100 years ago today

One hundred years ago today, on 4 October 1923, my father, seven years old, arrived in Boston on the Cameronia with his mother Annie and his sister Mary. They were emigrating from Scotland to join his father and his three older siblings, who had made the voyage across the Atlantic six months earlier and settled in Brooklyn. My grandmother had decided that economic opportunities for her children would be better in the new world.

Dad’s limp was a problem since he had been diagnosed as affected by tuberculosis of the bone and he would be allowed into the US only after an inspection. If he were not allowed to stay, the plan was to send him back to Scotland to be raised by his eldest sister, who had remained behind with her new husband. Dad always resented the P chalked on the back of his best blue suit by the inspectors to indicate throughout the landing process that he had been passed to stay. He maintained a healthy hatred of Boston from that episode.

At first the family lived with Uncle Willy McBride, Annie’s brother, in his small bungalow, and then they got their own place. They were disappointed by the new world, where oranges did not, as Uncle Willy had told them, grow freely on the trees in Brooklyn.

But the family had help. At one point, Dad shoveled coal for the furnaces in three apartment buildings, in return for a reduction in rent. His 8th grade principal saw potential and sent him to take the test that led to his admission to Brooklyn Technical High School. My parents had $2 in their pockets when they returned from their honeymoon in the Catskills using a borrowed car. After they had my older sister, they lived for several years in an apartment in the house of a large Italian family, the Itris. The Frasers stayed in the US because they didn’t have the money to go back to Scotland, and when they did, well, things were looking up, weren’t they?

My grandfather, a tailor and an alcoholic, did not give up the drink as his wife had hoped he would in the new world, but his children were hard working, and they thrived.  Dad, the youngest, was the only one of his six siblings to go beyond an 8th grade education, but Ness became a fine fur buyer for Lord & Taylor, Jean a seamstress for a Fifth Avenue tailor, Mary an executive secretary in a Wall Street firm, and Bill a mechanical engineer by on-the-job training. 

Unlike my father, my mother was born in the US, but she was the daughter of an immigrant; her father came from England in 1911 at age 24. He married the daughter of one of his work colleagues and their four children also prospered. My cousins include an emergency room physician, a PhD in molecular genetics, a retired chief engineer for Nabisco, and a director of regulatory affairs for a medical manufacturer.

Perhaps because of my immigrant roots, I have a fascination with the movement of people and with the things they took with them. My grandmother brought this thimble with her in 1923.

My partner, Mark, and I used to explore Ohio woods when we lived in Columbus, searching for traces of the old canals and locks. Now that we live in Colorado we’ve become interested in old trails. We just returned from our second symposium of the Santa Fe Trail Association, this one held in Independence, Missouri.

We worried that this Association would be white people talking about white people’s history, but it is much more diverse than that. James Pepper Henry, vice president of the Kaw Nation (or Kansa tribe, after which Kansas is named) gave a fascinating and moving talk about the Grandfather Rock. Before being forcibly moved from Kansas to Oklahoma in 1872, the tribe often visited this 24-ton boulder on the banks of the Kansas River. In 1929 the rock was moved to Lawrence, Kansas, and, adding insult to injury, had a plaque affixed to it commemorating the hardships faced by white people crossing the plains.

In 2020, the Kaw Nation requested the return of the rock; the Lawrence City Commission said “yes,” and the Mellon Foundation is funding its relocation to Allegawaho Park near Council Grove, Kansas, on land now owned by the Kaw Nation. There are many more fascinating details to this story and the park is beautiful (we visited it on our way to the symposium).

I write this post to honor my grandmother for her foresight in moving her family and to ask you to reflect on the past, present, and future of migrants. I find wisdom in the work of HIAS (originally the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society)  and the advice of the United Nations.

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