The following was distributed earlier today as my weekly Substack newsletter on Lowell politics. If you’d like to receive this weekly update by email in the future, sign up here.
In my newsletter of August 27, 2023, I reviewed the Lowell City Council’s discussion of the possible use of the UMass Lowell Inn & Conference Center as emergency housing for migrants. In their comments, several Councilors distinguished the circumstances of today from those that existed in Lowell in the 1980s when thousands of Cambodian refugees arrived in the city. Here is what I wrote about those comments:
“There was some remarkable revisionism about Lowell and the arrival of refugees from Southeast Asia in the 1980s. Rewriting history, a couple of Councilors declared that back then, “housing was plentiful, jobs were abundant, the schools were prepared to receive new non-English speakers, and the city received cooperation and resources from every level of government.”
“That is so contrary to what happened that time and space doesn’t permit me to address it here, but it’s a critically important part of Lowell’s story and, as the misinformation that flowed from Councilors about it makes clear, it’s a story that needs to be better known.”
In response, a reader of the newsletter commented, “I would love if you could do a dedicated post addressing the history of Lowell on its reaction to newcomers to the city. Especially like you said how a fair amount of ‘revisionism’ was taking place at the council meeting.”
With no City Council meeting this week, today seemed like a good opportunity to begin that task with my recollection of what it was like when the Cambodian refugees arrived in Lowell. Since nothing happens in isolation, telling this story requires first writing about what else was going on in Lowell at that time.
It has been said that the Great Depression came early and stayed late in Lowell. During the mid-1970s, for instance, Lowell had the highest unemployment rate in the country. But by the end of the 1970s, things had changed. Many point to the arrival of Lowell National Historical Park in 1978 as a key marker of the city’s turnaround, but it was really the explosive growth of computer-maker Wang Labs that propelled the city’s revival. Massachusetts-based companies like Wang and Digital Equipment made Route 128 “America’s Technology Highway” and allowed this region to compete with Silicon Valley for dominance in the U.S. computer industry.
In 1980, Wang began construction of its new world headquarters on Chelmsford Street in Lowell. Soon, three interconnected 12-story towers totaling 1.2 million square feet of space and costing $60 million made Wang the largest employer in Lowell. (The towers are now called Cross Point.) At the same time, the city was courting hotel developer Arthur Robbins to build a major hotel to anchor the redevelopment of downtown Lowell. When Robbins expressed doubt about the viability of such a hotel, the city overcame his objections by reconfiguring the relevant street network (Hilton Way), building a 1000-space parking garage (Lower Locks), and eliciting a promise from Wang to build its worldwide training center alongside the hotel which would be used to house the Wang trainees. In 1985, the Lowell Hilton (for now the UML Inn & Conference Center) and the Wang Training Center (now Middlesex Community College) opened to rave reviews.
But all was not well in Lowell. Midway through FY86, the city announced a $7 million deficit in the $97 million annual budget. In a special election in January 1986, voters rejected a Proposition 2.5 override which plunged city government into crisis.
To inject much-needed revenue into the city treasury while at the same time reducing the city’s trash disposal costs, City Manager Joe Tully negotiated a deal whereby waste management giant BFI would build a 2500 ton per day “trash to energy” plant atop the city’s landfill on outer Westford Street. Because Lowell’s trash would account for only ten percent of the plant’s capacity, garbage from across the region would be trucked to Lowell where it would be burned – “cleanly” according to plant proponents. The city would get a discount on its own trash disposal costs while also getting a cut of what other communities were paying to burn their trash in Lowell. Although the City Council enthusiastically supported the proposal by an 8 to 1 margin, strong and sustained opposition from the Highlands neighborhood eventually caused the Council to reverse course and reject the plan by an 8 to 1 vote in what the Lowell Sun called “one of the City Council’s most remarkable political turnarounds in memory.”
