The Ethnicity of the Blackstone Valley
"The aim here was to get ahead, to better themselves. That has been the aim of everybody that came to America, I guess. And of course, the whole nation was different....it was the promised land. They came here for a better living and they worked like hell for it." Julien Cloutier, Run of the Mill
Immigrant assimilation into the Blackstone Valley is a fascinating microcosm of America's melting pot. The depth of nearly four centuries of America's earliest traditions and layers of very diverse and rich cultures, traditions and customs brings the Blackstone Valley into the forefront of the American experience.
While the French were vehemently committed to "La Survivance" of their heritage, the Swedish immigrants blended much more easily into the strong English culture and Protestant religion of the Yankees who owned the farms and ran the factories. The Irish experience differed some between Rhode Island and Massachusetts due to the variation in state politics but the Cape Verdeans faced dual obstacles. Color and language were factors that played substantive roles in both acceptance into the early American culture as well as in maintaining a distinct and intact ethnic heritage.
The Blackstone Valley is alive with incredible journeys, some very visible but some can only be found in old books and memoirs. But the fabric of life couldn't be richer and provides an exemplary, though not always glowing, picture of acceptance in the world and dynamic fabric of the American Dream. The mission of the America Dream even before the term was spoken was clearly in unison -though the paths and outcomes varied greatly. Yet, what remains today is a fascinating and often tangible excitement that translates into a vibrant and compelling place to live or visit.
Gratitude goes to all of the "rememberers" as the ethnic musicians Pendragon have advised. Whereas the buildings reflect the physical landscape, often scenic, sometimes challenging - the people and their strong clutch to their heritage and strong religious balance while pioneering a new life and braving unique and sometimes, uncomfortable conditions, is a story we can all recognize as Americans. Thanks to the efforts of the John H. Chafee National Heritage Corridor's Ranger program that works to interpret the fascinating past for us to understand, respect and enjoy. Gratitude to bring forth the "up-close stories" as well as the trends of this national treasure also goes to the many historians whose passion keeps digging in past memories and annals from Providence to Worcester.
This past has tremendous impacts for us as a nation - who we were, who we are and who we will still become. Our relationships and ability to work together, respect what is important to preserve is paramount to our future without forgetting our past. The human experience, the strong values, the sometimes challenging religious and racial (in)tolerance coupled with innovation and the diverse skills of various immigrant groups has led to a dynamic history that included Irish, French, Swedish, Cape Verdean, Irish influences. It is important to understand our pasts to properly respect the hard-fought steps that have created a true melting pot.
We are now seeing a new wave of immigrants coming to the Valley. Many non-skilled as well as many highly skilled management level, such as engineers are expanding into our Valley communities. This is important as emigration continues in Massachusetts which is the only state in the Nation to lose residents. This has grave impacts ont he workforce and new businesses establishing in the region.
Woonsocket's Museum of Work and Culture is a significant living resource to the French experience that dominated the Woonsocket area and beyond for decades. Woonsocket, in fact, was the most French speaking community in the Nation at one time as the waves of French-Canadians were enticed away from their struggling farm lives to work in the mills in the Blackstone Valley.
Since several Woonsocket mill owners were Belgian, they identified the French, who were struggling with hard times in Canada, as potential workers for the booming industrial age.
"La Survivance" of their heritage was of utmost significance to the French-Canadians and at one time, there were seven Catholic churches in Woonsocket alone, many of strong French influence. The heart of the social and religious life for French-Canadians was the Church. They also souhgt to retain their French- Canadian heritage and maintained frequent contact with their homeland. Several other institutions were very popular in the Valley, including La Societe de St. Baptiste - one of about 200 French societies in the region. This were truly mutually beneficial societies - passing the hat for funerals, creating scholarships and helping community. Schools with nuns were created with half the day in English and half spoken in French. But the pride among the French demanded American citizenship for membership.
Festivities, such as St Jean de Baptist, celebrated Feast Day on June 24th every year. Though diminished, the French have honored their heritage at the lovely Woonsocket Museum of Work and Culture at Market Square. Even today in the local papers, the Valley Breeze or the Woonsocket Call, there are articles announcing French language or culture clubs, announcements for French Society events and many French Canadians still holding on with a firm grasp to their heritage. In fact, the coveted first prize for the Annual Fund Drive for the Museum of Work and Culture is a trip for two to where - why, of course, it's Canada!
Jeff Allard, a college student, recently presented a lecture on the St. Francis Orphanage, created to house French children either temporarily while theirparents were sick with TB or facing other problems or more permanently if orphaned.
In Massachusetts, Millbury was once a predominantly French- Canadian town, but recently its Franco-American Club closed because of falling membership. Many middle aged and old timers remember how the traditional school day would be taught in French throughout the morning and then taught in English for the afternoon classes.
NHC Ranger Chuck Arning's Tape #28, "Cape Verdean Voices" (found at the Public Library in each Valley community) reveals a history of music, legendary sailors and whaling voyages for the Cape Verdean men out of Providence harbor, strong but poor women often left alone for months and years at a time, and an adjustment to being isolated for color and language differences by the predominantly Anglo-Saxon landowners.
