Thursday, November 29, 2012

Franco-American Labor Allied Contra The 1920s Klan

“LABOR WILL REFUSE TO ENDORSE SOVIET” screams the headline in a June 19, 1921 article in the New York Times. The paper is reporting on the forty-first annual convention of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), held at Denver, Colorado, June 13- 25 of that year.

“Radical forces,” the Times reports, “are lining up in an effort to put over a resolution calling for the recognition by the United States of the Soviet Government. The Conservative element has a resolution condemning the Trotzky (sic)/Lenin regime but expressing the friendship of American labor with the Russian people. The latter resolution…will undoubtedly be adopted.”

The New York Times reporter also notes that “a warm fight is expected over the resolution introduced by the Berlin (N.H.) Central Labor Union calling for condemnation of the Ku Klux Klan as ‘detrimental to the working people of the country and directly opposed to the Constitution of the United States of America’.”

The Proceedings of the AFL Convention record the complete text of the Berlin Central Labor Union’s resolution (pp 205-6). It is resolution number 71, introduced by delegate James A. Legassie, as follows:

There is no coincidence that this resolution was introduced by a labor organization from Berlin, New Hampshire. A perusal of the 1920 U.S. Federal Census of Berlin, the census year closest to the date of the AFL resolution, reveals a diverse, multicultural mill town.

English and Anglo-Canadian immigrants and Yankees live beside Irish, Italians and other nationalities. There are large numbers of Russians and Yiddish-speaking Russian Jews.

The largest ethnic bloc, however, is the French-Canadians. According to the official history on Berlin’s city web site, 57 percent of the population of the town was of French-Canadian origin in 1930. 

The James A. Legassie who introduced the anti-Klan resolution I believe to be the man in question in the naturalization petition below.

The Census of 1900 (Berlin Ward 2, District 0258) finds a "James Lagassé," machinist, born about 1866 who lives with his wife Emma and two sons Edward and Arthur. Both James and his wife were born in French Canada, the census claims. Everyone listed on this particular page of the census is of French-Canadian origin.

The 1920 and 1930 censuses reveals that James was from New Brunswick and claims that he spoke English before coming to the States. However, the name Legassie, in its various spellings, is a québécois name and in 1900 Legassie and family are living in a wholly Franco-American enclave. 

Legassie introduced the 1921 AFL resolution at the height of the Second Klan’s influence and appeal. The Second Klan aimed its propaganda in the North at Jews, Catholics and ‘foreigners.’ At least one of those attributes describes the vast majority of the population of Berlin in 1921.

It was multicultural Berlin's union that drew attention to the “outrageous crimes” of the Klan and were concerned enough to challenge one of the largest labor groups of the era to take an unambiguous stand against it.

And it took a delegate of French-Canadian origin, from a labor organization of a town with a French-Canadian majority, to resolve that the national Labor movement place itself contra the Invisible Empire.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Cartes mortuaires: Funeral Cards of My Grandmother's Relatives

My grandmother showed me these funeral cards when I was a young boy. They seemed to come from another world, a context that had long-since faded away. They are a remnant of the Maine Franco-American culture as it existed in the early 20th century.

I am sure that many of my fellow Franco-Americans will nod in sympathy and familiarity with these cards, which they may have piled in a box or stuffed in a bottom drawer. 

For me these cartes mortuaires are precious relics. I can remember the reverence with which my grandmother revealed them to me, as if whispering a secret. Seeing them when I was young provided a small spark of inspiration leading me to take an interest in our family's past.

These cards represent my grandmother's maternal relatives all of whom came from what was then called the County of L'Islet, QC, the parish of Saint-Cyrille (also known as Saint-Cyrille-de-Lessard). The handwritten inscriptions on the cards are my Mémère's. She made these inscriptions in English so that her posterity would not forget her forbears.

I offer them without further comment, a moment of silence for our dearly departed.

I. Louis Bernier: uncle and godfather of Ida Lavigueur (Vermette)

II. Clarina Couchon: aunt and godmother of Ida Lavigueur

III. Arthur Bernier: grandfather of Ida Lavigueur

IV. Marie Saint-Pierre: grandmother of Ida Lavigueur

In October 2005 I visited Saint-Cyrille-de-Lessard for the first time and took the following photos. I'm not sure that any of the descendants of our line of the Berniers had returned to their ancestral parish since the times of our ancestors whose lives are commemorated above.

