To set forth the history of North Carolina immigrants is simply to tell the state’s story.
For centuries, North Carolina has leaned on the labor and initiative of seas of immigrants, from Scots-Irish to Germans, Jews to Italians, Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, Greeks, Cambodians, Latinos, and many more. Without them, we would have had no town of Valdese, no Old Salem, no Plott Hound, no Family Dollar Stores, a distinct shortage of skilled tech workers, and a far less interesting food scene.
Despite all that, the most recent wave of newcomers has almost always found opposition. That’s the word from James H. Johnson, a professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, whose work includes the history of immigration. In their fight for acceptance, immigrants have made use of a unifying characteristic, Johnson says.
“Immigration is a highly selective processimmigrants are risk takers by definition,” he says. “If you think about coming to a new country, there’s something unique and special about it.”
Indeed, North Carolina has largely benefited from a centuries-long parade of people from other nations arriving here, settling, raising children, attending school, and starting businesses. In the genealogy of most North Carolina residents, there’s a Scot or a Vietnamese refugee somewhere in the background, or a German or a Mexican immigrant, all of whom decided to make a new start, often under difficult conditions.
“All of the newcomers have been discriminated against,” Johnson says. “In many instances, they had no choice but to start their own businesses.”
Initially, the entrepreneurial direction pursued by many immigrants was impossible for the forebears of roughly 22 percent of North Carolinians who are African American. Those ancestors likely arrived here as slaves. For Native Americans, about 1.6 percent of the state’s population, the journey to what is now North Carolina is thought to have begun some sixteen thousand to eighteen thousand years ago, probably from Siberia. Despite the attention given recently to immigrants from Mexico and a much smaller group from the Middle East, Asians have recently become the largest sector of North Carolina immigrants, many of whom now work in the technology sector, Johnson points out.
As in the past, anti-immigrant rhetoric has brought difficult times for many North Carolina newcomers, says Allie Yee, associate director for the nonprofit Institute for Southern Studies. And under the Trump administration, it’s only ratcheted up.
“I’ve been hearing that there’s a lot of fear and a lot confusion about what’s going to happen,” Yee says. “There is a sense of people being emboldened around anti-immigrant hate.”
Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto’s march through these regions in the early 1540s is described as one of the first incursions of Europeans into what is now North Carolina. As every attendee of “The Lost Colony” knows, the Sir Walter Raleigh-backed expeditions to the Outer Banks in the 1580s ended only in enduring mystery, not the hoped-for outpost of Elizabethan England.
Following the 1608 Jamestown settlement in Virginia and the Pilgrims’ 1620 landing at Plymouth Rock, the first permanent white settler in North Carolina was Nathaniel Batts, who built a house at Albemarle Sound at 1657, according to historian William S. Powell.
The eighteenth century brought borders that separated the Old North State from South Carolina and Virginia. Even before the Revolutionary War roiled the aborning nation, waves of Highland Scots, displaced by their defeat in the Battle of Culloden and “harsh action by the British Parliament against the Scottish clans,” made the trek to a new life in areas notably including North Carolina, Powell wrote.
“Although the Scottish emigrants, in coming to America, were assured freedom to exercise their Presbyterian religion at a time when the Stuart monarchy favored spreading the Anglican Church throughout the British Isles, the most important motivation for Scottish emigration was economic,” wrote historian Robert J. Cain. “Profound changes in agricultural organization following the Jacobite insurrection of 1745 raised rents to unprecedented heights and resulted in large numbers of evictions.”
Just as in the current day, deprivation, governmental oppression, and religious differences fueled several generations of early Tar Heel immigrants.
Before President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation in 1965 that altered a quota system that had previously chiefly allowed immigration from three countries in Northern Europe, most immigrants didn’t stand out in crowds in North Carolina. As James Johnson says, many were “phenotypically similar,” or looked like people who had already arrived. “It was sometimes difficult to distinguish where they were from” once they had mastered English, he says.
Immigrants from Germany, like those from Scotland, left in the wake of political and religious oppression and economic hard times, in their case from the region known as the Palatinate, in the southern Rhine Valley. In the eighteenth century, some Germans migrated to the western part of the state to take advantage of cheap land.
One example, according to digitalheritage.org: “The Plott Balsam Mountains in Haywood and Jackson Counties were named for the Plott family, German immigrants who settled on Plott Creek in 1801. Johannes Plott, who first immigrated to North Carolina in the 1750s, crossed the Atlantic with his family’s hunting dogs.”
The Plott family continued to develop the breed, which was designated state canine in 1989.
