Thank you for the excellent article by Kevin Diaz on the Webster School (“The American Way?” 5/19).
I’d like to offer a few words in defense of the Americanization Movement, which was not, as “architectural historian” Peter Smith claimed in the piece, a repulsive effort to “indoctrinate” immigrants.
The Americanization Movement of the early 20th century reacted to the millions of immigrants pouring through Ellis Island. It was a broad-based effort founded on the idea that newcomers and natives would have to reach an accord if immigration were to succeed as a social and economic phenomenon. Americanizers believed immigrants needed to become full members of American society, not mere sojourners in it, and that they had responsibilities to their new home. In rough order of priority, these included living by its laws and honoring its traditions, working at jobs, learning English, and earning citizenship.
Americanization demanded much of immigrants, but it was not a one-way street. Natives had to keep their part of the bargain. “From the moment [the immigrant] arrives in America, he needs the creative, aggressive attention of American institutions,” wrote Frances Kellor, a leading Americanizer, in 1916. (Kellor, incidentally, became the first woman to head a state agency when she was appointed in 1910 to lead New York’s Bureau of Industries and Immigrants.) Kellor and other Americanizers created a barrage of classes, lectures, and publications on the English language, naturalization, and American citizenship—just as Naomi Litoff remembers experiencing at the Webster School.
The old-time Americanizers used a variety of private and public institutions as engines of assimilation, including corporations, schools, and naturalization offices. They gave speeches and held parades. Their hope, ultimately, was the immigrant’s full acceptance in and of American society, including the complete assumption of rights and opportunities. As P.P. Claxon, the U.S. commissioner of education, once said of Americanization: “It must depend…on the attractive power and the sweet reasonableness of the thing itself.”
Smith and other 21st-century dullards may regard all this as “xenophobia,” but Americanization stood in stark contrast to the racist theories advanced and popularized by nativists such as Madison Grant and Prescott Hall. To be sure, Americanization did take on some bad features in the ’20s, when the Ku Klux Klan co-opted part of its message and Congress passed new restrictions on immigration. But the movement as a whole did untold good in helping immigrants become Americans.
Today, in a world where public schools often refuse to teach immigrant children English and the U.S. Census Bureau cares primarily about our skin color, we could use more of the Americanizing spirit. As the late Barbara Jordan wrote five years ago, “The United States has united immigrants and their descendants around a commitment to democratic ideals and constitutional principles. People from an extraordinary range of ethnic and religious backgrounds have embraced these ideals. There is a word for this process: Americanization.”
No matter the fate of the Webster School, this history is worth remembering because it holds so many important lessons for our multiracial society in the years to come.