Their Own Stories (online exhibit)

Their Own Stories: Voices From Middletown’s Melting Pot

their own stories quiltIntroduction

WangunksWangunks

EnglishEnglish

africansAfricans

scotsScots

irishIrish

germanGermans

swedesSwedes

polesPoles

JewishJews

greeksGreeks

italianItalians

Introduction

“Their Own Stories” gives voice to the many families who left their homelands in hope of finding freedom and prosperity here in Middletown. Hear them bear witness to what they found and what they left behind. Like the colorful “crazy quilt” of Irish immigrant Mary Ann Cronin, it is a multi-hued mix of diverse peoples that has made Middletown the city it is today.

From its very beginnings, Middletown has been a city of immigrants. In 1650, a small group of English families braved the wilderness to establish a settlement here at the bend in the Connecticut River. Within a few decades, they were followed by the city’s first Africans, unwilling immigrants forced by slavery to relocate to a strange and hostile land. For nearly two ¬†centuries, Middletown’s identity remained tied to the English background of most of its inhabitants.

But all that changed in the 1840s, when a wave of destitute Irish families fled the famine of their homeland and arrived in America. By 1850 nearly one-eighth of our city’s population was Irish. Soon immigrants from Scotland and Germany joined them, and Swedish families began arriving in the 1870s. A decade or so later, Polish and Jewish immigrants made their ways here, followed by a handful of Greeks. At the turn of the 20th century, Italian families–many from the Sicilian village of Melilli–began emigrating here in increasing numbers.

In five decades, the face of Middletown had changed forever. The city became in many ways a microcosm of the nation, which had opened its doors to millions fleeing persecution and poverty.

Middletown’s resulting brew of ethnicities and cultures, however, was not the proverbial melting pot that encouraged assimilation into an already-established American identity. Think, instead, of a mosaic or a crazy quilt made up of different textures and colors, shapes and sizes, each maintaining its own vibrancy and character as it contributes to a richer whole.

The immigrant groups who came here tried to preserve their ethnic heritages. The Italians, for instance, erected a replica of the church that stood in their home village of Melilli. Germans opened bakeries offering Black Forest cakes and rye bread. Jews built a mikvah, or bathhouse, where they could take their ritual baths.

As groups arrived in Middletown, they established their own neighborhoods and places of worship, and shops, often with goods from their native lands. They maintained the traditions of their homelands, and taught their children and grandchildren to do the same. Instead of fitting seamlessly into their new home, they added their own customs to the mosaic that was Middletown.