Our St. Louis Immigration Stories
A Nation of Immigrants
The American dream is a national ethos that anyone can rise and become financially stable through hard work and perseverance. Immigrants bring a little more than their ambition to succeed; they open businesses, buy homes, and even get elected into offices where their voices echo even beyond their communities (Clark, 2003).
“We are a nation of immigrants. We are the children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the ones who wanted a better life, the driven ones, the ones who woke up at night hearing that voice telling them that life in that place called America could be better” (Romney, 2012) said Mitt Romney during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 2012
There are other reasons as well that people have immigrated to America and to St. Louis.
The 5 largest ethnic groups in St. Louis city, MO are Black or African American (Non-Hispanic) (44.9%), White (Non-Hispanic) (44.5%), Asian (Non-Hispanic) (3.44%), Two+ (Non-Hispanic) (2.54%), and White (Hispanic) (2.33%) (Data, USA). In 2010, 75,000 or 4.5% of the St. Louis Metropolitan Region was Latinx (St. Louis Public Radio). 0.5% of the Missouri state population is Native American (Kathryn Buder Center, Washington University, 2014). Around 66 Osage live in St. Louis City (Rice, 2014). 0% of the households in St. Louis city, MO speak a non-English language at home as their primary language. 95.5% of the residents in St. Louis city, MO are U.S. citizens (Data USA).
All ethnic groups immigrated to America, by choice, necessity or by force. All ethnicities experienced similar and different resistance to their presence in this country. In the midst of that resistance, they formed wonderful non-profits, cultural centers, schools and institutions to build and sustain community and a home in our region. Here are a few of our local ethnic stories.
Native Americans in St. Louis
Native Americans started out as a larger population who lived across the entire state of Missouri. The tribes included the Oto, Ioway, Missouria, Illini, Osage, Quapaw, and Chickasaw (Karen House). Due to periods of displacement and relocation, Native American were moved on and off reservations, starting with their relocation to Oklahoma (Buder Center, 2019).
As World War II ended, policies shifted away from supporting Native American tribes and reservations and towards integration into cities. In 1944, more than 20% of land around the Missouri River that belonged to Native Americans was taken by the Corps of Engineers (Buder Center, 2019). Thus, Native Americans in St. Louis became more physically separated from their tribes.
The Kathryn Buder Center housed in the George Warren Brown School of Social Work was started with the leadership of local Native Americans. This center helps support St. Louis Native American scholarship and draws Native American scholars and healers to St. Louis. “We prepare future American Indian leaders to practice in tribal and urban settings, making significant contributions to the health, wellness and the sustained future of Indian Country” (Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies).
Latin Americans in St. Louis
Daniel Gonzalez captures some of the Latinx St. Louis history. “The earliest Mexican immigrants to St. Louis came in the 1830s and '40s as Hispano traders along the Santa Fe Trail. They studied at Saint Louis University and Christian Brothers College, and married into several prominent St. Louis families.3”(Gonzalez, D, 2017).
This trading relationship continued into the late 19th Century, and members of the Mexican Liberal Party found refuge in St. Louis starting in 1905. During the Great Depression, an onslaught of violence and deportation efforts cut the St. Louis Latinx population in half.
During World War II, labor shortages and immigration laws that limited Europeans from coming to America led states to pursue Latinx labor. Between 1942 and 1964, the federal government created a guest worker program bringing many more Latinx people to St. Louis. During World War II, St. Louis became a major hub from which employers recruited Latinx people to fill jobs.
The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1982 to increase opportunities for Latinx business owners. Latinx populations in St. Louis are one of the fastest growing demographics in St. Louis. Cherokee Street is one location where Latinx stores, bakeries, restaurants, and cultural centers have thrived.
Chinese Americans in St. Louis
Huping Ling captures the history of Chinese Americans in St. Louis. In 1857, Alla Lee came from China to St. Louis, opened a coffee and tea shop, and married an Irish woman. Ten years later, several hundred Chinese moved to St. Louis from New York and San Francisco, seeking work in mines and factories. Many lived in boarding houses near Hop Alley, which later became Chinatown.
In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act kept Chinese out of the US and out of work if they lived in the US. Despite this exclusion act, Chinatown provided laundries, merchandise stores, herb shops, restaurants and cultural meeting spaces. Chinese businesses were successful and contributed 60% of services throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, even though the Chinese were only 0.01% of the population.
