Forum Gives Students A Look Back at Elizabeth Circa 1917

History Forum addresses students. Credits: Fran Sullivan

ELIZABETH, NJ - Students from six Elizabeth public schools  took a journey back in time, 100 years to be exact, guided by a panel of experts at the Elizabeth Forum hosted by The Historical Society of Elizabeth at the Elizabeth Public Library, March 24.

The panel consisted of Bill Mealia from the Elizabeth Rotary, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, John Prescott, Union county History Programs Coordinator, Ken Ward, President of The Historical Society of Elizabeth, and Mayor Christian Bollwage.The students attended from Schools 2 and 4, Elizabeth High School Frank J. Cicarell Academy, Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. Health and Public Safety Academy, Thomas Jefferson Arts Academy, and John E. Dwyer Technology Academy.

The year 1917 marked the entrance into what was then called The Great War, World War I, and the changes it brought to the city and the definition of community. Some things changed, some remained the same. Then, as now, Elizabeth is a city of immigrants, but back in 1917, they came from Europe. Today, the city’s demographics are 60 percent Hispanic.

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The first wave, explained Prescott, were Irish and German who were fleeing famine and civil unrest. “They needed a place to go, and they chose the United States.”

The second wave, said Prescott, came in the 1880’s with the arrival of the Italians, Slovaks, Russians, Polish, and Jews. In addition, the state experienced the Great Migration of African-Americans from the South, which came in two waves, 1916 to 1930 and 1940 to 1970. “They came because of jobs,” said Prescott. “New Jersey had a wealth of manufacturing jobs.”

Commented School 2 student Jullet Menises, “We all come from different places, and all come to find a home.”

Those new arrivals tended to stay in the same neighborhood with people who shared the same ethnic background. The Elizabeth Rotary sought to change that, said Mealia. “The Rotary Club started in Elizabeth in 1917. There were a lot of organizations, but they tended to be ethnic and did not mix. In Rotary, we wanted to have a number of people who will exchange ideas.”

Mealia encouraged the students to get involved, “Don’t think you have to build the George Washington Bridge. Start small. Put a drop in the pool. Now with the cutbacks, volunteering is more important than ever. Just do something.”

Board of Education President Stan Neron, who moderated the Forum, agreed , “You gain more back when you give.”

Those immigrants contributed to the life of the city, just as they do now. “Our diversity is our strength,” said the mayor, recalling the Cuban immigration in the late 1950’s that resulted in the new arrivals opening stores on Elizabeth Avenue and the recent Colombian immigrants who re-vitalized a section of Morris Avenue. “Immigration is the strength of our community. We would not be a country without immigration.”

Back 100 years when America was on the brink of war, some new Elizabeth families found their loyalties split. “There were cousins, aunts, and uncles who were on different sides,” said Ward. “Many Elizabeth families had relatives on both sides.”

Regardless of their ethnic origins, these new arrivals joined their new countrymen in giving their support to the war effort. The mayor reported that 40,000 workers produced canons at the Singer factory and that New Jersey was the largest supplier of weapons. The war also brought changes in attitude to the city’s communities.

“Communities were broken up by religions and ethnic backgrounds, and you stayed in that group,” Ward explained. “War changed that because we needed each other.”

Added Precott, “When war came, it was a sense of national pride. ‘I belong to something bigger, and that is the United States.’”

In the end, the war claimed the lives of 3,400 New Jerseyans, several from Elizabeth. They are commemorated on a monument in the park across from City Hall, one of four World War I era monuments there.

Said Ward, “Former soldiers did not want their fellow soldiers to be forgotten. No one will want to remove them (monuments) as they are doing elsewhere in this country.”

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