The American Dream, then and now

Posted on January 11th, 2012 by

A blog post by intern Mia White.

Since beginning my internship at the museum a month ago, I’ve been involved in so many exciting things that I found it very difficult to sit down and pick one thing to write on. And so, being the double-majoring, multi-interested girl that I am – I’ve picked TWO of my projects to pull into one (perhaps slightly sinuously held together) blog post. My link between the two experiences: immigration to Baltimore.

North German Lloyd Steamship leaving Baltimore (an immigrant ship). 1988.117.3

My main project at the JMM is researching the newest member of the immigrant’s trunk series. She is a woman named Bessie Bluefeld, who immigrated to the United States from Russia in 1907. I’m betting right now that last name is familiar to many of our readers. Yes, that Bluefeld. She is the woman behind Bluefeld catering, a kosher family-owned company that worked around the east coast from 1937 for over four decades. The sources of my research consist entirely of secondhand recollection, yet it’s clear even from this she was a firecracker of a woman. She is one of so many that came to the United States with that timeless ideal of America as the land of opportunity. And for her and her husband Charles, it would be; they achieved success and wealth not just once during the 1920s but TWICE, when they had to rebuild from nothing when the Great Depression belatedly reached their family fortune. I’ll leave the rest of the story there – you’ll just have to wait for the new trunk character to emerge to find out the details!

My second experience takes us over one hundred years forward from Bessie’s 1907 arrival to 2012. This past Monday, I visited Patterson High School to observe a storytelling course that the JMM runs for refugee and immigrant students. Monday’s class was focused on heroes, or simply a person each of us felt had made a difference in the world. Honestly, I felt a bit at a loss when considering who I admire. Yet these students, some of whom are nearly a decade younger than I, were much surer of themselves. They told stories of a man in their home villages back in Nepal, or looked to TV programs they’d seen on the news about a woman in Miami who fought for animal welfare. Each story was unique and powerful, and yet it was when I came to speak to one girl in particular that I found my research about Bessie gaining new dimension.

Student Immigration Stories Workshop, 2011

She spoke not of a person, but of God. Her imaginings of him as a man, or perhaps even a boy her age, were incredibly vivid and her telling was highly emotional. She saw him not as a hero who had done much, but as a being that held the power to alter the future. What was he up against? I asked. “Racism,” she replied. She went on to say that the racism in this country and in Baltimore in particular was insurmountable, and that she saw no other force in the world that could change it.

And to me, this comes back to Bessie in a very simple way. Though the city shut its shores to immigrants at the outbreak of WWI and would never re-open them, Baltimore continues to be a destination for immigrants. The census recorded a Hispanic population increased from 1.7 to 4.6 percent between 2000 and 2010. Bessie came to this country in search of opportunity and to escape hardship, and each student in that class likely came for similar reasons. And yet, this girl, so confident and articulate about her thoughts, is unable to see America as the land of opportunity – and instead sees it as a place where she is up against something so solid and pervasive that she is unable to fathom where to begin to conquer it. I only hope that she, like Bessie, will find her calling and push through her personal adversity to find success and acceptance. And perhaps, through this she will defy the boundaries that racism has set before her and her life will teach and inspire future generations, as I know Bessie’s story soon will.

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