16 May 2008

Coming to America: Galveston, Texas

In 1907, American Jewish leaders developed a plan to encourage Eastern European immigrants to leave the northeast's crowded, unhealthy cities for the wide-open spaces of the west. Through 1914, some 8,000-10,000 immigrants responded to the call.

Back in the Old Country, about 100 agents didn't always find it easy to convince immigrants to spend even more time travelling out west by boat or train, and it was even more difficult to get them to give up familiar city life - despite bad living conditions - for strange lands filled with cowboys, native Americans and wild animals.

The Forward's recent story by Jenna Weissman Joseelit on The Galveston Plan termed the experiment a model of creative thinking.

Giving Galveston Its Day in the Sun: The Wonders of America

Of all the current national issues that seem to vex us a lot, immigration is surely at or close to the top of the list. Some Americans extend a welcome hand to those who would like to call the United States their home; others turn their backs on them, and still others talk incessantly about boundaries and fences, driver’s licenses, Social Security and workers’ visas. In each instance, what’s most striking is the constancy of the discussion: Immigration has long been a hotly contested issue. Over the years, for every American who spoke lyrically of the potential that would accrue were the nation to welcome immigration, an equal number warned darkly of its consequences.

But some citizens actually did more than talk about immigration; they did something about it. Way back when, in 1907, a number of American Jewish philanthropists, prompted by the redoubtable Jacob Schiff, sought to ameliorate the lot of would-be immigrants by pointing them in the right direction: away from overcrowded and blighted urban areas and toward the wide-open spaces of the West, whose “nature and uncontaminated atmosphere tend to build up constitutions instead of undermining them.”

Determined to alleviate the congestion characteristic of the Northeast’s “great ghettos” and to minimize, avant la lettre, the possibility of antisemitism, Schiff and his associates attempted to prevail on those traveling to the New World to enter its precincts via Galveston, Texas, rather than land in New York or Philadelphia. And then, once in that “part of the country in which opportunity still knocks at every man’s door,” the new arrivals were encouraged to start afresh by taking a train to and settling in Omaha, Neb., and Kansas City, Mo.; Des Moines, Iowa, and Texarkana, Ark.

Read more here about who was recruited, the warnings they received, and why Galveston declined.

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