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By Andrea Eads

From the early 19th century to today, immigration and migration have both shaped and powered the industrial and agricultural work of the Midwest. Immigrants have filled vital roles in the building of the region and brought many cultural contributions to share within their new homeland in the Midwest. 


German peoples have been a part of the American fabric since Baron Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben came to train Patriot soldiers during the long Valley Forge winter of 1778. Farming families from the Southern regions of what would become Germany steadily trickled into the Middle-western region in the early 1800s, as more and more former Native American lands were opened up for settlement by the U.S. government. By the 1930s, German and Irish workers were being recruited to the area to help build canals and bridges so that the Midwest might be commercially integrated with the East Coast. These jobs were dangerous and backbreaking, often taking men away from their families for months at a time. Other Germans came to the Midwest as farmers or skilled craftsmen, working as carpenters, masons, brewers, and bakers.

A new wave of mostly Prussian Germans came en masse to America after there was a failed attempt at German unification in 1848. Known as the ‘48ers, most of these immigrants were middle class and educated. They primarily settled in cities throughout the “German Triangle,” a region between Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and St. Louis. 
A German immigrant family arriving by train. Credit: Topley, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
German immigrants proudly displayed many cultural distinctives. Their religious identity was mainly Lutheran or Catholic. Many churches performed their services in German and founded parochial schools taught in German. These institutions upheld great appreciation for the development of both mind and body. The Turner movement worked to found community education centers with room for gymnastics/physical fitness clubs, choral music groups, orchestral and theatrical performances, art galleries, and beer gardens (restaurants with large areas of outdoor seating). Turner social organizations introduced celebratory parades to American society, and German foods like sausages, strudel, and lager became standards in the Midwest due to their influence.
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In the 1850s, the Know-Nothing political party was formed in response to nativist distaste and distrust of German and Irish immigrants. The Know-Nothings opposed German immigrants’ cultural and religious practices such as spending Sundays with their families in beer gardens, eating rich foods, and their preference for and persistence in speaking and reading German. Greater pressure and animosity came against German-Americans during the World Wars of the 20th century. During wartime, German-Americans were threatened and coerced to renounce their culture to prove their patriotism.
A political cartoon c. 1850 reflecting the Know Nothing criticisms of Germans’ practice of drinking beer, and accusations of political corruption. Credit: Everett Collection 



The largest wave of Polish Immigrants to the Midwest was made up of rural Poles searching for economic opportunity in America after the agricultural revolution in Europe left them jobless. With the onslaught of industrialization, urban centers grew exponentially. Polish immigrants found work powering the steel, meatpacking, mining, and later auto industries in Chicago. The small Laissez-faire governments in place in the Midwest weren’t prepared to manage growing labor systems. With no workers rights or legal restrictions on businesses, immigrants worked in dangerous conditions, six days a week/12-14 hour shifts a day and barely scraped by economically. Women and children worked as well just to make ends meet. Small government also meant there were little to no housing regulations and immigrants could often only find shelter in poorly built, crowded, unsanitary, tenement housing built up near manufacturing centers. 

A political cartoon printed in the LA Times in 1924 implying new immigrants were the world’s “trash” and calling for immigration restriction. Credit: Edmund Gale. Public Domain.

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Polish workers rose up and played a vital role in the organization of the U.S. labor movement. This movement rallied for workers’ safety and fair pay, children’s right to childhood and education, and zoning and safe housing reform. As Poles called for workers’ rights, nativists often blamed Poles for crime and labor conflict. Nativists excluded Poles, labeling them as socialists and anarchists. Upper-class eugenics scientists declared this new wave of immigrants to be genetically inferior and pushed for immigration restriction. 

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Despite harsh conditions and opposition, Polish families persisted. They joined together in strong fraternal organizations called sokols and dedicated themselves to their families and the Catholic church. They found joy and connection in their love of dancing and music, especially Polka. Polish food traditions including perogies, gołąbki (cabbage roll) and pastries like babka were symbols of comfort and ties to their homeland. Hard-working Poles held a high regard for savings and land ownership and eventually invested around the cities they came to work within. 

The Cieslik family, a Polish immigrant family living in Chicago in the early twentieth century. Credit: Used with permission from the Cieslik family.



In the 1910s, the amount of incoming European immigrant workers slowed as conflict broke out in Europe, but industry continued to boom. When the U.S. decided to join the war alongside the Allied nations, young men left the factories to serve as soldiers. New streams of workers were desperately needed to fill industrial jobs. Southern Black agricultural and domestic workers were recruited to fill manufacturing jobs, which had previously been unavailable to them, in industrial cities across the Midwest. 

Scott and Violet Arthur and family upon arrival at Chicago train station in 1920. Credit: Chicago History Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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After the WWI armistice, returning soldiers were expected to work alongside Black Americans and some white factory workers walked out in protest.  Racist mobs attacked Black Americans and burned down their homes in Chicago and St. Louis in what was nicknamed the Red Summer of 1919. As a result of the conflict, government-sanctioned racial segregation was further established in the Midwest during the 1920s. Black workers and their families frequently faced job, union, housing, and education discrimination, yet most Black Americans persisted in the region to find work and some freedom from the extreme hostility and life-threatening danger of the Jim Crow south. 

Committed networks of Black Americans supported each other and offered legal aide and social assistance to incoming workers. Black researchers and civil rights activists documented racial workplace inequality and protested the government for equal treatment and pay. 

