again in 1917, Wilson vetoed it a second time, noting that, in addition to reversing tradi­tional American policy on immigration, the test would reflect opportunity rather than character. Congress remained unimpressed and overrode Wilson's veto. Thus the stage was set for further restriction. The result of this renewed agita­tion became clear once the Republicans gained control of Congress in March 1919. Albert Johnson issued a call for immigration restriction, backing up his words with the introduction of a measure designed to restrict total immigration by allotting quotas based on national origin. The influence of the Immigration Commission was evident throughout the hearings on the measure from 1919 to 1921.60


A new restriction bill passed Congress, only to expire through Wilson's pock­et veto. Shortly afterward Warren G. Harding took the oath of office as the new president and summoned a special session of Congress to consider the immigra­tion act. The measure cleared both houses of Congress in a matter of hours, and on May 19, 1921, the president signed the first law in American history designed specifically to restrict European immigration.


The First Quota Act of 1921 imposed a maximum of 357,803 as the number of immigrants that could enter the country from outside the Western Hemisphere in any year. The number was considerably less than the average of 625,629 who entered annually between 1901 and 1920. In addition, each nationality group was given a separate quota based on 3 percent of the number of people from that group residing in the United States in 1910. This provision discriminated directly against Southern and Eastern Europeans. The quota sys­tem reversed a trend in prewar years that saw Southern and Eastern Europeans outnumbering Northwestern Europeans by four to one. It is clear that the law was designed specifically to limit, in a discriminatory fashion, immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe. A quota board was responsible for determining the precise proportions of the population to be assigned to each nationality. Poland's first quota of 25,827 was increased to 31,146 in 1922, and then cut to 30,977 in 1923.


The National Origins Act of 1924 reduced the total number of immigrants per year from 357,803 to 164,667. To ensure the predominance of the "old" immigration, the quota percentage of each nationality was reduced from 3 per­cent to 2 percent, while the base year was moved from 1910 to 1890. This was a clear attempt to lessen the impact, and therefore the quota, of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe who entered en masse after 1890. For Poland, this resulted in an annual reduction from 30,977 to 5,982, a loss of 80.69 percent. The final quota established in 1927 recognized Poles as the fifth largest group in the United States behind Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, and Italy, and assigned them a quota of 6,524.


While the limitation on Polish immigration deprived Polonia's communities of immigrants from Poland, the report of the Immigration Commission, which was based on faulty scholarship that resulted in invalid conclusions, led to far graver consequences by "legitimizing" a derogatory ethnic stereotype of Polish Americans. As Janice Kleeman explained, "Mainstream America's reluctance to embrace the Poles was rooted in three discriminatory stances: religious prejudice (Protestant America eschewing Catholicism), racism (Anglo-Saxon/Teutonic America depreciating the Slavic Poles), and general resentment of immigrants as alien and as competitors in the job market/'61


Although the Progressive Era is known as a period of great political, econom­ic, and social reform, for Polish Americans the era also brought condemnation by the U.S. Immigration Commission, a restriction of Polish immigration, and the development of a pervasive stereotype that characterized them as submis­sive, yet explosive; fatalistic, yet irascible; docile, yet undisciplined; of limited mental capacity; satisfied with poor housing, clothing, and food; and prone to excessive use of alcohol and criminality. In time this image, reinforced in litera­ture and film, gradually developed into the stereotypical "hard-hatted, beer-bel­lied Joe Sixpacks" of the 1960s.62


Aside from the ugly stereotyping and the restrictions imposed by the Immigration Commission and Congress, Polish Americans during the Progres­sive Era witnessed the realization of a dream they had held for more than a cen­tury, the re-creation of an independent homeland. In addition, they made seri­ous inroads into organized labor, waged successful strikes aimed at bettering their economic status, and developed both family and organizational means of accommodating their needs to the demands of urban, industrial America. By the end of the Progressive Era Polonia was poised to begin serious integration into mainstream America. 


Emergence of the Second Generation



The 20 years between the end of the "war to end wars" and the beginning of the next world conflagration were dominated in the United States by economic themes—the cultural and recreational explosion that came with the prosperity of the 1920s and the unemployment and deprivation that accom­panied the Depression.


For Polish Americans, the interwar period was also one in which socio-economic issues played an important role. The period witnessed the beginnings of the movement of Polish Americans out of the lower socioeconomic class. During the 1920s, for the first time a majority of Polish Americans were employed out­side the confines of the urban Polonia communities, or at least in non-Polish businesses. By 1930, many were becoming small business operators in the eth­nic communities, an intermediary step to becoming part of the general American middle class.


The decades during which most of second-generation Polonia grew to matu­rity were dominated by several major themes, including the end to mass migra­tion, the response of Polonia to an independent Poland, further development of organized Polonia, changes within the parish community, increased political awareness, and fundamental changes and challenges within Polonia itself as the mantel of leadership passed from the immigrant to the second generation.1


The End of Mass Migration


One of the events that exerted an immediate influence on Polonia was the implementation of immigration restriction. The effect of the nationality quotas imposed by Congress in 1921 and 1924 was to sharply reduce the influx of near­ly 100,000 Poles per year to a fraction of that number—30,977 under the 1921 law and a mere 5,982 after 1924.


