Minnesota Immigrants and the "Minnesota School"

Donna R. Gabaccia, Director, Immigration History Research Center

Minnesota’s foreign-born population has always been somewhat distinctive. So are the scholars who have studied immigration and refugees at the University of Minnesota.

In nineteenth century Minnesota, high proportion of Scandinavians distinguished the state; today it is high proportion of refugees, from both Southeast Asia and Africa, and large numbers of international students from China. In many respects, however, Minnesota’s foreign-born resemble their counterparts in other parts of the country. Thus, for example, a recent Minnesota Public Radio report on record numbers of Minnesota immigrants applying for citizenship, and experiencing long waits for the processing of their applications, (http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2008/01/10/immigration_numbers/
could have been about most any state in the northeast, west, or southeast.

The University of Minnesota has good claims to having actually “invented" the scholarly study of immigration way back in the 1920s. Here at the U, it was historians who began the study, focusing on some the groups that made their own state distinctive. Blegen Hall, on the University of Minnesota west bank campus, is named after one of these historians, Theodore Blegen, the son of Norwegian immigrants who specialized in the study of Norwegian migration to the United States. His colleague in history, George Stephenson—a descendant of and specialist on Swedish immigrants--offered what may have been the first immigration history course in the country in the early 1920s and published one of the first general introductions to the history of immigration his book in 1926. Blegen and Stephenson were early practictioners of what is today called “transnational" history. Both lived and taught for in the homelands of their ancestors; they also attracted graduate students from abroad during their long careers at Minnesota.

By the 1960s, younger historians hired by Blegen’s and Stephenson’s generation took up the study of immigration anew, focusing on the immigrants from southern and Eastern Europe who were attracted at the turn of the twentieth century to the mines, industries and cities of the Great Lakes economy. These new historians—Rudy Vecoli, Hy Berman, Clarke Chambers, Timothy Smith—helped to found important research collections, including the Immigrant Archives which eventually became the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC). The IHRC soon also began to collect documents and encourage scholarship that focused on the shift from labor migrations to refugees arriving from war-torn Europe after 1945.

As new waves of refugees began to re-shape Minnesota’s population in the 1970s and 1980s, a third generation of scholars quickly recognized scholarly opportunities and organized the Center for Refugee Studies. During its two decades existence, the center collected rich materials both on refugees from Southeast Asia and on the organizations that worked with these newcomers. Its archives are now housed in Andersen library at the IHRC.

Today, over 100 scholars at the University of Minnesota study migration or the cultural pluralism that accompanies histories of migration. For over 90 years, a distinctive “Minnesota" school of scholarship on immigrant and refugee life has used the changing population dynamics of its home state to grapple with issues of continuing importance not merely to the region but to the nation.

Interested in reading more about the “Minnesota school? http://ihrc.umn.edu/publications/pdf/MinnesotaSchool-1.pdf

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This page contains a single entry by herna130 published on February 4, 2008 5:09 PM.

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