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Immigration Stories: The World Comes to Lowell

Resources to learn about stories of immigrants who settled in Lowell.

The World Comes to Lowell - Written by Robert Forrant and Ingrid Hess

An immigrant proverb goes something like this: “I came to America because I heard the streets were paved with gold. When I got here I found out three things. First, the streets were not paved with gold. Second, they weren’t paved at all. And, third, I was expected to pave them.” Irish immigrants dug the canals and built the mills. Thousands of newcomers from Canada and across Europe flocked here for available jobs. For example, Greek immigrant Maria Sampatakakis came to Lowell at age 12. Finding work in the Merrimack Mill's spinning room, she said this about the job. “For two weeks, I learned the job for nothing. And then they started giving just a little responsibility on the machines. The pay was $3.00 a week, working from six to six.”

Charles Antonopoulas arrived in Lowell at age 21, “…got 50 cents from a friend, and went and bought a small Greek and English dictionary and tried to learn some English words.” He eventually got a tailor job. “That shop was the ‘League of Nations,’” he said. “The owner was Jewish, the cutter and designer were French, the superintendent upstairs in the workshop was Italian. So, we were Italians, and Polish, and Jews about 25 of us working there.”

Rita Ayotte’s parents, born in Quebec, “traveled back and forth… stayed in Lowell a couple of years... making money. They would go back to Quebec. They were traveling back and forth like that. And, then, they would come back again.”

Nearly 70 years later, Colombians arrived in Lowell, recruited to help revive the textile industry. As French Canadian, Greek, and Portuguese immigrants before them, they lived in crowded tenements on Merrimack and Market Streets, worked long hours, and faced tensions with native and other immigrant workers. Nevertheless, they stayed because, according to one worker, “We earned more because we worked so many extra hours, generally twelve, but there were people who worked fourteen, sixteen, and eighteen.” They also sent a portion of their wages back to Colombia.

Early History

In the 1600s, two Native settlements, the Pawtucket and the Wamesit, existed within the limits of what is today Lowell. The Native Americans were Pennacook, who had settled in today’s New Hampshire, northeastern Massachusetts, and southern Maine. They subsisted by farming, hunting, fishing, and gathering, with the falls on the Merrimack River, a popular site during the spawning season. Inhabitants of Wamesit and Pawtucket also hunted for waterfowl, turkeys, pigeons, a variety of other birds, deer, and moose. With frequent wars in the region and fearful of attacks by colonists, many Wamesit fled north. Canals, mills, and dams on the Merrimack disrupted the environment and how the Native peoples who remained made a living. Eventually, their lands got sold to white settlers, and the Pawtucket and Wamesit settlements ceased to exist.

Starting in the early 1820s, mainly Irish immigrant laborers built Lowell’s cotton mills and dug its canals. The spark came in 1821 when several Boston businesspeople, many who had made their initial fortunes in the trade of human beings, purchased land and rights to the Pawtucket Canal. As cities like Lowell grew, the Northern economy relied on people working for a wage. In 1845, according to historian Thomas Dublin in Women at Work, close to 70 percent of Lowell’s mill hands were women. Between 1825 and 1845, profits averaged 24 percent annually as workers strained 12 hours daily. Productivity rose; wages did not keep pace. By 1850, what had started with a handful of mills had become a vast textile empire. Though a harsh, crowded, and noisy place, Lowell offered the possibility of economic opportunity; thousands of people seized it.

20th Century Decline

Mill jobs attracted individuals and families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. French-Canadian, Greek, and Portuguese neighborhoods grew. A vibrant Jewish section of the city, complete with a Hebrew school and two synagogues, formed. However, the mills soon lost any advantages the city's geography once offered. Steam engines, coal-fired furnaces, and electricity made greater competition possible, and the high tide of millwork passed. Rapid job loss resulted in a less welcoming environment. Moreover, the global economic depression in the 1930s added to the city’s troubles. Reflecting tough times and slowed immigration, the population fell from 113,000 in 1920 to 100,000 in 1930 and under 100,000 by 1940.

