by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Given the political climate today concerning immigration, it is often instructive to look back at our history to see how the topic, as well as related ones like assimilation, have been treated. Today’s historic artifact from the Homestead’s collection is particularly interesting in this light and is a pamphlet issued on this day in 1920 by the Commission of Immigration and Housing of California, a state agency with headquarters in San Francisco and branch offices in Los Angeles and four other cities in the state.
The commission consisted of five members, including president Simon J. Lubin of Sacramento, a Jewish department store owner who did social work in housing after graduating from Harvard early in the 20th century. An active Republican, Lubin was a member of the National Labor Board as well as being president of the commission from 1912-1923.
Also on the commission were Edward J. Hanna, Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco; Paul Scharrenberg, secretary of the California Federation of Labor and a San Francisco planning commissioner; and two greater Los Angeles members, James H. McBride of Pasadena and Mary S. Gibson (listed as Mrs. Frank A. Gibson) of Los Angeles.
McBride, born to a family of early settlers in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, was a nerve specialist and the founding superintendent of the Milwaukee County Hospital for the Insane and came to greater Los Angeles early in the century to establish the Southern California Sanitarium for Nervous Diseases, which he ran from 1904 to 1918.
Gibson, born Mary Simons in the San Jose area, came to Los Angeles in the late 1870s and married Frank A. Gibson, a prominent lawyer and banker who died in 1902. Mary Gibson was one of the most well-known women in Los Angeles in the first decades of the 20th century being involved in a wide range of activities, including with the American Indian National Defense Association; the Los Angeles County Health and Tuberculosis Association; the Los Angeles County Orphans’ Home; the Women’s Athletic Club; the Friday Morning Club, a powerful women’s club; the State Federation of Women’s Clubs; the History and Landmarks Club; the Council of International Relations; and the League of Nations Non-Partisan Association, among others.
Gibson was in the circle of civic-minded women that included such notables as Caroline Severance and Mary Julia Workman, a great-niece of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman and daughter of Los Angeles mayor and city treasurer William H. Workman. Gibson was also prominently involved in local woman suffrage organizations, which is significant given that next year marks the centennial of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution giving women the right to vote in federal elections. Just prior to her death in 1930 she was honored on the Memorial Roll of the League of Women Voters.
Gibson was also the chair of the Americanization committee of the Commission of Immigration and Housing, on which served from its inception in 1913 to 1923 and pushed for the creation of the first adult education program in California and the passage of the California Home Teacher Act of 1915. This latter bill permitted school districts to provide instruction in the homes of immigrant families concerning public school attendance, sanitation, household management, the learning of English, and the inculcation of the political system and the notion of citizenship.
These issues fell squarely within the growing “Americanization” movement that swept through California during the Progressive era and were reconsidered during and after World War One when strong feelings of patriotism often merged with a growing nationalism and political conservatism. There was, however, a strong racial and ethnic element to the concept, so that, European immigration was not considered as much of an assimilation challenge (though there were views in the past about southern and eastern Europeans being far less able to do so) as with Latinos and, particularly, Asians.
In fact, as World War One put a stop to European migration and Asian immigration restrictions dating back to the early 1880s had their effect, it was the significant growth in Mexican immigration that became the major focus for Americanization efforts in California. Some Americanization advocates did begin to argue that Mexicans were far more likely to become assimilated than Asians, but these were often countered by nativists, growing in number after World War One and especially in the 1920s, who claimed otherwise.
So, the pamphlet discussed how an Americanization project in California could work, stating that the key was community organization in such a way that the plan would be “the basis for planing the future in this state, [and] may serve to point the way for other sates with similar problems.” With the project having started in November 1919 with the commission working with the Board of Education, and the California State University extension department, the idea was the continuation of “the development of a system of adult education in English and citizenship, and the training of Americanization and community workers.”
Community organization meant the “democratic organization of the citizens be neighborhoods” so that they would be in control of improvement in their communities and that developing “social facilities and agencies” would further identify and assist with the needs of these communities.
It was asserted that:
Foreign-born peoples respond generously to an effort for Americanization when their own organizations and individual leaders are enlisted jointly with American-born citizens in the work of community development.
Such development can be pursued in one way only—through neighborhood organizations, necessarily of slow growth, whose members discover their own community wants and devise their own ways of action.
This free development of neighborhood life nevertheless requires some leadership from outside the neighborhood. Community leadership is a new profession as well as a new avocation, and the finding and training of leaders is the first and hardest task in any movement for Americanization or citizenship.
Essential to the neighborhood organization, especially in its younger stages, is the assistance in social serve which may be rendered by coordinated social agencies, public and private. This coordination of social agencies should be brought about within local neighborhoods.
