Interview: Helen Papanikolas
Helen Papanikolas has spent years researching the experiences of immigrants in the western United States. The author of several books based on hundreds of interviews with immigrants, she contibuted her knowledge of the immigration experience to the production of Joe Hill.
Following is a full transcript of producer Ken Verdoia's interview with Papanikolas:
Q:: The turn of the new century brings the peak of European immigration to the United States. What were they seeking? Is there a commonality to be found there?
A: Opportunity was the main reason. And Americans just don't realize the kind of poverty that the Europeans, particularly the southern Europeans, had to endure.
I have talked with immigrant men, long since dead, who didn't have a pair of shoes until they went to the Army for the compulsory training that every country expected of, usually, 19-year-olds. That's why many young men came here before they were 19. But their countries were ravaged over the centuries with invasions. America has never been invaded. America had these vast lands of alluvial soil, homestead laws, they had so many ways that immigrants could be helped and help themselves. But when this deluge of southern European immigrants came, it was entirely different.
Oh, I must say first that when the Irish came after the -- during the potato famine, they had a very difficult time. They were considered uncouth, illiterate, that they would ruin American life as it was known. But by the time the southern European immigrants came and the Japanese and Middle Easterners, the Irish had elevated themselves. They had gone into the lower middle class. They were foremen in factories, on labor gangs. But the new immigrants who came. . .the new immigrants were those who came at the turn of the century. . .they were illiterate mostly, they were considered uncouth and an added aspect was they were mostly dark-skinned. They were actually not considered white. And on labor gangs, they were segregated. They could not rent in certain areas of towns. There were demonstrations against them.
Mainly, they were -- they came here because there were ethnic labor agents who knew management officials. These labor agents came a little bit earlier, learned a few words of English, and with that enterprising force that so many varied poor people have, they took advantage of their own countrymen and went to managers of railroads, mines and mills, factories and made compacts with them. They would -- the immigrant labor agents would bring over any number of immigrants to fill the industrial needs and, in return, management would give them a cut.
And so these immigrants flocked to the United States knowing that somewhere in the United States, in coffee houses, in lodges, they would find these labor agents who would get them work. However, there was so much graft involved. Poor families in Europe would scrounge to get enough money to pay for their sons' passage to America and then these young men came to America and found the labor agent gone. A depression had set in in 1907 and '8, which was very severe. My father came at that time. And they found also that they were going to be used as strike breakers in many instances. They knew nothing about strike breaking, at least the Greeks didn't.
Now, the northern Italians and the Yugoslavs were seasonal workers. They would go north into the Austro-Hungary empire and work in the fields. And while they were there, they learned about radical labor ideas. On the other hand, the Greeks never left their country for seasonal work and the only union activity was sort of like guilds, the fur workers and the seamen's guilds.
And so these immigrants came and, even though the country was burgeoning with -- especially in the midwest and especially the west -- mines opening, both metal and coal, new railroad lines installed, the change of narrow-gauge rails to standard gauge, mills and smelters, it was amazing how many young immigrant men, mainly unmarried, were in the Intermountain West at that -- of the first decade of this past century -- of this century. And this was very frightening to people to see these dark men, hundreds together -- my father had one gang that was 350 men laying rails. The local populace were afraid that they would somehow be overrun, that -- in old newspapers they always said -- they used the words "the immigrants would take over," the foreigners would take -- take over.
And also, they feared two more things. One, that these new people were anarchists. And, secondly, that they would seduce their daughters. And there are so many instances where murders were committed. The burning of Omaha's Greek Town in 1909 was an example -- Greek Town was well established, two-story and three-story buildings. A young Greek was seen walking down the street with an American woman, and he was -- in the confrontation with the sheriff, the sheriff shot the young man.
The entire South Omaha rose up, they burned Greek Town to the ground, killed a 14-year-old Greek boy, and the Greeks had nowhere to go. They got on freights. They started walking, running anywhere to get away. A big court trial, the Greek vice consul asked the American government -- government to give an explanation of this. And the court trials went on -- and I always thought it was interesting that one of the main points was whether the woman, the young woman who walked down the street with this Greek immigrant was a virgin or not. And 500 people signed an affidavit that she was a virgin. I often wonder how they knew.
And then in Utah, we had two cases too where two young Greeks were almost lynched over involvement with an American girl. One was Jack Dempsey's sister, was -- I shouldn't say involved, but a young Greek man was interested in her. And Jack Dempsey was a famous boxer at the time. Jack Dempsey's brother and this young Greek fought over it and the young Greek killed Jack Dempsey's brother.