While the trash-to-energy plan proposal was prominent in 1986 and 1987, Lowell’s political world was more interested in multiple criminal investigations that were swirling around City Hall. A Middlesex County investigation of illegal gambling ensnared one sitting Councilor as the victim of loan sharks and captured on wiretaps others with close ties to City Hall in conversation with organized crime figures about controlling political power in the city. Simultaneously, a broad FBI investigation of possible corruption in land development deals led to the 1988 indictment and conviction of former City Manager Tully.
However, the biggest challenge facing the city may have been the failure of its school system to provide equitable educational opportunities to all of its residents. In 1982, School Superintendent Patrick Mogan (seen by many as “the father of the National Park”) criticized the School Committee for rejecting his plan to integrate Lowell’s schools through the use of district magnet schools. Five years later, School Committee efforts to purchase “portable classrooms” for bilingual education classes made the parents of minority students fear that segregation in the schools would become even more deeply entrenched.
The issue exploded on Saturday, May 16, 1987, with “Lowell students learn bitter lessons”, a Boston Globe expose on the substandard conditions under which minority students were being educated in Lowell. A powerful photo of a third-grade teacher conducting class while she and her four Hispanic students sat on the floor of the hallway of the YMCA provoked outrage. Dozens of parents of Hispanic students who had long pressed the city to make school facilities more equitable were now joined by the U.S. Department of Education which announced that it would file suit against the city of Lowell if the School Committee did not adopt a plan for more permanent and desegregated facilities.
Up until that point, the School Committee had been deadlocked with three members supporting the School Superintendent’s desegregation plan, but four opposing it. In the aftermath of the Globe story, School Committee member George O’Hare switched his vote from No to Yes and a central enrollment plan was adopted. However, when buses rolled in September, there were not enough of them and chaos ensued.
Desegregation opponents exploited the busing chaos in that fall’s City election campaign. Echoing “no forced busing” rhetoric from Boston ten years earlier and vowing to roll back the clock in Lowell to the way things once were, anti-desegregation candidates did well in the election (including defeating O’Hare). The Justice Department filed a motion in the U.S. District Court in Boston for a court ordered federal takeover of the Lowell public schools. However, in January 1988, a slim majority of the just-elected School Committee convinced the judge to give them the opportunity to negotiate a settlement with the Hispanic parents. A settlement was achieved and a “controlled choice” desegregation plan was adopted as a consequence. That plan remains in place today and, as far as I know, is still under the supervision of U.S. District Court which retained jurisdiction over the case.
As a result of the settlement and the desegregation plan, Lowell jumped to the top of the state’s school building assistance program. More than a dozen new schools were constructed with the state paying 90 percent of the cost. Replacing facilities built before the Civil War, these new schools gave Lowell one of the most modern inventories of school buildings in the Commonwealth.
In the midst of this fight over school desegregation, thousands of Cambodian refugees arrived in Lowell. While the parents of Cambodian students did not start the desegregation lawsuit, they joined in the one filed by the Hispanic parents. The sheer volume of Cambodian students – in the spring of 1988, an average of 50 new students were enrolling in the Lowell public schools EACH WEEK – added critical momentum to the cause of desegregation.
With that as background, we now turn to why the Cambodians came to Lowell.
The U.S. military presence in Vietnam began as a trickle of advisors in 1955, peaked in 1969 with 543,000 combat troops, and ended in 1973 with the withdrawal of U.S. ground forces. Two years later, South Vietnam fell and Vietnam united under the Communist regime of the north. In neighboring Cambodia, a civil war between government troops and the Communist Khmer Rouge had been ongoing since 1970. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge prevailed and, over the next four years, waged genocide that killed 1.7 million of the country’s 7.9 million residents. Thousands of survivors fled across the border into Thailand where they were held in refugee camps.
From 1975 to 1980, thousands of Vietnamese and a lesser number of Cambodians were allowed into the United States under a provision of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that granted the U.S. Attorney General authority “for urgent humanitarian reasons” to allow applicants for legal admission to wait within the U.S. until their cases were adjudicated, but this was only a fraction of those who sought admission.
