Rooted in the Americanization zeal: the San Francisco International Institute, race, and settlement work, 1918-1939.

Author:Urban, Andrew
Position:8H Paper - International organization overview

The Chinese and Japanese come from the Asiatic zone ineligible to citizenship. This means that the impulse to serve them has never been rooted in the Americanization zeal which has played so large a part, spoken or unspoken, in the attitude of Americans toward other transplanted folk.

--Letter from Ethel Bird of the National Services Division of the YWCA to Mrs. Emily Price, Member of the Executive Board of the San Francisco International Institute, March 9, 1934


This essay will explore how the work and philosophy of the International Institute, a settlement house located in downtown San Francisco, relates to the larger historiography that has attempted to understand the role of settlement houses and social work in regard to race and cultural pluralism. As a settlement house that directed its resources toward San Francisco's Asian immigrants as well as the city's American-born Asian population, the International Institute offers a unique look into how race informed "Americanization" work and imbued it with unavoidable contradictions.

The settlement house movement that emerged in the first part of the twentieth century defined among its primary goals the making of good American citizens who would contribute to the nation and become part of its social fabric. As the San Francisco International Institute noted in its 1934 Annual Report, "The International Institute thinks of itself as society's agent in trying to help the foreign-born and their children become so adjusted in and identified with American life that they will cordially cooperate as responsible citizens." (1) In another document articulating why it was worthy of receiving funding from San Francisco's municipal philanthropic organization, the Community Chest, the Institute would state as its purpose, simply, "the protection and integration of foreign born and racial groups into our civilization." (2)

The International Institute's self-described goals of making "responsible citizens" and facilitating "integration" were not applied universally to all of the nationality groups that the organization worked with in San Francisco. As the quote at the beginning of this essay illustrates, Asian immigrants living in the United States were "ineligible" for naturalization. In seeking to help assimilate immigrants into the nation, the International Institute was nonetheless limited to the prevailing legal definition of which groups were racially eligible for incorporation into the nation. As Annie Clo Watson, Executive Secretary of the San Francisco International Institute, would note in speaking before the National Conference of Social Work, no amount of Americanization work could change the fact that Asians were "a permanent body of noncitizens, who cannot hold property and establish homes for their families, who are cut off from the institutions of government, who are socially, culturally, and legally isolated." (3) In extending its services to the American-born Chinese population in San Francisco--citizens by birth--the International Institute performed a different type of Americanization work that framed citizenship as being contingent on cultural qualities. In this manner as well, the International Institute grappled with how race informed fitness for national inclusion.


In 1918, the International Institute in San Francisco opened its doors, joining nineteen other Institutes already in operation across the United States. Conceived of as a department of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), individual Institutes were affiliated with both the national organization of the YWCA, to which they reported and on which they relied on for funding, as well as local branches of the YWCA in the cities where they operated. In San Francisco this meant that the International Institute worked closely with both the Chinese YWCA and Japanese YWCA (often referred to as the Chinese and Japanese Centers), despite maintaining its own offices and a separate staff.

The San Francisco International Institute was modeled as a settlement house; although its employees did not reside in its main building, the Institute was located in downtown San Francisco at 1860 Washington Street and maintained an open-door policy to the communities it served. The International Institutes oriented their work around the idea that the different nationality communities possessed specific needs, and as a result, assigned programs and staff by nationality In 1923, for example, the Institute employed on its staff a Greek visitor, a Spanish-speaking visitor (working primarily with the city's Mexican population), a Russian visitor, in addition to a Japanese visitor and three Chinese visitors, one of whom worked as a full-time liaison at the Chinese Center. (4) Visitors had the job of cultivating contacts among individuals representing the different nationality communities of the city, promoting the Institute's groups and clubs, as well as responding to needs in the areas of employment, medical care, and interpretation and translation.

The Institute's headquarters at 1860 Washington Street provided a common venue for the different nationality groups that the organization worked with in San Francisco. The Institute believed that events held in the main building fostered a cosmopolitan appreciation between nationality groups, as well as among native-born Americans who could attend and learn "to understand the foreigner" and avoid being "guilty of American arrogance." In accordance with the philosophy of many prominent individuals within the settlement house movement, the Institute in San Francisco theorized that Americanization could occur ostensibly without erasing the cultural traits immigrants brought with them to the United States. Rather, the Institute sought to foster a type of cultural pluralism and served as "sympathetic interpreters of those traditions, social laws, beliefs, and customs valid in the homeland, and also fundamentally valid here," while also facilitating the "slow wearing away of those customs and habits which are of the surface, and are the badge of ignorance; and which can bring only grief and failure in America." (5)


In looking broadly at settlement house work and issues of race, most scholars have focused on how mainly Protestant settlement workers interacted with predominantly Catholic and Jewish European immigrants. In addition, scholars have explored how settlement houses responded to the "Great Migration" of African Americans into Midwestern and Eastern cities. Settlement workers understood the differences of Italians and Russian Jews, for example, to be racial. (6) Nonetheless, despite examples of biological racism--the belief that race was an innate genetic quality--most settlement houses advocated a definition of "race" that, in line with the liberal sociologists of the era, considered it to be a cultural and contingent category of identity that would yield to and eventually allow for assimilation into a pluralistically American culture. Edith Terry Bremer, the founder of the national federation of International Institutes and a friend and associate of Jane Addams, articulated this belief: "We are committed to the philosophy that all races of men are intrinsically of equal worth and that the economic and social arrangements should be such as to permit each to work out its own unique life and contribution to mankind." (7)

Settlement houses were often located in white immigrant neighborhoods that, while segregated, bordered on areas inhabited by African Americans. Like the European immigrants that settlement houses were initially created to serve, African Americans coming north in the early part of the twentieth century also faced difficulties in finding housing, jobs, and acceptance from already established and often hostile communities. With these factors in mind, it would seem that the settlement houses would extend an invitation to African American migrants to participate in programs and services, alongside their original mission to assist European immigrants.

This was markedly not the case in the majority of instances. Most settlement houses accepted the commonly held perception that there should be a natural social space between African Americans and whites. Although there were some...

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