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Electric City Immigrants: Italians and Poles of Schenectady, N.Y., 1880-1930

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[This information is from pp. 299-301 of Electric City Immigrants: Italians and Poles of Schenectady, N.Y., 1880-1930 by Dr. Robert R. Pascucci (State University of New York at Albany, Department of History, 1984). It is copyrighted by Dr. Pascucci and reproduced here with his permission. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 325.24 PAS.]

Italian and Polish immigration to Schenectady coincided with the city's burst of economic prosperity and population boom that attended the growth of the city's General Electric Company. The two immigrant colonies were formed largely through chain migration. Three-fourths of the Poles came from Russian Poland, particularly from four of the ten provinces of Congress Poland. Of the Italians, three-fifths were Campanians, the majority of whom were from the province of Caserta. Mutual benefit societies provided fellowship and aid during times of need. For the Poles, communal activities and a sense of nationalism were heightened during the World War I period as Schenectady Poles directed their energies toward the goal of an independent Poland. Both communities established their own ethnic parishes, but the Poles were more generous in the financial support of their churches. Exercising cultural as well as religious leadership, pastors were the principal figures in the Polish community. On occasion, their dominance, however, caused conflict and defection among parishioners. Italians found it necessary to challenge both their pastors and bishop to preserve their traditions.

Italians and Poles were not responsible for an inordinate amount of crime in the city, but their offenses, particularly those of a violent nature committed by the Italians, captured the attention of the press which frequently expressed both derision and fear of the immigrants. Although yielding meager results, the Presbyterians expended considerable energy and resources in an attempt to proselytize the Italians. Clashes were common between the independent minded Italian evangelists and their Protestant sponsors. The various social activities provided by the mission, however, were popular, particularly those for children.

At least half of the Italians and 80 percent of the Poles were employed at either General Electric or American Locomotive. However, a smaller proportion of Italians held skilled positions than the Poles. Poles, preferring work in the basic industries, found Schenectady less attractive as a place to settle after 1910, as production at the locomotive plant peaked and then declined. The city's hod carriers, overwhelmingly Italian, organized and struggled to improve their working conditions. With the election of an Italian Third Ward supervisor and a Polish alderman in 1915, the two immigrant groups achieved their first significant political successes. Italians continued to win elections throughout the 1920s, but their electoral victories were limited to positions representing the Third Ward.

Unlike the Italians who preferred the public schools, the Poles supported parochial schooling as a means of preserving their cultural traditions. The bilingual instruction that the Polish children received in the parochial schools enabled them, perhaps, to progress more rapidly than the Polish and Italian students in the public schools, who were held back in large numbers until they became proficient in English. The influx of the newcomers placed an enormous strain on the public school system which had a long tradition of inadequate funding. Overcrowding and part-time instruction had an adverse effect on student performance. The length of time that immigrant children remained in school was extended, not only by legislation, but also by the introduction of social promotion, intermediate schools, and vocational education. Nevertheless, only a small percentage of the immigrant children completed high school throughout the period.

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