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Our Rich History: Newport has been a cosmopolitan ethnic community from the 1840s on . . .

By Katherine Crawford-Lackey
Special to NKyTribune

Part 46 of our series, “Resilience and Renaissance: Newport, Kentucky, 1795-2020.”

During the first several decades of the 19th Century, Newport experienced somewhat modest growth, and then by the mid-century its population began to skyrocket. From just 106 residents in 1800, the number of residents reached 5,895 by 1850. Marked by homogeneity during its first few decades, this small settlement on the Ohio River grew from a rather uniform white population in the early 1800s to a very densely populated and cosmopolitan mix of native-born, foreign-born, whites, blacks, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews in the early 1900s.

Beginning in the 1840s, Newport changed drastically, as an increasing number of immigrants settled in the area. Escaping privation and an unstable political environment at home, millions of Europeans immigrated to the United States in two major waves throughout the 19th century. Representing vastly different backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions, they flocked to America seeking opportunities for work. The US was the embodiment of hope and freedom, of political, religious, and personal autonomy. Newport provided an inviting location, especially after the town opened its first steam-driven sawmill in the 1830s and slowly began the march towards industrialization.

By the mid-19th Century, Newport had outgrown its reputation as a sleepy river town, boasting five churches, one seminary of learning, four private schools, and a masonic lodge (Margaret Strebel Hartman, Washington Fire Engine & Hose Co. No. 1, Newport, Kentucky. Cincinnati, Ohio: Kalko Productions, 1963). Over the next twelve years, five additional churches were established, illustrating the increasing diversity of the city.

Newport’s heavy industry, especially in the West End, provided jobs for the city’s growing immigrant population in the 19th and 20th centuries. This postcard from 1919 shows Andrews Steel Mill. (Source: Paul A. Tenkotte.)

Meanwhile, the city’s West End was becoming more industrial, luring immigrants to the region. These new settlers changed both the composition of the population as well as the face of the workforce. Once marked by urban gentry and a large Protestant middle class, Newport suddenly found itself with a high number of poor Catholic residents. The occupational structure shifted to lower-paying and physically arduous jobs, such as factory workers, river men, and laborers (Purvis, pp. 59, 80).

The first wave of immigrants, beginning in the late 1830s, included a large number of Irish and German natives. In addition to crop failures, German relocation was spurred by the failure of the Napoleonic Wars and the economic instability that plagued Europe. Food shortages and the rising price of goods and fuel forced over two million German-speaking immigrants to migrate to the United States between 1815 and 1875 (Howard M. Sachar, A History of the Jews in America. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1992, p. 38).

Ireland was also in crisis, with an increase in the cost of land as well as inflated rents. Unable to physically and financially raise a diversity of crops, approximately one half of the population survived solely on the potato. When a potato disease reached Ireland from North America in 1845, most of the crop was destroyed, and as a result, a high percentage of the population was vulnerable to starvation. The true devastation of this disease was not seen until the following year, in 1846, when Ireland experienced near total failure of the potato crop. The next two years saw similar devastation. By 1849, the crop was making a recovery, but by then a large portion of Ireland’s population had either immigrated overseas or perished as a result of starvation (Dean M. Braa,”The Great Potato Famine and the Transformation of Irish Peasant Society.” Science & Society, vol. 61, no. 2, 1997: 193-215).

The potato famine resulted in the mass immigration of Irish to America. From 1845 to 1860, nearly 1.7 million Irish, mostly Roman Catholic, entered the United States. This ethnic group drastically transformed the religious composition of America, making up over 72% of the Roman Catholic population in the United States by 1860 (James Stuart Olson, Catholic Immigrants in America. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall, 1987, p. 29). Devotion to Catholicism encompassed more than just religious belief; it provided a way to cling to Old World traditions. The Church became a place for socialization, and priests became “political and economic leaders, the men who helped peasants interpret their environment” (Olson, p. 23).

Immigrants were not the only newcomers to Newport. In the latter half of the 1800s, the number of African Americans in the region began to increase as a result of the Civil War. When hostilities broke out in 1861, only two free blacks resided in town. Due to the changing nature of regional relationships, the number of African Americans in Newport grew to 312 by 1880. That year the black community founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church under the leadership of Reverend Henry Harris. The congregation renovated a previously owned church on the corner of Mayo Street and Central Avenue, eventually moving in 1905 to the abandoned old Corpus Christi Church located on Chestnut Street (“Sale is Under Way; Old Corpus Christi Church Is to Become Africa M.E. Church,” The Kentucky Post, December 6, 1905, 6).

