In 1848, eighteen-year-old Carl Schwarz set out from Pomerania, Germany. He and his family crossed the Atlantic, settling in Lebanon, Wisconsin. They purchased 40 acres of land and built the house that eventually 5 generations of Carl’s family would inhabit. He and his family spoke German at home and in their community, attending a German Lutheran church and interacting with their German-speaking neighbors. Carl farmed the land with his father and his sons. He had 16 children and 71 grandchildren, many of whom continued to speak German at home until the 1940s, 90 years after Carl arrived in America. He died at the age of 92 in the house he built with his own hands.
In 1849, fourteen-year-old Patrick Burke departed alone from Gort, Ireland, most likely fleeing the famine that was causing starvation in his homeland. Family rumor has it that he stowed away on a ship. It took him six weeks to cross the Atlantic and eventually he settled in Watertown, Wisconsin, where he and three generations of his family farmed. Patrick had 8 children and 13 grandchildren. He died at the age of 78 after starting a new family in a new country, knowing no one when he arrived here.
Irish immigrants came to America in large numbers throughout the 19th century, especially in the 1840s and 1850s due to the Great Famine in Ireland, a crisis created by the English rulers’ neglect of the Irish population. Irish migrants and refugees came to America hoping to find the possibility of survival. Still, they were greeted by enormous anti-Irish sentiment. The Know Nothing political party gained huge traction, electing congressmen and governors across the country. Reacting to increasing immigration, they “supported deportation of foreign beggars and criminals; a 21-year naturalization period for immigrants; mandatory Bible reading in schools; and the elimination of all Catholics from public office.” Their members and supporters engaged in numerous attacks on Irish immigrants in many cities.
German immigrants came as well, many spurred by the desire to find greater religious or political freedom than they could in their homeland. Most of those who settled near the small community of Lebanon, Wisconsin were farmers. Due to the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, their children born after 1868 were born as citizens. Still, these children and even their children, all citizens from birth, spoke German at home, in their schools, in their businesses, and at church. The English-speakers who lived and wanted to do business in the area most often had to learn German. The German-speakers didn’t give much thought to speaking in English, as it wasn’t necessary. In larger cities, English-speakers pushed back against the use of German in the late 19th century, which began the process of marginalizing the German language and culture.
In the 20th century, the descendents of many German immigrants continued to be viewed with suspicion, and this was exacerbated when Germany and the US entered World War I on opposite sides. The US Department of Justice supported and empowered a private group called the American Protective League. This group existed “to make prompt and reliable report of all disloyal or enemy activities” and “to make prompt and thorough investigation of all matters.” They had numerous branches in Midwestern states where people of German heritage were most numerous, and especially focused their efforts on monitoring speech and activity in the Lutheran church, the denomination most strongly connected with German immigrants.
These are some of the conditions Carl and Patrick faced when they arrived in their adopted nation. They were my great-great-grandfathers. They were immigrants to this nation, and came here for what they saw as opportunities that were not available to them in their native lands. They did what they felt was necessary for themselves and for their families, and I am here today because of their choices and sacrifices. I am sure that if they could have stayed in their homelands and supported their families, they would have done so. Instead, they felt they had to take a chance on coming to the United States. Although I don’t know all the details of how the systems I explored here affected each of them, I know that Carl, Patrick, and their families lived within a system that regarded them, to a degree, as “others”.
Over time, their descendents gave up the language and customs that marked them as different, and the light color of their skin allowed them to be subsumed into the category of “white”. Millions of Americans have shared this experience. But now, we whose families have undergone this transformation seek to impose these same discriminatory views and worse onto others. Now, we white people look down on refugees, wondering how we can stop them from coming here to take what belongs to us. We wonder why Mexicans come here and refuse to learn the language, refuse to assimilate. We fear Muslims and wonder if they are here to impose Sharia law on us.
My ancestors were refugees, they were criticized for not learning English, they were viewed as foreigners and possible enemy agents. That does not mean that I can understand the experiences of people of color today. Once my ancestors claimed whiteness, and whiteness claimed them, they ceased to be afflicted by the disease of discrimination. But I recognize my responsibility to support the struggle of those people enduring racist violence today. I stand with the refugee, with the immigrant, with the newcomer. And I stand with those who endured so much more, African-Americans whose ancestors were brought here against their will, who continue to experience ongoing racial violence, and who yet have triumphed over all.
Carl and Patrick were viewed as foreign to America. They also likely held deeply racist beliefs; most European immigrants of their time did. I and all white people continue to hold some of those beliefs today. But can I use what I learn about my ancestors’ experiences to inform my own antiracism? Can I try to gain some sense of empathy through this history? As a white man, I can not pretend to understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of discrimination endorsed by society and aided by the government. But perhaps in some small way, in reconnecting to my own family, to my own history, to the land my ancestors farmed and the hopes they nurtured, I reconnect to a source of collective power that can nourish and change me, so that I can be someone different in the struggle we face.
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