Notably, it was added that participation in these organizations be “irrespective of sex, creed or party,” that social agencies needed to work together to help residents engage in Americanization elements, and that an overarching organization manage such efforts. The idea was that “all persons, rich and poor, in country and city, and of whatever race, will be united toward the upholding of the state and the development of a creative common life.”
One of the many issues with all of this was what constituted “a creative common life,” and who defined this and oversaw its development, if such could be done. White, middle and upper class Californians, largely women formed a crucial core of the organizations that were expected to lead the Americanization effort, even if it was stated that members of immigrant communities were to “devise their own ways of action” after they “discovered” their needs.
When an effort in spring 1919 by the General Federation of Women’s Clubs to lay out a plan for Americanization was criticized for not having the leadership and training of those involved well laid out, this came about at a time when a state law was passed requiring the attendance of citizenship classes by those “persons under twenty-one whose English was below the sixth grade standard.” This too, it was observed, required instructors with special training who were not in readiness when the statute was passed.
So, the first task was the education and training of leadership through extension courses at the University of California for a “Teacher of Americanization” and an “Americanization Institute” launched in Los Angeles and held elsewhere in a total of six sessions. Curriculum was to include such concepts as the teaching of English and citizenship; industrial adjustment and economic cooperation; managing recreation, health, welfare, self-support and self-government programs; and analyses of local entities and the demographics of those locales where the Institutes were to be held.
A State Committee for Americanization was created by proclamation of Governor William D. Stephens and was headed by Lubin and Gibson, with the superintendent of public instruction, president of the state board of education, and the UC extension director and his assistant as members.
The pamphlet discussed the work of the first institute at Los Angeles in November and December 1919, noting that “field work played an important part, and out of this field work the method of community organization began to take form.” Those doing this work observed “the social life of immigrants, the use of leisure time by young and old, economic cooperation . . . [and] the facilities for the improvement of health,” among others. The result was that community organization “for the more general use of the public facilities for health, recreation and study” was considered paramount. These “would altogether outstrip the formal classes” in improving conditions among immigrants.
Subsequent Institutes, held in Fresno, San Francisco, and Oakland, focused heavily on health, education, and Americanization, respectively. A fifth session was underway at Los Angeles at the time of printing and the audience was “practical social workers already in the field” working with two neighborhoods, not identified but one “wholly American” and the other “almost wholly immigrant,” as part of the course.
A section titled “Neighborhood Individuality” stressed that neighborhoods in the cities involved in formal Americanization work expressed the idea that
the choice of initial activities made by the people in the various demonstrations further emphasizes the need that the program of the group shall not be imposed but self-determined, and that for best results such programs shall vary.
Practical considerations concerning the need for an information bureau, night classes, lighted playgrounds for evenings, branch libraries and organizations for women and girls were cited, but, again, depended on the defined needs of the communities in those cities.
The importance of women’s clubs in the Americanization scheme was highlighted in a section covering discussion at the April 1920 conference of the state federation. Speakers at the conclave discussed social education, physical fitness, legislation, savings, and general Americanization and it was stated that “this unique experiment [was] successful as propaganda” as “a fine spirit was developed.” A resolution by the federation called for school districts to budget for elements needed to meet the requirements of the aforementioned citizenship classes law.
With regard to schools, the pamphlet mentioned four developments underway, including more work in the normal schools for teacher education in preparing future instructors for working with “a foreign community;” state workers visiting more frequently those schools “attended largely by children of foreign birth;” having the assistant superintendent of public instruction ask the 300 high school principals in California to report on how Americanization programs were proceeding in their schools; and the creation of a California Association of Americanization Teachers to improve the concept’s application.
In conclusion, the pamphlet stated “how ripe was the hour for the development of community organization is shown by the fact that practically all of the steps above described have taken place within seven months’ time.” The committee was small, but working with public and private agencies in the state resulted in quick improvements. It was added that:
Community organization in our national tradition goes back to the town meeting of colonial days. Today the town meeting must be adapted to the manifold work of the state and of social enterprise other than official, and its appeal must be enriched through the modern technics [sic] of health work, recreation, art, civic discussion and public education for young and old alike. Laboratories of method, and the constant training of leadership, are essential conditions of success. When they are established, an Americanization work which at beginning reaches thousands will quickly grow until millions are reached, and reached with a profound influence.
While work continued in these areas through the following decade, the changing political landscape, shifting budgetary priorities and, then, in the Great Depression years, the economic malaise and deportation of Mexicans and lessening of immigration, altered the Americanization project.
A century later, the issues of immigration, assimilation, community organizing and other aspects continue to be the subject of intense discussion and division of thought. Looking back at this pamphlet is instructive in understanding the evolution of the immigration experience in California.