Following passage of the quota acts, the flood of Polish immigrants diverted to France and to a lesser extent Belgium. The result was that fewer Poles came to the United States during the period between 1921 and 1940 than came in any single year between 1900 and 1914.2 The exact number, of course, depends on how you defined a "Pole." Helena Lopata compared the arrivals and departures listed by the U.S. Bureau of Immigration by "race or people" and found that between 1920 and 1932 there was a net exodus of 33,618 Poles from the United States. Yet when she used the figures for "country of birth" there was an increase of 107,476. The discrepancy, which led to some confusion and contra­diction among historians of the Polish experience in America, occurred because of the multinational nature of the Polish republic between the two world wars. Because of this, many who, in conformity with U.S. immigration policies, listed their "country of birth" as Poland were in reality members of other ethnic groups. A review of Polish sources by Edward Kolodziej shows that of those who left Poland for America during this period, 34.2 percent were ethnic Poles, 6.4 percent Ukrainians and White Russians, 1.0 percent Germans, 56.9 percent Jews, and 1.4 percent were of other or undeclared heritages. Of these, 41.0 per­cent were farmers, 0.1 percent miners, 18.8 percent industrial workers, 6.9 per­cent trade workers, 0.3 percent transport workers, 2.7 percent engaged in the learned professions, 3.9 percent provided household service, 8.4 percent were members of unspecified professions, and 17.9 percent were unknown.


With the rebirth of Polish independence after World War I, many Poles in the United States elected to return to their homeland. Lopata found that 5,227 Poles arrived in the United States in 1920, while 19,024 left for a net loss of 13,797. In 1921 the outflow continued with a loss of 19,039, and in 1922 the loss increased to 26,075. In 1923, however, the immediate postwar departure thinned and immigrants thereafter outnumbered those returning to their ancestral land. Relying on Polish sources, Kolodziej calculated that between 1918 and 1938 approximately 273,161 Poles migrated to the United States, while 106,793 returned to Poland—a net gain to America of 166,368.


Polish historian Adam Walaszek identified four primary motivations for re-emigration: some returned because of failure in the United States, some because they succeeded in earning enough money to return to a better life, some to retire, and some for political reasons. American sources indicate that 96,832 ethnic Poles returned to Poland between 1918 and 1923. Many of those who returned to Poland reported feeling "different." They had changed. Their experi­ence in America made them different. Some had been away from their home­land for 5 years, and some for 35. In the intervening years they became accus­tomed to life in the Polish American urban ethnic enclave. Although few realized it, they had already begun the process of assimilation. Their recollection of Poland was an idealized, even romanticized vision shaped by the forces of time. Upon their return some complained of the low standard of living and poverty in their rural homeland. Some were treated with respect by the Poles, but others were envied by their new neighbors or ridiculed because of the Americanisms in their speech and their unfamiliarity with contemporary Poland. Many, having been Americanized more than they realized, no longer fit into Polish society, and an estimated 20,000 once again made the voyage to America after 1924.3


The 1930 U.S. Census counted 1,268,583 people born in Poland and 2,073,615 with one or both parents born in Poland. The effect of the quotas can be seen as natural attrition began to take its toll on the immigrant generation in the 1930s. By 1940, the U.S. Census reported only 993,479 who were actually born in Poland and 1,912,380 with one or both parents born in Poland. Both fig­ures represented decreases from 1930.


The drastic reduction in Polish immigration not only cut off the external source of immigrants used to perpetuate the urban ethnic communities but also cut off direct .access to cultural renewal from Poland. Even before the effects of these acts became apparent, Father Bojnowski warned that "in a few decades, unless immigration from Poland is upheld, Polish American life will disappear, and we shall be like a branch cut off from its trunk."4 As a consequence, Polonia had to rely on limited cultural contacts with Stary Kraj to nurture continuing ethnic awareness and development. In this, Poland was only too willing to help.

Relations with Independent Poland


One of the most significant results of World War I was the re-creation of an independent Poland. Lost in the general euphoria over the realization of a centu­ry of Polish dreams was the fact that independence of the homeland meant a fundamental change in the fabric of Polish America. During the entire period since Kosciuszko and Pulaski first came to fight in the American Revolution, the cause of Polish freedom and independence was on the minds of Polish immi­grants to America. It was in many respects a unifying factor among Poles. Although they might disagree on the best methods for aiding Poland, their nationalism and patriotism were pervasive influences in their lives.


Now Poland was free and independent. The unity that could be mustered by an appeal to patriotism would not be the same. One of the immediate difficul­ties that arose concerned the relationship of Polonia to the homeland. Many vet­erans of Mailer's Army returned from Poland disillusioned, as did a large num­ber of those who re-emigrated with such enthusiasm in the immediate postwar years. For those who chose to invest in Polish business enterprises, an alarming number of such ventures either ended in failure or did not fulfill their initial high expectations. Then, too, the political situation in Poland posed another problem as many immigrants objected to the dictatorship of Jozef Pilsudski. Given the disenchantment of people arriving back in America, the less-than bullish Polish economy and the debate over Pilsudski's policies, the interest of Polish Americans in interwar Poland tended more toward the cultural than toward any significant political or economic ties.5


From the standpoint of Polish authorities, cultural relations with Poles living abroad was an important issue. Given the serious domestic and international difficulties the reborn nation faced, the Polish government looked on Polonia as a source of financial and political support. As such, it tended to view Polonia as an extension of the homeland, to assume a moral responsibility for the cultural condition of Poles living abroad, and to treat Polonia in a rather paternalistic manner. Given this perspective, the obvious beginnings of assimilation clearly evident among Polish Americans were of great concern to Polish authorities. The Americanization of immigrants abroad even became a serious subject for debate in the Polish Sejm, where the general consensus held that assimilation was "incompatible with the interests of the Polish nation and state."6


To arrest the process of Americanization, the Polish government inaugurated a number of cultural and educational programs focusing on Polonia with the intent of forming ties between it and the homeland. The government in Warsaw, however, did not grasp the complicated political divisions within Polonia.


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