The Americanization movement greeted immigrants between 1895 and 1924. Few people nowadays know about the Americanization movement, but it swept the nation at a level comparable to that of abolition movement, prohibition, women’s suffrage and the Great Awakenings. In 1918 two branches of the Federal government ran Americanization programs. One had over 100 employees, surveyed the activities of 50,000 local organizations working with foreign populations, and coordinated tactics with at least 15,000. Industries and Presidents participated in this effort. The Americanization movement provides a traditional culturist model we should all know about.
Frances Kellor led the Americanization movement through all of its phases. Raised by a single mother, she suffered from poverty in the small boom town of Coldwater Michigan. After dropping out of school to help her mother as a laundress, she accidentally shot herself in the hand. Two wealthy sisters adopted her and the rest, as they say, is history. She started writing for the local paper, attending debates in the church, studied and ended up the third female lawyer to graduate from Cornell. In her long career she wrote voluminously, headed countless organizations and took a lead role in Teddy Roosevelt and Charles Evans Hughes’ presidential campaigns. Her rags to riches story made her the perfect person to lead the movement.
Kellor tried to Americanize Americans and immigrants alike. Rather than blame immigrants for their poverty, she scolded Americans for not providing opportunities. To this end, she pushed for better housing and work conditions and nearly started our system of Adult Education. Americans that insulted immigrants divided us. Employers that exploited their workers created anti-American radicals. The rash of strikes, domestic terrorism and Russian revolution convinced her that employers needed to give a fair shake to immigrant employees. From immigrants she expected love of America manifest in attempts to learn English, pass naturalization exams and generally celebrate their new nation. She pushed American mores, values and standards of cleanliness. America had to provide opportunities and immigrants had to accept them. Thus Kellor utilized both progressive and nationalist tactics in the pursuit of unity.
Upon hearing of the Americanization movement today, many people cringe. Multiculturalists recoil at the idea of coordinating any attitudes favorable towards our nation and culture. The multiculturalists might be shocked to know that immigrants themselves designed much of the Americanization movement’s content. When Kellor started working on Americanization, she lived in New York’s immigrant filled Lower East Side. There immigrant organizations such as the Educational Alliance had used the term “Americanization” and pushed for it as early as 1895. Immigrants pressured their school boards to keep teachers with accents out of the classrooms. They set up English classes for adults and held popular lecture series on American history. Many immigrants, believe it or not, loved America and wanted to do all they could to become “real Americans.” As one who had done it, Kellor intimately understood that providing the opportunity to escape poverty endeared people to our nation.
Culturists might be surprised by the amount of multiculturalism this movement employed. One of the biggest events put on by the Americanization movement was “Americanization Day.” Every Fourth of July, parades Americans came out to celebrate the new immigrants who had passed their nationalization tests. In 1918, 70,000 immigrants marched in New York to show their pride in their adopted country. And though many American flags flew, the participants wore the garbs and presented the gifts of their home countries. The motto of Kellor’s organization that sponsored the event read, “Many Peoples, One Nation.” Kellor consistently fought against restricting immigration. As a nationalist lesbian progressive culturist, she never failed to battle regressive forces in any culture. But she did not equate being a good American with uniformity.
Academics today hold the Americanization in low regard. Many would note that during World War One Kellor’s group changed its motto to “America First.” They ran programs to show immigrants how Americans lived and dressed and promoted a very positive image of America. One wonders if these academics would have us ignore culture and promote a negative attitude towards our nation. Culturists, on the other hand, might think Kellor too accepting of immigrant cultures. Both might scoff at her lending support to German immigrants who the War Department made leave coastal areas during World War One. But from Kellor’s perspective, this policy both prevented resentment and fostered security. No one need blindly adopt the Americanization movement’s tactics, but knowing about our culturist predecessors can give all of us a more nuanced understanding of our traditions and our policy options.
John Press is the author of Culturism: A Word, A Value, Our Future. He is a an adjunct professor and doctoral student at New York University. http://www.culturism.us has more information about culturism.