During the post-Civil War years and well into the 20th century the treatment of minorities was a highly charged social issue, not unlike what we're seeing today with illegal immigrants.
After the Civil War things were especially rough for blacks in the South. Articles about frontier justice were commonly reported in the news. On Oct. 22, 1909, the Tamaqua Courier printed a front-page story about two black men charged and jailed in Greenville, Texas. Prison bars and the state authorities, however, failed to stop a vengeful mob from dealing out their own justice.
"Mob law ruled here last night," the article stated, "but it was not until after a desperate fight with the state militia that the jail was broken into."
The two inmates were hauled out of their jail cell, carried to a nearby tree, and hanged.
"Fearing a riot between the Negroes and the white people, the town was put under strict martial law today," the article stated.
Just one day before this story was published in the Courier, about 80 persons gathered in the Presbyterian Church in Tamaqua to hear C. C. Boner of Harrisburg, a member of the YMCA State Committee, talk about another sensitive social issue on everyone's mind – immigration.
The headline for the article, "Our Duty to the Emigrant," included this lengthy subhead: "If we expect him to become one of us, we must remove prejudice and antagonism and substitute kindness and sympathy – we misunderstand him."
Given the fact that European immigrants were flocking into this country at the rate of 1 million a year, the speaker's address on immigration had special meaning to coal region residents, many of whom had a direct connection.
Boner had a great deal of experience on the issue. He was one of five young men sent to study the languages, manners and customs of the principal nationalities coming to our shores. Their mission was "to learn best how to make good Americans of these who will form a large part of our population."
Boner and his teammates spent nearly 18 months in Eastern and Southern Europe, dividing their time between Russia, Germany, Austria-Poland, Serbia and Italy.
In his talk, Boner stressed that prejudice and antagonism will never make a good citizen of the foreigner.
"We must make a good citizen of him or he will influence our national life for evil," Boner said. "Our antagonism must be substituted by kindness and sympathy, and our prejudice by knowledge, for our prejudice is the result of misunderstanding and ignorance."
Boner said economics was a big reason for the great influx of European immigrants. In the U.S., Boner said, the immigrant "secures steady work and good wages."
Most of his coal-region listeners that day were not surprised at that fact. In his annual report, J. G. Rockey of the Bureau of Industrial Statistics pointed out that aliens outnumbered native workman 2-to-1 in the state's coalfields.
He noted that a large number of aliens were illiterate – "less intelligent than employees in other occupations."
"The danger arises from the mass of such laborers, many of whom are entirely ignorant of American customs and usages, and thus become easy victims of wicked and designing men," Rockey stated.
Another reason for the great immigration boom was that many of the young men came to America to escape compulsory service in the military in their homeland, Boner said. He explained that a Pole, for instance, was forced to fight in the Russian army out of compulsion rather than patriotism.
"He comes to America to escape this obnoxious service," Boner said.
A third reason immigrants flocked to America's shores was for political reasons.
"Many of these people now have no country of their own – it has been taken from them," Boner explained. "Their language has been prescribed by their conqueror. It is against the law for them to speak in their mother tongue."
He said that heavy taxation without return is a characteristic policy of Russia and, to some extent, of Austria.
"Public education and improvements are largely denied them. These things drive them to seek asylum in the land of the free," Boner said.
Three years before Boner spoke in Tamaqua, President Theodore Roosevelt made some revealing comments about immigrants. In that speech, he also shared his thoughts on what it meant to be an American.
"In the first place, we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin," the president stated. "But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American – there can be no divided allegiance here.
"Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag. We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language. And we have room for but one sole loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people."