Lowell politics newsletter: July 7, 2024

With no City Council meeting last week, today we’ll take another excursion into a part of Lowell political history that intersects with several contemporary issues. In May the City Council held a vigorous debate on whether to unwind the judicial consent decree from the 1980s that still governs the assignment of students in the Lowell Public Schools and last month the Planning Board had a heated discussion on whether to make mention of the city’s segregated housing patterns in the forthcoming Lowell Master Plan.

To provide some historical context for both of those issues, I gave some background on the school desegregation lawsuit in one newsletter and then in another wrote about a 1936 analysis of Lowell housing that brought us “red lining” which many identify as a major factor in today’s housing segregation.

Today, I’ll open the lens even wider and look at Lowell’s demographics as measured by the US Census over the past 180 years. Although the questions asked in the census varied over time – the 1930 census asked how many radios were owned by the household, for instance – the census has consistently asked about race and often about ethnicity. By looking at those numbers for Lowell over time, we can see how the city evolved to the place it is today.

1840: White residents – 20,742; Black residents – 54

1850: White – 33,328; Black – 55

1860: unavailable

1870: White – 40,815; Black – 111; Native-born – 26,493; foreign-born – 14,435

1880: White – 59,292; Black – 177; Native-born – 36,421; Foreign-born – 23,054

1890: White – 77,390; Black – 306; Native-born – 43,095; Foreign-born – 34,601

1900: White – 94,774; Black – 136; Native-born – 53,995; Foreign-born 40,974

1910: White – 106,294; White Black – 133; Black Native-born – 20,703; Foreign-born “Mixed” – 41,942 (which I think is one parent native-born and one foreign-born); Foreign-born – 43,457

1920: White – 112,759; Black – 170

1930: White – 100,052; Black – 126

1940: White – 101,252; Black – 94

1950: White – 97,249; Non-White – 324 (replaces Black as a category)

1960: White – 92,107; Non-white – 460

1970: White – 94,239; Non-white – 786

The census from 1980 and thereafter provides a more granular picture of the race and ethnicity of Lowell’s residents:

1980:     Total population – 103,439
White – 83,859
Black – 1,205
Asian – 604
Spanish origin – 4,585

1990:     Total population – 103,439
White – 83,859
Black – 2,474
Asian – 11,493
Hispanic origin/any race – 10,499
2000:     Total population – 105,167
White – 72,145
Black – 4,423
Asian – 17,371
Hispanic – 14,734

2010:     Total population – 106,519
White – 64,270
Black – 7,238
Native American – 292
Some other race – 9,325
More than two races – 3,867
Hispanic – 18,200

2020:     Total population – 115,554
Hispanic (any race) – 25,051
White (alone) – 46,908
Black (alone) – 9,570
American Indian (alone) – 111
Asian (alone) – 25,548
Some other race – 2,494
Two or more races – 5,816

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During last Saturday’s walking tour of the former Little Canada neighborhood, tour guide Charlie Gargiulo said that when he was growing up there, upper Merrimack Street was “Lowell’s DMZ” because it separated the French neighborhood on one side from the Greek neighborhood on the other. By DMZ he was referring to the Demilitarized Zone that has separated North Korea and South Korea since the truce that stopped the fighting in the Korean War. Charlie explained that if a French kid ventured into the Greek neighborhood, he risked bodily harm due to the hostility between the two groups. (He acknowledged the same thing would have happened to a Greek kid entering the French sector.)

Charlie’s remarks elicited smiles and chuckles from the audience which understandably has adopted the nostalgic view of Lowell’s past ethnic rivalries that are held by so many. At a time when Lowell’s elected officials routinely proclaim the benefits of our diversity by raising a different national flag in front of City Hall each week, it’s easy to overlook the long-term consequences of sorting people by race, ethnicity, religion, gender or orientation.

When we think about discrimination and segregation today, our minds go to race-based policies that have oppressed Black people in the United States throughout the country’s existence.

The study of Lowell history reveals countless contributions of the city’s Black residents, especially in the Abolitionist era and in the coming of the modern era after the Civil War. It also teaches that the Hale Howard Urban Renewal project demolished a predominantly Black neighborhood in an echo of the Little Canada story. Yet as the census numbers cited above for Lowell suggest, the number of Black people living in Lowell has until recently been relatively small as a percentage of the city’s overall population. Perhaps because dire economic conditions were already upon Lowell by the end of World War One, the Great Migration of millions of Black Americans from the Jim Crow South to cities in the North that occurred from 1915 to 1970 largely bypassed Lowell.