Here is a portion of the small parish of Saint-Cyrille seen from the hill on which sits the Church.

Aiming the camera just to left of the photo above, this picture shows a little of the Saint-Cyrille landscape.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Vermont's Forced Sterilization of French-Canadian "Defectives"

In the tradition of Madison Grant, who believed the Anglo-Saxons to be the master race and whose theories influenced Hitler, was another American, Dr. Charles B. Davenport.

Formerly a professor of evolutionary biology at Harvard, Davenport was appointed Director of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where he founded the Eugenics Record Office in 1910. Davenport was involved in the sterilization of 60,000 Americans deemed “unfit.” He had close ties to the Nazis and his work influenced the Holocaust.1

A kindred spirit was Henry F. Perkins a Professor of Zoology at the University of Vermont (UVM) and Director of the Vermont Eugenics Survey. According to Perkins’s biography on the UVM Eugenics Project web site, Perkins was “Vermont's resident eugenicist and dedicated the second half of his career to preserving the Yankee Protestant stronghold on the identity, the heritage, and the future of Vermont.” 2

On February 20, 1923 Davenport penned a letter to Perkins reading in part as follows:  

Do you know that, in the study of defects found in drafted men Vermont stood at or near the top of the list as having precisely or nearly the highest defect rate for quite a series of defects? This result I ascribed to the French Canadian constituents of the population which, I have other reason for believing, to contain an undue proportion of defectives. I wrote to a friend in St. Johnsbury about this and she made some inquiries and concluded that, indeed, there are a large number of gross physical defects among the French Canadians at that place. 3
Although Davenport’s conclusions were not accepted by Perkins, the letter piqued his curiosity and he took great interest in the French-Canadian element in Vermont and its alleged “defects.”

Perkins’s interests made him a proponent of a eugenics movement that in 1931 led the State of Vermont to pass legislation to forcibly sterilize “‘idiots’, ‘imbeciles’, ‘feeble-minded’ or ‘insane’ persons.” The brunt of these procedures fell on the French-Canadian and Native American (Abenaki) populations. 

This is the conclusion of a presentation on ‘eugenic sterilizations’ in comparative perspective by Lutz Kaelber, Associate Professor of Sociology at UVM, delivered at the 2012 conference of the Social Science History Association. Professor Kaelber found that 253 persons were sterilized under the Vermont legislation most of them in the period between 1931 and 1941.

Citing Nancy Gallagher’s book Breeding Better Vermonters: The Eugenics Project in the Green Mountain State (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1999), Professor Kaelber finds that:

Poor and socially ostracized families were targeted for investigation of the three D’s (delinquency, dependency, and mental defect). These families usually lived ‘outside the accepted moral or social convention of middleclass America’ (Gallagher, p. 37). The three D’s were used to target the poor, the disabled, French-Canadians, and Native Americans. Women were targeted more than men. French-Canadians and Abenakis were seen as a foe and threat to the early colonial settlers of Vermont. They represented ‘an insidious and continuous invasion’ of Vermont and were therefore targeted (Gallagher, p. 45).  Studies done on degenerate family lines were often traced back to French Canadian or Native American ancestry and were used to target these groups (Gallagher, pp. 80-82). 4

Perkins’s work on behalf of “preserving the Yankee Protestant stronghold” included an extensive ethnic study of Burlington, Vermont. In 1932, Perkins was interviewed, giving this assessment of the French-Canadian population:

General Yankee attitude to French is that of humerous (sic) disdain and derision…You cannot believe a thing they tell you...They are a genial, neighborly folk but many have a pretty low I. Q. They came as longshoremen and lumberjacks and since then have graduated to filling stations and are the better mechanics in all our garages as well as doing trucking, etc, etc.

They have a general happy-go-lucky way, are time-servers, spend what they get as they get it and are by no means thrifty. Others, usually of the better class become thriftier, pay their bills promptly, etc.

