When people move across countries, continents, and oceans, records of their lives can be easily lost and forgotten. In America, the constant pressure to assimilate often works against the preservation of unique stories and cultures. By keeping works that document the lives, living conditions, and politics related to American immigrants we try to remember the diverse histories of the country’s inhabitants. Whether people came to America seeking religious toleration, fleeing violence, or searching for business opportunities, it is the responsibility of archives to preserve and document these experiences. In addition to the positive successes of immigration, it is also important to document the xenophobia and racism that surrounds the topic.
Getting to America has rarely been a simple or easy process. As the papers of Congressman Francis Walter demonstrate, federal laws limited the number of immigrants from specific countries or areas of the world. The passports in the case belong to Erwin Loewy, an engineer who was forced to flee from Nazi Germany. The passports were issued by Czechoslovakia and France, through which the Loewy family passed en route to America. Upon arriving in America, immigrants need to become multilingual and quickly learn English. On display is a language phrasebook designed to help recent immigrants learn the language, particularly tricky words and idioms. Despite the popularity of English in America, many immigrants have worked to maintain their native languages, as seen by the first Bible printed in America in a European language, German.
Many immigrants go beyond learning the language and choose to adopt specifically American customs. The papers of J. Mark Frey show how Bethlehem Steel workers from Eastern European countries were “Americanized” through naturalization classes. This process of educating immigrants has a long history in America, as seen in the 1855 Iowa handbook, which attempts to impart the new state’s history to those looking to move there. Thanks to journalistic works like those of Jacob Riis, we have written and photographic records of the conditions in which immigrants lived upon arriving in America. Academic studies of immigration have been common over the centuries, as evidenced by the 1914 undergraduate thesis on display. Immigration continues to be a hot button issue, with the historical statistics, scholarship, and lived experiences charting how public sentiment and political action have changed over time.