I never grow tired of looking at them: the faces in these old photographs. They are immigrants that settled in eastern North Carolina in the late 1800s and early 1900s. They came from Russia, Syria, Lebanon, Norway, Greece, Poland and many other far-off lands.
Isaac Leinwand, Elizabethtown, N.C., 1940. After leaving Austria-Hungary, he first settled in Charleston, S.C. Reeling from the Stock Market Crash of ’29 and the closure of the bank where he had kept his savings, he started over in Elizabethtown. He opened a general store and later a department store. For many years the Leinwands were the only Jewish family in Bladen County. His son Wallace was later elected the town’s mayor. Leinwand’s is still in business today. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
They crossed oceans and ended up here, in little tobacco towns, fishermen’s villages, backwoods lumber camps and one bustling seaport. A thousand faces, a thousand stories.
Anna Sheet Kolznian, an Austrian-Hungarian immigrant. She and her husband Frank came to the U.S. in 1911. At the time of her registration as an alien (1940), they lived in Moyock, a coastal village in Currituck County, N.C., just below the Virginia border. Frank was a machinist and I would not be surprised if he was commuting to the naval shipyards in Newport News, Va. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
Many settled in towns where they were the only foreigner, the only stranger, the only Jew or Catholic– or one of the few.
Unlike in New York City, Boston or Chicago, they did not hear their mother tongues spoken in the street.
Greek immigrant Harry Soufas was one of the best hitters in the history of the Coastal Plain League. He was born in Thessaly, Greece, in 1917 and came to Wilson, N.C. with his parents when he was a small child. He played semi-pro baseball for teams in Rocky Mount, Snow Hill, Kinston and New Bern. He joined the army and served in North Africa and Italy during the Second World War. He later opened a cafe and pool hall in New Bern. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
I found the photographs in an extraordinary collection of Alien, Naturalization and Citizenship Records from the State Archives of North Carolina. An on-line project called the North Carolina Digital Collections helps us to remember them.
Melvin Brooks, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who fled to the U.S. through Lithuania in 1938. When he registered as an alien in 1940, he was a clerk in a dry goods store in Warsaw, a small town in Duplin County, N.C. He had apparently “Americanized” his name: according to his registration documents, his birth name was Michelis Brukas. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
The North Carolina Digital Collections is a collaboration between the State Archives and the State Library of North Carolina.
Jewish peddlers from Russia, Lithuania and Poland. Peasants from war-torn Greece. Swedish fishermen, Norwegian sailors and Azorean whalers. Japanese war brides. Religious refugees from Syria and Lebanon.
Mary J. Ellis was among many immigrants from Lebanon and Syria that settled in New Bern, N.C. They were part of the Maronite Diaspora, an out-migration of hundreds of thousands of Maronite Christians escaping religious persecution in the Ottoman Empire. She arrived in New Bern in 1906 and was listed as a merchant in 1927. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
The wandering children of the Earth, seeking refuge and a place to lay their heads. They all came here.
Another member of the Ellis family. Born in Syria in 1867, Metree Ellis arrived in New Bern in 1891. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
Filed with the clerks of Superior Courts, the documents include Declarations of Intent to become a Citizen, Petitions for Naturalization and forms related to the notorious Smith Act and Alien Registration.
1st Sgt. Alexander Ulatowski, Co. C, 9th Med. Battalion, Fort Bragg. Sgt. Ulatowski was a Polish immigrant like my father’s parents. Born in Poland in 1908, he was Career Army and was residing on Fort Bragg when the Smith Act compelled him to register as an alien in 1940. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
The earliest documents come from the 1840s. The most recent come from the 1950s.
Marie Nassar Courie, Kinston, N.C., 1940. She was born in Lebanon in 1903. Her alien registration form lists her as a housewife and includes a note that reads, “wife of American citizen of very good standing in Kinston, N.C.” Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collection
I can imagine some of their stories, at least in broad strokes. For instance, the immigrants from Syria and Lebanon were certainly part of the Maronite Diaspora.
Costas Chondros, a Greek immigrant, Clinton, N.C., 1927. Like many immigrants today, he got his start in America as a cook in a local restaurant. At that time, almost all eastern N.C. towns had at least one cafe operated by Greek immigrants. The Greek cooks may have served “off the menu” dishes from their homelands, but their written menus generally stuck to standard American diner fare and southern cooking. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, hundreds of thousands of Maronite Christians fled persecution in the Ottoman Empire and scattered around the world.