The farm population of Vermont is pretty sore at the French Canadians because they took the farms from the Yankees which the Yankees couldn't make pay and have made a go of them, living at a lower standard but at the same time have been able to present a fairly good appearance, send their children to school, well-dressed, etc. One of the chief hopes of the VCCL (Vermont Commission on Country Life) was that the French Canadian would be given his proper due, that is, his proper place in society; the Commission felt that he was considered a much lower person on the social scale than he really is and that a greater appreciation of him was necessary because he deserved a higher place socially.

When Dr. Perkins asked Paul Moody of Middlebury College if he had had any students of French Canadian descent who had made a name for themselves in any type of endeavor Mr. Moody immediately said no, and even on consideration said he thought a lot about it and checked up that not one Canadian had risen to a place of responsibility. When asked if they hadn't contributed much to the community of Middlebury itself, Mr. Moody added another vehement no, stating that the whole French Canadian population could be wiped out of Middlebury and no one would miss it.

The inferiority of the French is due a lot to the pressure of his environment. Usually the Frenchman is treated superciliously by the Yankee. The Frenchman begins to feel inferior and he fails because he lacks the characteristics of drive to overcome that handicap. The French are a complacent people; it would be impossible to have a French Mussolini for instance. That kind of drive is lacking.

The French are undoubtedly an oppressed race in eastern Canada. As a people they have a daintiness, a delicacy and liveliness that is not to be found in the older Yankee or Irish. Their poetry has an unusual charm and humor. Many of the traits of the French are superior to that of at least the Irish. They are always more friendly and genial and kindly and make better neighbors than do the Irish. There is of course another class of French who is the voyageur and lumberjack who is roistering and rough and callous but is nevertheless full of song.

Yet with all this appreciation of the French race and of their very fine qualities, Dr. P. admits that socially of course they will never be recognized. There is and probably always will be a wall there. They are nice people -- at a distance. 5

Despite his patronizing fondness for the "dainty," "poetic" French-Canadian people, Perkins admits that the USA has an ethno-racial caste system. Anglo-Saxon Protestants are at the top of the castes and they define the relations of all of the others. French-Canadians, although they “deserved a higher place” in this social caste system, perhaps sandwiched somewhere above the Native American and maybe just north of the Irish, “will never be recognized.”
Dr. Henry F. Perkins:
Franco-Americans: "nice people --
at a distance."

Note, however, that the main objection to the French-Canadians in rural Vermont is that they made viable farms from those the Yankees had abandoned, and fed and clothed their children, “present(ing) a fairly good appearance” thereby. It was jealousy more than mental or physical defect that aroused ire.

These frankly racist views – not to mention the mengelesque mutilations – are not a product of the distant Revolutionary War era, nor of the mutton-chop sideburned Victorian age, but of the days of my parents’ childhood. The people Perkins patronizes are my parents, my grandparents. And if Davenport and his ilk had had their way they might never have become my parents.

The French-Canadians are “undoubtedly an oppressed race in eastern Canada,” says the learned professor and judging from the legacy left by Davenport, Perkins, and the State of Vermont, not only there.

1  Edwin Black, War Against the Weak: Eugenics and America's Campaign to Create a Master Race (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 2003). Cf. esp. 293f

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Franklin Roosevelt’s Plan for Franco-American/French-Canadian Assimilation

The President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, addressed a letter to Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King on May 18, 1942 the bulk of which reads as follows:
When I was a boy in the ‘nineties’, I used to see a good many French Canadians who had rather recently come into the New Bedford area, near the old Delano place, at Fair Haven. They seemed very much out of place in what was still an old New England community. They segregated themselves in the mill towns and had little to do with their neighbors. I can still remember that the old generation shook their heads and used to say, ‘this is a new element which will never be assimilated. We are assimilating the Irish but these Quebec people won't even speak English. Their bodies are here, but their hearts and minds are in Quebec.’

Today, forty or fifty years later, the French-Canadian elements in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are at last becoming a part of the American melting pot. They no longer vote as their churches and their societies tell them to. They are inter-marrying with the original Anglo Saxon stock; they are good, peaceful citizens, and most of them are speaking English in their homes.

