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Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Schenectady’s Jewish Immigrants: Acculturation and Preserving History

By Dr. Harvey Strum of The Sage Colleges


Jews comprised one of the largest immigrant groups to arrive in the United States from 1870-1924 until Congress closed the doors to large scale immigration for forty years with the passage of the National Origins Act. Congress wanted to limit Jews, Italians, Poles, and other immigrants from eastern and southern Europe considered racially inferior and unfit to become real Americans. Driven out of the Russian Empire by the pogroms of 1869, pogroms of 1888-82, May Laws of 1882, the expulsions of 1891, and the pogroms of 1903-1905, one third of the six million Jews in the Russian Empire left for America in search of religious tolerance, economic opportunity, political freedom, and to escape Russian captivity. Pogroms in Jassy, Romania in 1899 and fifty Moldavian towns in 1907 encouraged 150,000 Romanian Jews to leave. Draconian laws on Jewish economic activities dating from the 1880s further spurred their departure. Because of overpopulation, starvation, and limited economic opportunities, 500,00 Jews---about one quarter of the Jewish population of the Austro-Hungarian Empire left for the United States. A smaller movement of Jews from Russia, Romania, and Austria-Hungary fled eastward to Palestine, starting the Zionist movement. However, the clear majority of Jews from Eastern Europe preferred the promised land of New York City, Philadelphia, or Schenectady.

Schenectady in the 19th century and early 20th century attracted Irish, German, Jewish, Italian, Polish, Greek, Armenian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian immigrants. Studying how Jewish immigrants adapted to Schenectady and the United States provides us with insights into the immigrant experience in upstate New York. Historians of the Jewish experience have tended to focus on New York City and paid less attention to the settlement of Jews in the smaller American cities. Jewish communities developed the Capital District of New York in Albany, Schenectady, Troy, Saratoga, Cohoes, Amsterdam, Gloversville, Nassau, and Hoosick Falls.

Looking at the institutions and organizations created by Jewish immigrants to Schenectady allows us to understand how immigrants developed strategies to adapt to their new homeland while seeking to maintain their identity, culture, and values brought from Europe. To what degree did the children and grandchildren of immigrants abandon what the immigrant generation valued in the process of becoming Americans? To what degree did Jews seek to maintain the religious identity and cultural norms of their ancestors? Jewish immigrants constantly renegotiated how they defined Judaism and Jewish identity in America. Ever since the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 Jews have grappled with the same questions---how to maintain a Jewish identity, whether to cling to separate religious, ethnic, and social values, and how to navigate between their Jewish identity and Americanization. For Jews living in New York City or Schenectady, they faced a constant ongoing renegotiation of identity. As a tiny minority that makes us about two percent of the American population how did Jews avoid total assimilation into American society? The organizations created by Jewish immigrants and their descendants suggest how Jews in Schenectady answered this question.

“Oyster Bay’s Color Line”


 By Richard White  

“Oyster Bay’s Color Line”

This was the title of The New York Times’ article on Monday, July 11, 1904 regarding the ejection of an A.M.E Zion pastor from a local, white barbershop the previous Saturday in Oyster Bay, New York. Rev. James T. Gaskill—misnamed “Gaskin” by the much of the press—was from another church, and traveled to the Bay to preach the Sunday sermon. In fact, by September, he would be appointed church’s new pastor. He wanted a shave, but could not have imagined the civil rights commotion that would ensue. The wire service recorded in more detail what happened next.

The Elmira Star Gazette and Free Press, for example, published this wire story also on July 11. After waiting in line for his turn, the pastor was informed by the barber who declared that “your color is against you,” and was refused service. Rev. Gaskill appealed to the proprietor, saying “I insist, sir, as a Christian and a gentleman, that I be shaved.” There are two versions of what occurred next. The clergyman said that he left the shop when the owner threatened him with a club. Witnesses, on the other hand, denied this. In any case, the pastor immediately sought recourse.

