Learning Adventures in Citizenship
Episode 2Topic 5: Immigrants Pour In
Who Was Here?
Like America itself, New York City was built by immigrants: English, African, German, and Irish in the 1700s and early 1800s; Italians and Jews in the late 1800s and early 1900s; Asians, Hispanics, and Caribbean immigrants in the late 20th century. Like sediment drifting to the bottom of the ocean, the various waves of immigrants have left us evidence of their history. And while New York has always been the number-one destination of immigrants to America, every community in the country has felt their impact. Every community has its layers of immigrant history.

Cross Section This activity will allow you to examine these layers and find evidence of your community's immigrant past. A cemetery is a good place to start digging -- not with a shovel, of course, but with your eyes, mind, and a good notepad. In fast-changing America, cemeteries are usually permanent. With their headstones and mausoleums (above-ground burial vaults), they offer a record of the past that is often torn down and replaced everywhere else. They can help you learn which immigrant groups lived in your community, and when.

Examine the Headstones
To begin, pick a cemetery in your community. It does not have to be an old cemetery, although older ones offer more layers. (Be sure to get an OK from the people who run the cemetery; explain to them what you are doing. They might even be able to point you to older parts of the grounds.)

Examine the headstones and mausoleums. These usually have several pieces of useful information. First, of course, are the names. Write down the ethnicity (or national background) of the people buried in the cemetery. (Also note religious markings. Crosses, of course, are Christian symbols; six-pointed Stars of David indicate Jews; a five-pointed star and crescent means Muslim.)

To learn more about how names reflect ethnicity, you can check the following Web site:

Surnames: What's in a Name?
This Web site lets you investigate the origins of surnames -- our last names!

Or this book:

Hanks, Patrick and Flavia Hodges. A DICTIONARY OF SURNAMES. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

(Note: like most family-name sources, this book and Web site focus on European names.

For non-European names, try typing in the words "surnames" or "geneology" into a search engine like Yahoo or Lycos. Many of these sites offer you a place to type in a name and give you information about it.)

The second piece of information are dates of birth and death. This will tell you when different ethnic groups lived in your community.

Record the Information
Now that you've collected your information, it's time to collate, or organize, it. A table can help. You may want to create one like this:

This table is just a sample. It does not have enough names to really get a picture of who lived in your community and when. With dozens of names and dates like these, however, it would reveal a pattern: Italians and Polish people lived in your community in later years than Irish and Germans.

Agnelli, Anna Italian 1890 1956
Woijech, Stanis-laus Polish 1888 1961
Kraus, Hans German or Austrian 1811 1899

Organize the Information
You might also want to organize your information so that others can see the results. You can do this in several ways. First, establish the total number of graves you examined. Then, divide that number into groups by year of birth or death. For example, let us say you examined 50 graves: 25 of people born in the 1800s and 25 of people born in the 1900s. Make separate tables for each group. Now, count up the number of people in each ethnic group for the two tables and do the math. If, for example, 15 of the 25 names in the first group have Irish names, that means Irish represent 60 percent of the sample for the 1800s. And if, for example, 10 of the 25 in the second group have Hispanic names, that represents 40 percent. (To do this math, divide the total number into 100 -- 25 into 100 equals 4; then multiply the number of ethnic names by that number -- 10 times 4 equals 40, or 40 percent).

Present the Information
A nice way to present your data is in a chart. There are several kinds of charts. A useful kind for percentages is a pie chart. This is a round circle, like a pie, divided into slices. To begin, draw a circle. Then lightly pencil the straight lines inside. A vertical one down the middle divides it in half, and then a horizontal one divides it into quarters, or 25 percent. Using different colored pens or pencils, fill in amount for each ethnic group. 40 percent would fill one quarter plus most of another. Once you have completed the pie, write the name of each ethnic group inside or next to its slice of the pie. Finally, add a title to your chart and an explanation, so that people will know what they are looking at. See if your teacher will post it in your classroom.