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Sarah Frances Smith and the Americanization Movement In Stamford, Connecticut, in the 1920's

by William J. Gottlin, Spring 2000

My contribution to the series created by the Stamford Historical Society and UConnStamford [1], is an examination of the Americanization movement in Stamford, Connecticut in the 1920's, and the singular contribution of Sarah Frances Smith, Director of the Americanization Program and long-time head of Adult Education in Stamford.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, a movement grew to hasten the assimilation of America's immigrant millions. Labeled Americanization, it was strongest when the call of patriotism and need for conformity cast doubts on the immigrants' loyalty. During World War I, Americanization programs blossomed, using a mixture of moral persuasion and the threat of force to make immigrants embrace America in a way deemed proper by some Americans, if not by the immigrants themselves.

In the immediate aftermath of the War, the fear of Bolshevik radicalism justified the continuation of Americanization programs in the eyes of its advocates. John Higham, an historian of immigration, argued that Americanization faded in the early 1920's as the radical threat passed, the movement lost its sense of purpose, and other, more draconian measures were passed into law to severely restrict immigration.

However, Stamford's experience with Americanization was the exception to the rule. Americanization did not gain a foothold in Stamford until after the War, and it developed into a strong community program in the 1920's. The explanation for this lay in the character of Sarah Frances Smith, who came to Stamford in 1926 to head up the Americanization program.

Sarah Frances Smith was born in 1895 in Illinois. Both of her parents were educators. Her father, William Chandler Smith, was for a time a superintendent of public schools in East Chicago. There Sarah came into contact with Russian and Polish immigrants who worked in the steel mills. Sarah was aware of the work of Jane Addams at Hull House, one of the first settlement houses in the United States. The tolerant attitude of the social settlements was her guiding philosophy in her own work.

The Smith family moved often as William Smith assumed new positions: superintendent in New Chicago, Indiana; head of the first trade school in the Indianapolis area; Director of Education for the YMCA in Massachusetts and Rhode Island; and the head of a technical high school in Troy, New York.

Upon graduation from Wellesley College in 1918, Sarah Smith followed in her father's footsteps. First she did social work with the New York WMCA. When her father became head of the Department of Immigration Education of the NY State Department of Education, Sarah was hired as an organizer in the Mohawk Valley region in upstate NY.

Her job was to organize English classes for the foreign born in schools, and to go to companies and community leaders to encourage participation.

Sarah then spent two years in Haverhill, Massachusetts, as Director of Americanization for the public schools. It was a difficult, hands-on experience in an economically depressed town with little support for her work. There she went door to door to encourage participation. She remembered going to the window and yelling down to immigrant Greek women, "Come on up! The teacher's here! We'd gather around the kitchen table or whatever. Of course I went to all their festivities."

In 1926, she came to Stamford at the request of Robert Deming, a friend of her father and a leading figure in adult education.

Stamford had created an Americanization program in 1918, at a time when the militant attitude of the Great War was still in the air. The old guard Yankee population of Stamford had discovered that the town of 40,000 people was two-thirds immigrants and their children, largely Italian, Irish, Polish and Jewish.

The program did not begin well. After the Stamford school system printed 10,000 circulars in English, Polish, Yiddish and Italian and distributing them in the factories and schools, 554 immigrants registered for evening school. However, according to Stamford educator Edward Sammis, an influenza epidemic, an exciting national election and two peace celebrations put evening studying out of the minds of many people, and only 91 students remained at year's end.

Over the next few years, the program faltered due to lack of direction. The program was under funded, and Stamford found other needs to be more pressing, such as building more schools, sewer systems and especially roads for the ever-increasing automobile traffic.

Sarah Smith set about reorganizing the Americanization program in the image of the social settlements she had grown up with. She was a compassionate woman, and believed that immigrants had much to offer America. She was ambivalent about the term "Americanization, saying that it was "a sad confusing term …much was done that was excellent in aim and spirit, and much was done that was harmful." She preferred to use the term Adult Immigrant Education.

At the same time, she believed in the absolute value of the American way of life, and saw her goal as "weaving together the cultural contributions of the immigrant and the language and values of America."

Smith reached out to the immigrant communities in Stamford with one hand, while trying to draw in the native born with the other. In an open letter in the Stamford Weekly Guide, which was distributed free of charge by local merchants, she wrote "In the problem of Americanization ...the public schools have the task of education in the English language. This alone is not the only means of assimilation. Necessarily there must be an understanding, sympathy and interest on the part of the native-born and knowledge of local opportunities for the new-comers."

