"Naming and Necessity" - Time to Declare Waltham a Sanctuary City

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Near the end of 1854, Waltham was host to a large celebration. In the November elections that year, a coalition of political opportunists captured the Massachusetts State House under the banner of the Know Nothing Party. Their platform was simple; it was viciously anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant, while promising that elected Know Nothings would look the other way with a wink and a nod if their supporters chose to violently terrorize foreigners. They came here to revel in their victory.

That the event took place in Waltham at all is surprising, not least because such sentiments - so boldly expressed - are unusual in the history of our city.* Perhaps more than any other place in the region, Waltham has a record of being open to outsiders. Understanding this longstanding tradition of welcoming immigrants is essential if we are to answer the question of how to begin to stand for those in our city who will come under threat in the coming months and years.

Constructed in 1814, the Waltham mill was the only one ever built by Frances Cabot Lowell, the nation’s first industrialist. Waltham was his to envision as the foundation for American business, before his untimely death prompted his partners to look north and name their next venture, the city of Lowell, in his honor. Waltham became the model town for the American industrial revolution, and from the outset Lowell and his associates saw it as a place for some of our most marginalized people.

Likely for both selfish and unselfish reasons, they courted women for their workforce. Rural farm girls were cheap labor and had few opportunities living on farms in the American hinterlands. The mill offered them a chance to work and marry up, and while a paltry wage and a husband may hardly seem like a progressive offer, it was radical when compared with the alternatives, which were bleak for poor women, then as now. Lowell’s counterpart, Samuel Slater, offers a view of the more common take on labor practices at the time. He operated his Rhode Island mill through the ruthless exploitation of children aged seven to twelve.


“One need only do a little digging around to find that commonly held misconceptions are often all that hides our immigrant history. For instance, many have remarked that foreigners “took over” Charles and Felton Streets in recent decades. This is completely false. Instead, the neighborhood was built and occupied by immigrants from the beginning.”

Lowell’s hiring practices set a precedent in Waltham for generations to come. Within two decades of his death, Irish laborers poured in, fleeing the Famine and looking for work. They were followed by waves of other immigrants, all of them drawn by the town’s booming trades. They came when it was legal. They came when it was not. During World War I, French Canadian women even took jobs that were illegally posted in foreign newspapers from Waltham, sneaking down to find work caring for disabled children here.

These immigrants' presence left a mark on the landscape of the city.** One need only do a little digging around to find that commonly held misconceptions are often all that hides our immigrant history. For instance, many have remarked that foreigners "took over" Charles and Felton Streets in recent decades. This is completely false. Instead, the neighborhood was built and occupied by immigrants from the beginning. It has been a point of first arrival since the mid-19th century.

With luck and success, immigrants who remain here have historically moved from the river districts to the South Side. Ultimately they settle in the comfortable suburban neighborhoods away from the city center, and while these gateway neighborhoods are one indication of our history of ethnic and religious openness, they are not the only one.

In the mid-1980s, Walthamites came together to produce a definitive history of the city. Individuals across the city raised the money, contributed their family histories, did the writing, and most importantly, they lived the stories that became the book. The title they chose says everything about what they saw as the most important theme of the history of this place—Waltham Rediscovered: An Ethnic History of Waltham, Massachusetts.

Like the Know Nothings, Donald Trump now threatens our widely held sense of what makes this a community worth living in. He and his supporters are as coy and evasive about their intentions as their forebears were in 1854. They vehemently oppose illegal immigration while claiming to support “legal” immigration. Yet they appear to want to restrict what is legal to such an extent that nobody enters the country. If left unchallenged, their rhetoric suggests a credible commitment to go after our friends and neighbors until they leave or are forcibly removed. This is an affront and it calls for a collective response.

Elsewhere, municipalities have responded by becoming so-called sanctuary cities. These cities' elected officials have made a commitment to those who live in their communities by refusing to acknowledge - or dedicate resources in support of - Federal immigration orders that violate the civil liberties. From Somerville to Los Angeles, leaders in these cities see immigration as good for community and good for business.

Longer than any of our neighbors, we in Waltham have known that this is the right approach.

From our Moody Street restaurants to Brandeis University and our thriving tech businesses along Route 128—the Silicon Valley of the Eastern United States—a global population seeks out Waltham. These newcomers make this a vibrant cultural hub and a business hub, too, just as the mill girls did at Lowell’s factory two centuries ago. They occupy the office suites of Fortune 500 companies and they silently wash our dishes, mop our floors, and tend to the landscapes of the well-to-do in the towns that surround us.

At the mention of our need to declare ourselves a sanctuary city, some of our elected officials have demurred. Paradoxically, they suggest that we have no need to do so because we are a tolerant community, safe in Massachusetts, while also saying that we should not choose this moment to draw the attention of a Trump administration and risk losing federal funds. Perhaps they are frightened of the small, but vocal minority who might object, but arguments like this seem like desperate appeals to inaction. We should be prepared to sacrifice a stream of federal funds if the people whose hands are on the faucet threaten the living people who inhabit this community. And they do.

As a representative government, our elected municipal leaders should defend these principles by declaring Waltham a sanctuary city, in solidarity with the majority of citizens, consistent with a history that proves the rewards of defending our immigrants, no matter what threats come from outside. And make no mistake, these new Know Nothings pose a threat to the people, the character, and the soul of the City of Waltham.


* Marie Daly, Senior Genealogist at the New England Historic Genealogical Society, has noted that the 1850s were a particular flashpoint for anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiments in Waltham, including accusations of intolerance having a hand in the burning of the town's first Catholic Church, but she has also noted that this incident may have occurred for other reasons. In addition, she has shown that Byron Johnson, a Civil War hero and the first mayor of Waltham after its incorporation as a city, was deeply unpopular for his anti-Catholic bias.

** Historian Howard M. Gitelman’s definitive work on labor in 19th century Waltham settles any argument about the immigrant makeup of the town. An entire chapter of Workingmen of Waltham: Mobility in American Urban Industrial Development 1850-1890 (Johns Hopkins University Press), entitled "Physical Mobility, 1850-90" explains the relationship between immigration and industrialization. “61.2 percent of all the males present at any one time had in-migrated within the decade [at any time between 1850 and 1890]. This proportion would be higher still had it been possible to include the sons born in Waltham to in-migrant parents during their decade of arrival.” Gitelman notes, that immigration did not necessarily translate quickly into political enfranchisement, however, the Waltham Watch Company and Boston Manufacturing Company (Lowell Mill), “Both employed Irish Catholics long before many companies in the Boston area were prepared to do so.”

Posted on January 1, 2017 and filed under Opinion, Waltham History.