No Place Like Home

Scandinavian immigrants in early-20th century Alexandria had many things in common, but one of the most apparent was that many of them were young, single men without families.  This trend can be seen in the 1920 US Census; out of the four wards within Alexandria, each one housed single, Scandinavian immigrants who usually lived in other peoples’ homes as boarders.  The one exception was in Ward 3, where the majority of immigrants lived as single family units.  By looking at census data, we are able to discover residential patterns among Scandinavian immigrants and their families, which correlate to their economic and social position in American society.

Prior to the 20th century, the information on census records was relatively basic, and most census takers did not record the house numbers, or even the streets, of the houses they were visiting.  The inclusion of streets and house numbers in the 1920 US Census makes it much easier not only to find immigrants, but also to map out where they were living.  In Ward 1, most immigrants are boarders on Wolf and South Royal Streets.  Only two men—Peter J. Fineen and Allen Pallander—were listed as married, but neither lived with their families.  Also, all of the immigrants in Ward 1 worked in the Virginia Shipyard, mostly as carpenters and riggers.  Ward 2 listed a few Scandinavian families, but again, the majority appears to be single men living as roomers, mostly on Queen Street.  Just as in Ward 1, the residents of Ward 2 were employed by the shipyard in skilled labor jobs.  Ward 4 Scandinavian-American men lived on Duke and Commerce Streets and worked for the shipyard; however, there were several listed as roomers at 1010 Prince Street who were boilermakers.  The occupations for other Scandinavian residents was very similar to Wards 1 and 2.  The outlier, by far, were those Scandinavian families living in Ward 3, mostly on East and West Walnut Streets.  What is interesting here is that while some of the men still had working class jobs (such as rigger), there were also many who were in middle management, such as foreman, assistant superintendent, superintendent, and civil engineer.  These particular immigrants were also part of an earlier immigration wave that took place in the mid-late 19th century and were more established in the United States.  They had become part of the white middle class.

When studying where immigrant groups lived, it is interesting to see solid patterns regarding not only what area the lived in, but also the types of people who lived around them.  For Scandinavians in Alexandria, Virginia in 1920, these patterns revolve around the occupation of the immigrants and the years in which they immigrated to America.  Overall, it can be seen that those who immigrated in the early 20th century were mostly single, younger men living as roomers while working as semi-skilled laborers at the Virginia Shipyard.  For those who immigrated at the end of the 19th century, the trend seems to be family units with fathers who worked as management within the shipyard.

Drifting on the Tides of Immigration

Scandinavian immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were likely to settle either in the Midwest or a coastal city. The Midwest offered plentiful farmland, which attracted Scandinavians who were traditionally farmers, but who had run out of arable land and opportunities in their home countries. Coastal cities lured Scandinavians for similar reasons. Sailing and shipbuilding were both popular occupations for Scandinavian men, and coastal cities offered plenty of work of this nature. Looking at census data from Alexandria, Virginia in 1920, a pattern is visible among family units who emigrated from Scandinavian countries. Many family groups have children who were born in the Midwest in places like Ohio and Wisconsin. There were also a couple of families who have members born in New York.  David C. Mauk notes in The Colony that Rose from the Sea “that the northeast and the west became the most popular destinations after 1890, but contained only ten to fifteen percent of Norwegian-born population twenty years later.”1 This phenomenon can be explained by a mass migration to the East and South by these Scandinavian groups.

One family that shows this pattern is the Leppilahti family.  John and Ida were Finnish immigrants. We don’t know if Ohio was the first place that they travelled to, but we can see they ended up there by looking at the birthplace of their daughters–Ohio. By the 1920 US Census, the family relocated to Alexandria, Virginia where John worked as a heater at the Virginia Shipyard.

