A History of Immigration to Boston: Eras, Ethnic Groups, and Places

Boy saluting, immigrants arriving in Boston, Photograph by Edmunds E. Bond, ca. 1915. Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library

Examining different time periods and ethnic groups to document the history of a city where immigrants have long been a vital force in shaping economic, social and political life.

Eras of Immigration

First Wave Immigration, 1820-1880

Immigrants arriving at Constitution Wharf in Boston. From Ballou’s Pictorial, October 31, 1857

During the nineteenth century, Boston evolved from a bustling port town to a booming industrial city. Through landfill and annexations, the city’s footprint grew dramatically, from 1.5 to more than 40 square miles, while its population increased more than eight fold from 1820-1880. As shoe and textile factories sprouted up across Massachusetts, railroad building accelerated, connecting Boston to towns across the region and markets further west. At the same time, the city’s burgeoning port and maritime commerce sent local traders and missionaries across the globe, fostering contacts abroad that migrants would follow back to Boston. By 1880, the Census counted more than 114,000 immigrants in the city—nearly a third of its population.

The Irish made up the majority of immigrants in this period, particularly during the famine years of the 1840s and 1850s when they comprised more than 90 percent of the city’s foreign-born residents. Germans, Canadians, and those from England and Scotland came in smaller numbers. Many newcomers initially settled in the North End and Fort Hill (near the present financial district), as older Yankee residents moved out. By mid century, however, Irish and other immigrants were fanning out to the South and West Ends and to nearby settlements in Charlestown, East Boston, Cambridge and Lynn.

For many new arrivals, Boston proved to be a temporary destination and jumping-off point for jobs in outlying mill towns or work building railroads, canals, and other construction projects. Within the Boston area, immigrant men worked as day laborers and skilled tradesmen, while women found work in domestic service and sewing. Immigrant mothers also worked in their own homes, taking in boarders and laundry to earn income for their families. During the Civil War, trans-Atlantic immigration was disrupted and continued to decline during the 1860s. It soon rebounded, but by the 1880s the sources of that migration began to shift.

Second Wave Immigration, 1880-1921

S.S. Canopic lands in Boston, 1920. Photo by Leslie Jones, courtesy of the Boston Public Library

During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Boston’s industrial economy matured and expanded across the region. New manufacturing plants were built along the city’s main railroad lines, and new subway and streetcar lines fueled the building of homes and factories in adjoining suburbs. The city of Boston itself continued to grow, more than doubling its population between 1880 and 1920. Immigrants made up nearly 40 percent of those residents in the 1910s—the city’s peak immigration decade.

Industrial development in North America and Western Europe had ripple effects on local economies across the globe. As cheaper manufactured goods displaced local crafts, artisan livelihoods suffered in places like Ireland, the Mediterranean, and Eastern Europe. Overpopulation, agricultural crises, heavy taxation, and political and religious repression added to the pressures that drove many to leave. With so many countries now sending emigrants abroad, Boston’s foreign-born population gradually shifted. Although the Irish continued to be the city’s largest foreign-born group, Canadians, Russian Jews, and Italians all formed large communities by the early twentieth century. Smaller streams of migrants also came from China, Portugal, Poland, Lithuania, the Ottoman Empire, and the West Indies.

Newer immigrants took up residence in the city’s immigrant quarters in the North, South, and West Ends as many earlier Irish settlers left. Some of the latter, along with the native and German-born working class, relocated to outlying neighborhoods such as South Boston, Jamaica Plain, Roxbury, Dorchester, East Boston, and Charlestown. Social workers referred to these areas as “the zone of emergence”—places where skilled white immigrant workers and their families were settling alongside other ethnic groups and aspiring to middle-class standards of living. By the 1910s, newer immigrant groups would also begin moving to these areas as well as to fast-growing industrial suburbs such as East Cambridge, Chelsea, Somerville, Watertown, Malden, Quincy, Waltham, and Framingham.

As in the first wave, many second wave male immigrants worked as day laborers on the streets, docks, and railroads. Moreover, construction work building new roads, bridges, subways, and streetcar lines was especially important in this period. Irish women continued to work in domestic service, but were gradually replaced by newcomers from Eastern Europe and black migrants from the South. Overwhelmingly, though, second wave immigrants—both men and women—found jobs in local factories making shoes, garments, textiles, rubber goods, chemicals, candy, and other products. The reorganization and mechanization of such industries meant that higher-paid skilled workers could be replaced by unskilled immigrant workers earning significantly lower wages. The hours were long, and working conditions were often grueling and hazardous. To avoid the factory regime, some immigrants worked as peddlers, selling produce or dry goods on the streets. The most successful earned enough to start their own groceries or other retail businesses, and immigrant entrepreneurship thus became a common path of upward mobility.

