Franco-Americans, Nativism, and the KKK

All this month I’m posting on topics related to Piecework: When We Were French, my solo show. The play was originally commissioned to honor the legacy of French-Canadian immigration to Vermont and New England. Of course, in the process, it does much more: it explores the immigrant experience more generally; it reveals how the family stories — and family secrets — that we inherit become fundamental to who we are; and it asks important questions about memory and forgetting.

Another of the themes that the show explores, although not altogether explicitly, is what it means to be white and how the definition of whiteness has changed in the U.S. during the past century. I’ve alluded in previous posts (1, 2) to the fact that, when we talk about race in the U.S., the focus is often on African-Americans or other people with darker complexions. But when you look at the history of whiteness, racial categories start to fall apart.

During World War I, anti-German sentiment ran high in the U.S., as war-time patriotism twisted into fervent Protestant nativism. Germans and their institutions were harassed or attacked and the German language was removed from school and university curricula. In the wake of the war, this type of sentiment spread further. Fear of immigrant Catholics and Jews blossomed dangerously, and the Ku Klux Klan experienced a national resurgence.

Now usually dismissed by northerners as an exclusively Southern phenomenon, the Klan sought to spread its influence northward by conducting membership drives in New England towns where immigrants were moving in large numbers to work in mills, mines, and other industry. This resurgence was brief, and the Klan was certainly never as brutal in New England as we know it was to Southern blacks. But nonetheless, at one point during this period, Klan membership in the North outpaced membership in the U.S. South. To be able to talk honestly about New England’s history, we ought to make a place in our collective memory for images of Klansmen rallying in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine.

This interview with scholar Eileen Angelini explores this history in depth. And for more on this topic, I recommend the work of historian Mark Richard at SUNY-Plattsburgh, who is the first scholar to give serious attention to the KKK in New England. His new book, “Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan Confronts New England Catholics in the 1920s,” is as yet unpublished. But he touches on these events in his previous book, “Loyal But French,” which explores the history of the Franco-American community in Lewiston, Maine.

Each of us needs to decide for ourselves what aspects of our pasts are important to remember and which would be better to let go of. Sometimes forgetting can be attractive because it can allow us to escape pain or guilt or regret. But sometimes those feelings make us fuller people, and the lessons they teach can be valuable to others. This chapter of our history is important, not because Franco-Americans’ experience was especially unique, but, on the contrary, because Americans should remember that most of us have had to struggle for the full promises of our citizenship, and having done so, we ought to clear the way for those who come behind us.

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