A Nation of Immigrants: Embracing The Other

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by Charles McGuigan

On a Saturday afternoon in late November, my grandmother stood before a mirror in the kitchen, powdering her face and daubing her lips with cosmetics from Charles of the Ritz. In the corner of the kitchen, near the narrow winding stairs that led to the second floor, my grandfather attacked his shoes violently with a brush, coaxing out a mirror black finish that you could see your reflection in. He helped my grandmother into her coat, slipped on his own black topcoat, and with a straw whisk broom brushed the brim of his grey fedora. The bristles of broom rasped on the felt of the hat as he moved with rapid strokes from the brim to the crown. It was ritualistic dressing reserved for Sundays or the monthly walks into Center City to pay the bills, and, of course, for Saturday afternoon confession. The soles of their shoes clacked evenly on the brick sidewalks as we made our way up Catharine Street to Second and then over to Queen Street. My brother Marty and I dawdled, catching up, lagging behind, until we all stood in front of St. Philip Neri Catholic Church, an imposing structure. Inside, we waited in the pew while my grandparents, one at a time, entered the confessional. The altar and the communion rail were carved of blinding white marble. On the ceiling there was a mural of Mary, Queen of Heaven, in among the clouds and surrounded by cherubs, one of which seemed to be lifting up her blue gown. Haloing Mary’s entire body was a starburst of gold, as if she were the sun itself, a goddess of the day. After my grandparents asked forgiveness, left the tight quarters of the confessional with souls clean as scrubbed slate, my grandfather took my brother and me outside the church where he pointed out large jagged craters carved out of the brick and mortar of an exterior wall. Years later I would learn that this church had become something of a fort to protect Irish Catholics back in the mid-1840s during what would become known as the Nativist Riots.


“On the evening of May 8, 1844 a mob marched toward Saint Augustine’s Catholic Church in Philadelphia,” says Ryan K. Smith, reading the introduction from his book, “Gothic Arches, Latin Crosses”. Ryan is an associate professor of history at VCU, where he’s worked for a dozen years. His specialty is American history and he has a deep understanding of both religious and architectural history. When I had set up the interview a few days before, I had no idea Ryan’s book opened with the Nativist Riots that took place in the city of my birth.

We’re in the conference room at Stir Crazy, and Ryan wants me to listen to what he wrote. “Two days earlier, thousands of anti-Catholic rioters had stormed immigrant neighborhoods in the northern suburb of Kensington, clashing with Irish residents and destroying dozens of homes and shops,” Ryan reads. “A fight at a political meeting had sparked the riots, but ethnic and religious tensions had long been simmering. By the third day of rioting the city’s militia had yet to restore order, and the mob turned its attention to nearby Catholic churches and seminaries. Rumors circulated that these structures housed arms but the buildings also held symbolic importance representing what nativist leaders called ‘the bloody hand of the pope.’ In the afternoon, a crowd set fire to St. Michael’s Catholic Church and prevented interference from area firemen. One reporter observed, as this ‘beautiful gothic structure’ burned ‘the mob continued to shout and when the cross at the peak of the roof fell, they gave three cheers.’ Militia units then scrambled to post defenses around other Catholic targets as rioters left Kensington for St Augustine’s Church, a proud old sanctuary within the city proper. Philadelphia’s mayor hurried to the spot. Speaking from the steps of the large brick church he attempted to calm the hostile crowds and assure them that the building was unarmed. His words had little effect and the masses continued to swell. The city’s troops held a thin line until nightfall when rioters finally overcame them and charged on the structure with a battering ram. Shortly thereafter flames burst from the windows and began climbing to the high belfry. An onlooker watched the flames spread up the church walls to at last reach the cross, a primary symbol of Roman Catholicism at the time, which ‘soon fell in and thousands of throats yelled applause.’”


During the riots, fourteen were killed, fifty injured and scores of homes were burnt to the ground, along with the two churches and the Seminary of the Sisters of Charity. There was a brief lull in the violence, but the nativists had long hated Irish Catholics as a subhuman breed of human beings, and their passionate intensity simply grew over the next couple months.

On July 3, Father John Patrick Dunn of St. Philip Neri Catholic Church was warned in advance of a planned parade by the Native American Party (a nativist political party) on Independence Day. There was no violence during the parade, but the following day, thousands of nativists converged on St. Philip Neri.

Father Dunn and volunteers rallied to protect the church. They had fifty-three muskets, ten pistols, a keg of gunpowder and ammunition. A local company of volunteers and city guards under the leadership of Major General Patterson came to protect the church. Over the next two days, things steadily escalated. The military presence grew, and three cannons were stationed outside the church.

