“Quite as Happily as if They Had All Been Born Under One Flag”: The Report on An Experiment Made in Los Angeles in the Summer of 1917 for the Americanization of Foreign-born Women, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s meeting of the Homestead’s Fiction Book Club was to discuss Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, which concerns the amazing movement of Black Americans, 90% of whom were in the South prior to 1910, to other parts of the country, especially northern and eastern cities, so that about half of African-Americans were found in areas outside the Deep South.

For my brief presentation to the group, the Museum’s collection was tapped for some representative artifacts concerning another important development in California with respect to people of color and the “Americanization” efforts undertaken in the period that marked the earliest stages of The Great Migration Wilkerson discussed.

The idea was to provide some perspective on another element of transformation among those people whose lives were often invisible and for whom documentation and historical artifacts can often be difficult to obtain. As Blacks migrated out of the South seeking better economic opportunities and less discrimination and violence against them simply because of the color of their skin, Asians, Latinos, southern and eastern Europeans came to Los Angeles for many of these same reasons, as well as others, including political and religious ones or because revolution, as in México, forced them to seek refuge in America.

Progressive-era thinking regarding these immigrants was increasingly directed, in the first three decades of the 20th century, towards “Americanization,” in which migrants and their families were to embrace elements of American life that would, it was argued, make them productive citizens. The growth of government bureaucracy, concerns about political radicalism and unionization, social science concepts about better planning for perceived social needs and complicated views about race, ethnicity and identity were among the many aspects of the nature of Americanization policies and programs.

Logan Avenue Elementary School is still operating in the Echo Park neighborhood of the Angel City.

Much of the effort was directed by women, usually from the middle and upper classes, including teachers, clubwomen, and church members—sometimes they were all three. One such example was Mary Julia Workman (1871-1964), whose work as a kindergarten teacher, member of women’s organizations and a devotion to the Roman Catholic Church were integral to her role in many charitable and social welfare endeavors, including the Brownson Settlement House, which worked with immigrants on Americanization efforts.

As discussed this morning, while there were many aspects of Americanization programs that are alien to our ways of thinking about working with immigrants today, there were many engaged in the work who were sincere in their work. Workman was not part of the project behind the featured artifact from the Museum’s collection for this post, but she was definitely in the same general field of endeavor as “An Experiment Made in Los Angeles in the Summer of 1917 for the Americanization of Foreign-born Women,” conducted by the State Commission of Immigration and Housing of California.

The president of the commission was Simon J. Lubin, a Sacramento Jew who earned a degree from Harvard University and engaged in social work in Boston and New York City before becoming an executive in his family’s department store in the Golden State’s capital city. He was the commission’s head from its formation in 1912 until 1923. The vice-president was Edward J. Hanna, the archbishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of San Francisco from 1915 to 1935 and president from 1919 to 1935 of the National Catholic Welfare Council, predecessor to the national conference of Catholic bishops.

In addition to secretary Paul Scharrenberg, who had that position with the California Federation of Labor from 1910 to 1936 and had many state and national roles in labor and government commissions, two locals were Dr. James H. McBride of Pasadena, who established Las Encinas Hospital and was active with the California Institute of Technology, while being very concerned with the role of the individual within society, and Mrs. Frank A. Gibson (1855-1930), otherwise Mary K. Simons Gibson. She was born in San Jose in 1855, was educated at the state Normal School for teacher education (now San Jose State University), and came to Los Angeles in 1880 after marrying Francis A. Gibson.

This was in a Southern Pacific Railroad camp, perhaps in the area where Los Angeles State Historic Park is now in what was formerly the company’s mail railyard.

Frank Gibson was founder of what became Title Insurance and Trust Company and was also a cashier at the First National Bank of Los Angeles, though he died young in 1901. Mary Gibson, almost always referred to as Mrs. Frank A. Gibson, was a founder of the Los Angeles Orphans Home in 1880 and remained involved with it for a half-century until her death. She was also deeply interested in woman suffrage, including state campaigns for the vote in 1896 and 1911, and was involved with prominent women’s clubs and the state federation of such organizations.

Other endeavors included service with the Council of International Relations; the History and Landmarks Club (founded by Charles F. Lummis); the League of Nations Nonpartisan Association (which counted Mary Julia Workman as an active member); the Los Angeles County Health and Tuberculosis Association, the Women’s Athletic Club, and the American Indian National Defense Association. As part of her deep involvement with the Immigration and Housing commission, she was chair of the Americanization Committee and helped craft the Home Teacher Act of 1915, which led directly to the experiment summarized in the report covered here.

In its Letter of Transmittal to Governor William D. Stephens, the commission thanked the work of students of the Los Angeles Normal School, the second in the state (after San Jose and where Workman graduated) when it opened in 1882, along with volunteer teachers and club women, as all worked with the state Bureau of Education on the project. The Home Teacher Act empowered school boards to hire qualified and certified home teachers

to work in the homes of the pupils, instructing children and adults in matters relating to school attendance and preparation therefor; also in sanitation, in the English language, in household duties such as purchase, preparation and use of food and of clothing and in the fundamental principles of the American system of government and the rights and duties of citizenship.