Yoshiko Brogden and her 2-yr.-old daughter Nancy, Goldsboro, N.C., 1954. After WW2 and the Korean War, many U.S. military servicemen returned home to eastern N.C. with wives that they had met overseas. Others came home with wives that they met in countries occupied by U.S. forces after WW2. Yoshiko was one of those women. She was from Okinawa, Japan, site of one of the largest U.S. military bases in the Pacific. Similar stories could be found all over eastern N.C., but especially in our largest military towns– Goldsboro, Havelock, Jacksonville and Fayetteville. All of those towns had sizable communities of Okinawan women. Many other Okinawan women came to eastern N.C. during the Vietnam War era. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
A family or two of Maronites from Lebanon and Syria ended up in practically every little town in eastern N.C.
A striking number of those immigrants made new homes in two towns in eastern N.C.: New Bern, a coastal town near where I grew up in Craven County, and Wilson, a bustling tobacco market 50 miles east of Raleigh.
Maria Steinback Kostes, a German-Jewish immigrant, Wilson, N.C., 1927. I found relatively few new German immigrants in eastern N.C. at that time, but large numbers of German immigrants settled especially in Wilmington, N.C., in the 1800s. For a time, a German language newspaper was even being published in Wilmington. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
At first many were peddlers, wandering the dusty dirt roads of eastern N.C. buying and selling housewares, bolts of cloth and other things. Many later started little shops or cafes.
Wilhemina Van Rackel, Dutch immigrant. She left the Netherlands in 1912 and was a florist in Dudley, a rural community in the southern part of Wayne County, N.C., when she registered as an alien in 1940. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
They belonged to a branch of Catholicism grounded in Syria, Lebanon and the surrounding lands. In fact, they founded many of the first Catholic churches in eastern N.C.’s towns. In the beginning, they often worshiped in people’s homes.
Statement of intent to become a U.S. citizen for John Frederick Soll, a blacksmith in Wilmington, N.C., 1874. He emigrated from Germany in 1866. Prior to ca. 1910, the immigration documents unfortunately did not include photographs. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
I remember interviewing a Maronite woman who grew up in New Bern in the 1920s. Her name was Evelyn Zaytoun Farris, and you can find the story I wrote about her (titled “Love Stories”) here.
Statement of Intent for U.S. citizenship for Edward Keen, Wilmington, N.C., 1876. He was a pastry cook from the West Indies. As the state’s only major seaport, Wilmington attracted by far the greatest number of immigrants of any place in eastern N.C. between 1840 and 1910. The largest number were probably German, but other immigrants came to Wilmington from Russia, Great Britain, Denmark, Turkey, Norway, Syria, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Portugal, Poland and Austria. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
These documents make me feel as if I have underestimated the diversity that existed in eastern N.C. before the Second World War.
Take Tarboro, a small town on the Tar River, in Edgecombe County.
Between 1890 and 1920, Tarboro was home to a Norwegian lumberman, a Danish salesman, an English blacksmith, three Greek restaurant keepers, another Greek candy shopkeeper, at least five Syrian merchants, an Italian shoemaker, an Austrian machinist (probably on the railroads) and a whole crowd of Jewish merchants that had fled from Russia.
At least two of the Jewish immigrants were from Panevyzys, a city in Lithuania that at times was under Russian rule. Those two immigrants, Saul and Fannie Nathanson, came to the U.S. in 1903.
It’s hard not to think about what would have happened to them and their children if they had not left Panevyzys or if the U.S. or another country had not welcomed them.
Nearly all of the city’s Jewish men, women and children were murdered in 1943 during the Nazi occupation, as part of the Holocaust.
Another Jewish immigrant in Tarboro, David Nathans, came from Nasielsk, a small town in Poland. Nasielsk had about 3,000 Jews before the war. Roughly 80 survived the Holocaust.
The Jewish immigrants in these documents came largely from Russia, Poland, Lithuania and other parts of Eastern Europe, though Jewish immigrants from Germany, Hungary, Austria and elsewhere also found their way here. They, too, often started life in eastern N.C. as peddlers and shopkeepers.
