Immigration often appears in the news as a headline or in a stump speech from a prospective political candidate.
Chautauqua Institution archivist and historian Jon Schmitz said immigration in the United States has a deep and textured story, one in which Chautauqua has woven its own vignette.
Schmitz will relate that history at 3:30 p.m. today in the Hall of Christ. His talk, titled “Chautauqua and Immigration and the 1923 Citizenship Pageant filmed at Chautauqua,” is part of the Oliver Archives Heritage Lecture Series.
Included in this presentation is a 1923 film of the citizenship pageant, a rare item, Schmitz said, as it includes footage of a complete pageant, a medium of entertainment and education very popular in the late 19th century.
Immigration is relatively new and, the way it is seen today, is uniquely American.
“Before American independence, the issue of immigration did not involve the question of citizenship,” Schmitz said. “Naturalization is really an American invention.”
Previously, Schmitz said, a person could not simply choose to stop being the subject of a particular sovereign or citizen of a state.
“One might reside outside of one’s own country, and one might have a certain status guaranteed in that country, but one remained what one was,” he said.
A lot of immigrants entered the U.S. in the 19th century, and by the early 20th century many officials and citizens thought immigration was having a detrimental influence on American culture. In 1907, the Dillingham Commission was formed; in 1917 a literacy test was implemented; by the 1920s people feared immigration had eroded America’s moral fiber. Some responses to this fear were not so pretty, as pictured in G.W. Griffith’s film, “Birth of a Nation” and in a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan.
The response at Chautauqua tended to be more diplomatic.
“Chautauquans seemed most interested in using education and Americanization to address the problem,” Schmitz said.
And one of the leaders in this direction was Anna Pennybacker, president of the Chautauqua Women’s Club and past president of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs.
Also known as Mrs. Percy V. Pennybacker, she is most often referred to as Mrs. Pennybacker. Schmitz said Pennybacker was a remarkable woman, an active member of the Democratic Party, personal friend of Eleanor Roosevelt and, in 1920, appointed chair of the General Federation’s Department of American Citizenship.
Pennybacker shared concern regarding immigration, but she was “at heart an internationalist and could not accept the severe isolationism suggested by many of the nativists,” Schmitz said.
In 1920, along with Arthur Bestor, president of the Institution, she began organizing citizenship schools as part of the summer Chautauqua program. Among other things, the citizenship schools helped produce the movie to be screened today, Schmitz said.
In spite of efforts to educate America and Americanize immigrants, limits were imposed in 1929 that would restrict immigration severely. It would not be until the 1980s that relaxed standards would bring immigration figures to levels seen at the beginning of the century.
“We may now be more concerned with the presence of illegal immigrants, as opposed to quotas or national restrictions,” Schmitz said. “We may be more concerned about entitlements than qualifications, but the old question is still there — Who should be here? What is a good American? What is an American at all?”