On July 7, nativists returned in full force and brought up two cannons from the wharfs on Delaware Avenue, and fired on the church. And that’s where those craters in the brick walls of the church came from, those scars my grandfather had pointed out to me years ago. Nativists finally gave it up on July 8, but there would be continued assaults on the Irish, and future immigrants, up until the present day. The Nativist Riots at the time were blamed by a Philadelphia grand jury on “a band of lawless” immigrants, which was an outright lie, or, as it might be called today, an “alternative fact”.

“It’s very cyclical isn’t it?” says Ryan Smith. “It seems to get better for a couple decades, only to flare up thereafter. It goes all the way back to the founding of the United States and the second administration under John Adams with the Alien and Sedition Acts. The worry then was the supposed radical French who were fueling the Democratic Republican Party under Jefferson. So the Federalists in Congress passed the Alien Acts which were supposed to prolong the period of time that it would take for an immigrant Frenchman to be able to enroll as a voter.”

Uncanny how history repeats itself, and how we as a nation seem, in the end, to learn nothing from our past mistakes.

The first Charles McGuigan arrived on our shores to begin a new life in Philadelphia just seven years after those Nativist Riots ended. The country of his birth, Ireland, was in the throes of the potato famine, and a forced starvation masterminded by the English. When the famine, forced and otherwise, finally ended, half of the Irish population was gone, most of them starved out of existence. I remember my grandfather relating a story his grandfather had told him about a young Irishwoman from his native County Tyrone found one morning dead on a hillside with her infant son’s mouth clamped to her breast. The mother was emaciated, and her mouth full of grass and red earth. In a last desperate attempt she was trying to eat something, anything, so she could produce enough milk to feed her child. Both died of starvation. So when my great-great grandfather arrived he was fleeing from what amounted to genocide to find a better life in a free land, just as Syrian immigrants are doing today.

Less than ten years after that first Charles McGuigan arrived, he chose to fight in the Civil War that would test the foundation of the Republic itself. He worked at the Diston Saw Mills at the time, and raised a company there to fight against the insurrectionists.  At Gettysburg, his company joined the Irish Brigade, and his son—another Charles McGuigan, just nine years old at the time—joined the brigade as a drummer boy. They marched into battle, and my great-great grandfather was shot in the leg, which gave him a limp until his death. His son, though, was unscathed.

Like all immigrants, my forbears were intensely proud to be Americans, even when this country treated them as if they were unwelcomed visitors, or worse. My ancestors believed in the principals laid down by the Constitution, and would fight and die, if necessary, to defend it. My grandfather joined the Navy in 1917 to fight in the war to end all wars. He was assigned to the USS Zanlin, a Dutch merchant ship, interned, and later converted into a troop ship. She traveled between New York and France, delivering precious human cargo. On a return trip, a third of the way out of France, torpedoes struck the Zanlin’s hull and she began to sink. My grandfather ensured that the entire crew was able to abandon ship. To the bitter end, he operated the winches, lowering lifeboats into the icy North Atlantic. Even the captain deserted the ship before my grandfather jumped into the safety of a lifeboat. He had been the last on board. They drifted for two days and two nights before being picked up. My grandfather was taken to Chelsea Naval Hospital in Boston. His heart was irreparably damaged, and would threaten his health for the rest of his life.

His son, my father, also a Charles McGuigan, was seventeen years old in the closing days of another war that would end all wars. He wanted in and entered the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kingspoint. He was just a kid, not quite eighteen. For three months he did basic training at the academy, and then shipped out for his year at sea aboard the Cedar Mills, a T-2 tanker that shuttled gasoline to Allied forces around the world. His first tour was to Leyte in the Philippines, site of a decisive Allied victory over the Japanese. The ship returned stateside, loaded up, and then steamed for the Mediterranean. After unloading a store of gasoline for the British and Polish Eighth Army in Ancona, Italy, on the Adriatic, the Cedar Mills pulled past her moorings and ploughed for open water. A series of mines, probably detonated from shore by fascist sympathizers (World War II was over by then), ripped through the hull like a can opener, and the “valiant” ship (that was an official designation) went down. My father, a midshipman, was on bow detail, standing high atop the superstructure. The explosion of the mines sent my father twenty feet into the air and he landed on shoulder, striking the steel deck. From that moment onward he was plagued by almost constant pain. He became the youngest seaman in history to ever receive the Mariner’s Medal.

A few years after the sinking, he served in the Navy during the Korean War, and after that worked tirelessly in the nation’s defense, ultimately becoming senior research analyst for undersea warfare for Naval Ordinance Systems Command.  All of these sons and grandsons and great-grandsons of immigrants served their country, loved their country, as did those who first arrived on our soil.

