1924: a stroke of Coolidge’s pen changes the face of America

On May 26, 1924 the United States enacted a strict immigration policy that forever altered the demographics, and the identity, of the country. To mark the anniversary, we are reposting this blog originally posted in 2019.

This political cartoon from 1946 illustrates the unwelcoming image of U.S. immigration policy.

Though immigration is a currently contested topic in the United States and around the world, it also has a long, established, and detailed history – people have been moving from one country to another practically since countries have existed. It may be a complicated topic, but these complications have not prevented immigration from being one of the enduring touchstones of the modern world.

In the United States, 1880 to 1924 marked an era of mass immigration. During this period, more than 25 million people, including more than 2.5 million Jews, came to the United States. Of those 2.5 million Jewish immigrants, nearly 85 percent from Eastern Europe settled in New York City; and approximately 75 percent of those settled initially on the Lower East Side. The neighborhood quickly became an essential enclave for these immigrants, a haven of  Jewish culture, community, and religion in a new and otherwise unfamiliar land.

These were the immigrants that formed the congregation Beth Hamedrash, which later became Kahal Adath Jeshurun of the Eldridge Street Synagogue. These were the immigrants who saw the United States as a land of  new opportunities and freedoms, including the ability to openly proclaim their Jewish beliefs and culture through the grand edifice constructed, in 1887, at 12 Eldridge Street.

European Jewish immigrants board a ship to America. Image: National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

But immigration history has been one of great peaks and great valleys (a pattern that continues to the present day). And while 1880-1924 marked a great peak, it was quickly followed by a great valley. Just two decades after the city inscribed the words “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” on the base of the Statue of Liberty, the country enacted “the most stringent U.S. immigration policy up to that time.” And this May 26th marked the 96th anniversary of President Calvin Coolidge signing that bill –  the Immigration Act of 1924.

What caused such an about-face? Essentially, the “peak” created the “valley,” as prejudiced white Americans perceived the influx of new races as a threat to their superiority and privilege in the country. Immigrants from countries such as Mexico, Japan, Eastern Europe, and Southern Europe were seen as “other,” and to the eyes of white Americans, suddenly whole neighborhoods, like the Lower East Side, were teaming with people who looked, talked, or lived differently than they did. The years after Word War I saw increased interest in isolationism around the world, and growing fear of Communist ideology led to pervasive discrimination. The 1924 Act took this growing public sentiment and inscribed it into law, by creating “a quota…that limited immigration to two percent of any given nation’s residents already in the U.S. as of 1890.” A couple of years later in 1927 the 2 percent policy was changed to a cap of 150,000 immigrants annually. Both policies decreased annual immigration by more than half – from a rate of about 500,000 new immigrants annually over the roughly 45 year period between 1880 and 1924, to just 150,000 immigrants per year as of 1927.

1903 bronze plaque located in the Statue of Liberty’s museum. Image: National Park Service.

These policies were a central contributing factor to the waning Jewish population of the Lower East Side that began in the 1930s. There was always turnover in the neighborhood, as immigrants who had initially settled in the Jewish community gained success and moved away. But in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there were always new immigrants stepping off the boats and taking their place. After the Immigration Act, this was no longer the case. The Eastern European population in New York slowly became a static entity. The Jewish immigrants aged, they moved, they assimilated, and the Lower East Side began to empty out. It was at this point that Kahal Adath Jeshurun saw diminishing membership, and from the 1930s on, the main sanctuary of the synagogue was used less and less. Without the resources needed to heat and maintain the main sanctuary, the congregation chose to worship on the lower level in the intimate house of study, or Bes Medrash. Like many sites of Jewish life on the Lower East Side, the opulent sanctuary was left to deteriorate in disuse.

The main sanctuary in The Museum at Eldridge Street after an era of deterioration and before restoration. Image: The Museum at Eldridge Street.

Luckily, we know the rest of the story. Preservations rediscovered the magnificent sanctuary in the 1970s, completed an $18.5 million restoration in December 2007, and finally opened the Museum at Eldridge Street. Today, our stunning landmark allows modern visitors to learn about this essential piece of immigrant history, and the role places like the synagogue played in city and Jewish history. Many sites, however, were not so lucky. The Museum is proud to be among a few remaining places – like the Tenement Museum, Russ & Daughters, and the Pickle Guys – that represent that centuries-old Jewish New York culture.

Though it happened nearly a century ago, it’s important to remember the Immigration Act of 1924. It illustrates how immediate the repercussions of these policies can be. In this case, the policy forever altered the course of a neighborhood and an entire culture on the Lower East Side. We’re just grateful and fortunate to continue to explore and celebrate that culture today.

This post was adapted from  written by Dina Posner, an intern at the Museum at Eldridge Street in 2019. Dina is a graduate of the Masters degree program in Historic Preservation at Pratt Institute.

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