A man engaged our family in conversation over lunch in the Munich train station cafeteria in the early 1970s. He asked where we came from. We replied, “We are Americans,” which was obvious to him. He wanted to know where our ancestors originated. We stammered, hemmed and hawed: German, Scotch, Welsh, English, with others in the mix; perhaps some native American. Finally, he said, “Ach, they are not yet 200 years old, and they don’t know who they are!”
He was correct. We are a mixture. My elder brother engaged in extensive genealogical research. He discovered to our surprise that we descended from Germans through both our parents. He learned that the German “Wilhelm” was changed to Welsh “Williams” on Ellis Island. I told my brother learning that changed by whole personality.
Each of us is a mixture. We carry within us many nations and cultures. DNA research has become a fad. Individuals learn some details about ancient origins and mixing. Such research obscures the detailed family lineages that help us understand exactly where we are from and how we got here; indeed, who we are.
A research paper assigned to Wabash students about family histories proved very successful. The assignment was that each student conduct research into his family immigration history — where ancestors originated, when they immigrated, where they established their families, and how they migrated across the American continent. Students interviewed grandparents and other elders; they looked for documentation; some had an advantage of relatives interested in genealogical research. The students’ relatives were eager to tell their sons fascinating stories from oral history and provide documents. Resulting term papers were fascinating. We discovered that sharing the immigration history of 15 or so Wabash students provided insights into our complex immigration history.
We are from here, there and everywhere. Early migrants came from northern and western Europe; slaves came from Africa and others came as indentured workers; many came from southern and eastern Europe in the later 19th century. Some refugees trickled in seeking asylum from civil wars, hardships and persecution around the world. All these were “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free” in Emma Lazarus’ description on the base of the Statue of Liberty on Ellis Island. Those in the armed forces stationed abroad married spouses and brought them home. Doors into America were gradually closed in the early part of the 20th century. After major changes in immigration laws in 1965, new immigrants arrived at JFK and O’Hare airports. New immigrants were part of the brain drain — scientists, physicians, IT specialists and engineers. Old and new immigrants developed the social capital — collective work ethic, knowledge, skills, experience, intelligence, drive, creativity and wisdom — that enable free individuals to discipline themselves and to govern a free democracy.
Students’ migration stories revealed a great deal about origins of American religious diversity. Migrants carry their gods on their shoulders and in their hearts — north European Protestants, German Reform and Eastern European Orthodox Jews, south European Catholics, South Asian Muslims, and all the rest. Movements from one country to another and across a continent shape the cultural and religious traditions of neighbors. That is especially true in a city at the crossroads of America.
My German friend asked, “Where are you from?” During this Fourth of July, you might take time to ask yourself a question: “Whence, how, when and where did my family migrate to establish themselves and me here?” You might learn a great deal about yourself, the diversity of American culture, and about the blessings we have in this land of freedom and opportunity in which ‘out of many, one’ — Americans!
Raymond Brady Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.