 Family Information from the 1920 US Census for Alexandria, Virginia

Name Relations Sex Age Marital Status When Immigrated Birthplace Father’s Birthplace Mother’s Birthplace Occupation
Leppilahti, John head M 35 married 1903 Finland Finland Finland  heater
Leppilahti, Ida wife F 26 married 1910 Finland Finland Finland  none
Leppilahti, Ellen daughter F 4  1/3 Single n/a Ohio Finland  Finland
Leppilahti, Elsie daughter F 3 1/2 Single n/a Ohio Finland  Finland

The Mattonen, Finnberg, Larsen, Salo and Nisula families all followed the same pattern of movement. Every family had heads that were first or second generation Scandinavian Americans with children born in the Midwest or in Virginia. Another family that followed this pattern was the Hermansons. They are also Finnish immigrants. Their oldest daughter’s birthplace was listed as Canada and their younger daughter was born in Wisconsin. This family moved to Alexandria by 1920.

Family Information from the 1920 US Census for Alexandria, Virginia

Name Relations Sex Age Marital Status When Immigrated Birthplace Father’s Birthplace Mother’s Birthplace Occupation
Mattonen, John head M 45 married 1903 Finland Finland Finland riveter
Mattonen, Hilda wife F 51 married 1908 Finland Finland Finland laundress
Mattonen, Leonah daughter F 13 single n/a Ohio Finland Finland none
Mattonen, Hilda daughter F 10 single n/a Ohio Finland Finland none
Name Relations Sex Age Marital Status When Immigrated Birthplace Fathers Birthplace Mother’s Birthplace Occupation
Finnberg, Vaina head M 32 married 1910 Sweden Sweden Sweden rigger
Finnberg, Tillie wife F 24 married 1913 Finland Finland Finland none
Finnberg, Sadie daughter F 5 single n/a Wisconsin Sweden Finland none
Name Relations Sex Age Marital Status When Immigrated Birthplace Fathers Birthplace Mother’s Birthplace Occupation
Larsen, John head M 39 married 1890 Finland Finland Finland bolter-up
Larsen, Annie wife F 33 married unknown Finland Finland Finland none
Larsen, John son M 3.1667 single n/a Wisconsin Finland Finland none

Another migration pattern that shows up in the 1920 US Census was the movement of Scandinavian workers from New York to Virginia. One family that fell into this pattern was the Anderson family. Both husband and wife Norwegian immigrants, but their two daughters were born in New York. The second family was the Randas. Bennie Randa, the husband, came from Finland. His wife, Hilda, is a second generation immigrant born in New York of Finnish parents. Their daughter, Oili, was born in Virginia.

Family Information from the 1920 US Census for Alexandria, Virginia

Name Relations Sex Age Marital Status When Immigrated Birthplace Fathers Birthplace Mother’s Birthplace Occupation
Anderson, Sigurd head M 34 married 1906 Norway Norway Norway rigger
Anderson, Anna M. wife F 36 married 1907 Norway Norway Norway none
Anderson, Mabel E. daughter F 8 single New York Norway Norway none
Anderson, Mabel E. daughter F 4 single New York Norway Norway none
Name Relation Age Marital Status When immigrated? Birthplace Father’s irthplace Mother’s birthplace Occupation
Randa, Bennie head 30 Married 1914 Finland Finland Finland Rigger
Randa, Hilda wife 20 Married X New York Finland Finland
Randa, Oili daughter 1  1/3 Single Virginia Finland New York

Even though the heads of each one of these families immigrated at different times and to different places, they all have one thing in common, they ended up working at the Virginia Shipyards.

David C. Mauk, The Colony that Rose from Sea: Norwegian Maritime Migration and Community in Brooklyn, 1850-1910 (University of Illinois Press,1997)

Scandinavian Emigration Patters Found in Alexandria World War I Draft Cards

An analysis of World War I draft cards from Alexandria, Virginia shows the same type of work and immigration patterns David Mauk presents in his book, The Colony That Rose from the Sea: Norwegian Maritime Migration and Community in Brooklyn, 1850-1910. Mauk’s book focuses on Norwegians who settled in Brooklyn, New York; however, one finds a similar occupation pattern among Scandinavian immigrants in Alexandria. These men emigrated without their families and worked in shipbuilding.

The World War I draft card of John Pappila, a Finnish non-declared alien carpenter who worked at Campy Humphrey's.

The World War I draft card of John Pappila, a Finnish non-declared alien carpenter who worked at Campy Humphrey.