At a guess, I should say that in another two generations they will be completely Americanized and will have begun to distribute their stock into the Middle West States, into the Middle states and into the Far West.

All of this leads me to wonder whether, by some sort of planning, Canada and the United States, working toward the same end, cannot do some planning -- perhaps unwritten planning which would not even be a public policy -- by which we can hasten the objective of assimilating the New England French Canadians and Canada's French Canadians into the whole of our respective bodies politic. There are of course, many methods of doing this, which depend on local circumstances. Wider opportunities can perhaps be given to them in other parts of Canada and the U.S.; and at the same time, certain opportunities can probably be given to non French Canadian stock to mingle more greatly with them in their own centers.

In other words, after nearly two hundred years with you and after seventy-five years with us, there would seem to be no good reason for great differentials between the French population elements and the rest of the racial stocks.

It is on the same basis that I am trying to work out post-war plans for the encouragement of the distribution of certain other nationalities in our large congested centers. There ought not to be such a concentration of Italians and of Jews, and even of Germans as we have today in New York City. I have started my National Resources Planning Commission to work on a survey of this kind.*

Roosevelt’s letter blithely assumes that the assimilation of the French-Canadians is a worthwhile objective. There’s not a hint of doubt that cultural homogeneity is good and this assessment applies not only to the French-Canadian element but to others as well.

However, Roosevelt also anticipates resistance to efforts to achieve this end. Why else would he stipulate that his assimilation plan might be “unwritten” and “not even…a public policy”? While his hidden assimilationist policy was in its infancy he had already taken steps to implement it, beginning with a survey.

The President also assumes that Prime Minister Mackenzie King shares his unquestioned objective of assimilating the French-Canadians. Doubtless the Prime Minister was aware of the viewpoint that the 1867 Confederation of Canada asserted a union of deux peuples fondateurs: French and English.

FDR to Canadian Prime Minister:
"We can hasten the objective of assimilating
the New England French Canadians
and Canada's French Canadians."
However one may judge the integrity with which the English-Canadians lived up to this bicultural ideal, even a tacit policy of homogenizing and anglicizing Canada in its entirety would face the resistance of Québec to say the least. Roosevelt had touched the raw nerve of Canadian nationhood. The Prime Minister appears to have sidestepped politely the quagmire into which the President dips his toe.

President Roosevelt seems to have had a measure of diffidence on this score since he avers in an introduction to his remarks that his comments might seem “amateurish” to the Prime Minister.

The crude bluntness of his statement that the French-Canadians have been “two hundred years with you” and “seventy-five years with us” is indeed amateurish since it conflates a purported peuple fondateur of a neighboring country and ally with a poor minority group in New England.

The letter fails to recognize a fundamental difference between Canada and the U.S. While Canada at least struggled with the possibility of a bicultural state, the United States adopted the melting pot theory in which all other nationalities were to be dissolved into a homogeneous solution based on Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. 

President Roosevelt’s letter merely makes explicit, at the highest level of government, what was the tacit or overt American policy of the first half of the 20th century – and perhaps beyond. Immigrants were welcome as cheap labor for farms and factories as long as they eventually intermarried with “the original Anglo-Saxon stock,” spoke English in their homes, and exhibited no pesky linguistic or cultural “differentials.”

*A facsimile of Roosevelt’s typewritten letter appears in Jean-François Lisée, Dans l'oeil de l'aigle: Washington Face Au Québec (Montréal: Boréal, 1990) 454f.

Je remercie Mathieu Gauthier-Pilote pour l'aide bibliographique.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Memory, Culture, and Franco-American Identity

Last month I invited Michigan native James LaForest to be a guest poster on this blog. James has now returned the favor and invited me to contribute to his. Please read my post Memory, Culture, and Franco-American Identity on James’s fine cultural and literary blog Red Cedar (formerly called Daily Returns).

After reading my post, please stick around to peruse James’s thoughtful reflections. He is a sensitive writer with a gentle touch. We’re pleased with our collaboration and hope readers of both blogs will enjoy it as well.

The Cabot Mill Complex, Brunswick, Maine, 1908