Exploiting Mass Immigration to Displace Blacks

The early twentieth century’s Great Replacement Theory

By George Fishman on May 22, 2024

We are approaching the 100th anniversary of the “Immigration Act of 1924” (“1924 Act”) enacted into law on May 26, 1924. This epochal legislation ushered in a four-decade-long pause in mass immigration that allowed the United States to assimilate the 20-plus million (including my forebears) who had arrived during the “Great Wave” beginning in the 1880s, no mean feat. And the pause fostered a national economic climate conducive to the flowering of the “American Dream”. Now, of course, the 1924 Act is famous/infamous for its national origins quota system. But we would all do well to recall famed sociologist Nathan Glazer’s reflection that “Today, we decry the restriction policies of the 1920s, but we should recall that progressives and liberals as well as conservatives and racists generally supported them.”1 And, as we shall see, so did native-born Black citizens.

To the unfortunate extent that racist thought insinuated itself into immigration thinking at the time, mass immigrationists were just as susceptible as restrictionists. Professor Daniel Tichenor, the Philip H. Knight chair of social science and director of the program on democratic governance at the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon, has written that:

During the late-nineteenth century, more than a few Southern leaders hoped to recruit European immigrant laborers to help build a “New South” defined by unprecedented agricultural and industrial development, even as native blacks migrated to Northern cities in record numbers. At gatherings like the Southern Interstate Immigration Committee, leaders from across the region planned ways to attract more European settlers.2

These Southern leaders didn’t just hope to recruit European immigrant laborers — they also hoped to use the immigrants to replace Black workers. The virulent racism at the heart of this scheme was on full display in a 1905 article by West Virginia University historian Walter Fleming. Writing in the Political Science Quarterly, Fleming exhorted the South to entice European immigrants in order to spare it from having to rely on Black workers. Fleming first went about assailing Black farmers:

The negro cannot furnish either in quality or in quantity the labor necessary to develop the South. By its lack of initiative and inventive genius the black race has acted as a hindrance to progress. Free negro agricultural labor has in most places ... proven to be a failure; the fertile lands of the black belt have never again reached the production of 1860; the better wages paid to the negro have simply enabled him to work less ... . Yet the most fertile land of the South is still in the hands of the negroes, who do not equal in production the white farmers on the poorest land ... . Agricultural development in the black belt is at a standstill because of the worthlessness of the black and the difficulty of getting more white labor ... .

The younger southerner knows of the latent wealth of his country; he wants the profit from it. The negro has failed to assist him.

Fleming then outlined the “many reasons the South now wants white immigration”. Among them:

  • After its experience with negro labor the South now turns to the northern and foreign whites to assist in the development of the country ... . [N]ow [the younger southerner], unlike his father, the ex-slaveholder, is anxious to find a substitute for the negro. Many southerners have visited the North and observed the superiority of white labor.

  • Side by side with negroes, the Italians have proved their superiority as farm laborers. [A] planter of Baton Rouge who employs about forty Italian families ... states that they are peaceable and more industrious than the negro; that they quickly learn to do unfamiliar work, treat stock better and cultivate their crops more intelligently; that they are more economical and do not rush into debt nor spend their earnings extravagantly.

  • Northern men who have capital invested in the South have no patience with the negro ... . Some manufacturers have mills in New England and also in South Carolina. The future seems to be with South Carolina, and therefore they are friendly to immigration. With the present labor supply the South has about reached the limit of cotton production though the demand for cotton is increasing. Consequently makers of cotton goods encourage immigration, because it means to them a more certain supply of cotton at a reasonable price ... . To gather future large crops additional labor must be had.

  • White immigration is looked forward to by some as a solution of the race problem. In parts of the country thousands of white farmers have moved away from their farms to villages and towns, because they do not feel safe with their wives and daughters in the midst of the black population.

Fleming reported that as a result of this desire for white immigrants:

  • [I]mmigration [from the northern and western states and from abroad] is solicited and encouraged by various agencies in the South: by the state governments, by the railroads, by real estate agents, and by numerous immigration societies, boards of trade and industrial associations ... . The efforts of the state authorities are directed not so much toward inducing immigration of laborers as toward securing a class of independent farmers who will do their own work, dispensing with the negro.

  • In Wilmington, where the negro laborers have proven so unreliable, the preference for north Europeans has given way before necessity, and Italians are being brought in to furnish more efficient labor. Texas has secured colonies of northerners, of Germans and of Italians, and smaller numbers of Japanese rice farmers.

Schemes to harness mass immigration for racist purposes inevitably heightened the apprehensions of Black Americans about the impact of such immigration on their communities. Vilja Lehtinen has written in a masterful master’s thesis — “‘America Would Lose Its Soul’: The Immigration Restriction Debate, 1920-1924” — at the University of Helsinki, Finland, that:

  • While the economic argument for [immigration] restriction was the one most employed by blacks, many also shared white Americans’ fears that the new immigrants would imperil American institutions. But they did not call for limits on Southern and Eastern Europeans specifically, as this would have implied acceptance of race theories. But blacks did resent the fact that whites preferred immigrants over native, English-speaking blacks; the tendency of immigrants to quickly adopt American race attitudes did not escape them, either.

  • When immigration had plummeted during the [First World W]ar, the position of blacks in industry had improved significantly. Still, blacks understood that little fundamental had changed, and feared that once immigration revived they would again be pushed to the bottom rung. Many black papers therefore supported the various suspension measures proposed immediately after the war, arguing that the war had shown how important a hindrance [to] immigrant labor had been to the advancement of black Americans.

  • The majority of blacks hoped for stringent limitations on immigration so that their own opportunities would increase ... . Th[is] economic argument ... tended to outweigh [Blacks’] distaste for the racial implications of the [national origins] quotas, and by 1924 most black newspapers supported the Johnson-Reed bill [to become the 1924 Act].

The preference of many employers for immigrants over Blacks is still with us. As my colleague Mark Krikorian has written, “Much field research has shown that employers prefer to hire immigrants over black Americans.”3 And esteemed sociologist William Julius Wilson noted regarding inner-city Chicago that Hispanics “continue to funnel into manufacturing because employers prefer Hispanics over blacks”.4

And the tendency to only see racism in restrictionism, and never in mass immigrationism, is still with us. As Frank Morris, retired dean of graduate studies and research at Morgan State University, testified before the House Judiciary Committee in 2011:

[C]harges of racism during immigration debates are always leveled toward those in favor of reduced immigration regardless of their reasons. Ironically we Americans deny the consistent American racial history of always accepting, welcoming, and treating most immigrants better than they treat and value fellow African American citizens and yet falsely do not treat that as racism.

End Notes

1 Nathan Glazer, “The Logic of Restriction”, in John J. Miller ed., Strangers at Our Gate: Immigration in the 1990s, The Center for the New American Community, at 18 (1994).

2 Daniel Tichenor, Dividing Lines: The Politics of Immigration Control in America, at 119 (2002).

3 Mark Krikorian, The New Case Against Immigration: Both Legal and Illegal, at 141 (2008).

4 William Julius Wilson, When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, at 144 (1996).