Nevertheless, the tendency to create hierarchies of race, ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, and other attributes has always been central to the Lowell story. No matter how bad one’s life may be, it is made less bad by finding others who can be placed on a lower rung of the ladder. That dynamic has been part of Lowell since its founding and, notwithstanding our festivals and flag raisings, it continues to affect Lowell and its politics today.

There are many examples of this in our history. Look at the blunt ethnocentric language of the previously mentioned 1936 housing study that is sprinkled with phrases like “the better type of French Canadians” or “occupied by Irish but with people of Armenian and French extraction in the slum area” or “a hazardous area with Greeks, Poles, Armenians, and numerous other races, mostly foreign born.”

With the indigenous people who originally inhabited this region having been displaced by English colonists by 1700, the first immigrant group in Lowell was the Irish who were recruited to dig the canals and build the mills. As the number of Irish increased in Lowell and across the country, so did hostility to them. This gave rise to the Know-Nothing Party, a powerful force in national, state, and local politics in the 1850s that promised to purify American politics by ending the influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants. In the 1854 Massachusetts state election, Know-Nothing candidates won the governorship, every other statewide office, every seat in the state senate, and all but three state representative seats. Once in office, the Know-Nothings proposed many punitive measures aimed at the Irish, but the crisis of the Civil War diluted and then ended their political power. While the overt anti-Irish Catholic program of the Know-Nothing Party may have faded from the political docket, the prejudice that gave rise to it remained with restrictive covenants that prohibited conveying property in Lowell “to any person born in Ireland” present in some Lowell property deeds into the 1880s.

The Irish were not the only targets of prejudice and mistreatment. In 1880, the Massachusetts state legislature ordered the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics to conduct a study of employers in all New England states plus New York relative to a uniform system of laws to regulate hours of work. (This was intended to promote the 10-hour day which had a better chance of passing if all employers in the region would follow it.) The report identified three objections with the third one being:

“The third objection to ten hours is the presence of the Canadian French. Wherever they appear, there their presence is urged as a reason why the hours of labor should not be reduced to ten. The reasons for this urgency are not far to find.”

“With some exceptions the Canadian French are the Chinese of the Eastern States. They care nothing for our institutions, civil, political, or educational. They do not come to make a home among us, to dwell with us as citizens, and so become a part of us; but their purpose is merely to sojourn a few years as aliens, touching us only at a single point, that of work, and, when they have gathered out of us what will satisfy their ends, to get them away to whence they came, and bestow it there. They are a horde of industrial invaders, not a stream of stable settlers. Voting, with all that it implies, they care nothing about. Rarely does one of them become naturalized. They will not send their children to school if they can help it, but endeavor to crowd them into mills at the earliest possible age. . . These people have one good trait. They are indefatigable workers, and docile. All they ask is to be set to work, and they care little who rules them or how they are ruled. To earn all they can by no matter how many hours of toil, to live in the most beggarly way so that out of their earnings they may spend as little for living as possible, and to carry out of the country what they can thus save: this is the aim of the Canadian French in our factory districts.”

Thirty years later, George Kenngott, a Congregational minister in Lowell wrote “The Record of a City: A Social Survey of Lowell Massachusetts” which documented the changing demographics of Lowell in the early 1900s:

“Lowell is a cosmopolitan city of over one hundred thousand people, representing at least forty nationalities. There are about 20,000 native-born Americans of native parents. There are enough representatives of the English-speaking peoples of England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Canada, to make, perhaps, forty per cent of its population. Of the non-English speaking peoples, there are 20,000 French and French-Canadians, 2000 Swedes, 300 Norwegians, 2500 Portuguese, 8000 Greeks, 200 Belgians, 200 Syrians, and a great mixture of Russians, Lithuanians, Austrians, Chinese and others, aggregating forty per cent at least of the population, and increasing so rapidly by immigration that this foreign-born population will soon be fifty per cent, if it is not already. This large foreign, non-English speaking population has come to Lowell almost entirely during the last twenty-five years; those from southern Europe and Asia have come almost entirely during the last fifteen years.”

Writing about the decline of Lowell’s housing stock because of the textile mills selling their tenements and boarding houses to private owners, Kenngott may have captured the root cause of the ethnic friction that arrived with each new group of residents:

“. . . the corporation streets, once well cared for, have no master and have become the dumping-ground for the refuse of a teeming population. The Greeks crowd the French-Canadians; the French-Canadians, the Irish; the Irish, the native Americans; each earlier race giving way before the lower standard of living of the later.”

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The true measure of Lowell being a diverse community is whether official policies treat everyone equally. As the above examples show, that was rarely the case in Lowell’s history and, as our explorations of school and housing segregation suggest, it continues to be a challenge. Perhaps by learning more about what has happened here before, we will be better able to keep history from repeating itself.

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