In partnership with the Somali Museum of Minnesota and three other county historical societies, the Morrison County Historical Society led an effort to bring Somali culture programs to Central Minnesota during February 2019. The four events were well attended, with positive feedback from those who participated.
If you had read some of the negative social media commentary regarding these events, you may have wondered why our history organizations held them. The gist of some of these comments, which appeared in a closed Facebook group and on the Sherburne County Historical Society’s Facebook timeline, were anti-immigrant, some of them being quite vicious.
This anti-immigrant sentiment is nothing new in U.S. or Central Minnesota history. This ugliness rears up during times of uncertainty and rapid change, fanned by politicians hoping to curry favor among their followers.
Morrison County is an ethnically diverse county in terms of the different nationalities of people who moved here during waves of European-American immigration between 1856 and c. 1920. There are people of German, Polish, Scandinavian, French-Canadian, Scotch-Canadian, Irish, English, Russian, and Czechoslovakian ancestry who immigrated here. While that mix may seem homogeneous, with immigration being without tension, that wasn’t the case.
Part of the East Side/West Side split in Little Falls was due to attitudes among East Siders about those Poles on the West Side. Pointing out that someone was a Polander was both common and an implied slur. (My grandfather, Stan Mrozik, was one of those West Side Poles, lest it appear I am writing this as an outside observer.)
A letter in the Morrison County Historical Society’s files from Charles E. Sheldon of Associated Underwriters in Chicago, Illinois, to Simon P. Brick of Little Falls, dated January 17, 1899, states clearly the anti-Polish sentiment that wasn’t limited to Morrison County:
“Dear Sir; –
We are in receipt of your daily report for policy #73, and note you give the name of the assured as Alex. Artonowski. We judge from the name that he is a Polander and wish to inquire who he is and all about him, his business, etc. Our experience on these Polanders has been rather unfavorable and we do not care to write them unless we are very sure that they are ‘OK’.”
It wasn’t just the Poles who suffered from anti-immigrant sentiment in Morrison County’s history. Germans were the target following World War I, with evidence of this seen to this day on a former bank building in downtown Little Falls. The German-American National Bank has the word “German” blotted out but still visible, a not-so-subtle pro-American/anti-German sign of the time.
Just because anti-immigrant attitudes periodically rise to the surface within our history, that doesn’t make them right. Anti-immigrant comments and actions are hurtful and can cause lasting damage. Often, immigrants have struggled mightily to come to this country, attempting to find safe refuge from upheaval at home. Once they arrive, they work hard to overcome language and cultural barriers. They don’t need unfounded attacks on their cultural identity, too.
History organizations, through their programming, can help bridge the cultural divide between long-time residents and recent immigrants. By inviting the Somali Museum of Minnesota to Central Minnesota, we are providing a way for both the old and new to meet and learn from each other. By pointing out that previous immigrant groups have encountered difficulties, we hope to expand empathy among long-time residents for their new immigrant neighbors. Perhaps one of their family members dealt with anti-Polish or anti-German attitudes that are similar to the anti-immigrant comments left on social media regarding our events.
These comments indicate why our work is necessary.
~ Mary Warner
This article originally appeared in the Morrison County Historical Society newsletter, Vol. 32, No. 1, 2019.
During times of increased anti-immigrant rhetoric, there are often many pro-immigrant commentaries, which we saw with the Facebook comments regarding the Somali event. So it was with the Poles in the past, as can be seen from this newspaper article from 1900.
Hope It’s True
Wadena Tribune: Morrison county will make a very substantial advance in population next summer, [sic] It is stated. [sic] and with the authority of the state land office, that four hundred Polish families will arrive in Morrison county this spring. These people are said to be in comfortable circumstances and the people of Morrison county are congratulating themselves over the coming of the foreigner.
~ Little Falls Herald, March 9, 1900