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PBS used to do a beautiful thing at the end of the MacNeil Lehrer Report every Friday evening after the startup of the Iraq War. It went on for a couple years. After the credits, the names of men and women killed in battle that week were scrolled up the screen. And here’s what I often noticed: the vast majority of those names were Hispanic, the names of immigrants, or sons and daughters of immigrants —legal or otherwise—who had laid down their lives for America, their love of country ran so deep.

On about the time of the nativist movement, a national party was formed that embraced anti-immigration ideologies. It was called the Know Nothing Party.

“It grew out of the Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, a secret society thing,” Ryan says. This group, which rose to national prominence, played on American fears of the other, particularly where Catholics were concerned. They contended that Catholics were led by the “pope in Rome”, that they would do his bidding and destroy the Republic—very similar to the asinine rhetoric about Muslims and Sharia law promulgated by the conspiracy theorists and the loons of today’s far right.

“It was fear-mongering,” Ryan says. “They had some governorships, they had some state representatives, they had a few members of Congress, but they never had anything approaching a significant footprint in the federal government.” By the late 1850s the movement fizzled out.

But even after the Civil War, Irish Catholics, many of whom had served, were treated like second-class citizens, and sometimes not quite human.  The odious political cartoonist Thomas Nash—racist and xenophobe of the first order—often portrayed the Irish as bug-eyed monkeys.

“The Irish received the brunt of it all,” says Ryan. “There’s a great study called ‘How the Irish Became White’. At first they weren’t seen as true European, or truly white.”

Which leads us to what may well be the largest immigrant population in America’s history—immigrants who were forced to our shores, were bought and sold to make life easier for the landed gentry, immigrants who were seen as chattel, much like horses or a cows or a dogs.

Ryan Smith invites me to think of an imaginary line inscribed in the sand. “White Americans had drawn a line with every wave of immigrants and said, ‘This is the line that we just cannot cross,’” he says. “’These people are not going to be able to assimilate into our values, into our economy, our families.’ That line was drawn in the sand about a hundred times. And every time we’ve seen that line erode.”

Except in the case of the forced immigrants—black Americans.

“Why is race so persistently a problem in this country?” Ryan asks. “Why hasn’t that line in the sand been erased for black Americans? Because, I think it’s pretty clear that black Americans are treated differently by the criminal justice system, by the jails, by inner city schools, by neighborhoods, by economic opportunities. So generation after generation after generation after generation and, it’s the same thing. They made the supreme sacrifice serving in the military from the Civil War up until the present, founding businesses, getting all kinds of grief along the way and holding families together, and yet the country as a whole doesn’t seem to have gotten over its concerns that somehow black Americans shouldn’t be treated the same as white Americans.”

When I ask him why, Ryan frowns and shakes his head. “Race is something so real that it can define a young kid’s life, and yet so unreal as to make no scientific sense at all,” he says. “It’s a made-up social idea. It’s something I wrestle with in teaching my classes and trying to explain to students that there’s no scientific basis at all for race, and yet it has a very real action in the world in the way we define people.”

Ryan had briefly expected that the election of a black American to the highest office in the land would change all that. “I was hoping, as probably a lot of white Americans were, that President Obama could lead us into a better place on this that could somehow rattle skeptical whites,” he says.  “And I’m a supporter of Obama, and I think he did a great job. But there was no trickle-down effect in seeing black Americans by the majority of white American as being intelligent, capable and hard-working.”

Just consider the lunatic birther theories put forth by the intellectually challenged which American idiots, schools of them, swallowed hook, line and sinker. Ryan shakes his head again. “It’s probably not an accident that the president we get after Obama is this guy who is openly racist about a lot of those issues I talked about,” he says.

Over the past few years I did a number of interviews with my mother (who is now dead. My mother’s father was Martin Cosgrove. He was the son of two Irish immigrants—Catherine Hennessy and Joseph Cosgrove. Like many Irish immigrants of that place and time, Joseph worked longshore on the Delaware River front. One afternoon, as he stood on the dock, guiding a load off the ship, the davit, which the company understood was damaged, gave way and the palette it held fell and crushed my great-grandfather like an insect. This was in the early 1900s and sadly there were no unions and there was no welfare. The company gave my great-grandmother a pittance for her husband’s death, and she was left to fend for herself and six children. She went to work cleaning offices in Center City, twice a day, four miles each way, and she had to walk, she could not afford what they called “car fare”—trolley fare.

“My father told us what they ate every day for breakfast and dinner was oatmeal, not with milk, but with water, and sometimes with lard, if they were very lucky,” my mom told me. “A sandwich was a slice of bread spread with lard or, for a treat, ketchup. It was a very, very grim life.”

