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Getting it wrong on immigration, since 1895

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A guy named Gary Craver, a researcher and genealogist from Centerville, was digging into his local paper’s archives when he came across a piece printed in 1895. He had to share it.

Craver emailed it to a group of people, including one of my readers, Jo Porter. She forwarded it to me.

Turns out, the piece printed in the Oct. 17, 1895 edition of the Centerville Daily Citizen originated in The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette on Saturday, Oct. 12, 1895. I dug into our online archives and found it, printed on page 4. That appears to be the Evening Gazette’s opinion page, topped with the paper’s masthead.

The piece appeared under the headline “ITALIANS NOT WANTED.”

“Iowa coal operators should think twice before they begin the importation of Italians and other such people to work in their mines. After they have thought twice they should decide not to take such steps. Italian miners are not wanted,” the Evening Gazette opined.

“They are not congenial to Iowa. Our people can make no place for them in the commonwealth. They are not in sympathy with our institutions. They are not desirable elements in the population. With others of similar character they have cursed Pennsylvania, Ohio, Nevada and other states,” the Evening Gazette wrote, with no name attached.

Whoever wrote it was just warming up.

“They will not educate,” the piece contends “They have poor conception of our standard of morality. They are not self-governing. Whenever they are to be found in considerable numbers, that locality bears every evidence of blight.

“Life and property is insecure. Local government is unstable. Riots are of frequent occurrence. Murders are matters of every day life. Feuds and conspiracies are born with the babe and grow with the man. The pistol and the stilletto are their arguments.

“They have no habits that our people can copy with benefit. Whatever they teach is a detriment to the community. They will not learn, because knowledge would overthrow their characters and cause them to cease to be the menace they have been whenever colonized in America,” said the Evening Gazette.

Mine owners who would bring in such “rabble” at low wages are not “loyal citizens.”

“If the mines cannot be worked without the aid of such men let them be closed. No business should be operated in Iowa that will not pay wages on which a man can bring up a family of Americans — citizens of whom the best of their countrymen are proud,” the Evening Gazette said.

Now, I’m sure our opinion page has carried astoundingly wrongheaded, cringe-worthy viewpoints countless times over the decades, maybe even last week. That’s the nature of opinions. Circumstances change. History renders verdicts. Society evolves. Old views look really dumb, upon further review.

But this lost diatribe reflects wrongness on a truly epic scale. Even more than a century later, it’s embarrassing to find out we ever ran something like this. It’s hard to imagine an America without the contributions of Italian immigrants.

Fortunately, we’re so much more enlightened now. Right?

Well, try replacing “Italians” with “Mexicans” or maybe “Muslims.” Take out proper punctuation and break complete sentences, scramble the grammar, toss in some insults, mix in a big bucket of braggadocio, scatter a “believe me” here and there and add a promise to build a big, beautiful wall.

You’ve got a Donald Trump presidential campaign speech. And, apparently, you’ve got the makings of a president, in 2016.

I have a feeling the Evening Gazette, circa 1895, would be smitten with Mr. Trump. What do you want? Cannoli trucks on every corner?

We keep getting this wrong. We demonize the latest wave of immigrants as murderers and criminals and dire threats to our society, only to marvel years later at our embarrassing idiocy as subsequent immigrant generations make the country better and stronger.

So many of the arguments Trump makes have been made before, over and over again. We’re so desperate to pin our national problems on an easy scapegoat, the dark other. We cheer demagogues peddling phony patriotism, rarely considering the mistakes our ancestors made before us, buying the same lines. The history is crystal clear, right in front of us, and yet, we’re doomed to repeat it.

Fortunately, the Evening Gazette didn’t get its way.

Italians and other immigrants came to mine coal near Centerville and other Iowa communities anyway, making enormous sacrifices to make their lives better. They scrimped and saved to bring family members to America to join them. According to an essay by the late Iowa historian Dorothy Schwieder, hundreds of Iowa mines employed thousands of immigrants from the 1890s through the 1920s.

Italians and other miners lived in dismal coal camps, consisting of hundreds of cramped houses, more like shacks, with a company store, union hall, tavern and school owned and operated by the mining company. Miners built tight-knit communities where families helped other families in tough times, even raising children when misfortune befell their parents. Italian miners proved their worth, Schwieder wrote, with many rising up the ranks to become foremen and managers.

Turns out they did have habits we could copy, with benefit.

Gary Craver said in an email his grandparents were among Italians who came to find mining work. He said the 1920 census recorded people from 20 different countries living in Centerville. Craver said anti-immigrant sentiment stirred up white supremacist groups, including the Ku Klux Klan, which published a newspaper, “The Southern Iowa American.” Now, they use Twitter.

Contrary to being a detriment, as the Evening Gazette feared, subsequent generations of Craver’s family became schoolteachers, a probation officer and, in Gary Craver’s case, a longtime police dispatcher. Many children of Italian mining immigrants fought and died in World War II. Many descendants still live here in Iowa, he says.

So they found a place in our commonwealth after all. Will we finally learn from their experience and let knowledge, at long last, overthrow our character?

l Comments: (319) 398-8452; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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