I want to talk today about the possibility that immigration segregation that began in the 1800s had an impact on Indian and Black populations. I got this idea from working the Cartwright Virginia City history book. Ronald James noted that 30% of Virginia City residents came from other countries. 39% were from California, with the total number in 1860 at 3017. Hispanics were well represented as were people from the East Coast.

The question that rose came with James’s comment that “Most of the Spanish-speaking men were packers, and they apparently lived together, suggesting that Euro-Americans restricted people of their ethnicity and occupation to a designated area.” Is this true, or did people of like languages simply settle together for support and communication?

A study that was completed by Eriksson and Ward noted this: “Immigrants from Western Europe were most segregated during their peak immigration decades in the 1850s and 1860s. For later-sending countries in eastern and southern Europe, segregation peaked at the same time as inflows did around 1910. Segregation for all European sources fell after the immigration quota acts of the 1920s, laws which ended the open-door policy of the US.”

This does sound as though segregation was a natural policy dominated by the first Europeans (British-French-Spanish) who settled here. I have noted, doing work on German immigration for another book, that Germans tended to settle in areas where there were other Germans and where the weather seemed most like what they were used to in the Old World. My Grimm family, for instance, came from a limestone area in Germany and settled in a limestone area here in Wisconsin.

People from Europe self-segregated because they felt at home, at first, with their own kind, speaking their own language. Second generation, however, who learned English were much quicker to leave this segregated neighborhood, Eriksson and Ward found. From 1850 to 1870 the most segregated groups were the Irish in mill towns of the northeast such as Lowell and Fall River, Massachusetts. Later in the 20th century, some of the most highly segregated areas were for Eastern Europeans in the mining counties in western Pennsylvania. Mexicans were also highly segregated in the agricultural and mining counties in the American southwest. 

There was an early, and what seemed to them sensible, decision to segregate Indians and Blacks with each other for the same reason that the immigrants chose to segregate. One reason is you’re more likely to get stores, newspapers and restaurants that cater to your needs.

The problem, then, was of being unable to get out.

We often look down on the segregation of Indians on reservations, and the segregation of blacks into their own neighborhoods, but it’s important to remember that if you were a white second generation who spoke clear English you had a much easier time assimilating into a traditional white neighborhood. As noted in “Civil War and Bloody Peace,” William Powell talked with a young Indian who had gone to school and had excellent English about why he didn’t have a job. “But no one will give an Indian anything to do out here,” was his response after saying he would love to have a job.

This racial competition for jobs and fair wages is nothing new. It is easier to discriminate when they don’t “look like me.” During the Civil War the draft riots in New York City broke out because the Irish were angry at the thought of Blacks taking their jobs at a lower wage. But did they hate other Irish? Unions started after the Civil War to try to stabilize wages and working conditions. One group of people (Whites) preferred not to have another group of people (Blacks) vying for their jobs because it tended to drive the wages down. Instead, Blacks were forced into more menial tasks, and a Jim Crow law kind of slavery kept them there until the 1960s. And should a Black move into a White neighborhood? Whites moved out and property values plummeted, for no better reason than fear of accepting them on common ground. “Why can’t they stay with their own people?”

There was a group of Blacks in the 1870s who pleaded with the government to give them the kind of reservation land that the Indians had. Anything was better the the KKK violence they were enduring. This is our real history. This is what we need to learn.

Segregated immigrant communities still happen. Here’s from a report by Gelatt, Hanson and Koball: “Just like US-born white, black, Hispanic, and Asian residents, immigrants from different world regions sort into neighborhoods across cities in patterns strongly shaped by the racial and ethnic and socioeconomic characteristics of those neighborhoods.”

So even though immigrant segregation seems like something that was equally good for Blacks and Indians, the difference is in wanting the freedom to move out, move up, and take advantage of the American dream, and not being able to. Being held back. Being restricted, because of skin difference. The difference, too, is that the Indian and Black communities are NOT immigrants and never have been. They were kept in segregated communities because the whites were afraid of them.

There’s another demographic to pay attention to: According to Ireland & Scopiilliti Black immigrants also segregate. “Levels of segregation are much higher for black immigrants than for Asian, Hispanic, and white immigrants. In addition, because black immigrants are, on average, of higher socioeconomic status than native-born blacks, such characteristics do not help explain their very high levels of segregation.”

There are case studies online, too, of half-black families who dared to move into white neighborhoods. “When Baptiste-Mombo was seven years old, she and her family moved from Queens, NY, to the suburbs of Jackson Township, NJ. “We left what now I see was our comfort zone — moving from an all-Black neighborhood into an all-white neighborhood,” she says. “And we later came to find out that it was not going to be an easy road for our family.””

For two years I lived in an all-Black apartment building in Madison, because it was all I could afford. When I first moved in, two of the seven apartments were with white college students. When they moved out, one Hispanic family and one Black family moved in. I remember the gal who lived on the first floor below my second story apartment. She asked me to stop putting out birdseed because it encouraged the possums to come to her patio. In another instance she reported of a flood in her bathroom and the fire department was sent to inspect my apartment to see if I had left any water running. I hadn’t. Once I got a plant delivered and it was locked outside the building. The nice fellow across from me brought it to me. I never ever had any package stolen while I lived there, as my son has had from his Green Bay apartments.

I never felt unsafe, not even when the police pounded on my door in the middle of the night, asking me if I’d heard anything suspicious. I hadn’t. They enjoyed seeing my cat run up and down the stairs inside the building.

Eventually I had to move across town because the business I worked at moved and I liked walking to work. That’s when I noticed another difference – the all-Black apartment community had more litter around it. Whether this was the result of having to pay more for rent so the owners kept it neater, or not, I don’t know. At the high rent area, they told me I couldn’t let my cats in the halls because some neighbor was afraid of them. They never bothered anybody. So where would I move again if I had the choice? The all-Black neighborhood.

Yes, segregated communities are still a thing. But are they still in place because of White supremacy? Or because that’s how these cultural and racial groups like it? Again, from Gelatt et al:  “Both Chicago and DC exhibit stark segregation between black and white neighborhoods, with the highest-SES areas primarily made up of white residents and the lowest-SES areas primarily made up of black residents. This dichotomy has changed little over the past two decades. Both cities have also attracted large numbers of immigrants. For the most part, immigrant residents have avoided both the traditionally black, lowest-SES communities and the traditionally white, highest-SES communities, instead settling into the middle-SES neighborhoods.

You can see what’s going on here, and what needs yet to be addressed by this country. Low communities must be upgraded to become more favorable to all if we are ever to achieve perfect equality in this country. This means part of our infrastructure needs to be dedicated to inner cities.

If we get used to having clean neighborhoods, maybe we’ll all take more responsibility for that litter, too.


 James, The Roar and the Silence, 35-36.




 https://www.gpb.org/news/2021/06/17/immigrant-family-navigates-generational-trauma. Read more of her story here.





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