Since 1850, the East Side has been a destination for immigrants and migrants seeking jobs, homes, and new communities. Three distinct waves of newcomers have arrived here, worked hard, established themselves, built institutions, and had an impact on the development of Saint Paul. They have received little recognition in the history books, in the city’s stories of itself, or in the wider community’s awareness. In too many cases, the pressures of assimilation led groups to lose track of their own histories, as well as to ignore the histories, often interrelated, of other groups. . A central premise of the East Side Freedom Library is that it is difficult for people to work together effectively if they do not know their own or each other’s stories. It is a central goal of the ESFL to research, present, and share – with the active participation of community members – these vital and variegated stories.
In the middle of the 1800s, drawn by jobs in manufacturing, construction, and transportation, immigrants from Ireland, Germany, and Scandinavia settled on Saint Paul’s East Side. They were fleeing poverty, oppression, and political turmoil in their home countries. Pursuing a range of skilled and unskilled work, they built the infrastructure of the new city – bridges, tunnels, roads, railroad track, houses, factories, and warehouses – and they provided much of the labor which ran its industries, its ships, and its railroads. They built cultural, religious, and political organizations. In the post-Civil War era, these immigrants and their children provided the foundation for the U.S. labor movement, which struggled not only for economic security and opportunity but also for the eight hour day, safer workplaces, political citizenship, and social respect. Their efforts not only improved their own lives but also shaped the wider economic and political institutions and structures of our city and our state.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, a new wave of immigrants arrived on the East Side. Many of them came from southern and eastern Europe: Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Romania, Poland, Ukraine, Italy, and Greece. Some also came from the Middle East, particularly Lebanon. They were joined by immigrants from Mexico and newcomers who had not crossed national borders –Mexican Americans from Texas, and African Americans from the U.S. south – who were as much outsiders as those who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean. These women and men shared with each other, and with the earlier immigrants, the experiences of having fled poverty and oppression and the hopes of finding jobs and building new lives in Saint Paul. Like their predecessors, they joined unions and created cultural organizations, struggled to improve their lives, and sought a voice in the political arena.
It was rare for these newcomers to know each others’ stories, and even more unlikely for the children and grandchildren of the initial wave of immigrants to learn the newcomers’ stories. Descendants typically lumped newcomers together as “foreigners,” while the newcomers thought of the descendants of the earlier wave of immigrants as simply “Americans.” They were all responding to the powerful cultural pressures for “Americanization” in the World War I era and the 1920s. Issues such as prohibition, crime, radicalism, and immigration restriction divided communities, including the East Side, while the Ku Klux Klan experienced a rebirth in the urban North.
Despite these challenges, workers from diverse immigrant, ethnic, and racial groups built a lively labor movement in Saint Paul. Starting from the craft unions of skilled workers in the late 19th century, activists reached out to manufacturing and transportation workers in the first three decades of the 20th century. In the 1920s, Saint Paul – with East Siders in the lead – hosted the establishment of the Farmer Labor Party, which became a dominant force in local and state politics into World War II. Even when the Farmer Laborites merged with the Democrats, union activists from the East Side like Joe Karth and Bruce Vento continued to play leadership roles in local, state, and even national politics.
These achievements bear witness to the possibilities inherent in the vital and variegated cultures of the East Side’s working community. The Catholic and later Lutheran churches, large workplaces like Whirlpool, 3M, and Hamm’s Brewery, the labor movement, the public schools, public libraries, and the local political arena were places where, over time, East Siders from different backgrounds came to discover what they had in common and how they could work together.
But they faced a huge challenge. Older immigrant and newcomer groups not only did not learn each others’ stories, but over the generations, many would forget their own histories. These histories were not taught in the schools nor were they reflected in songs, films, or, as time went on, television shows. The larger story of Saint Paul, of Minnesota, and of the United States was also told without any recognition of the specific experiences and stories of immigrants and their descendants, including their involvement in unions and labor politics. Without reaffirmation, immigrant elders would stop telling their stories to their grandchildren, while language fluency would fade, too.
Without these stories, without this knowledge, we cannot know our neighborhood’s actual history, we cannot know each other, we cannot know ourselves. We cannot write our letters.
The East Side has been a center for a third wave of immigrants and transplants to Minnesota in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. In the 1980s, East Side plant closings destabilized working-class residents’ capacities to stay in the neighborhood. Many resented the arrival of people needing cheap housing. The newcomers from Southeast Asia, East Africa, Central America, other Midwestern cities and the American South, fled the same sorts of problems as their East Side predecessors – poverty, political oppression, racism, violence – and they, too, have come to work. They face many of the same challenges, too: unfamiliarity with English, stretched and disorganized family structures, the demands of hard work and the meager rewards of low pay. In recent years, these challenges have been exacerbated by the Great Recession of 2007. The Recession’s collateral damage of lay-offs, wage cuts, temp jobs, and foreclosures continues to make life difficult
The East Side Freedom Library will be dedicated to the project of sharing histories – through generations, despite language barriers, and in support of the diversity of the East Side. Through the ESFL’s collection of books and resources highlighting labor, immigration, and African American history, we will develop programs which will reach learners of all ages. We will encourage elders to tell their own stories, to each other, to young people, to the wider community. We will work with neighborhood residents to create ways – public presentations, exhibits, performances, publications – to tell their own stories. We will work with our Strategic Allies in specific programs to widen this impact. We will work with immigrant organizations, such as the Hmong-American Partnership and the Karen Community of Minnesota, to encourage the collection of immigrant stories and their sharing across generations within these communities as well as with other communities.
The East Side Freedom Library will educate immigrants about the history of the labor movement and the labor movement about the history of immigrants. The repurposed Arlington Hills Branch Library can become the new hub of East Side history – of, by, and for the residents of the East Side.