"I Go To America," Reaching For The American Dream
By Miriam B. Medina

Part IV
The Ultimate Test: Struggles, Despair and Triumph

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Welcome to "The American Dream"

These emigrants with only the clothes on their backs, lacking funds to support themselves, were totally unprepared for the difficulty of "Reaching for the American Dream." 

 

The New Immigrant : An Easy Prey For Deception

The newly arrived unlettered immigrants at the landing depot, unable to speak English, as well as ignorant of the ways of their new world , became easy prey for the professional con men. Frauds of all kinds were perpetrated upon these poor "greenhorns." Con men better known as "sharper or swindlers" would wait for the opportune moment, then sweet talk these immigrants in their native tongue, convincing them that they were fellow countrymen who wanted to help them get settled in America. The con artist could get them a job and find them a place to live, he said. This way, he discovered how much money they had. The immigrants would respond to the friendly faces by bearing their souls to the "sharper," confidences that eventually left them to face a life of poverty and extreme hardships.

Canal Street to Fourteenth Street was filled with houses of ill-repute known as brothels, , engendering infections that endangered the health and lives of all classes of people. The young immigrant girls were especially targeted by the houses of ill-repute and dance house keepers, searching for fresh young blood whom they enticed with promises of profitable employment. These often innocent girls would believe the cunning words, their naivete rewarded by their being drugged and forced to lead lives of shame.

The young male immigrants often sought out their countrymen--already labor agents or owners of businesses--hoping that they could get them a factory job, or possibly help them start their own peddler business. For entertainment, the single immigrant would seek the social life of the saloon. Here the young men were often lured into gambling away their money.

 

Tenement Living: New York City 1860-1893

 

Just a stone's throw from the wharves where the immigrants landed were the slums of the Five Points District, a breeding ground for crime and pestilence. Poor immigrants who came to New York City during the mid 1800s into the early 1900s usually lived in the tenement district amid crime, filth and disease. The tenement houses in the lower part of Manhattan and other areas were overcrowded, lacking drainage and sufficient ventilation. Immigrants had to live in damp smelly cellars or attics, or up to six or 10 people, men, woman and children packed into crowded single rooms where "filth for so many years reigned undisturbed and pestilence wiping out hundreds of lives annually." Garbage and slop from the houses were thrown into the streets, left to fester in the scorching sun. Along the streets, one would find in various stages of decomposition dead dogs, cats or rats.

As you entered the overcrowded tenement buildings, you were greeted with a nauseating stench emanating from unwashed bodies, rags, old bottles, stale cooking odors and accumulating garbage heaps in the rooms. Decaying grease adhering to waste-pipes from kitchen sinks added its putrid odor to the foul emanations. These tenement buildings were dangerous firetraps, as well as a breeding place for murderous rodents that would kill babies in their cribs. The poor did not have the luxury of water, especially if they lived on the upper level. Water had to be carted from the fire hydrant in the street and carted upstairs.

Many immigrants themselves would convert their apartments into sweatshops, where amid the unsanitary conditions they would manufacture garments, flowers and cigars. Everyone had to do their share, even the children, who worked long hours. Sometimes these children were forced by their parents to earn their own livelihood. How many great men amassed great wealth from the blood, sweat and tears of these poor immigrants?

Some of the Irish who couldn't find employment lived in dirty shanties that surrounded the dumping places. They would sift through the garbage trying to find something to eat, whether decaying vegetables, bread or even bones. The Italian immigrants would come to the dumps to search for rags. They would bring their food with them, squatting down in the filth to eat their lunch.

 

For a more descriptive view of the hardships and living conditions that these poor immigrants had to live through in order to survive, please visit the Photo Gallery of Early New York City Tenement Life in the NYC Main Directory at thehistorybox.com.

 


Dark Moments in American History

 

Often stereotyped and discriminated against, many immigrants suffered verbal and physical abuse because they were "different." Several of these numerous incidents can be found on the Immigration Page  in the NYC Main Directory of thehistorybox.com.

 

Americans in Uproar To Restrict Immigration 1895
 

Americans urged Congress to pass a measure providing that American consuls in foreign ports would examine all emigrants. Only those with a clean bill of health and a certificate of good character would be permitted to land on these shores. "The great danger
from such immigration has in it two aspects at least which are alarming. The first is that while it is steadily increasing in quantity it is also degenerating in quality until our fair and noble land has become the natural cesspool for the reception of the scum and sewerage of all Europe.