Recognizing that this refugee crisis was the direct result of U.S. involvement in Southeast Asian wars, Congress pushed through the Refugee Act of 1980 which created a permanent procedure for admission to the United States of refugees “of special humanitarian concern” to the U.S. It also created the Office of Refugee Resettlement which took the lead on bringing refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos to the United States.
In settling refugees from Southeast Asia, the primary goal of the Office of Refugee Resettlement was to widely disburse them across the United States to minimize the impact they would have on individual communities. Among the factors considered in choosing destinations, the Refugee Office looked for:
- Existing social service organizations that were willing and able to help.The existing presence of relatives, friends, or others from the refugees’ country of origin.
- Plentiful affordable housing.
- Plentiful entry level jobs that did not require English language skills.
Lowell was one of the initial settlement sites and a relatively small number of refugees – a few thousand, perhaps – were sent to Lowell. They arrived when Wang and other area high tech companies were at their peak, offering plenty of jobs in the electronics manufacturing field. This was the so-called “Massachusetts Miracle” that propelled Governor Michael Dukakis to the Democratic nomination for President in 1988.
Additionally, a small cadre of refugees who had arrived even earlier had already established a Buddhist temple in North Chelmsford and a number of small retail establishments that provided familiar foods and even Khmer language videotape rentals. The state of Massachusetts had a robust social service infrastructure that would assist those unable to work. And while housing in Lowell was neither cheap nor plentiful – the region had entered a condominium construction boom that drove up prices –the Cambodians, like every immigrant group that preceded them, made due with the housing that was available.
While the economy of Massachusetts soared, much of the rest of the country was in a deep recession. For refugees who settled elsewhere, jobs were scarce and familiar religious and cultural amenities were nonexistent. Word quickly spread of the opportunities and benefits offered in Lowell and a “secondary migration” commenced. Here, many thousands of former refugees who had settled elsewhere in the United States packed up and moved to Lowell. It was this secondary migration that gave Lowell the second largest concentration of Cambodians in the United States after Long Beach, California.
Today, Cambodian refugees and their descendants are nearly a quarter of Lowell’s entire population. Without them the city would be a different place. It would be poorer, less populous, less diverse, and less interesting.
How the Cambodians became part of the community and how the community responded to their arrival is now seen as a positive story, but it didn’t have to turn out that way. In 1988, the School Committee settled the desegregation suit by a four to three vote. Switch one vote and the U.S. Justice Department would have taken control of the city’s schools.
On another race-related vote, the same School Committee reached a different outcome, voting on October 26, 1989, to endorse English as the official language of Lowell. Just ten days later in the city election, Lowell voters faced a related referendum that asked the following:
“Shall it be the policy of the people of Lowell that English is the official language of the city of Lowell and that our city government requests: (1) Our Senators and Congressmen to vote for English as our National Language; and (2) Our State Legislatures make English our official state language?”
A staggering 14,875 Lowell voters said YES to this.
Just 5,679 said NO.
Two months later, John Silber, who was running for governor of Massachusetts said that Lowell had become the “Cambodian capital of America” because “Massachusetts was a welfare magnet.” Silber became the Democratic nominee. He lost the governorship to Republican Bill Weld, but Silber beat Weld in Lowell, 15,100 to 12,142.
Today Lowell celebrates its diversity, but too often the flag raisings and festivals embrace a nostalgic view of how each ethnic group was treated when it first arrived. History tells us that those already established here resented the newcomers and tried to keep them out.
Eighteen months ago, WBUR did a feature on racist deed restrictions in Massachusetts. One of those featured involved a property on Fairmount Street in Lowell that contained this provision:
The said premises being deeded under the express agreement and condition that the land shall never be deeded or conveyed to any person born in Ireland.
It is also true that newcomers strain our schools and our safety net and compete for jobs and housing, but in every case through Lowell’s 200 year history, each new group quickly became part of the fabric of the community and made the city a better place.