Re-Inventing the Wheel: Nebraska's Immigration History

Dr. John Wunder
Dr. John Wunder - Watch Video Clip

Immigration issues in Nebraska seem to have come to light only recently, and sometimes with a startling vehemence. But Nebraska has a 150-year history of immigration, and also a history of difficulty in accepting differences between ethnic groups.

"We have a long history of immigration in Nebraska; every one of us came from somewhere else. Even the American Indians migrated here from somewhere else." said Dr. John Wunder, Professor of History at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. And during the years since then, there have been issues of acceptance.

What about people today who are vocally anti-immigrant? "I would say they are selfish and ignorant of the past," Wunder said softly. "Americans have collective amnesia."

Even at that, Wunder said, America has been more welcoming than other countries. Historically, there have been serious immigration issues in other countries; issues still exist today that are dealt with by violent means.

Nebraska's history paints a picture of immigrants from many European countries who were looking for a better life, knowing it would take hard work and sacrifice. They encountered people from other countries seeking the same thing, but differences in ethnicity, religion, language and culture made it hard to communicate, hard to work together. There were tensions, and sometimes trouble.

But they were building Nebraska, and they persevered.

Nebraska's Early Immigration
One must have a working knowledge of Nebraska's history and growth to understand immigration issues in the state today. "In the 1920s alone, more than 500,000 people moved to Nebraska," Wunder said. Taking into account the population of the state at that time, it was a significant influx of newcomers. By comparison, the population of Nebraska in 1860 was about 30,000; the population in 1920 was around 1,296,000; and the population in 2007, according to U.S. Census, was about 1,775,000.

Nebraska's roots began to grow, in part, because of the settlement of adjacent states. Kansas, for instance, attracted Pietists, who were believers in religious and ethical purity, as well as purity in customs and traditions. Those individuals who preferred more independence from such constraints moved north to Nebraska. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Nebraska is still known for its independent thinkers, manifested by America's only one-house legislature, the Unicameral. A bill establishing the Unicameral system was passed by a vote of Nebraskans in 1934 and the first session began in 1937. This system of government in Nebraska still exists today.

"Assimilation, is really defined as forced cultural change; it requires coercion.

The first federal immigration law was enacted in 1882, but its life was only 10 years, Wunder said. It was revised in 1892, then again in 1902. "It was created because there was distinct anti-Chinese sentiment on the west coast, as so many people came here to work from China. The Chinese were not interested in assimilation; there were also racial overtones. At the same time, Japanese, Filipino and South Asians were also coming in," he said. In 1920, the first all-purpose federal immigration legislation was enacted - the same year that women were given the right to vote. "Assimilation," Wunder said, "is really defined as forced cultural change; it requires coercion." Acculturation, on the other hand, allows a person to choose the characteristics he or she wishes to adopt. Picking and choosing these characteristics is positive in society, Wunder said, because allowing choice is the basis for a more successful society long-term. Various other terms have been used historically and recently, including integration and Americanization. Each term means something different, especially if one is to consider the decade in which it was used.

Nebraskans of the 1850s and 1860s came to the state by steamboat via the Missouri River or by covered wagon from the east. There were push factors and pull factors that influenced the desire to migrate to the United States, and specifically to Nebraska, Wunder said. Push factors pushed people out of their home countries, while pull factor attracted them here. Economic factors pushed them out of their own countries, including the fact that farmland was traditionally passed down to the eldest son, leaving other sons without land to farm and thus no way of making a living. Farmland was cheap in Nebraska, Wunder said, so that was a "pull factor," pulling many people to Nebraska from many European countries at that time. The railroads in Nebraska heavily influenced where people settled, as the railroads carried these people to a town depot, which was the hub in communities served by the railroad.

If a certain area of the state needed railroad workers, recruiters for the railroad would meet ships in New York and bring the immigrants to Nebraska on the train. Immigrants usually arrived in groups of the same ethnicity, so a whole Swedish community, for instance, might settle in a certain area. Germans made up the largest percentage of immigrants, Wunder said, and were "the most harassed people during World War I."