Restriction Era, 1921-1965

The East Boston Immigration Station, an immigration processing and detention center that was in operation from 1920 to the early 1950s. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library

Record levels of immigration in the early twentieth century sparked a rising backlash against immigrants in the years before World War I. The newly revitalized Ku Klux Klan railed against immigrant Catholics and Jews, while elite groups like the Immigration Restriction League, headquartered in Boston, lobbied for federal legislation to curb immigration. Congress responded in 1917 with legislation requiring a literacy test for immigrants and creating an “Asiatic Barred Zone,” effectively outlawing nearly all immigration from Asia.

Even broader restrictions were enacted under the National Origins Act of 1924, which dramatically cut immigration levels through a new discriminatory quota system. Basing per-country quotas on the ancestry makeup of the US population, the new system favored older immigrant groups from England, Ireland, and Germany while tightly restricting visas for newer groups from southern and eastern Europe. Together, these new measures reduced the number of immigrants entering the country from more than 800,000 in 1921 to less than 150,000 by the end of the decade. In Boston, the foreign-born share of the city’s population shrank from 30 percent in 1930 to only 13 percent in 1970.

Declining immigration in the 1920s coincided with slowing economic growth in Massachusetts as some large textile manufacturers began relocating to the South. But it was the Great Depression that sent the Boston area into a deep and prolonged crisis as dozens of textile, shoe, garment, and other manufacturing industries collapsed. Immigrant workers faced staggering job losses and business failures; by 1934 roughly a quarter of the state’s workers were unemployed.

World War II revived Boston’s economy, at least temporarily. Federal defense contracts for shipbuilding, munitions, and other military goods got many factories humming again, employing thousands of immigrants and their children. After the war, special provisions to admit war brides and Jewish refugees from the Holocaust fueled a small uptick in immigration. With the onset of the Cold War, those fleeing Communism in Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba were also welcomed as refugees. Overall, however, Boston’s foreign-born population and labor force continued to age and decline. Native-born black southerners and Puerto Ricans who migrated to the city during these years helped pick up the slack at local manufacturing plants.

Immigrants arriving in the restriction era continued to cluster in many of the same ethnic neighborhoods, but they—and especially their children—experienced widespread upward mobility in the postwar period. For white immigrants and ethnics, US government-backed education and home loan programs under the GI bill offered new paths to white collar careers and homeownership in the burgeoning suburbs. Some families from China and the West Indies also saw economic gains in the postwar period, but persistent racial discrimination and segregation kept many confined to existing racial/ethnic enclaves.

The Global Era: 1965 to the Present

More than 400 immigrants take the oath of citizenship at a 2015 naturalization ceremony in Faneuil Hall. Michael Dwyer/AP

Piecemeal reforms in the immigration system after World War II eventually led to a massive overhaul under the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (also known as the Hart-Celler Act). Part of the raft of civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s, the 1965 act eliminated the old discriminatory quotas of the 1920s and raised the annual ceiling on immigration, allowing new arrivals from across the globe. Equally important was the act’s expansion of preferences and exemptions for the highly skilled and for family members of naturalized citizens. The latter provision created a parallel stream of non-quota family immigration, while skill preferences led to a new influx of foreign-born scientists and professionals.

Cuban refugees arriving at Logan Airport in 1962, some of the thousands who fled following the 1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro. Courtesy of the Boston Globe.

At the same time, the global conflicts of the Cold War produced a string of refugee crises in places like South East Asia and Central America. US support for anti-Soviet dictatorships in the Caribbean and Latin America also prompted others to flee repression in their homelands. After the Cold War ended, violent struggles in the Balkans, Africa, and the Middle East led to new refugee migrations. More generally, the acceleration of globalization since the 1990s led to free trade agreements and other global financial policies that deepened hardships in developing countries. Skyrocketing inflation, unemployment, and poverty soon sent many abroad. As national quotas were quickly filled, a growing number came without authorization.

In greater Boston, recent immigrants have come from a strikingly diverse array of countries, mainly in Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean. China, Haiti and the Dominican Republic have long been the top countries of origin, but sizeable groups also hail from Brazil, India, Vietnam, El Salvador, and Guatemala. The diversity lottery, a provision of the 1990 immigration act that offers visas to those from underrepresented countries, has also increased the number of African arrivals.