My great-grandmother’s children, as soon as they were able, left school so they could go to work and help support the family. “Living was so frugal, so each of the boys contributed money so they could survive,” my mom told me. “They stayed very honest kids, and were very well-educated through books and newspapers.”

Her father would later become a Philadelphia police officer—Marty the cop. In his entire career, walking beats in some of South Philly’s rougher sections, he only drew his gun one time, and then he simply fired a single shot into the air. “Because he thought, ‘If you draw your gun, you’re going to use it, and if you use it, you’re going to kill someone,’” my mother said. “And he didn’t want to kill anyone.”

Marty Cosgrove also understood how susceptible black youths were in a criminal justice system that seemed bound and determined to grind them to a pulp. So if he caught a teenager committing a petty crime, he would take them home to their parents, and not book them at the local precinct. “He always kept the kids out of the system,” my mom recalled.

Every successive wave of immigrants experienced the same kind of unfounded bigotry in this nation of immigrants. “Americans have a fear of the other, of people who don’t look like us,” Ryan Smith said. “There were Greek, Italian, Russian, Jewish, Polish immigrants and many others along the way. And they all had to contend with this fear of the other.”

Both of my grandmothers were of Polish extraction—the Andrzejczyks and the Wisniewskas. They left a Poland that had been devoured by Austria, Hungary, Germany and Russia. The patriarch of the Andrzejczyk clan was always called Dziadzi (Polish for grandfather). I had never met him, but my mom told me he left his home near Suwalki when he was twenty-one years old to escape service in the Russian Army. His father led a resistance movement against the Russians, hid a cache of arms, and was later executed. Dziadi was a smart young man. He was studying for seminary and spoke seven languages—Latin, Hebrew, Russian, Polish, Lithuanian, German and English. When he came to Philly, after having worked on a farm up on Long Island for several years, he had to change his name to Janger, so he could get a job as a machinist in one of the sugar houses that operated along the Delaware River. They wouldn’t hire Poles, but they would hire Germans. So to his employers he was a German.

There are hundreds of stories about those who preceded us filed in the cabinets of memory. My mother used to say: “You stand on the shoulders of everyone who came before you.” That’s true. And as Americans our entire culture rests on the generations of human beings who hailed from every remote corner of the globe and chose to set down roots here.

“Somebody told me a while back that when you get despondent or discouraged about all the badness in the world, all the chaos and war, to look around when you see a tragedy happen and there’s almost always somebody around trying to clean it up, trying to fix it,” says Ryan Smith. “So if you have a car crash, here comes the ambulance or the doctors or the grief counsellors trying to make that situation better. And I think we’re seeing that with the immigration crisis right now. You’ve got a whole other aspect of the population that’s now energized in a way that it hadn’t been before and actively seeking ways to connect with these immigrant communities and to defend them in a way that hasn’t happened before. You have to look for our good angels.”

Ryan ponders our past, as all good historians must. He mulls over the cycles of anti-immigration that have recurred throughout our history. ”We, as a country, have thought that there is no way that X, Y, or Z immigrant group could assimilate to become true-blue Americans and we’ve seen that premise overturned time after time after time,” he says. “There is no reason to think this won’t be the case with Muslim immigrants as well.”

We talk about the creation of sanctuary cities, where leaders are vowing to protect immigrants from Draconian measures that simply destroy families and trounce civil liberties. I mention universities all across the country. I’m talking about real universities that encourage dialogue and critical thinking, and that provide safe harbors, shelters, for the immigrant members of their student bodies.

Ryan Smith nods and smiles. “We’re proud of that at VCU, our diversity, Muslims, Latinos, atheists and so on,” he says. “I went to a college that was almost all white, a place called in Stetson University in Florida. I got a great education, but the kind of discussions we have in my classrooms at VCU that I benefit from are night and day from the discussions that I got to have when I was growing up. I’m envious of the students in my class because they’re getting exposed to ides and backgrounds that will shape them for the rest of their lives.”

Here’s what I believe will always happen. When any one of us witnesses someone being verbally or physically attacked for his or her ethnicity or color or religious beliefs, we will go to their aid and fend off the un-Americans who harass them. The stories of these strangers in a strange land will resonate with us, if we simply maintain the courage to look directly into our own immigrant pasts. To not do so will destroy our country.  For in the end we are not a nation of thugs and bullies, of fear-mongers and haters, of conspiracy theorists and liars. We’re quite the opposite. We are a nation of immigrants, a nation of others. And the stranger among us is always a manifestation of God.


About CharlesM 269 Articles
North of the James, is an award-winning general interest publication with a regional focus that has been serving the region for over 20 years. North of the James presents business profiles, book and restaurant reviews, a calendar of events, and much more

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