Local anti-German sentiment was so strong about that time in Nebraska, Wunder said, that German immigrants were prohibited from speaking their language on the phone or in schools; town names were changed (New Berlin, for example, became Garland), and the Ku Klux Klan became active as an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic and anti-German anti-black and anti-college-educated organization. More than 50 newspapers were once published in German; today there are none.

Post-WWI Change
A letter written in 1919 to a Mr. Richard Hurd by President Theodore Roosevelt discusses Americanization and what adaptive traits should be expected of immigrants to America. World War I had ended in 1918, and anti-German sentiment was at a high point. His comments detailed some of his expectations of men regarding language, loyalty and assimilation. The date of the letter and the term "man" in its context is historically significant, as women did not have the right to vote until 1920, and blacks were not afforded that privilege until 1965; though blacks were given the right to vote after the Civil War, some states found ways to prevent them from voting.

In fact, that whole post-WWI time period, Wunder said, was a time of change. "Things were not pleasant in America. The economy fluctuated; there was massive urbanization and industrialization; World War One displaced a lot of people because they were either working for the war effort or working in the war, and people had to go to different places," he said. "Africans - post-Civil War -- had moved north to the cities. America was surrounded by change, and it was mysterious. The automobile allowed people to get around. Radio brought great culture changes; people listened to music, started dancing, drinking and smoking," he added.

Gender also became an issue. "There was a gender change in families, which resulted in stress in society. Women had joined the work force during World War One, and they wanted to continue working," Wunder explained. Women had been pushing for the right to vote, and men were concerned. The suffrage and Prohibition issues were closely linked, Wunder said. German and Czech immigrants opposed Prohibition because drinking was part of their culture. Northern Europeans thought Prohibition was a good idea. "It was thought that if women were given the right to vote, they would vote in favor of Prohibition," he said. "Nebraska was one of the later states to approve women's suffrage."

Change was happening so fast it was difficult for people to absorb. In fact, Americans elected two presidents - Warren Harding, then Herbert Hoover - who were not interested in great change. "People wanted someone who did not want change," Wunder said. "Americans were feeling very insecure."

That insecurity, he said, led to a race riot in Omaha in 1919. "One man was killed - lynched, actually. Henry Fonda, who was born in Omaha, and his father were in Omaha at the time, and Henry later wrote that it was the most frightening thing he had ever witnessed," Wunder explained. As bad as it was, the Omaha event paled in comparison to a race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma around that time. "In Tulsa," Wunder said, "mobs destroyed - killed - the entire black community."

Fast-forward to Nebraska today
New technologies have revolutionized Nebraska agriculture; the complex equipment requires skilled workers. Fewer farmers are needed to farm more land. "We have great pride in our homestead past, when people were allowed 160 acres of land to farm. Today, it is more likely to be 1,600 acres," Wunder said. The immigrants are now working on the end product in the meatpacking business instead of the beginning of the product - the planting. Many immigrants are unskilled laborers, and farming now requires skilled laborers.

In cities, the clear evidence of change comes from looking at school data. The composition of the state has changed; five years ago, data from the Lincoln Public Schools' English Language Learner program student body was chiefly Iraqi, followed by students from Kosovo, then from Bosnia. In Lexington, much of the community is Hispanic, but there now is a significant number of workers from Ethiopia and Liberia, and an influx of refugee workers from Burma will soon arrive.

Wunder said it doesn't appear that much attention is paid to matching immigrants to culture, making it more difficult to acculturate new immigrants. "We are notoriously insular; we don't place emphasis on other languages; we are world-deficient."

Many young people have left small communities; you'll find people 50-plus years of age - white - and then large groups of young Hispanics. "You not only have the ethnic difference, but you also have the generational difference, the cultural difference and the religious difference," Wunder said.

How does it manifest itself? "The older folks don't think through things like school bond issues to fund education for immigrant students, but education is the way to make this work," he said. "Anti-tax increase equals anti-immigrant."

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