A majority of the Scandanavian men found in the draft cards, were non-declared aliens who found jobs working at the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation as carpenters and laborers. Others worked at Camp Humphrey (which would later be renamed Fort Belvoir). Out of eighteen individuals identified in the draft cards, eleven worked for the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation; of those eleven, only one was a carpenter, and the rest had occupations ranging from rigger to tool maker. Out of the remaining seven, five worked as carpenters at Camp Humphrey. The last two men were laborers who did not list their employer; another was self-employed.. These work patterns showed Scandinavian reliance on the shipbuilding industry and on carpentry.

Draft cards not only give insight into work patterns amongst Scandinavian immigrants in Alexandria, but also insight into family migration patterns. Of the eighteen individuals, ten listed their next of kin as family members still living in northern Europe. Two listed family members in Alexandria, and six did not list next of kin or claimed that they had none. This phenomenon affirmed migration patterns described by Mauk where Scandinavian men traveled to port cities in North America to work and sent money back to their families. Eventually, they might send for their families once they became established in the U.S.

World War I draft cards for Alexandria give insight into Scandinavian emigration patterns. A majority of men worked in the shipping industry or as carpenters, and left their families behind. This phenomena raises further interesting questions into whether every port with Scandinavian settlers followed similar patterns.

Working and Living Conditions of Scandinavian Immigrants in Alexandria during the 1920s

Data from the 1920 U.S. Census shows that Scandinavian immigrants to Alexandria fit two trends. First, census data shows that Scandinavian migration was one largely of single men working in shipbuilding and related industries. Furthermore, because they came without families, these men tended to live in boarding houses with those of similar ethnic background or occupation.

The majority of Scandinavian immigrants were single men in 1920 Alexandria. Out of the 91 Scandinavian immigrants recorded as living in Alexandria in 1920, only 36% of these immigrants were married. Furthermore, only 21% of those recorded were women. There were few families listed, and only 6 families were recorded as living in their own homes. As shown by the table below, these Scandinavian men generally lived in boarding houses with other employees of the Virginia Shipbuilding Company.

Large numbers of Scandinavian immigrants, especially Norwegians, came to the United States and gained employment in the shipbuilding industry. As David C. Mauk states in The Colony that Rose from the Sea: Norwegian Maritime Migration and Community in Brooklyn (1850-1910), there was a “great expansion of commercial shipping” along the Eastern Seaboard between 1850 to the early 1920s, which played a critical role in drawing immigrants to the U.S.1 Scandinavian immigrants recorded in this census were entirely employed by only one shipyard. The Virginia Shipyard contributed to the war effort by building naval ships during World War I and commercial ships after the war.2 For example, the Virginia Shipyard employed all of those living at 121 South Pitt Street and 409 Prince Street. Boarding houses proved to be useful to Scandinavian immigrants in the early twentieth century, who needed someone to care for their domestic needs, but wanted to live with those of similar cultural background and go to work together.

 Boarding Home Tenants

House Number Name Birthplace Job
531 South Royal Pallender, Allen Finland bolter
Christensen, Peter B Denmark bolter
Peterson, Neils Denmark rigger
Eizer, Andlin Finland rigger
120 Wolf Street Ambrose, William Sweden rigger
Salo, William Finland rigger
Wallis, Charles Finland carpenter
Salo, Charles Finland carpenter
Savo, Henry Finland carpenter
Jalemon, John Finland carpenter
Helener, Harry Finland carpenter
Knutsen, William Sweden rigger
114 Prince Street Olsen, John Sweden bolter
Kloster, Karl Denmark riveter
Nisula, William Finland riveter
Nisula, Elsie Finland none
Perkakka, Victor Finland riveter
Lukkonen, Oscar Finland bolter
Sarri, Frank Finland heater
Leppilanti, John Finland none
121 South Pitt Street Underdunk, Michael Norway reamer
Johnson, Fred Norway reamer
409 Prince Street Randa, Bennie Finland rigger
Korhonen, Emma Finland none
Lehto, Victor Finland regulator
Lehto, Saima Finland none
Williamson, Sam Finland rigger
Niemi, Charles Finland regulator
Maki, John Finland regulator
Kalliola, Miles Finland regulator
Maki, Frank Finland regulator
Hill, Arvia Finland regulator
Hickkilla, Elmer Finland regulator
Allonen, Martin Finland riveter
Jamson, Hialmer Finland rigger
Jusilla, Jack Finland regulator
Mottennen, Karl Finland laborer
Fortsty, William Finland caulker
Maki, Frank Finland regulator
427 North St. Asaph Street Elkland, Alfred Sweden carpenter
Johnson, Edward Sweden carpenter
1010 Prince Street Knutson, Knut Norway boilmaker
Knutson, Oile Norway boilmaker
Anderson, Andrew Sweden boilmaker
Suntrom, Rudolph Sweden boilmaker
Booker, Philip Scotland plumber
Booker, Catherine Scotland none