Headline in the St. Louis Star and Times, July, 1917, blaming white rioter violence on Black workers. Credit: St. Louis Star, Public Domain.

Strong faith and church communities were safe havens and incubators for Black culture. African and slavery-era songs, rhythms, and dances influenced the continued development of Black music.  Food traditions, which Black migrants brought with them from the South, including slow-cooked barbequed meat, black-eyed peas, and fruit cobblers became mainstays throughout the Midwest.


Learn more about the Great Migration here.



International markets and labor conflicts coupled to destabilize the coal industry after World War II. Many Appalachian workers were reluctant to leave their beloved mountain homes, but steel mills, rubber and automobile factories in Akron, Dayton, Indianapolis, Chicago, and Cleveland provided money-making opportunities unavailable to them in West Virginia and Eastern Kentucky. The migratory movement of workers from Appalachia to the Rust Belt states was referred to as the “Hillbilly Highway.”

In Midwestern urban industrial cities, “Mountain Folk” often clustered together in crowded, unhealthy conditions in what were derogatorily called “hillbilly ghettoes” or “hillbilly jungles.” They were sometimes accused of being uneducated and lazy because of their slow drawl and cultural differences. But they found creative expression and comradery in social “jamborees” where all could join in playing live bluegrass and country music or sharing a story. They continued to find opportunities to fish and hunt when they could, and share food traditions including cured meats and pickled vegetables.
Two youths in Uptown Chicago, which The Chicago Tribune referred to in a March 3, 1957 article as home to “Jungles of Hillbillies.” Credit: Danny Lyon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Common

In 1965 Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Immigration and Naturalization Act which abolished a longstanding immigration policy. The previous law, the 1924 Johnson-Reed law had severely restricted immigration by establishing a quota system which limited new immigrants in order to maintain a set national ratios of the population which excluded many immigrants of color. The new law set immigration standards based on, “...reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor to the United States.” International students became a major source of skilled labor to the U.S. 

Since 1965, a growing number of international students from all over the world, including a high number of Asian, African, and Latin American students make large contributions to U.S. metropolitan area economies where they study. Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana are all in the top ten states with the most international students. A majority of foreign students in the Midwest study science, technology, engineering, math, or business and 45% of those students stay in those metropolitan areas and fill much-needed industry, healthcare, and research jobs.

These international students often travel around the world without the opportunity to see their families for years. Despite being distanced from their sending country, international students often find ways to get involved at universities sharing about their diverse practices and traditions of religion, music, art, and food. International students who stay and work in the states can be vital assets to the organizations they work for offering global business connections and cultural translation skills that companies in a global market need. 

International students make great sacrifices to study in the U.S. and in the Midwest. Some experience extreme pressure to adhere to a perfectionistic “model” student identity. Other international students have experienced discrimination in the Midwest. Some have been mocked for wearing their traditional clothing. Others share that they have been accused by strangers of being responsible for conflicts abroad after major world events, or harshly told that they are “not welcome here.” But, at other times international students have felt warmly welcomed and sought after in the Midwest for the important cultural and commercial contributions they have to offer. 

Ball State student and family at the International Students’ Tea in 1965. Credit: Ball State University Libraries Digital Media Repository, University Photograph Collection

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Though there has been a long history of migratory work between Mexico and the United States, economic shifts and displacement of peoples due to changes in commercial farming during the 1970s sent a new wave of Central American immigrants to the Midwest in the 1980s. Communities of workers have filled employment gaps in agriculture, construction, and meatpacking in both cities and rural areas. Increasing Latino/x populations have had a significant impact on degenerating post-industrial towns, bringing population, fresh life– and federal funding– to schools and cities like Beardstown, Illinois. Beardstown used to be supported by a local factory which shut down, but the meatpacking plant has grown. While it doesn’t pay well enough for most natives to want to work there, it offers a better option for many new Latino/x immigrants to the region, and the population has risen to 30 percent Latino/x.

The Padron/Lopez family of Chicago in 1978. Credit: Used with permission from the Padron family. 

Latino/x immigrants left their homelands and came to the Midwest to provide for their families, but they didn’t leave behind their culture. When one group of immigrants finds a factory, farm, or crew hiring, they often send word back to needy family members south of the Texas border who are making far less. Despite grueling work and long hours, Latino/x immigrant communities stay close and connected socially around traditions of music and dancing such as Mariachi and Salsa. Catholic mass and delicious food also brings immigrant families together. Many traditions have become standard norms in the Midwest such as food traditions including tacos, tamales, salsa, and empanadas. 

Though many Latino/x immigrants were recruited by employers for unfilled positions,  immigrants have, at times, been accused of stealing jobs from other Americans. Once employed, many have experienced exploitation and hardship in relation to fair labor practices. Some Latino/x Americans have been discriminated against for speaking Spanish in public, though there is no official national language in the U.S. In many regions of the Midwest, Latino/x immigrants have a hard time finding schools equipped to work with their bilingual children. Today bilingual and Spanish-immersion education is growing in the Midwest even outside of the metropolitan centers, as smaller towns grow in their understanding that the Midwest’s best chances for growth are in embracing the latest waves of immigrants, who have come to share in the Midwestern experience.

Though there is no legal, official language in the United States, Latinx immigrants are often discriminated against for speaking Spanish in public. Credit:, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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