 

 The danger is that our American customs will be supplanted by foreign ideas and that our institutions will be overshadowed and finally overthrown. Look at the immigrants that besiege our shores today. We are crowded with Italians, Poles, Russians, Slavaks, Bohemians and mixed races of the Austrian provinces-people who have the smallest possible, if any, affinity to the people of America, and who do not assimilate and will not take up Americanism, and will not pull in with American institutions and be woven into the texture of American life. We shall find the thousands who are coming here will soon be great enough to eat us, and we'll become foreigners and not foreigners become Americans." (20)

 

Discriminatory Lawmaking and Restrictions on Immigrants

As a result of the protests made by the American people, changes were made by the national government to immigration laws, changes that discriminated against specific ethnic groups. New immigration laws were also established during the period of 1850s-1950s. . Some of these laws and isolated cases can be explored on the Immigration Page in the NYC Main Directory of thehistorybox.com.

 

The Holocaust, arguably the worst disaster to hit Western civilization in the 20th century, is amply covered by available literature and will not be explored in depth here.

For a very brief overview, please visit the Immigration Page  in the NYC Main Directory of the historybox.com.

 

The Immigrant's Ultimate Test

America faced one of its greatest tests of mass accommodation and tolerance with the immigration wave of the 1840s and 1850s, the Irish and Germans the largest ethnic groups represented.

A) The Irish

The Irish people relied heavily on potatoes for their diet and their economy. When disease ruined their crops, they had nothing else to rely on, and the most attractive option was for them to emigrate to America. These Irish refugees faced incredible hardships during the early 1800s. Because the price of the passage would cost anywhere from $12.50 to $25.00 a head, those who were penniless had to borrow the money from whoever would pay for their transportation. Such poor people started the journey in bad physical condition, worsened by their treatment during their voyage. One ship, for instance, registered more than 200 who died from disease and starvation during the long and perilous trip.

Numerous Irish refugees came to the United States as indentured servants. Once in the United States, they had to look for work, leading them to labor several years to pay off their debt to the lender (the loan shark), before they could be free of this obligation. These Irish immigrants were forced to accept low-paying jobs and live in deplorable conditions, such as lean to shanties and cellars of dilapidated unsanitary buildings in the slum areas (21).

The potato famine of the 1840s sent a steady stream of Irish immigrants to the U.S., most of whom didn't have money to buy land out west. These immigrants settled in the city of New York, which was the chief port of entry. The unskilled and unlettered Irishmen, pushing aside the American Negroes, their chief competitors in the labor market, went to work on construction gangs, finding jobs building the Erie Canal, which "employed 3000 Irish in 1818, as well as laying railroad tracks."

Everywhere they went in response to the want ads, the anti-Irish sentiment loomed. Employers posted signs, "No Irish Need Apply" which eventually disappeared over the years as new ethnic groups immigrated to America and were targeted by the anti-immigrant sentiment. New prejudice substituted for old prejudice. But through their persistence, the Irish refugees would find employment in the mills and factories that were along the waterways. "The 363 mile long Erie Canal was built from 1817 to 1825 at a cost of $7 million. The digging was largely done by Irish immigrants, attracted to the backbreaking labor by wages of $8 to $12 a month or 50 cents a day." (22) Many times their wages as low as 50 cents a day. The Irish immigrants who worked on the canal would usually remain, establishing an Irish presence in that area.

Between 1820 and 1920 more than 5,000,000 Irish immigrants reached American shores. In 1860 alone more than 46,000 Irish immigrants went to Boston to work in the copper and brass foundries, locomotive works and factories.

"Thousands of Irish immigrants settled in New York City to work as teamsters, day laborers, streetcar conductors, and shipyard mechanics. Others pushed up the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys to the brick kilns at Haverstraw, the iron works and quarries at Saugerties, and the mills and factories in Albany, Troy, and Utica. The Irish have made the political field largely their own; they have played a conspicuous part in civil and commercial life. The Irish, with their genius for politics, have, since the succession of Irish governors-Dongan, Bellomont, Cornbury, Cosby-in Colonial days, played an active part in the evolution of our particular brand of democracy." (9)

Though many were ridiculed and discriminated against because of their Catholic religion, the Irish learned to laugh and joke even amid the most painful circumstances of their lives. The Irish -Americans, often despised, heroically fought in many of our wars, always moving forward in this country, undaunted by poverty, illiteracy and severe hardships, gaining respect and admiration from the American people, climbing the political ladder. John F. Kennedy was the first Irish Catholic president that the United States ever had.

 

(Continue on Page 2 For the Completion of Part IV)

 

 

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