David Mauk, The Colony that Rose from the Sea: Norwegian Maritime Migration and Community in Brooklyn, 1850-1910 (Northfield: The Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1997), 4. Trail (accessed October 9, 2014).

Scandinavian Males and Marriage: Few and Far Between

In comparison to the other immigrant groups studied, Scandinavian males were more likely to immigrate to the United States on their own accord and live among fellow Scandinavian males who worked similar jobs. The 1920 US Census for Alexandria, Virginia features a pattern of mostly single Scandinavian males, with few exceptions to the rule.1

Marital Status of Scandinavian-American Males in Alexandria, Virginia, 1920


Swedish Danish Norwegian Finnish Total
Single 7 6 4 31 47
Married 5 4 3 11


Of the 70 Scandinavian males listed in the 1920 US Census, nearly 33% of them were married; over 67% were single. Nearly all single Scandinavian males were between the ages of 18 and 40, while married Scandinavian males were generally older than 40. However, these statistics also include several Americans born to Scandinavian parents. Such is the case with Stanford and Gerald Anderson, age 20 and 19 respectively, who were born in the Michigan to a Danish father and a Norwegian mother.2  There are other notable exceptions to the data presented. For example, Peter J. Fineen, a Swedish-born soldier who was stationed at Fort Hunt and became a naturalized citizen in 1919 (eight years after immigrating to the United States), was 27 and married at the time the census was conducted.3 Nonetheless, even among married Scandinavian-American males, there were few family units in comparison to the number of single Scandinavian men.

Such data suggests the migratory nature of Scandinavian Americans–both foreign-born and native-born–in early twentieth century America. Nearly all single men were listed as working for the Alexandria Shipyard; shipbuilding was one of the largest industries in Scandinavian countries, particularly Norway in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Comparatively better working conditions, wages, and economic opportunities, especially in shipbuilding, could all have factored into Scandinavian migration to the United States.4 Groups of Scandinavian men would also live together within the same boarding houses. For example, married Finnish immigrants, Victor and Saima Lehto, shared their home at 409 Prince Street with fifteen single Finnish men, ages ranging from 19 to 43; all sixteen men, Victor Lehto included, worked at the shipyard.5 This suggests the sense of community that immigrants created for themselves by living with others of the same ethnic and working background.

Krystyn R. Moon, “1920 Census Data for Alexandria, VA,” Unpublished Spreadsheets (2014).



David C. Mauk, The Colony that Rose from the Sea: Norwegian Maritime Migration and Community in Brooklyn, 1850-1910 (Champaign, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 9-12.

“1920 Census Data for Alexandria, VA.”

The End of “Typical”: Scandinavian Employment Trends in 1920 and 1930 Alexandria, Virginia

The creation of the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation in the late 1910s drew a large number of Scandinavian immigrants to Alexandria, Virginia. After Groton Iron Works defaulted on a contract in 1917, Virginia Shipbuilding entered into an agreement with the United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation to complete twelve steel ships at a base price of $1,504,000 each. With the high demand for production, the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation became a huge employment opportunity for skilled immigrants looking for work in shipbuilding. According to the Washington Times, the Alexandria shipyard was responsible for adding between 2,500 to 3,000 jobs to the area.2 As the 1920 US Census demonstrates, these employment opportunities attracted Scandinavian immigrants (Danes, Finns, Swedes, and Norwegians) to Alexandria.

In the census, we find that there were 110 first and second generation Scandinavians living in Alexandria in 1920. The tables below break down the employers of the 75 Scandinavian male immigrants of working age. The remaining 35 immigrants unaccounted for in this table were women and children who did not work outside the home.

