In the 1920’s Centerville had a population of 6,951. It became home to immigrants from OVER 40 COUNTRIES of national origin. On Saturday nights the stores were open late, the Square was packed, and Evelyn Bear told me you wouldn’t hear a word of English spoken. The arrival of those immigrants – your ancestors – was anything but smooth. They fought bigotry, prejudice, and ignorance. The rose up to defeat the KKK that dominated Centerville from 1922 to 1925 when the Klan was supported not by one or two in this county, but by thousands.
But these immigrants became Americans. It happened right here in Appanoose County. They entered our Courthouse in the center of our Square. They answered questions about our Constitution, the Bill of Rights and how the principles they contained influenced our history. They lifted their right hands. They renounced their country of origin. They swore allegiance to their new nation and its principles and became loyal citizens.
This transformation of so many is your, our, unique and incredible history and it’s time to examine how Centerville achieved it.
From the moment those immigrants arrived they learned Civics. It was taught in all our schools, in churches, in clubs and in societies. It happened when the Women’s Relief Corps and the PEO, worried about assimilation, presented American flags, copies of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to every single classroom. It happened when the Wednesday Club and Ladies of the Baptist Mission Circle held meetings to discuss patriotism. It happened when Philip Buscemi, an immigrant from Italy, taught evening classes night after night to immigrants who’d just finished 10-hour shifts in the county’s coalmines. It was further promoted at public concerts, by visiting public speakers, and even by movies that promoted national values corralling every immigrant to be part of this: AMERICA.
Since the 1960’s something has gone wrong. Teaching Civics was and is no longer of primary concern. At the same time, Geography was merged with Social Studies eroding the discipline of both. Perhaps this explains how two-thirds of Americans can’t name all 3 branches of government and know their independence from each other. Or that one out of six Americans believe it might be all right for the Army to take over the government.
What we need now: our community, our nation, all of us, is a conversation about how wonderful the country is. It’s not wonderful because we hang flags on the right days or every day, or because we mindlessly chant “USA USA” or “We Are The Greatest.” This country is wonderful because of our brilliant Constitution and Bill of Rights. It’s wonderful because of the philosophy of our Founding Fathers whose words written in Philadelphia 228 years ago are still relevant today.
Let us have meetings in this town and every town to reconnect us to those documents. There can be no better way to honor our immigrant ancestors, no better way to honor ourselves, no better way to honor each other. Let us use those words to re-inspire us, the People, so we will help create that ever more “…perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”