Through Galveston to the Hinterland

On March 2, I attended a lecture by Bryan Stone, Professor of History at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas, hosted by the Program in Jewish Studies in cooperation with the Houston Jewish History Archive. Professor Stone is the editor of Alexander Z. Gurwitz’s historical memoir, Memories of Two Generations: A Yiddish Life in Russia and Texas (University of Alabama Press, 2016) and the author of The Chosen Folks: Jews on the Frontiers of Texas (University of Texas Press, 2010), which won the Southern Jewish Historical Society Book Prize in 2011. He is also the managing editor of the annual journal Southern Jewish History. His current research focuses on Jewish immigrants who arrived in the United States through the port of Galveston, Texas, in the early 20th century. It was to this topic that his talk was dedicated.

Stone began with an overview of the Galveston Movement, a Jewish U.S. immigration assistance program created in the early 20th century which worked to divert Eastern European Jewish immigrants away from East Coast cities, primarily New York. Led mainly by New York German Jewry, the Galveston Movement, white impactful, is often considered a failure. Jacob Schiff, the enthusiastic financier of the project, aimed to bring 200,000 Jews though Galveston port. In fact, the number was half as much. Stone, however, argued that top-down approaches to this history fail to appreciate its massive impact upon those Jews who took part in the program. Many, he claims, became effectively settled in the cities they joined, finding local work, attending religious services, and bolstering the economic and social communities they joined. Though analysis of immigration documents, he reveals that the majority of migrants were male (roughly 15% were women), 30-35, and working-class. At his talk, Stone discussed a couple of case-studies which illustrated how individual families moved though Galveston and settled in American cities across the nation.

Through Stone’s “bottom-up” approach to the Galveston Movement, new motivations and values emerge. Although the financiers and organizational leadership in New York were motivated by a desire to minimize the overcrowding of the Lower East Side, not to mention fears that their poorer, Eastern European counterparts would become a “lightning-rod” for American anti-Semitism, communities in the South who agreed to participate had different goals. For many cities, new Jewish immigrants meant a labor force capable of supporting local enterprise. The Movement was careful in its placement of newcomers, sending young men to cites they knew had opportunities that matched their skills. At his talk, Stone shared a month-long trip taken by Schiff in which he visited 30-cities in as many days, gathering community agreements and analyzing the opportunities that existed at each site. Community agreements bound Jewish communities to a particular monthly intake of newcomers, for instance, two men a month, but as the seasons changed many communities began to retract their initial agreements, arguing that they simply did not have the capacity to support newcomers. These complaints were often met with dispassion from New York organizers, who reminded communities of their communal obligations. Communities often worked to raise a small sum of money for newcomers in order to aid in settlement, but once they were settled, new arrivals were expected to support themselves. It wasn’t charity, Stone argues, that motivated the movement’s local supporters. Instead, it was a pioneering ideology and the promise of local economic growth.

The talk was well-attended, largely by Houston community members. For many, the topic was personal, as they were descended from Jewish immigrants who had settled in Houston as a result of the Galveston Movement. For me, the history was less personal. My family, although also Jews emigrating from Russia, came to the United States by way of Nova Scotia, ultimately settling in Portland, Maine. Still, the feeling of the room reminded me of my own Jewish community at home. My research interest also intersects with the topic of Stone’s talk: I am currently working on a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship research project on the Zionist organizing of American Jewish women between 1880 and 1948. My research has focused mainly on New York, where three-quarters of all Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the United States between 1880 and 1914 settled, but Stone taught me a great deal about Jewish settlement outside of the East Coast. I’m inspired to look more closely at the organizational activities of Jewish women in the South, and I’m also curious about the connections between the pioneering ideology of the Galveston Movement and the pioneering ideology of early Zionists. Like most good talks, it raised more questions than answers. I’m inspired to follow-up on what I’ve learned and do some scholarship of my own. After all, isn’t that what a good lecture should do?

-Arija Forsyth ’21



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