With each new immigrant wave, the people of Lewiston have evolved their perceptions of, and reactions to newcomers, acknowledging that every group that exists in their community, minority and majority alike, has an impact on that community's culture and economic stability.
The Irish were some of the first non-English, non-Protestant immigrants in Maine, and they paved the way for other groups that followed. Irish people provided much-needed labor in Lewiston’s mills in the 1850s and were generally welcomed during the booming years of the Industrial Age. They also worked construction, digging and laying much of the canal and sewage pipes in the city.
The French Canadians arrived in the late 1800s, and like the Irish, they filled a massive demand for labor in the mills as hydropower expanded their production of textiles. As a result, Lewiston's population nearly doubled within a decade.
In Lewiston, the French were marginalized. Their “Little Canada” neighborhood was physically cut off from the rest of the city, surrounded by the Androscoggin River and the canals. The flood of French workers from Canada, and their larger-than-average family size, created a housing shortage; when they tried to move out of Little Canada, they met resistance from the second and third generation Irish, and the English.
The Irish and French were Catholics, and this, combined with economic issues and discrimination based on stereotypes, led to conflict with Lewiston residents of English Protestant heritage.
It was illegal to speak French in public schools in Maine starting in 1919, so living in exclusively French-speaking environments like Lewiston became a challenge for the Franco-Americans. Parents who wanted their children to have an alternative to factory work saw English language, and the ability to move out of Little Canada, as the means of social advancement.
After Lewiston’s Mayor, Laurier Raymond, wrote a letter of concern on the front page of the Lewiston Sun Journal in 2002 expressing concerns about Somalis in the community, citizens in the Lewiston/Auburn area formed the Many and One Coalition to show support for the cities' Somali immigrants.
Lewiston received national attention from the media, social justice organizations, and white supremacists after Mayor Raymond asked the Somali community to stop coming to Lewiston, and to, “exercise some discipline and reduce the stress on our limited finances and our generosity…We have been overwhelmed and have responded valiantly. Now we need breathing room.”
The letter prompted support and outrage. The World Church of the Creator (WCOTC) and the Many and One Coalition held competing rallies on January 11, 2003. Turnouts indicated that the majority of Lewiston’s citizens supported tolerance, with 300 people attending the WCOTC rally, and an overflow crowd of up to 5,000 people at Many and One’s event.
This T-shirt commemorates a later event hosted by Many and One—Ten days of Diversity and Justice in 2004.
By the time of the Somali relocation in 2001, nearly all residents of Lewiston were Caucasian, descendants of the English, Irish, and French immigrants. The boundaries of ethnic heritage had minimized, reducing much of the racial tensions of the past. Instead, the pressure was financial as the textile and shoe factories had closed, and Lewiston was in an economic slump.
Unlike the Irish and French, ethnic Somalis and Bantu people from Somalia are not immigrants, but refugees. As they fled the violence and civil war in Africa, they were resettled in the United States without any option to return home. Originally settled in urban areas like Atlanta, Georgia, the Somalis were attracted to Maine because of the State's low crime rate, good schools, rural nature, and inexpensive housing.
Eight months after they settled in Lewiston, the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred, and the predominately Muslim Somalis experienced extreme suspicion, racism, and some violence, during their first years in Maine.
Fifteen years later, Lewiston is Maine’s most culturally diverse city. Somali entrepreneurs have been lauded for reinvigorating downtown Lewiston by opening dozens of shops in previously closed storefronts. While racial tensions haven’t disappeared, Lewiston’s residents are learning to coexist.
“People love to live in the past and love to live in this nostalgia that things were somehow better. Things were not better in Lewiston 25 or 30 years ago. It wasn’t anywhere near as good as it is now.”
Lewiston Police chief Michael Bussier, 2015
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