Public History

History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part I)

Part I

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

**Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

The images are striking: immigrants stuck in limbo, having arrived in the New York but detained and denied entry due to new, stricter immigration regulations. Those affected include men who risked their lives fighting for the United States who now find that they are unwelcome in the country they defended. In one case, a woman from the Middle East arrives in the U.S. to be reunited with her husband, a religious cleric who had come to the country legally more than a year earlier. The woman and their young daughter are taken into custody and then ordered to return home, prompting a frantic legal battle over their future.


Holding area at Ellis Island.

These stories do not describe events that took place in the past week—they describe conditions in 1924, just after Congress passed legislation that dramatically reduced the number of immigrants eligible for entry into the United States. The new law created bottlenecks at American ports, including Ellis Island. Critics of the law were dismayed to note that soldiers who had fought in World War I but later left the country found themselves stranded, uncertain of when they could return. Other opponents complained that the law unfairly targeted certain ethnic groups. Italians, who had made up a large percentage of immigrants to the United States since the early 1900s, saw their numbers slow to a trickle. Religious minorities also suffered under the new law; the family mentioned in the opening paragraph were Jews from Palestine.


On this blog, we try not to overstate the link between past and present. Immigration restrictions in 2017 are not the same as in 1924; America now is very different from America then. Nevertheless, President Trump’s executive order has drawn attention to America’s historic position as a beacon for immigrants, along with its equally long history of trying to exclude “undesirables.” Trump’s critics are right: his executive order is un-American, a betrayal of our core principles. At the same time, it is also quintessentially American, a modern manifestation of the nativist tendencies that have always existed in this country.

Part II of this post explores the fears that immigrants in the 1920s were violent radicals who threatened the American way of life. It will also consider how that history relates to current attitudes, and provide another illustration of how past events can be misconstrued in a modern context.


Van Uden Walks Us through Manchester’s Past

Kristen van Uden and Benedict

Those of you who read the Union Leader might have seen the following article:

Kristen Van Uden ’16 is a History major and Russian Area Studies minor from Manchester, NH. Recently, while working with the Manchester Historic Association (MHA), Van Uden produced a booklet entitled “Manchester Remembers” that maps out a walking tour of 20 sites in the city that are associated with public commemoration. The MHA will be selling the booklet at the Millyard Museum. One Thing after Another had some questions for Kristen who is spending the summer working at the Office of Admission.

Q: One Thing after Another understands that this booklet originated in your public history course at Saint Anselm College, but where did you get the idea for this particular project?

A: Having grown up in Manchester, I had always walked by these historic sites without much background information concerning their significance.  I had always wanted to learn more but was unsure of where to start.  I imagine that many Manchester natives are faced with the same problem.  My project is designed to provide a quick and interesting introduction to these sites, with the ultimate hope of prompting further research.  With so many demands on our time, I knew that not many people would put forth a great deal of effort toward educating themselves about seemingly obscure sites throughout the city.  Therefore, I developed something that can be read in less than an hour that will hopefully give people finding themselves in Manchester a better understanding of their surroundings.

Q: How did you go about finding these historic sites?

A: I started with sites I knew of already, such as the John Stark House and Pulaski Monument.  The Manchester Historic Association then suggested that I focus on monuments.  This is when I really developed my criteria for including sites in the booklet.  I chose to focus on remembrance and commemoration.  The booklet is not designed to give a comprehensive history of Manchester, but rather to highlight those sites or events that citizens have made efforts to preserve and honor. I then researched sites that would fit the theme of commemoration.  The Manchester Historic Association allowed me to use a comprehensive survey of Manchester’s monuments as a starting point.  Much of the important logistical information can be found on the monuments themselves.

Q: Did you have to leave anything off? What was it? Why did you leave it out?

A: I left out many historic buildings that are privately owned or still functioning, such as the Palace Theatre or historic homes.  These structures are certainly interesting and possess historic and cultural importance, but they did not fit the overall theme of public commemoration.  I also did not include historic churches for the same reasons.  However, this would be a great subject for another tour/booklet.

Q: Surely you must have encountered some interesting stories as you did research on all of these sites. Which site had the most interesting story?

A: The Merci Train Boxcar was the most unique item I featured.  I had never known about the story of this distinctive gift from France to the U.S. until I explored it for the project.  I also really liked learning about the monument dedication ceremonies of the first half of the twentieth century. The dedication of Victory Park’s WWI Memorial on Memorial Day in 1929 was quite a celebration, including an entire day of parades and festivities. There was even a flyover by a small plane dropping bouquets of roses.  That fascinating post-WWI culture is not preserved so much in the monument itself, but the patriotic spirit it resembles is present in the monument’s timeless message.

Q: One Thing after Another hates to sound like your parents, but what are your plans after graduation? Do you plan to go into public history at all?

A: I’ve always loved public history as I have experienced it, mostly through living history sites such as Colonial Williamsburg.  It was great to be able to study the many aspects of public history, especially material culture and its connection to archaeology.  I’m not quite sure what my plans are after graduation.  I know I would enjoy a job in public history.  I am definitely planning on attending grad school in Russian Studies if I can afford it!

Professor Salerno and Putting the Public Back in History

Several days ago, Professor Salerno published a short essay entitled “Recasting History: The Public Option” on the web site of The New England Journal of Higher Education:

This piece provides a nice summary of what public history is about, describes what kinds of graduate programs are available in public history, refers to public history on the undergraduate level, and mentions Professor Salerno’s own course in public history. Check it out!