Remembering a racist ex-president of Harvard in order to retroactively shame him
In case you haven’t noticed, immigration policy in the United States is currently in limbo, leaving immigrants of all kinds in a frightening, precarious position. With President Donald Trump pushing travel bans and his Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents acting more aggressive than usual, including in Boston where they have gone after law-abiding immigrants with jobs, families, and roots in the community, it seems as if American nationalist rhetoric is on the rise while the more traditional image of a welcoming country is being displaced further each day.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, himself a descendent of Irish immigrants, recently issued a statement urging Congress to address immigration discrimination. “Boston is a city built on immigrants,” Walsh wrote. “Pointing the finger and blaming other nationalities will not fix the problem.” The Hub’s Trust Act, which makes Boston something of a “sanctuary city” (there is no official legal definition of the term), provides some cover for immigrants. But with Republican Gov. Charlie Baker opposing such declarations at the state level, those who may potentially get caught in the crosshairs of Trump’s xenophobia have lots to fear—even in so-called liberal Mass.
Looking back through history is hardly reassuring. Despite recent support statements from Walsh and others, in digging through old newspaper archives one can see that the Hub hasn’t always been an amicable place for immigrants. One especially intolerant character, Dr. Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909, advocated against the mixing of races and also called for a “restriction on the number of unmarried men allowed into the United States.” The intention of this line of thinking was that if only established families were allowed to step foot on American soil, there would be far less ethnic diversity as a result.
Eliot, a cousin of the famous poet T.S. Eliot, publicly supported William Dillingham, who served as the chairman of the US Senate Immigration Commission. Dillingham notoriously dreamed up the Per Centum Law, which placed a limit on the number of immigrants who were allowed into the country every year. The Per Centum Law, eventually renamed the Emergency Quota Act, was much kinder to immigrants coming from “older sources,” such as places in Northern Europe like Germany and Scandinavia, yet drastically limited admission from Southeastern Europe and Turkey by about one-fifth for several years in the early 1920s.
If any of this sounds familiar, it’s probably because such selective immigration restrictions and policies resemble efforts under President Trump to stall or ban immigration from particular Muslim countries. Under said ban, which partially slipped through the Supreme Court of the United States last week, people from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen will be temporarily denied entry to the US unless they have a “credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity” here. It’s basically the same way that Dillingham targeted immigrants from places like Turkey nearly a century ago. As reported by the BBC:
Although the Supreme Court left parts of the lower-court-ordered suspension of his travel ban intact, and agreed to consider the merits of the case in October, a considerable portion of it can now go into effect.
The path to entry into the US for immigrants and refugees from the affected nations, if they don’t have existing ties to the US—either through family, schools or employment—just became considerably harder.
It wasn’t all bad news back then, just like there are occasional victories against racism today. Despite efforts to keep out whole groups of people dating back hundreds of years, statistics listed in an 1888 edition of the Boston Weekly Globe (as well as in other broadsheets at the time) boasted about the proliferation of immigration (and likely triggered the bigoted likes of Eliot). From 1850 to 1860, the foreign-born population in this country rose from 9.68 to 13.16 percent, and even went as high as 13.52 percent in 1880.
Furthermore, on the Boston front, immigrants a century ago were sometimes met with welcoming pamphlets as they arrived in the city’s ports. The guides helped people from other countries familiarize themselves with their new communities, and even showed them how to find places to pray, take evening classes, and eventually establish themselves and their families as new Bostonians.
Looking back, it’s interesting to see the arguments that politicians and powerful people like Eliot made against open borders. Namely, there were prevalent sentiments against mixed marriages, as well as an overall xenophobic agenda to preserve what many believed was a critical “white identity.” Dillingham, a native of Vermont, used little to no discretion in campaigning to use both race and ethnicity as factors in determining who was allowed into the country. That’s his lasting legacy.
As for Eliot: He is still recognized by Harvard as one of the university’s most pivotal historical figures, and there is no mention at all on the school’s website of his unsavory attitudes toward people from other countries. Today the school is attended by an impressive mix of students from all backgrounds, many of whom probably wonder why everything from a bust to a building still stand in his honor.
This throwback was produced in collaboration with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. For posts connecting old headlines with contemporary news stories, check out medium.com/binj-reports/tagged/throwbacks