Male Immigrant Jobs Broken Down by Nation of Origin in the 1920 US Census


Denmark Sweden Norway


36 4 12 5



Fort Hunt




Railroad 1
Total # of each 37 5 13



2nd Generation Male Jobs Broken Down by Birthplace in the US in the 1920 US Census


Minnesota Michigan New York Ohio Main



3 2 2 3 1 1

Electric Co.

US Shipping Board 1
Total # of Each 4 2 2 1 3 1



As the tables above show, 69 out of the 75 employable first and second generation Scandinavian Americans were working at the shipyard in 1920. In breaking the numbers down further, we find that 37 were first generation immigrants from Finland, 13 from Sweden, 6 from Norway, and 5 from Denmark. Of the second-generation males, 12 out of 14 were born in the Midwest–4 from Wisconsin, 3 from Ohio, 2 from Michigan, 2 from Minnesota, and 1 from Illinois. The remaining two Scandinavian Americans were from New York and Maine. While the overall proportion of Scandinavians at the Virginia Shipyard would have been relatively small if the estimate of 3,000 employees is correct, these men still represented a huge surge in Scandinavians  in Alexandria unseen in previous decades. The men made up 61% of the total Scandinavian population of Alexandria and out of the 29 different addresses with a first or second generation Scandinavian resident, 19 of them had at least one member working at the shipyard. These 19 households were often the residence of the wives, children, or other dependant household members who had accompanied the shipyard workers, further increasing the population of Scandinavian Americans in Alexandria.

These jobs, however, despite being a huge pull factor for Scandinavians to Alexandria, Virginia, were short lived. By 1922, the Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation was facing bankruptcy and lawsuits from the United States Shipping Board. The shipyard closed, and these men lost their jobs.3 By the 1930 US Census, we see a drastic drop in the number of Scandinavian Americans in Alexandria. While the census does display the same number of Scandinavian American working age males, these men were not the same as those found in 1920 and they were not the children of those immigrants who came in the 1910s to work in shipbuilding. Furthermore, as shown in the tables below, we see a shift in their occupations.

Immigrant Jobs Broken Down by Nation of Origin in the 1930 US Census

Finland Denmark Sweden Norway
Carpenter 1 2



1 1




Teacher 1



Pattern Maker



Cabinet Maker 1


Total # of each 0 4 6



2nd Generation Jobs Broken Down by Birthplace in the US in the 1930 US Census




Electric Co.

Motor Co. 1
Government 1 1





Daily Paper

Private Firm 1
Building + Loans 1


Sign Factory



Clerk 1
Total # of Each 4 2 1 1 1 1 1 1 1



Compared to the 75 working age first and second generation male immigrants in the 1920 census, the 1930 census only contains 30. Of these 30, 16 are first generation while 14 are Scandinavian Americans. Out of the 16 first generations immigrants 4 were Danish, 6 were Swedish, 6 were Norwegian, and most notably, there were no Finns. The distribution of jobs changed as well with 5 Carpenters, 3 Railroad workers, 2 Unemployed, and the last 6 divided amongst a variety of professions. The Scandinavian Americans also display a wider distribution of birth locations as well as jobs. Of the 14 working age males found in the 1930 census, only 3 hail from the Midwest; 2 from Minnesota and 1 from Kansas. The remaining 11 include 4 from Virginia and 1 from each of the following: New Jersey, Texas, Maryland, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts. These men’s jobs cross a wide range of professions, which suggests the acquisition of new skills that the first generation immigrants did not have. We also see an increase in the employment of women. While some women, like most in the 1920s census, remained unemployed, others acquired a variety of jobs. Whether with local stores, in laundry, dressmaking, or as is most prevalent, with the United States Government, Scandinavian first and second generation women enjoyed an increase in both their employment status and opportunities.

No longer were immigrant families and their children arriving to Alexandria for “typical” Scandinavian jobs. Instead, the end of the ship building industry in Alexandria brought about a change in the Scandinavian American population. After most of the shipyard workers had left in order to find jobs elsewhere, a new group arrived. While the first and second generation immigrants who lived in Alexandria in the late 1910s and early 1920s participated in the development of the city’s “brighter future,” later individuals who came by the 1930s would find a different labor market.4 This labor market, despite its noticeable lack of appeal for most first generation Scandinavian immigrants, would provide a larger opportunity for Scandinavian Americans, both male and female.