Lowell’s mills could not compete with Southern textile mills with their new machines, new technology, new production methods, and cheap non-union labor. In 1935, only 8,000 people worked in Lowell’s textile mills, roughly the same number who did so one hundred years before!

Over this period, sentiment against immigration grew, culminating with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson-Reed Act), which limited the number of immigrants allowed entry into the country through a national origins quota. The quota provided immigration visas to two percent of the total number of people of each nationality in the U.S. as of the 1890 national census. Immigration from eastern and southern Europe dramatically slowed.

The Long Recovery

Following the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (Hart-Celler Act)—which abolished country-based immigration quotas—a renewed stream of migrants made their way here. Each country had a 20,000-person admissions cap. For Lowell, this resulted in a wave of Portuguese immigrants to join the Portuguese already here. Under the Immigration and Nationality Act, immigrants needed a job right away. Many Portuguese immigrants arriving in Lowell found work at factories like Prince Macaroni Company, Grace Shoe Co., and Commodore Foods.

In the 1960s and 1970s, immigrant neighborhoods and industrial buildings fell to the wrecking ball, and highways got built through existing neighborhoods, all in the name of progress. City leaders believed the way forward required a sharp break with the city’s industrial past. Despite the aggressive knockdown campaign, the hoped-for jumpstart never materialized. Planners, education leaders, community activists, and university community members began nurturing a different vision for the city’s future, one predicated on historic preservation, a restoration of the public schools, and the attraction of artists.

In 1978, the federal government located a National Park in Lowell. History became central to the city’s revitalization. Public and private investments in the repurposing of old mills for usage as business incubators, healthcare facilities, artists’ live and workspaces, housing, and retail soared.

Middlesex Community College and the University of Massachusetts Lowell grew, offering educational opportunities for Lowellians while drawing new people into the city.

Following the fall of Vietnam’s capital in 1975, the United States admitted more than 400,000 Indochinese refugees within the next five years. The 1980 Refugee Act alleviated the pressure on existing refugee programs. It removed preference for refugees fleeing communist countries and adopted the definition of refugees according to the United Nations Protocol and Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. It allowed for a yearly refugee admission rate set by the President and additional emergency admissions.

By 1984, four to five Cambodian families arrived in Lowell each week. The city had taken in 3,000 Cambodians and expected to continue receiving large numbers. The booming job market was the main draw. Southeast Asian refugees found employment at as Wang Laboratories, Prince Macaroni, Apollo Computer Inc., and BASF Systems Corp. Lowell's Southeast Asian population reached over 10,000 by 1986.

The new laws also established a policy to reunite immigrant families and attract skilled labor to the United States. Post-1965, immigrants from places like the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Brazil livened Lowell yet again.

Concluding Thoughts

The Southeast Asian Water Festival takes place every August on the Merrimack River. Cambodians, Lao, and Vietnamese nationwide annually travel to Lowell for the festival. A Puerto Rican Festival, attracting Puerto Ricans from across New England, has honored the island’s culture and heritage for nearly thirty years. The Vietnamese community has hosted a Vietnamese New Year celebration since the 1980s, co-organized by St. Patrick’s Church and UMass Lowell’s Vietnamese Student Association. Since 2001, the African community has held the Greater Lowell African Festival, celebrating music, food, dance, and traditional dress.

Throughout the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the International Institute in Lowell welcomed and helped settle refugees and immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam just as they settled immigrants between 1918 and 1940. In the 1990s, refugees from the Balkans joined immigrants from Central America and Asia in the area. As the new millennium arrived, so too did immigrants and refugees from Afghanistan, The Democratic Republic of the Congo, The Republic of Congo, Syria, and Iraq.

Across the city are corner food stores, social clubs, Buddhist Temples, Hindu Swaminarayan, churches serving diverse immigrant communities, mosques, and restaurants run by and catering to Southeast Asian, Latin American, African, and Indian customers. With eyes open, we see how the past weaves its way into the present. The world's people keep arriving here just as they did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.