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A Brief History of Immigration in Boston

Once home to the indigenous Massachusett people, the city of Boston was settled by English Puritans in 1630, becoming one of the wealthiest and most important cities in the United States by the time of the country’s foundation a century and a half later. In the decades that followed as America came into its own, Boston would distinguish itself as a hub of immigration and diversity. During the “First Wave” of immigration in the 1820s, the city began receiving large numbers of migrants from Ireland as people fled their homeland to escape British rule and seek better economic opportunities. As a result, Boston benefited immensely from this immigration wave and changed from a busy harbor town to an industrial city as the population grew. By 1850, 35,000 of Boston’s 136,000 residents (over 25 percent) were Irish. That is not to say the heavy flow of newcomers did not present challenges to the city government and infrastructure, but these would be overcome as people learned new trade skills or found work in the growing number of factories around the city.


Around the same time, the African American community of Boston was getting involved in the Underground Railroad and rescuing enslaved people in the American South. Due to the fact that this was a secret network, the exact number of people who were brought up North may never be known. However, according to National Geographic, some estimates go up to 100,000 enslaved people were rescued and settled in various northern states, including Massachusetts. After the Civil War and Reconstruction Period, the numbers of African Americans coming up from the South would only grow as people fled persecution and Jim Crow laws. In the first half of the 20th century, the black population in Boston would grow exponentially from 11,591 people in 1900 to 51,568 in 1950.


The “Second Wave” of immigration would start in the 1880’s as the city experienced an industrial boom which attracted thousands of new workers from Italy, Russia, and smaller numbers from China, Portugal, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, and the Caribbean. In this period which lasted from 1880 to 1921, the population of Boston doubled in size, with nearly 40% of it being made up of immigrants. Workers in construction for new bridges, roads, tunnels, and streetcar lines were in high demand, fueling a major period of expansion to the city. However, the overwhelming majority of migrant workers found jobs in factories to meet the ever-growing demand for manufactured products. Work hours were long, accident rates were high, and wages were low for many of these laborers, part of the unfortunate reality experienced by people who had come to America seeking a better life for themselves and their families.


Sadly, as the number of migrants in Boston grew, so did the backlash against them by ethnic groups who had been settled here for longer. Record levels of immigration at the dawn of the 20th century would trigger lobbying efforts by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Immigration Restriction League. By 1917, Congress would enact laws requiring literacy tests for newly arrived migrants and created the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” which essentially banned people of Asian descent from coming. These discriminatory laws would be expanded in 1924 with the Nation of Origins Act, beginning what is now known as the Restriction Era. In Boston, the city’s foreign-born population would shrink from 30% in 1930 to just 13% in 1970. Many children of immigrants would leave the city and disperse across the country during these years, and the overall immigrant labor force became smaller and older. This period of race and nation-based discrimination would only come to an end in 1965 when the Immigration and Nationality Act, overhauling many of the old restrictions and leading to another boom in immigration from all over the world.


In the decades following the end of the Restriction Era, we have seen Boston and America as a whole become a far bigger and more diverse place as populations from every continent have moved here and enriched the country. But as we can see from the history of how immigrants have often been treated as a source of cheap labor and scapegoats for exclusionary policies by white supremacist groups. Yet immigrants have and always will be vital to America’s prosperity, meaning it is in everyone’s interest to see this group protected and supported by real patriots. That is why the mission of Dream Venture Labs is so important: an organization which helps immigrants and refugees to start new businesses and succeed is an organization that is working to bring us a better future.




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