Brownlee, Dains, and Goodrich (The State Historical Society of Missouri, 1977) capture the treatment of the Chinese during the St. Louis 1904 World’s Fair. Prince Pu Lun was given red carpet treatment. John Barrett, U.S. Minister to Siam and World’s Fair Commissioner to Asia, Australia and the Phillippines advocated for American trade with Asia and invited Asian nations to display their products by way of increasing trade.
Prince Pu Lin brought a host of family members, servants and skilled artisans and provided lectures on Chinese Art and philosophy. The Chinese Pavilion was a central attraction, and he and his entourage were known for their splendid parties and beautiful dresses.
However, Chinese people who came to work at the fair had an entirely different experience. They were detained for weeks and were restricted in movement such that they could only work at the fair. If they didn’t show up to work within 48 hours, they were registered as a fugitive.
Huping Ling explains how the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed in 1943 as a post-World War II economic boom began to set in, and local St. Louis companies recruited Chinese employees.
People in Chinatown faced ethnic discrimination and police raids. In 1966, during a wave of urban renewal, Chinatown was destroyed and turned into parking lots for Busch Stadium.
The Chinese population in St. Louis has steadily increased. As of the 2000 census, the Chinese constitute 1% of the suburban metropolitan area, somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000.
St. Louis has three Chinese-language schools, twelve Chinese religious institutions, and more than forty community organizations sponsoring a wide array of community activities. St. Louis has three hundred Chinese restaurants.
Japanese Americans in St. Louis
Through the Japan America Society of St. Louis, Dr. Chikako Usui shares the history of Japanese Americans in St. Louis. Yukinobu Yamamoto was the first Japanese person to come to St. Louis via the World’s Fair and to stay. His presence helped establish a good relationship between St. Louis and Japan, and over the next 40 years, 47 more Japanese settled in St. Louis.
In 1913, the Alien Land Law passed in California made Asian Americans ineligible for citizenship and forbid Asian Americans from owning or holding longer term leases on land (Kandil, 2019). Japanese immigrants could not become citizens until 1952. And in 1924, The Immigration Act forbid Japanese immigration.
As the Japanese experienced these and other Asian exclusionary policies, they formed Nihonmachis, often adjacent to Chinatowns, which were social and cultural hubs and places Japanese immigrants could find community and resources.
During the forced removal of Japanese from their homes in World War II, Japanese rentals were leased to new tenants, Nihonmachis shut down, and Japanese were moved from the West Coast to a number of different internment camps, one in Arkansas. Upon release from internment, the Japanese had no homes to return to.
Washington University and Saint Louis University had set a precedent for welcoming the Japanese to St. Louis.
They accepted Japanese students during World War II, and the students were welcomed to campus and did not experience the restrictions of their interned families. Over 30 Japanese students came to St. Louis to attend Washington University.
Dr. Chikako Usui shares how as trains of formerly interned Japanese came from Arkansas, headed to Chicago, members of St. Louis greeted them with donuts and coffee at the St. Louis train station and encouraged them to stay in St. Louis. Sugar had been forbidden in the internment camps, and 140-150 of the Japanese felt so welcomed that they got off the train and stayed in St. Louis.
The YWCA helped organize resettlement possibilities. An “Inter-American House” took place in Bishop Tuttle Memorial Building in Christ Church Cathedral, which provided social opportunities for Japanese settlers to meet with other St. Louis families.
The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) formed a St. Louis chapter in 1946 to help Japanese people find community and to provide opportunities for teens and community projects. They also began the annual Japanese festival in partnership with the Missouri Botanical Gardens.
In 1972, Japanese Americans in St. Louis gave St. Louis the gift of The Japanese Garden in the Missouri Botanical Gardens as a token of appreciation for having been welcomed so well by St. Louis.
African Americans in St. Louis
Many African Americans came to St. Louis from the South in hopes of access to safety and to better healthcare and housing resources.
For generations, while segregated and limited in access to mortgages and other sustainable resources, St. Louis African American families have built thriving entrepreneurial communities and an entertainment district (that produced Chuck Berry and Tina Turner, among others) on Grand Avenue (Fagerstrom, 2010). Their creative collective organizing and leadership has helped families navigate and advocate for one another and our region amidst every exclusion faced from employment, healthcare, education, housing and more.
