(Courtesy: Jane Manaster)
The Galveston Movement operated between 1907 and 1914 to divert Jews fleeing the pogroms of Russia and eastern Europe away from congested communities of the Atlantic coast to the interior of the United States. The Jewish Immigrants’ Information Bureau directed the movement as a means of preventing an anticipated wave of anti-Semitism on the Eastern seaboard, which might lead to immigration restrictions. Several benevolent groups tried to find a southern port of entry to disperse the burgeoning population.
The bureau considered three ports. Charleston, South Carolina, explicitly wanted Anglo-Saxon immigrants, and New Orleans, a thriving urban center where Jews might be inclined to settle instead of moving on into the interior, posed a recurrent threat of yellow fever. Galveston, which was closer to job opportunities in the West, seemed the best choice. Besides its location, Galveston was a passenger port for Lloyds Shipping Company, which served the German port of Bremen, through which East European Jews traditionally left the continent. Also, Galveston’s small size did not encourage large numbers of Jews to settle there permanently.
Groundwork for the Galveston Movement was shared by several Jewish organizations in America and Europe. Jacob Schiff presided over the “Galveston Committee” in New York City, which coordinated the recruiting efforts of the London-based Jewish Territorial Organization and the Jewish Emigration Society of Kiev with the reception and relocation activities of the Jewish Immigrants’ Information Bureau, based in Galveston. David Bressler, honorary secretary of the JIIB, administered the program from his New York office.
The first refugees-fifty-four men and two women-arrived on the steamship Cassel in early July 1907. Two days before the ship docked, a warehouse remodeled as a reception center burned down, raising questions about the welcome likely to be afforded the newcomers. Mayor Henry Landes, however, spoke to the immigrants; a schoolteacher from southern Russia answered with a grateful speech on behalf of the group. Rabbi Henry Cohen of Temple B’nai Israel met almost all of the ships that carried Jewish immigrants and helped direct them to new homes in the interior.
The members of the first group were distributed among cities and communities throughout the western states and as far north as Fargo, North Dakota. The main territory to which the bureau directed immigrants was between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains. Four of them settled in Fort Worth; none remained in Galveston, in keeping with the movement’s policy. Despite the economic depression 900 immigrants passed through Galveston before the end of 1907. The following year only 106 came, and Jewish organizations worked hard to stimulate interest in absorbing the immigrants among the smaller communities across the United States. Within Texas the focus was on Tyler, Texarkana, Marshall, and Palestine, since the railroad fare from Galveston to these towns, at the half-priced charity rate, was only four or five dollars.
Recruiters stipulated that immigrants should be able-bodied laborers and skilled workers under the age of forty. The number of Hebrew teachers and kosher butchers was restricted in the belief that strict religious adherence would limit the immigrants’ ability to work and be assimilated. Teachers were deemed unskilled, though some entered, as did others, on the pretense that their skills or training met job needs.
In 1909 a total of 773 Jews landed at Galveston, and by the following year 2,500 had sailed to the port, most originating in small towns. In 1911 some 1,400 arrived, only 2 percent of the total Jewish immigration to the United States in that year. By 1913 the situation had worsened; merchants became concerned about competition from immigrants, and an increasing number of immigrating Polish Jews who would not work on Saturday reduced the waning enthusiasm of American Jewish communities further. Three communities declined to take more; the representative from Cleburne, Texas, complained about the immigrants’ “exactions, fault-finding, and refusal to abide by the labor conditions upon which they come.”
Throughout the period of the Galveston Movement, its chances of success were handicapped by continual infighting among the cooperating organizations on both sides of the Atlantic, by the unfavorable condition of the American economy, and by the restrictive attitudes and behavior of Galveston immigration authorities. Further, European Jews did not recognize Texas and the Southwest as the America of their dreams; the area satisfied no religious or nationalistic expectations. Between 1907 and 1914, when it ceased operation, the Jewish Immigrants’ Information Bureau brought 10,000 immigrants through Galveston, approximately one-third the number who migrated to the Holy Land during the same period. In 1983 a documentary film about the movement, West of Hester Street, was made with assistance of the Texas Committee for the Humanities.