She was a one-woman show, walking around town, putting up posters, writing articles, visiting schools and churches and businesses. Slips of paper went into company paychecks, letters were sent out. She said, "I distributed all of our announcements around town. I delivered them myself, believe it or not. I put the posters up in the windows. That's when they knew school was opening. That was a way of getting acquainted. On Pacific Street they'd say, `Oh, school's opening.' I'd have one day for Pacific Street and I'd have another for the South Pacific and then they all went out to school."

Smith said, "I always went to the priest (of immigrant groups) and talked about (the program) and urged him to announce the coming of it ...there are some national Polish organizations, so I would see who was the head of that and try to get into one of their meetings ... the big Jewish organization of women backed me up and. .. if I found there was a Greek (group), I'd go and tell the women there about it."

The main Americanization school was the Rice School, near the railroad tracks and the South End. After a slow start, the number of immigrant adults who attended began to climb. In 1926-27, 450 registered; the following year, 606; the year after, 689. On average, over 35% attended any given class.

Still, Smith was not satisfied with the results. She began a training program to better prepare her instructors. She continually upgraded the curriculum to make it "practical and interesting." Smith emphasized social events, such as monthly assemblies and Christmas parties, and created a student-run newsletter to foster "friendly attitudes" and understanding between immigrants and the native-born.

Smith also created home classes. In 1927, 77 Polish, Russian, Armenian, Jewish, Italian, German and Greek mothers met in eight classes twice a week.

Although Smith controlled almost every aspect of the Americanization Program, she was sensitive to the voices of the immigrant groups she worked with. In 1929, Smith created the Racial Council. In her annual report, she wrote that leaders of the eight (sic) leading nationalities in Stamford - Italian, Polish, Jewish, Russian, Greek and Swedish - have met once a month to encourage participation in the evening classes for foreign adults, spread information regarding naturalization, foster friendship between foreign groups and with the native-born.

Several groups stood out as supporters. The Council of Jewish Women made personal visits to a large number of Jewish members of the community to encourage participation. Patriotic groups such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Lions Club also sponsored programs.
Sarah Smith was rightfully proud of the achievements of her Adult Immigrant Education program. In her 1932-1933 annual report, she wrote that "Stamford has 4% of foreign-born over 21 in school, ranking 1st in cities of comparable size; the holding power is 62%, with Stamford standing 1st.

The impact of Sarah Smith's efforts can best be realized in the thousands of immigrant adults who were able to learn English and American civics through her program, better enabling them to understand and prosper in their new country and town.

On a larger scale, Smith was able to capitalize on the tolerant attitudes of most Stamford residents to create a program more like the pre-War social settlements than the wartime Americanizers. Instead of forcing immigrants to choose between their old and new cultures, Smith stressed "friendly attitudes," tolerance and respect to create a successful program that enriched the lives of Stamford's immigrants.

Selected Bibliography

Buczek, Daniel S. "Ethnic to American: Holy Name of Jesus Parish, Stamford, Connecticut." A.J.V. Fiedorczyk, ed. 75 Years: Church and A People. Charlotte, N.C.: The Delmar Co., 1979.

Higham, John. Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925. New York: Atheneum, 1973.

Janick, Herbert F., Jr. A Diverse People: Connecticut 1914 to the Present. Chester, CT: The Pequot Press, 1975.

Koenig, Samuel, Immigrant Settlements in Connecticut: Their Growth and Characteristics. Hartford, CT: Connecticut State Department of Education, 1938.

Pendery, Joyce and Ronald Marcus. Interview with Sarah F. Smith, Sarah F. Smith Papers. The Stamford Historical Society, Stamford, Connecticut, 1986.

Roth, David M., ed. Connecticut History and Culture: An Historical Overview and Resource Guide for Teachers. NP.The Connecticut Historical Commission, 1985.

Sammis, Edward A. "Report of the Stamford Evening School," Reports of the School Committee and Superintendent of Schools, Stamford, Connecticut, 1919.

Sherwood, Herbert F. The Story of Stamford. New York: The States History Company, 1930.

Smith, Sarah F. "Adult Education An Important Part of Public School System." Stamford, Advocate, Tercentenary Edition, 1641-1941, 1941.

Smith, Sarah F. "Annual Report of Director of Adult Education 1926-1927," July 22, 1927.

Smith, Sarah F. "Annual Report of Director of Adult Education 1927-1928," N.D. Smith, Sarah F. "Annual Report of Director of Adult Education 1928-1929," N.D. Smith, Sarah F. "Annual Report of Director of Adult Education 1929-1930," N.D.

[1] Cultural Mosaic Series at U-Conn Stamford in co-operation with the Stamford Historical Society

© William J. Gottlin

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Transcript of oral history interview with Sarah Frances Smith
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