In 1956, 20,000 people, 95% African American were displaced by the expansion of highway 40 and the takeover of the land they had secured for the new Grand Avenue entertainment district, known at the time as Mill Creek Valley. African American families then faced even more limited options for where they could live and moved into inner ring suburbs like University City and North County.
A host of African American led non-profits and community organizations have helped develop African American leaders and have been filling in the resources systematically removed from once thriving African American neighborhoods.
For example, our region has many African-American led non-profits and community development corporations who are building and preserving affordable housing and providing housing and financial literacy education and other wrap around services to support families in accessing everything they need. Healthcare. Technology. Education. Healthy food.
Bosnians in St. Louis
The largest population of Bosnians in the United States and outside of Europe can be found in St. Louis, Missouri. The Bosnian population is about 70,000 and is located in Bevo Mill, which has earned the affectionate name of ‘Little Bosnia.’ The vast majority arrived in the 1990’s fleeing a bloody civil war in their home country of Bosnia and Herzegovina (Zurcher, 2016).
Amer Iriskic, 28, moved to ST. Louis as a seven-year-old in 1998 (Delkic, 2019). He said that people were outside all the time, and he and his friends would play basketball in the alley behind their house. His family opened a butcher shop where they sold cuts of lamb and veal that gave a taste of home for their Bosnian customers. Other residents welcomed the idea and became customers as well. The community recreated their favorite parts about their homes in Bevo Mill as a way to maintain their heritage and pass on their culture to younger generations.
The migration of Bosnians breathed new life into the hurting St. Louis neighborhood of Bevo Hill. This neighborhood was hurting from the federal housing policies that allocated grades to neighborhoods along racial lines to demarcate which neighborhoods should receive mortgages. Drawing on federal guidance from the Homeowners Loan Corporation, banks drew red lines around black and brown communities to exclude them from homeownership. Landlords followed suit and didn’t fix up properties if they were lived in by African American families (Gordon, 2018).
These same federal and local policies incentivized homeownership for white people by providing them mortgages for homes in the suburbs. Realtors helped move white people out of the city by forming associations like the St. Louis Realtors Exchange. They created neighborhood restrictive covenant policies to write into the deeds of homes which ethnicities were excluded from purchasing the homes. Among others, African, Asian, and Latinx were excluded. (Gordon, 2008).
Realtors told white people their property values would decrease because they lived near African American families. The realtors also encouraged white people to move out of the city into the suburbs. Thus, the city population had begun to decline, and the arrival of the Bosnians helped establish more community in Bevo Mills. The Bosnians gave new life by opening flourishing businesses and setting up a very vibrant community.
Africans in St. Louis
Africa has also carved a niche for itself in the St Louis community. People from various countries in Africa have played an essential role in the city’s economy, culture, and politics. They have established themselves as part of the city’s fastest-growing foreign-born population. They are prominent entrepreneurs, university star athletes, artists, musicians, and community leaders (Devermont, 2020). Akon, a famous Senegalese-American musician, has never shied away from sharing his story about growing up in St Louis. Africa is a top investment destination for the city’s most promising industries, contributing to economic growth and opportunities.
How St. Louisans Fit Together
St. Louis is a city made up of different small parts that form and drive the big machine that creates its society. Organizations and schools come together to create a nurturing environment that welcomes and allows immigrants and refugees to grow in their new country.
St. Louis is a mosaic that incorporates immigrants from all over the world who invigorate and bring innovative ideas into the area. We are fragments of love, war, and history that glue us together through the parts of our lives and experiences that interconnect and shape one another. As we continue to learn from one another how our lives, histories, struggles, and forms of collective organizing interconnect, we tap into many regional possibilities for innovation and change.
St. Louis Non-Profits and Schools That Welcome Immigrants
The St. Louis Mosaic Project is a regional non-profit initiative professionally managed by the St. Louis Economic Development Partnership, World Trade Center St. Louis, and a 32-member committee (Louis, 2012). The project aims at transforming St. Louis into the fastest growing metropolis for immigration by 2025.
In partnership with the area’s colleges and universities, the project aims to educate international students and prepare them for life in St. Louis after graduation. Mosaic leaders hold productive talks with the local and federal government to reduce barriers for foreign workers and their families. The St. Louis Mosaic Project aims at fitting all the pieces into the giant jigsaw puzzle that is St. Louis.
