Distant Mirror of Today’s Anti–Immigrant Hysteria
One big reason we study history is that it repeats itself. The anti-immigrant hysteria being stirred up today is nothing new, especially in Greenpoint. While researching a book on local political boss Peter J. McGuinness (1888-1948) I found an interesting piece of little-known local history.
In 1928 Jim McQuade was desperate to knock McGuinness out of his job as Greenpoint’s Alderman at City Hall. McQuade, looking to attract the votes of the sizeable Polish community and smear McGuinness, publicized the fact that in 1912 McGuinness had been part of a local anti-immigrant group called the “Native Borns.” McQuade claimed that McGuinness was “an active organizer” of the group and that the organization was similar to the Ku Klux Klan. McQuade funded the printing of a letter signed by three locals detailing the activities of the “Native Borns,” which included not patronizing foreign shops, not voting for foreign born candidates and discriminating against foreigners in all ways possible. There were hundreds of members in the area and “Native Borns” even attacked people who spoke foreign languages in the streets.
McQuade used the local press to ask McGuinness to answer the following question: “Did you, or did you not, start a native born society, or were you a member of that society formed for the purpose of chasing Polish people from this district?” McGuinness admitted that he was part of the organization, but countered McQuade had also had been a member of the “Native Borns.” McQuade denied the allegation noting that both of his parents were Irish born. The scandal cost McGuinness Polish-American votes, but McQuade lost the election.
The Poles were not the only victims of McGuinness’ xenophobia. He bragged about driving illegal Chinese from the area and led a rock-throwing mob that hounded gypsies. He said, “Five years ago I drove the Coolies out of my district and I will keep on the crusade until every gypsy is out of the district.”
Each immigrant group had to fight prejudice and discrimination and the Poles were no exception. When a German speaking Polish priest bought five lots on Driggs Avenue in the 1890’s that became St. Stanislaw Kostka Church, he had to hide from the predominantly German community around the church his true nationality and his intentions for the lots. The Greenpoint Germans were initially hostile to the Polish church, but the Poles were here to stay. By the start of the First World War Poles already formed the largest ethnic group in Greenpoint, but their political voice would not be heard for a generation.
In 1937 there was a political earthquake when Polish-born John Smolensky defeated Pete McGuinness’ hand picked candidate for the Assembly. Smolensky would serve the area for sixteen years. Greenpoint Poles proved to be model immigrants and assimilated quickly, but they faced the same kinds of prejudice and discrimination more recent immigrants are dealing with today.