Guess who came to America even before the Pilgrims did
October 20, 2008
Despite the Statue of Liberty’s appeal to “give me your tired and your poor,” those who trace their American roots to New York’s Ellis Island might tell you these noble words of welcome were not always the fact.
The new arrivals of a century ago were often given special names. The names were invented by those who claimed “we were here first” or, at least, that “we got here before you did.”
Or, so they thought.
The vocabulary of that era was often peppered with derogatory epithets like “kike,” “dago,” “honky” or “Polack,” among others. Today, our assumed civility and political correctness compel us to refrain from such expletives and refer to them as the “K,” “ D,” “ H” or “P” words.
It’s no wonder organizations like the Jewish community’s Anti-Defamation League and, more recently, the Anti-Bigotry Committee of the Polish American Congress became a necessity.
Now comes the surprise. The name-callers who thought “we got here before you did” most likely did not. In reality, those who were called these nasty names probably got here ahead of the name-callers. At least as far as the Polish Americans were concerned.
When we sit down for our family dinner on Thanksgiving Day, how can we not reflect on the days of early America and the time England’s Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620.
History clearly records them as one of America’s “firsts.”
But another Englishman named John Smith came to America’s shores even before the Pilgrims did when he landed at Jamestown in 1607 to start the Virginia Settlement.
Now here’s what the name-callers who gave the Ellis Island immigrants such a hard time never learned in school.
In 1608, when Captain Smith needed skilled craftsmen to help develop the new Virginia Colony, he invited a group of Polish artisans to come to Jamestown and bring their technical skills with them. The first factory in America was the glassworks the Polish settlers established at Jamestown.
Their contribution to the growth of Virginia became an essential element of its success. Despite the recognition they earned for their vital input to the colony’s prosperity, they were refused the right to vote when elections were to take place.
What was the reason for the denial? It was because they were Polish. The Englishmen felt only the English should have a say in Virginia’s government.
So how did the Poles react? They simply stopped working. The economic pressure of their stoppage was effective and they were
finally permitted to vote.
The Poles not only made their point but they also established a precedent. They had succeeded in organizing the first labor and civil rights strikes on the shores of the New World.
To pay tribute to the historic achievements of Jamestown’s Polish workers, the Anti-Bigotry Committee, along with the rest of the
Polish American Congress and other major Polish American organizations, held special commemorative ceremonies at Jamestown on October 1st, exactly 400 years to the day the Poles arrived in 1608.
When you sit down for your Thanksgiving turkey next month, just remember the Poles got to America even before the Pilgrims did.
It’s entirely possible, therefore, the first Thanksgiving Day may have actually been celebrated in Virginia rather than in Massachusetts. Some people in Virginia say it was. However, nobody could say if turkey was the main dish that day.
The Polish settlers came to Jamestown nearly two centuries before the American Revolution and the formation of the United States out of the original thirteen colonies. The story of Jamestown is a basic and integral part of American history.
And now, as the noted radio commentator Paul Harvey would say, “now you know the rest of the story.”
Contact: Frank Milewski
(718) 263-2700 – Ext. 105
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