The report observed that, prior to the passage of the act, “all adult education had been considered only in the light of its possible reflection upon the welfare of the children,” but it added that, in eastern states, there were women who were “to look after the homes and parents of children who have shown some subnormality in their school life” and who were deemed “defective, delinquent or retarded.”

This school appears to have been at East 7th and Wilson streets where Metropolitan High School is now in the Flower and Arts districts.

The commission members felt that “the problem of immigrant education is distinctly an adult problem,” and, while it was important to understand the effects on children, the education “of the adult, and especially the mother, is to be considered on its own merit rater than as a secondary consideration.” The result was the establishment of home teachers “for the education of all the foreign women in her district, whether their children be above or below the normal line in school.”

Despite two years since the passage of the act, however, education boards did not act sufficiently in the matter of home teacher development and placement, though it was observed that with two Los Angeles schools employing them, including with the assistance at one campus with the Daughters of the American Revolution, “splendid classes have been maintained, that have established standards of work.” The need for more concerted action led to “a special demonstration of the possibilities of the home teacher” and the experiment as conducted “in which the various educational forces of the community have cooperated in a large Americanization program.”

What transpired during the summer of 1917 was that “twenty-one centers with 27 classes for foreign women have been started in places where the work heretofore has been neglected or unsuccessful.” Instruction was from Normal School students still in the program or recently matriculated and supervision was from a teacher at the school “who is an expert on immigrant education and the supervisor of immigrant education in the Los Angeles public night schools.” Funding was from the commission and administered through its Los Angeles office.

Moreover, foreign guests of the Young Women’s Christian Association’s International Institute, established three years later and still in existence, were part of the organization of the courses and the local secretary helped in supervision. The city’s Board of Health chipped in with critiques of lessons concerning the care of babies and general sanitation, while nurses and housing inspectors helped out with the advertisement of courses. The public library provided books as well as “furniture for a house in a locality where no public building was available.” Finally, the Board of Education maintained interest and cooperated by providing materials, while superintendents went to schools “and reported enthusiastically upon them.”

The experiment was such that it was asserted that “the work was distinctly pioneering in a more or less new field and it took extra effort to get the word out to foreign-born women about the program. The idea was that “in each district a woman was chosen who knew the foreigners in that locality” and who “chose a leader among them,” so that the district liaison, community leader and instructors “called on a number of the women, asking them what they would like to do, inviting them for sewing or cooking or gymnasium or whatever seemed to interest them.” A week ahead, the Normal School teachers went into neighborhoods and established contact “with their future pupils.”

As for locations for the sessions, it was reported that,

The classes met in many places. Some were held in the public schools; others in private houses; one met in a settlement; another in the open patio of a railroad camp, and, perhaps most unique of all was a class held in a discarded street car. This car was washed and cleaned every morning by an employee of the company [the Pacific Electric Railway] and run on a siding near the railroad camp.

Also considered important was that the classes be “as informal and as social as possible” with “no set program” established. This was because it was felt that, “for the foreign women, much of whose life is engaged in the drudgery of domestic labor and the care of many children, an academic school has no appeal.” With refreshments and more of a social atmosphere, though, and with the instructors acting more like “genial hostesses than stern pedagogues,” the sessions “take on the nature of a neighborhood recreation.”

Even though the concept was to have something less formalized and casual, “it was not without [a] definite plan on the part of the teachers,” so that, for example, English lessons were prepared so that they were “well adapted to the everyday lives of the women.” Practical instruction in English centered on the names of fruits and vegetables and how to buy at stores through a better comprehension of weights and currency and this “made a good beginning.”

With sewing lessons, there was “ample opportunity . . . for teaching the English words for the materials used,” while “simple facts about hygiene and care of the home” were also provided with words like “baby,” “tub,” “water,” “and “soap,” along with basic sentences including “I have a tub,” “I put my baby in the tub,” “I wash my baby with soap,” and “This keeps my baby well.”

For purposes of group cohesion, instructors met weekly in conferences and it was stated that “each girl came feeling that her class was the most important and her discoveries the most significant of the summer.” Concepts of method, approach and educational elements “were threshed out with much feeling” and there was enthusiasm for demonstrating to supervisors “that things which could not be done had been done well.”

Speaking of “a good beginning,” this first part has, hopefully, well laid out the general history behind the experiment as well as its overall structure and mode of operation. Tomorrow’s second part will delve deeper into the communities that were served, including Mexicans in a Southern Pacific Railroad camp and a colony on the edge of Los Angeles, as well as communities of Russian Jews, Italians, Germans, Austrians, Armenians, “Molokan” Russians and Japanese.

Fortunately, the report includes several great photographs of schools and classes, that streetcar classroom, so these really help to put the document into a more direct human perspective. So, please join us tomorrow as we finish our summary of this very interesting and notable Americanization document from just over a century ago.

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