Virginia Shipbuilding Corp v. United States, 22 F.2d 38 (4th Cir. 1927). (accessed October 17, 2014).


“Those Alexandria Jokes Won’t be Appropriate in Vaudeville Anymore” The Washington Times, June 16, 1919. (accessed October 17, 2014).


3 “Morse and Eleven Associates Indicted by U.S. Grand Jury,” Richmond Times-Dispatch, February 2, 1922. (accessed October 18, 2014).


The Washington Times, June 16, 1919.

Finnish Migration from the Midwest to Alexandria

In 1890, industrial productivity came to a standstill in Finland because of a failure to technologically compete with countries such as Great Britain, Germany, and the United States. The lack of economic opportunity in late 19th century and early 20th century Finland, other than in agriculture, led to mass emigration to the United States. Initially, most Finns migrated to the Midwest, specifically northern Wisconsin and Minnesota, to work in mines. By World War I, a handful of Finns migrated to port cities such as Alexandria, Virginia to work in shipyards as part of wartime mobilization. However, very few of the Finns in Alexandria have been documented as living in the Midwest before coming to Alexandria. These exceptions, however, are listed in the 1920 U.S. Census in Alexandria, Virginia.

Although most Finns living in Alexandria were young, single men who worked in the shipyards, it was not unheard of for Finnish immigrant families to settle in the Midwest prior to moving South. Two families in Alexandria represent this phenomenon. Their migration can be traced by the children’s birth places in the 1920 U.S. Census. The Hermansons and the Larsens had children born in Wisconsin prior to coming to Alexandria. Herman and Mary Hermanson both immigrated to the United States in 1894. In 1920, Herman worked as a bolter at the shipyard, while Mary had no occupation listed but probably took care of the household. They had two children Aune and Aino. Aune, who was seven years old in 1920, was born in Canada. Aino, who was six years old in 1920, was born in Wisconsin. This means that when the Hermansons travelled to the U.S. they did not come directly to Alexandria. Instead, they immigrated to the U.S. and then crossed the border into Canada for an unknown amount of time and then returned to the U.S. some time around 1914 when their second child was born. The Larsens also settled in Wisconsin prior to moving to Alexandria. Similar to Herman, John Larsen was a bolter at the ship yard, while his wife, Annie, was in charge of domestic arrangements. John came to the U.S. in 1890. The year of Annie’s immigration is unknown, although the census shows that she naturalized with her spouse. Their son, three-year-old John Larsen, was born in Wisconsin. It is unknown how long the Larsens lived there.

The 1920 U.S. Census also lists the birthplace of every individual’s parents, which makes it possible for Finnish migration to the Midwest to be studied by collecting information on the second generation. An example of this is Emma Korhonen and her husband Charles Korhonen. Emma came to the U.S. from Finland in 1911 and became a citizen in 1917.  Her husband, Charles, was born in Wisconsin. This marriage may initially appear to be an instance of out-group marriage but upon further research, it became obvious that Charles was of Finnish descent. In this case, both of his parents were born in Finland and migrated to the U.S. It is unknown what year his parents migrated, but it can be said that they were in Wisconsin around 1897 because Charles was twenty-three years old in 1920. It is unknown whether his parents later migrated to Alexandria, or if he migrated south on his own. Charles also had an 18-year-old brother, Rudolph Korhonen, who was born in Wisconsin. They were both riggers at the shipyard. It is likely that they migrated to Alexandria together in search of jobs.

Mark Knipping’s book Finns in Wisconsin (1977) tells readers that although many Finns immigrated to Wisconsin, they often did not settle there for too long because the only jobs available were in mining and farming. It was difficult for Finns–as with other immigrant groups–to find economic stability within the mining industry. The small farms were similar to life that they had left behind in Finland, only furthering their frustration with the type of job opportunities in the region. This situation created the impetus for many Finns to move elsewhere, including to Alexandria. During the late 1910s and early 1920s, Finnish Americans were able to able to find steady employment in the shipyard. Knipping stresses that economic opportunities were the main reasons for Finnish immigration to the U.S.; however, Finns continued to migrate around the country in search of jobs.

