Immigration

Immigration

During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Irish and Italian immigrants significantly changed the political, religious, and cultural life of the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant city of Boston. In the early twenty-first century, Roman Catholics make up Boston’s largest religious community, and the Irish play a major role in Boston politics. Non-European immigrants have transformed Boston into a racially diverse city with a significant minority population.

Immigrants coming into Boston were originally of European descent

Immigrants coming into Boston were originally of European descent

Growth of city neighborhoods between 1715 and 1912

Growth of city neighborhoods between 1715 and 1912

 

The economic and political environment in Ireland—widespread evictions and the potato famine beginning in 1845—created the conditions necessary for the first large immigrant group to make their new homes in Boston. Irish immigrants were too poor due to the cost of transportation to move on once they reached Boston. The dramatic influx of Irish immigrants—the Irish population in Boston grew from four thousand in 1840 to more than fifty thousand by 1855—permanently changed the city socially, culturally, and economically. Cheap Irish labor transformed Boston from a commercial to an industrial economy, with the native Bostonians reaping the benefits as owners, while low wages left the Irish crowded into the city’s first tenements. There were cultural conflicts with the native Bostonians, especially over religion, since the vast majority of the Irish were Roman Catholic, while the most natives were Protestant, and politics, since the Irish tended to be Democrats focusing on labor opportunities, while the natives tended to be Republicans focused on successful business ventures. By 1880, a new native-born generation of Irish descendants secured a place in the community with a distinct group identity. Some Boston neighborhoods such as South Boston and Charlestown continue to be largely Irish in population, with such events as the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade becoming a permanent part of Boston’s culture. The Catholic Church in Boston is influential and retains an Irish majority in spite of the presence of Italian, French, and German Catholics. Most importantly, in the early twentieth century Boston politics were dominated by the Irish, with figures like Mayors John F. Fitzgerald and James Michael Curley and President John F. Kennedy being Irish leaders in the community and in the nation.

In Boston, Irish clam diggers pose on a wharf, 1882

In Boston, Irish clam diggers pose on a wharf, 1882

The North End, one of Boston’s oldest neighborhoods, had been predominantly Irish for two generations. At the end of the nineteenth century, conditions in eastern and southern Europe stimulated two new groups of non-English-speaking immigrants: the Jews and the Italians. By 1895, the North End was dominantly southern Italian, with Russian and Polish Jews close behind in numbers.

Map of the North End, 1852

Map of the North End, 1852

The Jewish immigrants considered education essential for social integration and economic advancement. (The North End’s Eliot School was two-thirds Jewish in 1906.) They were focused on business, opening their stores of all kinds, and quickly moved into the mainstream of commercial and education-oriented Boston. The North End, which remains Boston’s “Little Italy”, was 90 percent Italian in 1920. The southern Italians, like the Irish before them, arrived in Boston with little money and few prospects, and found work as cheap labor in the factories and on the docks. In the North End, they created a community that was similar to an Italian village. Italian culture— street corner and café life, restaurants and markets specializing in Italian ethnic foods such as pizza and pasta, the religious feasts, with processions and a festival atmosphere on summer evenings—was introduced to Boston and is still present there today. By 1910, the Italian influence in the Massachusetts legislature led to the institution of Columbus Day as a holiday. Since the second half of the twentieth century, several Massachusetts governors and Boston mayors have been Italian.

 

Older Italian men sweeping Boston streets, 1909

Older Italian men sweeping Boston streets, 1909

 

Sources on page –

Beine, Joe. “Boston Passenger Lists 1820-1891 (with Gaps).” Boston Passenger Lists 1820-1891. National Archives, 2000. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. <http://www.germanroots.com/bostonlists1820.html>.

“Boston.” Immigration in America. Immigration in America, July 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2015. <http://immigrationinamerica.org/387-boston.html>.

 

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