Oasis International is another community-driven initiative that seeks to integrate refugees into St. Louis. This organization provides medical assistance to refugees by organizing health fairs and eye clinics, hosting job fairs, and organizing summer camps for refugee children. They provide a guiding hand to the refugees as they explore life in their new country.
The International Institute of St. Louis (IISTL) is in its 100th year. In their own words, “the International Institute helps build a more connected and productive society for immigrants, their families, and the St. Louis community. From its headquarters in Tower Grove East, IISTL provides essential immigrant integration services to more than six thousand foreign-born people from eighty countries. Nearly one thousand volunteers and ninety staff members offer English and citizenship classes, career path assistance, job placement, and counseling, as well as small-business development and microloans. More than one hundred thousand visitors attend the International Institute’s annual Festival of Nations and other events it hosts throughout the year.” (International Institute St. Louis, https://www.iistl.org/our-history/).
Nahed Chapman New American Academy is a public school in St Louis that provides multilingual education to immigrants and refugees. Students and their families receive a number or wrap around supports and trauma-informed instruction and services. The school creates a safe space and a nurturing environment for immigrant students with limited English and little formal education. The school has helped immigrant students settle in St. Louis and adjust to a new life for nearly a decade (Steinhoff, 2018).
Brownlee, R., Dains, M., & Goodrich, J. (1977). The State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia MO. Retrieved from https://digital.shsmo.org/digital/collection/mhr/id/37659
Clark, W. A. (2003). Remaking the Middle Class. In Immigrants and the American Dream (p. xiv). New York: THE GUILFORD PRESS.
Data USA https://datausa.io/profile/geo/st-louis-city-mo
Delkic, M. (2019, August 18). It’s Not the Same’: Why War Refugees Who Helped Revive St. Louis Are Leaving. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/18/us/bosnian-refugees-st-louis-midwest.html
Devermont, J. (2020, March 4). Why Africa Matters to St. Louis. Retrieved from Center for Strategic and International Studies: https://www.csis.org/analysis/why-africa-matters-st-louis
Fagerstrom, R. (2010). Mill Creek Valley: A Soul of St. Louis. St. Louis, MO.
Hemphill, E. (2018, March 1). Remembering Mill Creek Valley, once home to 20,000 black St. Louisans. Retrieved from NPR St. Louis on the Air: https://news.stlpublicradio.org/show/st-louis-on-the-air/2018-03-01/remembering-mill-creek-valley-once-home-to-20-000-black-st-louisans
House, K. Early Displacements St. Louis and the Osage Nation. http://newsite.karenhousecw.org/early-displacements-st-louis-and-the-osage-nation
Kathryn M. Buder Center for American Indian Studies. https://sites.wustl.edu/budercenter/history-2/
Kandil, C.Y. (2019). How 1800s racism birthed Chinatown, Japantown and other ethnic enclaves. Retrieved from NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/how-1800s-racism-birthed-chinatown-japantown-other-ethnic-enclaves-n997296
Ling, Huping. “Reconceptualizing Chinese American Community in St. Louis: from Chinatown to Cultural Community.” Journal of American Ethnic History, vol. 24, no. 2, 2005, pp. 65–101. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/27501563.
Louis, S. (2012). About Us. Retrieved from ST LOUIS MOSAIC: https://www.stlmosaicproject.org/about-us.html
Rice, P. (2014). Osage Nation Leaders Help Explain St. Louis' Earliest Days. St. Louis Public Radio. Retrieved from https://news.stlpublicradio.org/arts/2014-03-31/osage-nation-leaders-help-explain-st-louis-earliest-days#stream/0
Romney, M. (2012, August 30). Mitt Romney's Acceptance Speech.
Steinhoff, D. (2018, October 22). A St. Louis School Teaches Only Refugees and Immigrants. Day One Tells Its Story. Retrieved from RIVERFRONT TIMES: https://www.riverfronttimes.com/artsblog/2018/10/22/a-st-louis-school-teaches-only-refugees-and-immigrants-day-one-tells-its-story
Usui, C. (2021). Home: Japanese Americans in St. Louis. Retrieved from https://jasstl.org
Zurcher, A. (2016, October 30). America's 'invisible' Muslims. Retrieved from BBC NEWS: https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-37663226
Sarah Hobson, Ph.D. specializes in supporting teams, departments and schools, businesses, and government agencies in building inclusive innovative change-making communities who understand how to connect well with and join diverse populations in providing needed sustainable resources for all youth and families.