Another group that arrived after centuries of religious persecution was the Waldensians, Italian Christians whose ancestry preceded the Protestant Reformation. They were living in the Alps of Northern Italy in the late nineteenth century when a group decided to make the move to North Carolina, where they founded Valdese, a town in Burke County.
“The group of Waldensians that immigrated to North Carolina crossed the Atlantic on the SS Zaandam … and arrived in Burke County via train on May 29, 1893,” Cary resident Torre DeVito writes in his blog (itsitalian.blogspot.com). “The immigrants founded the Valdese Corporation with a charter granted by the State of North Carolina and purchased about ten thousand acres of land near the Catawba River in eastern Burke County.”
Salem, the community for which Winston-Salem is partly named, had its origins in the Moravians, another pre-Reformation Christian sect, based in what is now the Czech Republic. Fleeing persecutiondoes this start to sound familiar, and relevant?the sect bought and richly developed a tract of one hundred thousand acres. Meticulously restored, the Moravian settlement of Old Salem remains a popular attraction for locals and tourists, a visible reminder of what immigration has meant to the state.
Jews appeared in historical records in North Carolina as early as 1585, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, and have remained a significant and high-profile immigrant group ever since, though small in numbers. In an incident with poignant contemporary relevance, a North Carolinian made use of a former Dutch farming compound, the Van Eeden colony, to offer refuge to Jews who escaped during World War II.
“Dr. Alvin Johnson, an American scholar and humanitarian activist, assembled a group of refugee activists to create the Van Eeden settlement in Pender County,” wrote UNC researcher Susan Connell. “The activists sought to make the settlement a refugee haven for German Jews who were subjected to the horrors of Nazi Germany.”
The Van Eeden settlement dissolved after a few years, as the middle-class intellectuals and merchants who had emigrated proved unsuited for farm life. In addition, they failed to receive a warm welcome from suspicious local residents. However, the effort was notable, particularly in light of the United States’ rejection in 1939 of Jewish refugees packed into the ocean liner St. Louis, which was forced to return to Europe with most of its passengers still on board.
More recently, Jewish families have been among North Carolina’s most notable charitable givers. The family of Leon Levine, who found the multibillion-dollar Family Dollar chain in 1959, has given tens of millions to cultural, health care, and academic causes.
Immigrants from Lebanon have a century-plus history in North Carolina, one that’s copiously documented by historians, notably Akram Khater, an N.C. State history professor who also heads the Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies. The center’s work was key to the 2015 exhibit Cedars in the Pines: The Lebanese in North Carolina, 130 Years of History, which opened at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte.
During the first wave of Lebanese immigration, in which many Lebanese were fleeing repression or economic hard times, most settled in big cities like New York and Philadelphia; a smaller number, however, opted for smaller cities such as Charlotte and Goldsboro.
Because North Carolina didn’t see a lot of immigration in the early twentieth century, they stood out, becoming shopkeepers and salesmen, while some prominent families, such as the Mansours and Salems, took an interest in civic life, according to the Levine Museum. A later, second wave of immigrants sought higher education opportunities and technology and medical jobs. The influence of the Lebanese community can be seen, among other places, in family-run restaurants like Sitti and Neomonde.
The most significant waves of immigration in the twentieth century have been made up of Mexicans and other Hispanics, who often started in agricultural or construction jobs, and Asians, who are more often employed in technical fields.
A key moment in the history of Hispanics in the state came in September 2004, when the Mt. Olive Pickles company entered an agreement with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. Following a five-year consumer boycott of the company’s products promoted by the union, the pact went some distance toward protecting the rights of Hispanic farmworkers here on H2A guest worker visas. Even so, immigrant workers still experience exploitation on several levels, Yee says, citing wage theft, poor working conditions, and substandard housing.
Immigrants from Asia have come to North Carolina for decades, going back to before the Vietnamese, who began emigration after the American war ended there in the mid-1970s. During the past few years, annual net immigration from Asian countries has sometimes outpaced Hispanic numbers. In the Wake County suburb of Morrisville, nearly three in ten residents are of Asian descent.
Although the immigration crackdowns of recent years have produced a net loss in Hispanic immigration into North Carolina, immigrants from a panoply of nations remain a vital part of the state culture and economy. However, despite centuries of contributionsspace does not allow a much more comprehensive listingprejudice and bigotry remain.
“With the broadening of the priorities for deportation under the Department of Homeland Security, there is the sense of, ‘Who’s a good immigrant and who’s a bad immigrant?’” Yee said. “If you are not a U.S. citizen, you are vulnerable. There’s a brooding sense that no one’s safe.”
This article appeared in print with the headline “The Tar Heel Melting Pot”