The political divisiveness that permeates the United States today would not have been unfamiliar a century ago. The year 1919 was “an alarming year of strife,” according to author and historian Cecelia Bucki, who will present a program on the social unrest of the time on Sunday, Feb. 24, from 4 to 5:30, at Wilton Library, 137 Old Ridgefield Road.
Bucki’s talk, Conflict on the Homefront: Connecticut and the Nation, is the second installment of the scholarly series, Sex, Scandal and Upheaval: 1919 — What’s Changed?, presented by the library and the Wilton Historical Society. Registration is required by calling 203-762-6334 or visiting online at wiltonlibrary.org.
Bucki is a professor of American history at Fairfield University and is the author of Bridgeport’s Socialist New Deal, 1915-36, which examines the rise of the Socialist Party in Bridgeport and how roofer Jasper McLevy ultimately became mayor.
In an interview with The Bulletin, which is the media sponsor for the series, Bucki said she will focus on three key conflicts nationwide and locally: race riots, labor strikes and the Red Scare.
The strife that afflicted the nation, she said, was brought about by changes to society during World War I that would last through to the beginning of World War II.
“Until [President Woodrow] Wilson declared war in April 1917, the majority of Americans didn’t want to get into the war,” Bucki said. It was a platform that helped propel him to re-election in November 1916.
“For him, to declare war five months later, that set off a dynamic that suppresses the antiwar effort leading to an abrogation of freedom of speech, freedom of the press” and more, she said.
Getting everyone in on the war effort created an aura of ultra-patriotism and papered over tensions, she explained. When the war ended in 1918, all those tensions that had been suppressed let loose.
As African-Americans from the South moved north to industrial jobs in the beginning of what was known as the Great Migration, race riots broke out, mostly in the upper Midwest. The worst was a major conflict that took place from July 27 to Aug. 3, 1919, when ethnic white Americans committed violent acts against black Americans in Chicago.
Connecticut did not seem to be particularly affected by the Great Migration, Bucki said, but added no one has researched racial conflict here during that time.
Labor strikes, however, were taking place nationwide, including Connecticut, particularly in Waterbury and Hartford. Four million workers went on strike nationally to protect gains they had won during the war, particularly the eight-hour workday. Although workers punched the clock six days a week, it was still far better than the 60-hour weeks of steelworkers and 50 to 55 hours a week put in by garment workers before the war.
The National War Labor Board had protected workers’ rights during the war, but it was dissolved in January 1919, opening the door for employers to try to break unions and deny contracts.
The Red Scare was fueled by anti-Communist and anti-Bolshevik activity by the government and employers. This led to the infamous Palmer raids, named for then Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, which took place in November 1919 and January 1920. They targeted primarily Italian anarchists and Eastern European immigrants with suspected leftist ties or labor activism. Ultimately, about 500 foreigners were deported.
“In Connecticut, there were over 1,000 workers imprisoned in the Palmer raids,” Bucki said. They were mostly Russian and Ukrainian immigrants in factory towns. Federal agents would raid Russian social clubs and “dragnet everyone,” she said. Those apprehended — mostly Russian men — were held without any due process in Hartford jails for weeks. They were allowed no contact with their families who did not know where the prisoners were.
“The Palmer raids helped establish the American Civil Liberties Union, starting with New York City lawyers who were appalled by people being targeted for their beliefs rather than illegal acts,” Bucki said.
“Due process laws say that when anyone is arrested it has to be made public, there is no secret imprisonment. You have to be allowed to have a lawyer. None of this is spelled out in 1919,” she said.
Anti-immigration sentiment was “kept on the back burner during the war, but nativism really explodes in 1919,” Bucki said. “It leads to immigration restrictions.”
In the early part of the 19th century, most immigrants to the U.S. were from northern and western Europe. At the turn of the 20th century, there was a wave of eastern and southern Europeans — Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Russian and Slovak.
“Suddenly, there are new immigrant ethnic groups speaking strange languages … larger and stranger trends to native eyes,” she said. “The new immigrants are coming from really rural backgrounds and providing cheap labor. They are filling the factories. For an industrial economy — cheap labor built this country.”
The era of the Open Door at Ellis Island ended as visa requirements and a quota system were put in place beginning in 1921 and completed in 1924.
“The 1920s is noted as a decade of nativism,” Bucki said. “In 1919, all those activities set the whole decade of the ’20s in motion,” including the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the North, which persecuted not only blacks but also Catholics and Jews.
It’s important to understand, Bucki said, “how the seeds of World War I will lead to the 1930s in terms of labor and social activism, but also reinforcing the isolationism of the 1930s. When Hitler invades Poland in 1939, Americans are against going to war. It takes [President Franklin] Roosevelt a long time to convince Congress to help Britain and the Allies.”