The Times’ article points out that he appealed to Justice of the Peace, Walter Franklin, whose answer was not a legal remedy. He stated that the “law was on his side, but for the peace of the community and the welfare of the local [Zion] church, to drop the matter.” The Free Press’ wire service article indicates that the minister did more than seek some sort of intervention from the Justice—he asked specifically for a warrant for the arrest of the barber. No warrant was issued, and Rev. Gaskill did not mention anything about the case in his sermon the next day.

News regarding the minister’s ejection spread quickly, and there were intense feelings among Oyster Bay’s black residents. The point of view of the church’s Deacon, Thomas Leads, illustrates these emotions. The Times quotes him as saying “we are not decided what we should do, but we will not let this matter rest as it is, on the advice of Justice Franklin. However, after careful thought and prayer, Rev. Gaskill proposed a new approach, and it held sway.

The Free Press presented Pastor Gaskill’s view of the case in own words:

I regret very much that this thing happened in the president’s own town. While I do not believe in the social equality of the races—that is, I do not believe in the social intermingling of the races—I do believe, with President Roosevelt, that honesty and integrity should make all men equal, at least in public places. This affair, however, had nothing to do with the president, and I do not wish to connect him with it in any way. It is something that might have happened anywhere.


So, Rev. Gaskill was a polite man who did not want to impugn President Roosevelt—who was at his home in Sagamore Hill at the time—whose interest in civil rights was, in part, tentative. There is no record in the press of any reaction to the incident by the President.

One year later, on July 26, 1905, Rev. Gaskill did get to meet the President. On July 26, 1905, Huntington’s Long-Islander briefly discussed the meeting earlier that week. The Reverend was joined by Bishop James Walker Hood, an occasional advisor to TR. However, there was no report on their discussions.


About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, and other publications.

Activity, Passivity, Spontaneity:
Understanding Whig Ideology, 1836-1840


By Chris Lang

After news of his defeat for the presidential candidacy arrived in December of 1839, Henry Clay sent a letter on the final day of the Whigs’ first national convention offering his “best wishes” and “cordial support” to whatever ticket the party put together (Remini 553). As the letter was being read aloud, many delegates in the audience listened with relief and gratitude, praising the statesman’s magnanimous character. At the exact hour of his defeat, however, Clay had been drinking with several friends at the nearby Brown’s Hotel, clinging to the belief that Whigs would never actually reject him. According to one observer, the more he drank, the more he reassured himself. “Open and exceedingly profane in his denunciations of the intriguers against his nomination,” the report went, he started swearing “in words befitting only a bar-room in vulgar broil” (554).

As the night went along, Clay’s behavior became more outrageous. When two strangers entered the hotel dressed in black, Clay allegedly walked over to a well-stocked sideboard and poured several drinks for them. “Gentlemen,” Clay retorted, “for aught I know, from your cloth you may be parsons, and shocked at my words. Let us take a glass of wine” (554). Dejected, torn, and clearly inebriated, Clay walked across Pennsylvania Avenue to his boardinghouse to await the arrival of friends from Harrisburg. When they entered his room, and found him sitting in a chair, they told him of Harrison’s victory. Immediately, Clay jumped out of his seat and started cursing, swearing, and pacing back and forth. “Such an exhibition,” one reported, “we never witnessed before…and we pray never again to witness such an ebullition of passion, such a storm of desperation” (554). Stamping his feet as he paced, he finally burst out: “My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them!” (554).

Clay’s outburst described above came after a long, hard fought campaign for the Whig presidential nomination. It was one of the first major elections to be highly organized, and it was carried out in a time when “running” for office was considered somewhat suspect, if not downright inappropriate, for a truly “republican” democracy. Throughout his campaign, Henry Clay would publicly deny having any motives of personal ambition to win his party’s nomination, yet beneath the surface, as we can see from his outburst, this was clearly not reflective of his true private thoughts and feelings.