Cape Verde, off the coast of western Africa, is made up of 10 islands and eight islets.In the early 1800s, American whaling ships would head out from the east coast and seek out skilled whalers in Cape Verde and the Azores. Their growing familiarity with America fed into the universal quest for bettering life and immigration to America. However, the hindrance of color and language, coupled with transit to their homeland during whaling expeditions, strengthened the embrace that Cape Verdeans felt for their culture and religion.
Cape Verdeans held a Catholic tradition since the middle 15th century, yet the early American Catholic churches were not very welcoming to immigrants of a different color or language. Most of the early black population in American belonged to the Anglican Church. This isolation was unusual for the Cape Verdeans whose cultural heritage was comprised of Italians, Africans and even Jews who had fled to the island after the Inquisition. This multi-ethnic upbringing led to multiple skin colors within the fabric of Cape Verdean life which was quite different from the more rigid homogeneous Yankee traditions.
The musical linguistics of the Cape Verdeans permeated their culture as they sought to create local connections by tracing family roots and links. "Oh, we're cousins" was a familiar phrase once the family linkage was found. The rhythm of the language merely underscored the Cape Verdean musical traditions comprised of the violins of Portugal, the rhythms of Africa and the influences, including dances such as mazurkas and waltzes of Southern Europe. Music was at the core of all Cape Verdeans pursuits with a unifying identity.
The Cape Verdean identity was also visibly promoted by leaders meeting in Boston to collect books and resources to share with new generations as they had less contact with the island. Though the whaling and shipping industry still held onto many Cape Verdeans, the Woonsocket and Blackstone mills eventually became employers for many. But the very strong traditions and culture has remained viably intact due to the long shipping interaction with their homeland and the strong bonds to kinship. There is, in fact, a Cape Verdean Festival in Pawtucket every May to fully enjoy and "catch the spirit" of their life, music and traditions. Almost 1-1/4 times the size of Rhode Island, the country's population is 390,000. The largest population of Cape Verdeans not living in Cape Verde reside in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Although the 1840s potato famine is well-known as bringing two million Irish to America, the Irish immigration to the area actually started with a strong influx of skilled canal builders helping to build the Blackstone Canal. The Irish had gained these skills from a series of English canals built to transport coal between Wales and England before many of them immigrated around 1826 to help construct the Erie Canal. Many then moved to the Providence and Worcester areas as their stone mason, construction and artisan skills were highly sought. In 1826, only 19 non-Yankees lived in Worcester so that immigrants, though highly sought and needed, were often looked down on if not Protestant or white.
Over time, in spite of the Yankee's attempt to block the Irish from becoming landowners, the Irish became very politically savvy and powerful as their career choices in law, skilled trades and politics flourished. Although some friendly Anglos allowed their own land to be utilized for Irish cemeteries, a Catholic Church, the assimilation process into the homogeneous Anglo tradition started slowly. However, the Irish experience varied dramatically from Massachusetts to Rhode Island as eventual political strength in Massachusetts triggered assimilation and influence in Worcester.
In 1831, the Providence to Worcester railroad construction began along with some road infrastructure drawing more and more of the skilled workers form Ireland. At first, the Irish and their Catholicism received strong intolerance from the early Anglicans who had arrived in America to get away from the "popish" hierarchy of the Catholic religion. In 1834, Christ Church, located near St. John's Church on Temple Street was erected for catholic worshippers. However, that building was replaced next door by St. John's, still carrying on a proud and devout tradition.
But by 1850, the Irish population in the Worcester area was 20% of the population, so their political clout became very powerful. Ward 3 in Worcester was almost entirely Irish and enabled social mobility and influence. However, in Rhode Island, the right to vote did not extend to any immigrant or working class population, so that the rise to power and assimilation was much more arduous and vastly slowed up to the mid 20th century. Rhode Island, in fact, was the last state in the nation to allow the vote for the working class.
Rhode Island's Irish history is tied closely to Joseph Bannigan, the sole Catholic out of a list of 200 influential Rhode Island businessmen in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Bannigan emigrated from Ireland after the potato famine and became an apprentice jeweler before eventually owning the fledging but growing Woonsocket Rubber Company. In 1882, Bannigan built a companion rubber mill in Millville, Ma. He was well-loved for his philanthropic efforts in the community and his strong loyalty in the hiring of the Irish. Banigan worked to foster the Irish community, but problems arose in 1885 as tough economic times led to a lowering of the wages for his millworkers.
As the Irish grew in their independence and self-confidence, they became indignant that Bannigan did not consult with them before cutting their wages. This led to a thousand workers walking out in the Millville plant creating the first strike in America on June 18, 1885. The Holy and Noble Order of the Knights of Labor was funded from the New York area, and the labor organizing movement started in the Blackstone Valley with approximately 10,000 strikers demonstrating in Millville.