And in my home town down in Carbon County, a young Greek gave a young woman a ride in his new yellow Buick and was promptly stopped on the outskirts of -- of Price, taQ:to the jail and a mob formed. They wanted to take him to the hanging tree. There's a tree south of Price called the hanging tree. And only because the Greeks and the Italians banded together with their knives and guns were they able to disband the mob.
And feelings were so -- so very raw over this issue of the immigrants coming in. To the point where the small existing labor unions were not only not interested in the immigrants, they didn't want them at all, would not let them join their union, the AFL for example. And the main reason was because they would work for lower wages. The immigrants had nothing to do with what their wages were. This was all decided by management. And management was like a king. Each manager was like a king, had his own little country.
If the workers didn't obey. . .if they wanted more money, wanted better working conditions, they didn't even, in those early days, they would -- management would not even provide boarding houses. They said it wasn't their responsibility. And that's why so many immigrant women had -- had boarding houses. They raised seven and eight children, did all that washing by hand, cooking three meals a day. But when these young immigrants became interested in union work, they were not interested in -- as being leftists. They were not interested in the left. They were interested in the working class, in what happened to them.
They were working -- let's -- for example on -- in mines. They were working in ice water, their feet in ice water. They were cheated by the company on the weighing machines for the ore they loaded. If they asked for their own weighman, they were rebuffed. The abuses now, as we look back, were so terrible, intolerable, that it's difficult for us to realize how hard it was for people to work those long hours, although there was a law passed in the state legislature for an eight-hour day, it just didn't happen. Employers did exactly what they wanted.
And so the immigrants faced, first of all, this idea that so many old immigrants had, who had grown up with this Protestant individualism, that these new immigrants were coming in and they were going to mongrelize the white race, that their women had to be protected from them, they had to be -- they were possibly anarchists and, as time went on, they weren't called possible anarchists, they were called anarchists.
Their language -- foreign language newspapers were a source of great trouble. People wanted them confiscated on the borders. Whenever there was a labor problem, they were certain that those foreign language newspapers had something to do with it.
I remember in the Carbon County strike of 1933, which is so many years after that initial immigration in the early 1900s, there were two unions involved; one, the old United Mine Workers Union, which was almost demolished in 1922; and then a new union, the National Miners Union, which was a communist union. Well, the people didn't know that at first. Later, they did learn about it. But, as one told -- one miner told me, "We would have joined any union that would have helped us." They were in the Depression. The mines were not working full time, men would have maybe a half day's work. They had so little money to live on, and the first thing, of course -- and management always did this -- if you couldn't pay the exorbitant rent on the company house, the family and what furniture they had was put out on the street.
But the newspapers were sure that these people were taking orders from anarchist powers overseas, from the foreign newspapers, and directly and indirectly from those governments, which was really quite laughable. That Depression year was totally a time of such intense misery that people were just trying to find anything that would help them.
As for the IWW, there were immigrants who joined the IWW. They -- they were not extremists. The AFL didn't want them. None of the trade unions wanted them because the AFL considered itself a -- an aristocracy of labor. They were the carpenters, the joiners, the glaziers, and the people who worked in mines and mills and laid rail, to them, were not important. It wasn't necessary to consider them, they didn't want them into their union.
And the IWW invited everybody. They invited ditch diggers, gandy-dancers, people who worked in the forests in the northwest, African Americans and women. Those last two were so strange to Americans, they couldn't believe it. But, again, the immigrants did what almost everyone does in the Americanization project, they have to find a way to fit into American society. Or else how could they send money back to their parents? How could they send dowry money?
Now, dowries didn't mean anything to Americans. But in the European, Japanese, Asian, Middle Eastern peoples, that is a very important issue. And the men in the family have to provide them. And so these young men were sent by their families to America to work and provide this money. The dowries would be a stigma on a family and on the entire clan if that couldn't be done.
Americans could not understand that. They railed against it in newspapers. The American Legion, after World War One, made such a big issue of it, besides believing that the immigrants were anarchists, they were sending all this money out of the country.
Now, when I first began researching immigrant history, I was concerned about this too, because I grew up in Helper, Carbon County, and I remember the fights on the school yard over such issues, you know. The "American" kids shouting at the "foreign" kids, "Send all of your money back to your countries. Go back where you came from," even though we were born here in America.
But even at this late date, some very old- timers tell me that issue bothered them more than anything, that the money was leaving the country. And it took me a while to realize that it was a symbiotic issue. The immigrants provided the brawn that the industrialization of the country needed and, in turn, the immigrants got money -- not as much as American workers, but to them, who had never had anything, it was wonderful, to help their families with dowries and to -- to pay off the mortgage on their parents' poor land that often provided the money for their coming to America.
It's very complex, very complex, the feelings of the Americans towards the immigrants.