Gertrude Grotz Conner, a German immigrant, 1954. She is listed as a “saleslady” in Aulander, an agricultural hamlet in Bertie County, N.C. I would guess that she was married to an American GI who met her during the Allied occupation of Germany after WW2. She was from Ludwigshafen, an industrial city on the Rhine. She must have seen a lot: thousands of Allied bombers staged a total of 121 raids against Ludwigshafen during the war. In very tough urban warfare, the US 12th Armored Division and 94th Infantry Division captured the city in March 1945. Maybe a farm boy from Bertie County, Ms. Conner’s future husband, was among them. She lived in Aulander the rest of her life and only passed away last year. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
In those days, relatively few Jewish families lived in eastern N.C. To build a strong sense of community, a web of religious and family ties united the region’s small-town Jewish families with one another and with larger Jewish communities, such as those in Richmond, Baltimore and New York City.
Hans Andersen, a Norwegian immigrant, was living in Southport, a coastal village in Brunswick County, N.C., in 1940. He was a ship rigger. I was surprised by the number of Scandinavian sailors and fishermen in the state’s seaports especially ca. 1890-1920. I did remember, however, that one of my mother’s closest friends when she was growing up in Carteret County, Margaret Hansen, was the daughter of a Swedish fisherman. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
You can find a story I wrote about the history of the Jewish community in Weldon, N.C. here. It’s called “A Candle is Lit.”
Mary Darvish, a Syrian immigrant, New Bern, N.C., 1927. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
You can also learn about a terrible incident involving a mob assault on a young Jewish man in Williamston, N.C., in 1925 in my personal essay “In Skewarky Cemetery.” The essay gives a sense of the prejudices that Jews and other immigrants often faced in eastern N.C.
Genevieve Joudy, another Syrian immigrant, New Bern, N.C., 1927. She came to America with her parents in 1912. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
Most of the immigrants in these documents started life in eastern N.C. “on the bottom.” They were peddlers, laundrywomen, house keepers and dishwashers. They took on hard jobs and worked long hours, often 7 days a week, from before first light to darkest night.
I don’t know what became of most of them or their descendants.
But I recognize a few of their families from my travels in eastern N.C. Today their descendants include physicians, teachers and nurses, successful businessmen and women, veterans of our wars, philanthropists and community volunteers– people that give back to their communities.
Catherine Dickerson, an Irish immigrant, was a housekeeper in Wilson, N.C. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
Of course, as I look at these portraits, I also think about those who did not make it here– those who sought refuge and were turned away.
National immigration policy shaped who came to eastern N.C. in this time period. Those policies help to explain why these old documents show so few, if any, people from certain countries, or of certain races, among the immigrants in eastern N.C.
Mary George, a Syrian/Lebanese immigrant, was also a housekeeper in eastern N.C. She moved to Elm City ca. 1933. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
For instance, the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 prohibited nearly all Asians from coming to the U.S. and severely limited the immigration of Italians, Greeks, Poles and other “darker-skinned” peoples from southern and eastern Europe.
Rasheed Faiz, a Syrian immigrant, 1940. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1902 and opened a cafe in Greenville, in Pitt County, N.C. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
As a result, the documents in the North Carolina Digital Collections show immigrants coming to eastern N.C. from those foreign lands prior to 1924, but rarely after.
Race was often a central factor in U.S. immigration policy.
That had been true throughout the nation’s history.
Only a few years after American Independence, the Naturalization Act of 1790 declared that only people of white descent were eligible for naturalization. Passed by the same Congress that enacted the United States Bill of Rights, the Act meant that blacks, Asians and even Native Americans were not eligible for U.S. citizenship.
Rabbi Abraham Rutberg, Fayetteville, N.C., 1927. Apparently a native of Russia, he settled in Fayetteville to serve the town’s new synagogue. On his Alien Registration form, his place of birth and nationality are listed only as “Hebrew,” but the form indicates that the Russian government issued a passport to him in 1900. Courtesy, North Carolina Digital Collections
Again and again, I go back to these photographs. I try to imagine the lives of the men and women in them: where they came from and what they left behind and what they missed most when they crossed the ocean.
I try to imagine what it was like for them here and what they thought of our tobacco fields and the little hamlets along our bays and rivers.
I wonder what they made of us and if they felt welcomed here and what they did with their lives.
A thousand people, a thousand stories.