Although most Finns in Alexandria were usually not family units, there were a small number of Finnish-American families that came to Virginia after initially settling in the Midwest. These families usually moved in response to possible economic opportunities. This phenomenon can be seen through the birthplaces of their children and through studying Americans of Finnish descent. Finnish Americans moved to Alexandria because of stable employment and, specifically, to work at the shipyard.


Italian Immigrants and Racial Politics in Alexandria

Many native-born whites feared Italian immigrants during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries because of their supposed foreignness and racial in-betweenness. Newspapers, including the Washington Post, Alexandria Gazette, and Evening Star, played on these fears by portraying Italians as morally suspect and at the bottom of the social hierarchy. To do this, newspapers mostly reported stories on Italians committing crimes or being the victims of violence. Many crime reports focused on incidents between Italian immigrants and African Americans, which play to racist and nativist politics of the time. In response, Italians claimed white privilege so that they could be protected from Jim Crown segregation.

In the early twentieth century, Alexandria was modernizing itself, which included railroad expansion. Both African Americans and Italians, along with other immigrants, worked on railroad construction together. White-owned newspapers took advantage of African American and Italian crime to affirm the fears of native-born whites. For example, after a case in 1904, in which a group of twelve African Americans returning from the railroad camps were seeking to avenge the death of their friend by way of lynching, the Alexandria Gazette took it as an opportunity to play on the nativist fears of white Americans. The story was used to advocate for increased police presence to defend against the common occurrence of crime between these two groups as they entered the city in large numbers from the railroads. The Gazette claimed that African Americans and Italians, who were “swarming” the city, “generally flock to certain places” and when they do, “disorder occurs.”1 Police officers were expected to practice “due diligence” to conserve the peace. In doing so, the Alexandria Gazette portrayed Italian immigrants as would-be-criminals and on the bottom of the social hierarchy along with African Americans. Furthermore, the paper exaggerated the incident, making it seems as though the increased presence of Italians and African Americans into the city would cause violence and disorder.

As African Americans and Italians worked side-by-side on the railroad construction sites, Italians accused African Americans of stealing their jobs. In response, Italians made the claim that these jobs were theirs due to their whiteness. For example, the 1904 case of assault on James Winkfield by Alfonso Dantonio demonstrates the importance of whiteness for Dantonio. This story appears in both the Washington Post and Alexandria Gazette, in which Dantonio shot Winkfield, an African American. Prior to the shooting, Winkfield said that Dantonio claimed that “black man [were taking] Italian’s jobs.”2 As the shooting of Winkfield by Dantonio portrays, there was also tension between African Americans and Italian immigrants, as the immigrants were vying for superiority over the other.

Ultimately, local newspapers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century played on nativist and racist fears held by native-born whites by reporting on stories such as these.  They also point to the racial tensions between African Americans and Italian immigrants.

1 [no title], Alexandria Gazette, April 23, 1904.

2 “Shot by Italian,” Alexandria Gazette, December 5, 1904.

America Must Remain American

In 1924, one legislative action defined the new political and social attitudes toward southern and eastern European immigrants entering the United States. The National Origins Quota Act, also known as the Johnson-Reed Act, was designed to restrict what some native-born whites believed to be undesirable populations who were entering the country at the time. In effect, it’s “most basic purpose…was to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.”In other words, it encouraged western and northern European immigration and restricted all other groups through the creation of a quota system based on 2% of the 1890 U.S. Census.  All Asian were banned.1

White public opinion and tolerance for the law in Virginia can be ascertained by looking at local newspaper articles. One such article can be found in the Washington Post in 1927. On September 8, the Washington Post reported on an Italian man named Antonio Vacara, a shoemaker, who was arrested for “acting in a suspicious manner.”  Local authorities thought he was insane, believing that he was suffering from hallucinations for refusing to eat out of a fear of being poisoned.  A day later, the Post reported that Dr. J. S. DeJarnette, the superintendent of Western State Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Staunton, Virginia, said that he would reject Vacara because he thought he was a foreigner and recommended that he be deported.  De Jarnette was also a supporter of eugenics, the idea that white elites needed to limit the reproduction of certain groups of humans whom they deemed inferior, including certain immigrants groups.  The Virginia state legislature had also passed the Virginia Sterilization Act, also in 1924, to allow the state to forcible sterilize men and women against their will, which DeJarnette supported. In 1927, DeJarnette was a key witness for the state in the case, Buck v. Bell, which upheld the constitutionality of such laws.