Strikebreakers were sent in to intimidate the workers, yet about 60 workers lay siege to the boarding house where the strikebreakers were staying and a riot and injuries ensued. Anyone found to support these strikebreakers would be shunned and eventually, Banigan appealed to Father Michael McCabe who appealed to workers to accept Banigan's terms. Workers were aware that many of Banigan's foremen were top church leaders and money flowed easily to the Church from Banigan. However, an agreement was accepted in October 1885 in which Banigan compromised on the pay cut but created a list of regulations which included "must attend church on Sunday or be fired." This last rule created another uproar but the State finally ruled in favor of the workers and the antagonism finally subsided though many mill workers progressed to become more independent construction craftsmen and more influential after this debacle.
Eventually, Joseph Banigan went on to become the President of the US Rubber Company which bought out the Woonsocket Rubber Company. His role in history, though eventually controversial, was a milestone for the Irish worker in Rhode Island.
The Catholic Church has always played an integral role in the life of the Irish. The 1827 Christ Church in Worcester, now demolished but built near the existing 1843 St John's Church on Temple Street, was the first Catholic Church in Massachusetts. The Church has played a very powerful role throughout the history of the Irish, both in Ireland and in America. Most of the Irish immigrants lived in urban areas which reinforced the religion, culture and the social gathering times that were filled with traditional Irish music.
Irish music is still alive and well in the Valley and beyond. Nearly every night in Boston and several nights a week in Providence, an Irish music session is being held. Perhaps the greatest fiddler in the Valley was in the 1920s-30s when Michael Coleman had a huge influence in his new homeland and Ireland. This cross-pollination helped create even further bonds of the Irish cultural heritage within America. The ukulele, the Irish drum, the whistle are all familiar instruments in Irish music whose tradition is still carried on today at the Blackstone River Theatre's Pendragon, a wonderful experience located in the heart of the Blackstone Valley.
The Blackstone Valley Chamber has created a very popular Celtic Festival that is a day long event at the scenic King's Farm in Sutton each July. Other smaller concerts take place throughout the Valley each year to overflowing crowds with plenty of Irish dancing.
The Swedish immigrants faced a much easier assimilation in American life as their skin color and religious background closely aligned with the Yankee values and traditions. In fact, Worcester was the home to the largest percentage, based on city size, of Swedish immigrants to America in the mid 1800s. These workers were highly sought by the wire mill owners, especially Washburn-Moen as the "Southworks" wire mill industry boomed in the Quinsigamond section of the city. The Swedes were known to be hard-working, thrifty, sober and very literate, usually bringing their homeland report cards as documents of high value and pride to their new employers. The relationship to the mill owners and influential Yankees was very welcoming and similar to the values already held firm by the Yankees. No drinking, tobacco or dirty books were allowed although social dancing, sports and concerts and plays were highly fostered by the Swedes.
The Swedes were given precedent over earlier immigrants in working environments (generally wire mills) which often engendered resentment from other immigrant groups. Strangely, no viable Union movement emerged in the Worcester area until after WWII due to the compatibility of the Swedes in their work, religion and political compatibility. It was very peculiar for an industrially based city to be dominated by the Republican party.
One downside of this ease into American life was the loss of some Swedish culture until Swedish men met in Boston to actively work to retain, collect and educate their offspring of the strong Swedish heritage which remains today. But the likenesses of Anglo life has left less distinct influences or the need to create society organization, churches or separate cemeteries though some did evolve. However, Quinsigamond Village, also known as "Little Sweden" did retain a strong Swedish culture with two drug stores, the Anderson and Sundquist meat store, a cooperative grocery store, a Swedish bakery, a florist and other specialty shops.
The Gothic spire of the Lutheran Emmanuel Church still stands proudly in "Little Sweden", but the building is now a community center. This is not the only church attended by Swedes in Worcester though as the First Baptist Church on Belmont Street and the Salem Covenant have their proud Swedish roots. Some Swedes also moved to more rural locations to farm and churches sprouted up in the suburbs, like Holden, too. However, there are still Swedish-American organizations active in the region such as the Swedish National Federation and the Vasa Order of America. The Vasa Order holds its annual Vasa Day at the Scandinavian American Club Park in Shrewsbury, usually in August.
In Rhode Island, the Swedish immigrants had a very different experience - primarily working in the East Providence or Rumford Chemical Works. This plan created baking powder which was exported to Australia, Europe and worldwide. The Swedes influenced the small 1 ounce can for baking powder that had never been utilized previously even though the rising power diminished once a can was opened. This substantially cut down on waste and led to a strong respect for the Swedes and their well-known Swedish bakeries.
The Poles of South Grafton and The Valley
In the coming months, Blackstone Daily will look at the Chinese, German, Portugese populations in the Blackstone River Valley which has influenced and enhanced the unique fabric that exists. There is now a new immigration beginning, too, with engineers from India, Vietnamese, Spanish and other groups starting to find housing in the Valley. But for now, please enjoy a link to Holy Cross's history project uncovering anecdotes and past memories of the fabric of Worcester's past. Welcome and please feel free to add your history, your memories.
The first wave of Greek immigration started when the economy in Greece faced turmoil. Greek sons, as young as fourteen, were sent off to America to work hard, send money back and eventually return to Greece to buy land. Many of the approximately 25,000 young men that came to America annually from 1890-1917 had been raised in rural areas, but most tended to find jobs within urban areas, such as New York, Pawtucket or Worcester.