As America progressed into the latter half of the 19th Century, immigration rates climbed rapidly, reaching record highs with approximately 788,000 individuals requesting entrance to the US (William P Dillingham, Statistical Review of Immigration, 1820-1910; Distribution of Immigrants, 1850-1900. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1911, p. 4). Two major ethnic groups migrated during this time period to Newport, Italian Catholics and Russian and Polish Jews.

The large-scale Italian relocation at the end of the 19th Century was caused by a series of natural disasters that struck southern Italy. Families moving to the Midwest found many of their kinsmen living in Cincinnati. Cheap land became available in Northern Kentucky, luring immigrants across the Ohio River to cities like Newport (Pamela Casebolt Ciafardini and Philip G. Ciafardini, Italians in Newport and Northern Kentucky. Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2007, p. 7). Settling primarily in the city’s Clifton neighborhood, Italians began to establish their own unique community. (See: NKyTribune Our Rich History.)

The Catholic Church played an important religious and social role in the lives of many immigrants. The Italians of Clifton desired to establish their own house of worship. Located on Main Street, formerly Schneider Avenue, St. Vincent De Paul Church was constructed in 1916.

Growth of Covington and Newport, 1800-1900. (Source: Paul A Tenkotte, “Rival Cities to Suburbs: Covington and Newport, Kentucky, 1790-1890.” Ph.D. diss., University of Cincinnati, 1988, p. 663.)

Italian Catholics in Newport were joined by an influx of Russian Jews escaping the repressive regime of the tsar. America had already witnessed the migration of Jews from Germany in the 1840s and 1850s after the Napoleonic Wars. Faced with economic devastation and starvation, life became even more unbearable for Jews of the authoritarian Russia Empire, as they were barred from participating in certain trades, forcing many to leave (Sachar, pp. 39-41).

Following the assassination of Tsar Alexander II of Russia in 1881, civilians lashed out at the Jewish community. While anti-Tsarist revolutionaries were ultimately responsible for the assassination, Russians wrongly accused the Jewish population of involvement in the plot. Pogroms, acts of violence and vandalism, were a result of growing political unrest. Mayhem spread across the Pale of Settlement, the large Russian Jewish ghetto (Sachar, p. 117). “Barefoot brigades,” violent mobs of the peasant class, pillaged, burned, and killed residents of the Jewish settlement.

Seeking haven from the chaos of Eastern Europe, Russian Jews found a home in the Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky region. More orthodox and traditional in their beliefs than the earlier German-American Jews of Cincinnati’s well-known Reform movement, many Russian Jews settled across the river in Newport.

Eastern European Jews had other motives for establishing roots outside of the Jewish community in Cincinnati. Settling in the Queen City in the 1840s and 1850s, German Jews had struggled for decades to be accepted into American society. Sadly, they ostracized the Russian newcomers, who were perceived as a threat, jeopardizing their progress. For this reason, the “German-Jewish community in the United States consistently opposed the large-scale immigration of Russian Jews” (Sachar, p. 123). In 1891 the Board of Delegates of American Israelites, based in New York City, even declared that Eastern European Jews were “unfit to assimilate with the population” (Sacher, p. 132).

Many of Newport’s Jewish settlers became well-known merchants and artisans. In addition to working as tailors, cobblers, and wallpaper hangers, they were instrumental in spurring the business district that developed along Monmouth Street (“Monmouth Street Historic District.” National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, July 25, 1996, Section 7, p. 2). Taking special interest in the education of the community, they also proved instrumental in insisting upon high standards for public school education in the city (Purvis, p. 184).
As of 1920, Newport contained seventeen Protestant churches, five Catholic parishes, a Jewish synagogue and a Christian Science reading room. School attendance continued to increase, especially after 1908 when children were required by state law to complete elementary school up through the age of fourteen (Purvis, pp. 186, 201).

