German Americans are the single largest ethnic group in the United States, with numbers estimated at more than 50 million people, one sixth of the general population. President Ronald Reagan proclaimed October 6, 1983 as German American Day to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the arrival of thirteen Rhenish families in colonial Philadelphia. Four years later, Congress established the day as an official annual observance to recognize the contributions of German Americans to the nation’s history and culture.
When East and West Germany reunited on October 3, 1990 after nearly five decades of Cold War division, German Unity Day was included in American celebrations as well. The Bavarian tradition of Oktoberfest spread to other German immigrant communities and then made the leap to American popular culture. Many local associations and municipalities, particularly in the “German Belt” of Pennsylvania and the Upper Midwest, organized parades, festivals, concerts, and other special events to highlight historic German American communities.
When the United States proclaimed independence from Great Britain in 1776, there were more than 300 separate German-speaking states and free cities in central Europe. Immigrants from all of them helped to develop the new nation. German doctor Johannes Fleischer (1582-1608) was among the first settlers in the Jamestown colony in Virginia, and Lutheran pastor Peter Muhlenberg (1746-1807) was a general in the Continental Army and later a United States congressman. More than seven million Germans came to America in the century between 1820 and 1920. They augmented the already substantial German populations of New York and Pennsylvania and helped to settle new states from Ohio to Oregon.
Among them was my great-great-grandfather, Heinrich (Henry) Meiring, born in Hannover in 1849. He fought in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871 but then fled the anti-Catholic purges of Otto von Bismarck’s Kulturkampf. First arriving in Canada, he later made his way to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, where he opened a flour mill near the town of Sheridan. His daughter Anna married one of his mill workers, George Finney (1868-1936), the son of Irish immigrants. In 1900 Anna Meiring Finney gave birth to my paternal grandfather, who later married the daughter of another German immigrant from Frankfurt.
The 300 German states had consolidated into 39 by 1820, but internal political, religious, and economic unrest drove many to seek a better life across the Atlantic. Many brought skilled trades, education, and distinct cultural traditions with them. The Christmas tree, kindergarten programs, glee clubs, lager beer, gymnasiums, and many other aspects of American daily life all originated with these German-speaking newcomers. German churches and German language newspapers proliferated in the young republic. St. Louis, Milwaukee, Chicago, and the farm communities of the Great Lakes region soon had large German populations.
Many German Americans opposed slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War, and 200,000 served in the Union Army, including my maternal great-great-grandfather. New York and Ohio each provided ten German-speaking divisions. They fought in every major campaign of the war. Some German settlements in the Confederate states endured persecution for their Unionist views. German Americans were derided as “Dutchmen” by Southern sympathizers in Missouri and attacked by Confederate guerrilla bands. After the war, most German American newspapers and civic groups sided with the Republican Party’s Reconstruction platform, particularly its support of full civil rights for African American freedmen.
German immigrants included Roman Catholics, Jews, and a number of Protestant groups, including Lutherans, Moravians, Pietists, and Mennonites. Targeted during the First World War, they sought to prove their loyalty in the Second. General (and later President) Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and Admiral Chester W. Nimitz (1885-1966) both came from German ancestry and helped lead America to victory in World War II. German Americans contributed to the tremendous growth of the postwar economy and shaped the future of American politics, business, education, music, and art.
October is also Italian American Heritage and Culture Month, declared by Congress in 1989 during the presidency of George H. W. Bush (1924-2018). Italian Americans constitute 6% of the U.S. population and are the fourth largest group of European heritage after those with German, Irish, and English roots. Local celebrations of Columbus Day on October 12 eventually developed into an entire month of special events and festivals. More than five million Italian immigrants became Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the vast majority arriving in the decades between 1880 and 1920.
Like Germany, Italy became a single unified nation in 1871, ending centuries of feudalism and regional conflict. Unification led to improved living conditions, but local infrastructure could not support a growing and more mobile population of largely unskilled labor. Poverty and oppression throughout the country, particularly in the former Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, drove many to emigrate. Millions fled the country over the next several decades. Many of them followed friends and relatives to America. In 1892 the U.S. government opened the immigration station at Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Many Italians arrived here until the First World War restricted new arrivals from Europe.
Italians formed tight-knit communities in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest and became involved in local business and politics. They built on the contributions of earlier generations of newcomers. The Italian American 39th New York Infantry or “Garibaldi Guard” was one of the first regiments to answer President Lincoln’s call to preserve the Union in 1861. Others went West and developed agriculture and other industries. Most were Roman Catholic and contributed to the growth of parishes, schools, hospitals, universities, and social service organizations. California native Amadeo Giannini (1870-1949), whose father came from Genoa in 1849 to participate in the Gold Rush, founded the Bank of Italy in San Francisco in 1904. In 1930 Bank of Italy became Bank of America.
As was the case in many immigrant communities, discrimination and hardship were daily reminders that success in their adopted land would not be easy. The Sacco and Vanzetti trial of 1927 exposed anti-immigrant prejudice and popular hostility to the radical labor movements in which many Italian workers became involved. The bootlegging empire of Al Capone (1899-1947) generated sensational news during the Prohibition years and inaugurated a popular obsession with Italian American organized crime families for decades.
Many Italian Americans pursued careers in public service. Four have been Mayor of New York City, including Fiorello La Guardia (1882-1947), Rudolph Giuliani (who led the city through the aftermath of the 9-11 attacks), and current Mayor Bill de Blasio. Mario Cuomo (1932-2015) was the 52nd Governor of New York. His son Andrew has been the 56th since 2011. In 1984, Democratic Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011) became the first candidate of Italian descent to be nominated for Vice President. World War II Marine John Basilone (1916-1945) won the Congressional Medal of Honor at Guadalcanal and became a national hero. When he was killed at Iwo Jima, the entire country mourned.
The observance of Columbus Day became controversial in the closing decades of the 20th century as the emerging Native American civil rights movement challenged the idea that early European explorers had “discovered” the land and peoples of the western hemisphere. This debate cast a shadow across many local celebrations of the holiday, much to the chagrin of some Italian American communities. President Bush designated November as Native American Indian Heritage Month in 1990 to address these concerns and similar objections to the portrayal of native peoples in Thanksgiving traditions. This allowed October to remain a focus for educational and festive events on Italian culture and heritage.
The impressive list of prominent politicians, business leaders, artists, actors, musicians, athletes, writers, intellectuals, and military heroes of German and Italian heritage can serve as a starting point for developing a host of engaging curriculum activities in your classroom. So can cuisine, language, music, decor, and costuming. From portraits of Ellis Island immigrants to famous paintings and films, the material available to the resourceful and creative teacher is without limit. Have your students design a board game on the immigrant experience. Draw maps showing the settlement and growth of historic ethnic communities. Assign projects and special reports on important figures and events in history.
Whatever you decide to do in class, strive for inclusiveness and inspiration in your lesson plans. Engage the kids in activities that celebrate all the cultural traditions that have shaped the course of modern American history. October is a good time to focus on the contributions of Italian and German immigrants and their descendants. As in other special cultural commemorations throughout the year, teach your students that each of them has something important to offer. Each ethnic heritage has contributed to the strength and richness of the society as a whole. Learning about one another can help us work together to build a better future.
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