Whether insane or not, Vacara faced two-fold discrimination when he was arrested for “acting in a suspicious manner.” He was not only possibly mentally ill, but also an Italian immigrant. The overwhelming public opinion of the time was unfavorable towards men and women like Vacara. Madison Grant’s words are key to understanding white public opinion of the time. In The Passing of the Great Race, Grant proclaims that even under the best conditions, a “race” can only “achieve its maximum development, but the limits of that development are fixed for it by heredity and not by environment”.2   Like Grant, many white Americans believed that non-whites and even non-western European peoples could never become fully American. Grant’s book, which was written in 1916, concluded that mixing whites and non-whites together diluted the gene pool, creating humans that are more primitive than their pure blooded Western European ancestors.

Several days later, on September 13, the Post reported that Vacara had been “adjudged insane by a lunacy commission” and transferred to the State Hospital at Staunton.It is unclear what might have changed DeJarnette’s opinion on Vacara’s admittance.

1 “The Immigration Act of 1924 (The Johnson-Reed Act) – 1921–1936 – Milestones – Office of the Historian,” The U.S. Department of State, Office of the Historian, (accessed October 2, 2014).

2 Madison Grant, The Passing of the Great Race, Or, The Racial Basis of European History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1916), 13.

“Resolution Plans Annexation Move in  Alexandria Area,” The Washington Post Sep 9, 1927.


Dangerous Working Environments for Italian Railroad Laborers

The building of the Potomac Yards in Alexandria, Virginia required many unskilled and semiskilled laborers during its construction in the early 1900s.

Potomac Yards LOC

Potomac Yards in Alexandria, Virginia, ca. 1920, Creator(s): Theodor Horydczak, (ca. 1890-1971), courtesy of Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Theodor Horydczak,

Railroad contractors employed many Italian laborers to build railroads and make track improvements.    Railroad work, however, was not a safe or easy job, and many Italians were injured or killed.  Newspapers, such as The Washington Post, The Evening Star, and The Alexandria Gazette, documented many railroad accidents involving Italians in the early 1900s.  On December 18, 1903 The Evening Star reported the death of twenty-two year old Lorenzo Basque, an Italian laborer who was struck by one of the work engines at the rail yards. The Evening Star also reported that Basque was escorted with twelve fellow Italian laborers to the Alexandria Hospital “who were employed with him in the construction of the double track of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad, about fifteen miles below the city.”1  Despite the large group that followed him to the hospital, little is known about where Basque lived, and if he had any family in the area.

The Alexandria Gazette reported the death of Antonio Taroborrelli, another Italian railroad laborer, on March 23, 1905. According to the article, Taroborrelli was struck in the head by one of the small cars and his “neck was broken and the back of his head crushed.”2 The article also mentions that this was the second death that week from railroad accidents.

The two incidents above are not the only railroad related accidents, injuries, or deaths among Italians in the early 1900s in and around Alexandria.  The Alexandria Gazette reported an Italian laborer employed by Reiter, Curtiss & Hill was “struck in the head by an engine” on April 6, 1906.3 Another incident occurred a month later with an Italian laborer’s foot being seriously smashed while working on the railroad.4

Despite the well-documented hazardous working conditions on the railroad, many Italians migrated to the area looking for work.  Perhaps the potential monetary benefits outweighed the risk; it also could be that there were few job opportunities for Italians. Railroad construction and maintenance required large amounts of labor that many migrating Italians took advantage of.

1 “Death From Injuries,” The Evening Star, December 18, 1903.

2 “Another Man Killed,” The Alexandria Gazette, March 23, 1905.

3 “Struck by an Engine,” The Alexandria Gazette, April 6, 1905.

4 “Local Brevities,” The Alexandria Gazette, May 09, 1906.