The face of Newport began to drastically change in response to both World War I and the Great Depression. At the outbreak of the First World War, the city was divided among itself as the United States sided with the Allies against the Central Powers, including Germany, the Austria-Hungarian Empire, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. With America at odds with Germany, many US citizens with German heritage were demonized by their neighbors. The hostilities overseas had a profound impact on relations at home, changing the look and feel of Newport. German street names were rechristened; for example, German Street was renamed Liberty Street. The German language, taught in Newport public schools, was suppressed. (See: This Our Rich History column)

World War I served as a catalyst for ethnic divide and intolerance. This was exacerbated by Prohibition. (Our Rich History) The consumption of alcoholic beverages, often perceived as an immoral act, was the supposed cause for a majority of societal ailments. Poorer immigrant groups became the scapegoats and were blamed for public drunkenness and immorality. Catholics and Jews specifically were targeted by Protestants who accused these religious groups of drunken slovenliness. Due to the poor treatment of Catholics by local Protestants, relations between the two groups remained hostile throughout much of the 20th century (Purvis, p. 200).

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the US became involved in World War II. The war effort provided an abundance of jobs, many of which were filled by women. With Newport sending a higher percentage of men to war than America in general, local women and children stepped up to manage the home front. It was an effort in which all residents participated, women contributed to the workforce while fathers, brothers, and husbands were away, and children organized fundraisers and collections for troops overseas. It was also a time when many Appalachians left their homes in Eastern Kentucky and other southern cities to seek jobs in the prosperous wartime economy of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.

The 1940s marked a time of patriotism in the American psyche. The rhetoric of the time described the county as fighting a war for freedom. Upon victory, many citizens began to question what it meant to be free in America. As Newport’s black population more than doubled between 1910 and 1930, residents could no longer deny that African Americans were treated as second-class citizens. One only needed to look at the state of the segregated Southgate Street School to understand white society’s treatment of blacks. Enrollment at the school steadily increased, but no new teachers were hired to relieve growing class sizes. In addition to a lack of resources, the school building was badly damaged in the flood of 1937. Instead of repairing the antiquated schoolhouse, superintendent Anderson D. Owens proposed the construction of a modern educational facility for the African American community. Construction plan, however, were denied. Necessary repairs were made to the old Southgate Street School, leaving black students in cramped quarters for the next several decades (Purvis, p. 243).

Newport played a leading role in the aftermath of the 1954 court case, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which outlawed segregation. While many southern states delayed integration for almost a decade, the city of Newport was one of the first to desegregate its schools. By 1956, all educational facilities had been peacefully integrated. The city’s Board of Education also made efforts to protect faculty positions of blacks teaching in segregated schools, instead of allowing their contracts to expire (Purvis, p. 244).

While the integration of Newport schools created some opportunities for African Americans, the black population began to migrate out of Northern Kentucky into Cincinnati after World War II. Blacks were not the only group to leave the city at this time. During the 1950s, in the wake of the Second World War, many families sought more spacious housing options. Homes in Newport, primarily built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, were too cramped for growing families wanting larger rooms and a yard, the quintessential American Dream. This led to an outmigration from the heart of the city to suburbs like neighboring Fort Thomas.

Not only did Newport see the departure of many middle-class Protestant families. Jews and Catholics also moved to the suburbs. As suburbanization proceeded, homes were bought and transformed into apartments, deterring long-term settlement in the area. The lack of options for permanent housing profoundly impacted the composition of the city, reinforcing a transient state for those wishing to live in the city. With an accompanying hemorrhage in population, many of the historic establishments ceased to exist. Some of these buildings were even demolished, including the iconic Irish Catholic parish, Immaculate Conception, in 1969.

From its beginnings as a small outlet on the Ohio River, Newport flourished in the late 1800s as it welcomed a diversity of ethnic and religious groups. Cosmopolitan in the breadth of its population, as well as in its educational and job opportunities, the city and its immigrants evidenced resilience as they built an infrastructure proudly reflecting their native roots while embracing their new American ones.

Dr. Katherine Crawford-Lackey is a PhD graduate of public history from Middle Tennessee State University. She also earned an MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University (NKU). Her research uses place-based methodologies to study American social movements and forms of public commemoration.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati, Northern Kentucky, and along the Ohio River). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) and the author of many books and articles.

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