Immigrant Sentiment in the 1890s

Duluth was not immune to the societal hierarchy and anti-immigrant sentiment that prevailed across the United States in the 1890s. (Image: Public Domain)

Many in the “servant class,” who tended to the needs of the wealthy, were Irish Catholic. Anti-Catholic sentiment ran high among Prohibitionist Protestants of the day, who considered the Irish Catholics prone to alcoholism. The fact that (for the most part) the Protestants were wealthy and the Catholics were not, further divided the two groups. This combined religious, ethnic, and social prejudice ran rampant throughout Duluth as people from a variety of cultures who rarely understood or appreciated another’s culture tried to come together as a community. According to historians Richard Hudelson and Carl Ross, groups throughout Duluth—from Northland Country Club to the Kitchi Gammi Club to high school fraternities—“specifically refused to accept Jews, South Slavs, and Italians.”

Anti-immigrant sentiment certainly wasn’t isolated to Duluth. Hudelson and Ross’s Down By the Ore Docks reminds us that throughout the country Americans were divided by their ethnicity and religions: the melting pot was still heating up, and old differences still made a big difference to many, creating a pecking order of classes. At the top were the Yankees, those usually of English and Scottish descent who had been born in the eastern U.S. and were seeking a fortune in the burgeoning “Northwest” as the entire region west of Chicago was called. Next came Protestant British and German immigrants, then the Protestant Scandinavians, Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes. After them came the “godless” socialist Finns (in 1918, a vigilante group tarred, feathered, and hanged Finnish laborer Oli Kinkkonen in Lester Park, reportedly because of his anti-war sentiments). Then came the Catholics in descending order: Poles and Germans, Irish, South Slavs, and Italians. Below the Italians came the Eastern European Jews, mostly Russian. Apparently reformist Jews of Western European descent, like Duluth merchant Bernard Silberstein, were more welcome. African Americans, not yet thirty years free from slavery, pulled up the rear.

People were fractured further within these factions. The history of many of Duluth’s churches and synagogues involve splitting off from an earlier congregation. Even the Northern Italians felt that their southern cousins were an inferior people; southern Italians were not considered Caucasian by many of the day, and the Irish despised them. When the new Sacred Heart Cathedral’s primarily Irish and Polish congregation opened the church’s doors in 1896, they threw a grand celebration, inviting Catholics from all over the city—French, Poles, Germans, Irish, and others—but Catholics of Southern Italian descent were not welcomed. Later the Catholic Poles would split off and open their own parish because of an argument with Bishop James McGolrick, who was Irish, over cemetery locations. At the same time, in neighborhoods like The Glenn and Slabtown, French, Italian, and Norwegian children played together even if, as reported by historian Jacqueline Rocchio Moran, the Norwegian mothers forbade their kids to go into the Italian grocery stores, where the scent of garlic and oil smelled “menacing.”