Newcomers in the 1960s and 1970s settled in Boston’s older immigrant quarters in Chinatown and the South End, as well as older industrial communities in East Cambridge, Lynn, and Chelsea. In the 1980s, however, urban redevelopment and gentrification drove up housing prices in central Boston, pushing many newcomers to outlying neighborhoods such as East Boston, Dorchester, and Jamaica Plain.

2014 August Moon festival in downtown Quincy, where thousands of Asian immigrants have settled since the 1980s. Courtesy of Robert Bosworth/Quincy Sun.

By the nineties, many immigrant families were heading to the suburbs, creating new multiethnic populations in Quincy, Malden, Somerville, Framingham, and many other communities. Today, there are more foreign-born residents in the metro area suburbs than in the city of Boston itself.

Unlike earlier immigrants who were mainly unskilled factory workers and laborers, recent arrivals include a large contingent of doctors, engineers, scientists, and other highly skilled workers. They have helped build Boston’s new knowledge economy, which has eclipsed the region’s older manufacturing sector. Other immigrants also play vital roles in the region’s lower-paid service industries, including food service, building maintenance, healthcare, and childcare. Often staffed by immigrant women, the care industries have grown markedly as more middle-class women have entered the labor force since the 1970s. For immigrant men, construction and manufacturing continue to be important, although the latter has been in decline as more and more manufacturing jobs have moved abroad.



Historically the region’s largest ethnic group, the Irish have been coming to Boston since the early 19th century. They have arguably transformed and left their mark on the city like no other.

Irish clam diggers on a wharf in Boston, 1882. Photo courtesy of the National Archives

Irish immigration to Boston began in the colonial period with the arrival of predominantly Protestant migrants from Ulster. Many of these early Irish arrivals worked as indentured servants to pay for their passage, typically earning their freedom after seven years. The Scots-Irish, as they were later called, emigrated in much smaller numbers than the next wave of Irish Catholic immigrants who began arriving in the 1820s.

Since the seventeenth century, English rule in Ireland had created a society in which the vast majority of Irish people lived in poverty as tenant farmers. From 1846-1852, a blight that devastated the potato crop led to a great famine, resulting in widespread starvation, disease, and deaths. Seeking refuge and opportunity, thousands of Irish began to migrate to urban centers in the British Isles and abroad, including Boston. Coming especially from the southwestern counties of Cork, Galway, Kerry and Clare, the new Boston arrivals were predominantly Catholic and produced a marked demographic shift in a historically Protestant city. With the exception of the Civil War years, Irish immigration to Boston continued throughout the nineteenth century, as conditions in Ireland remained grim. The foreign-born Irish population of the city reached its numeric peak around 1890.

Following some eighty years of relative decline, Irish immigration to Boston once again grew in the 1970s and 1980s as the Irish economy faltered. The demand for visas, however, outpaced the quota established under the 1965 Immigration Act, and many thus came without authorization. Some were able to adjust their status under the diversity lottery established in 1990 in response to organized efforts by the Irish Immigrant Reform Movement. Many others, however, returned to Ireland as the so-called “Celtic Tiger”—Ireland’s economic boom of the 1990s and early 2000s—improved prospects back home.

Patterns of Settlement

Sketch of tenements Boston’s old Fort Hill neighborhood where dozens of Irish immigrants died of cholera in 1849. From: Report of the Committee of Internal Health on the Asiatic Cholera (Boston, 1849).

Early Irish immigrants settled in Boston’s North End and Fort Hill (the presentday financial district) neighborhoods. With the creation of new land in the West End and South Cove in the mid-nineteenth century, the Irish became the first of many immigrant groups to settle in these areas. Soon after, the Irish were also moving into South Boston and Charlestown, which would become and remain predominantly Irish-American neighborhoods for most of the twentieth century. Others settled in parts of Dorchester, Roxbury, East Boston, Cambridge, and other nearby towns, where new Catholic parishes anchored emerging ethnic neighborhoods. Many of these immigrants’ children and grandchildren moved to the suburbs after World War II, with the highest concentrations located on the South Shore.

Workforce Participation

Coming mainly from impoverished agricultural areas, most Irish immigrants initially worked as unskilled laborers, dockworkers, hod carriers, teamsters, and domestic servants. Much of the City of Boston, in fact, was built with Irish labor, quite literally in the case of the South Cove and Back Bay, tidal basins that developers and their immigrant workers transformed into fashionable residential neighborhoods in the 1840s and 1850s. Irish men also provided labor for building local canals, railroads, aqueducts, and the Boston subway system. Irish women made up the majority of the city’s domestic servants, as well as laboring alongside Irish men and children in the region’s factories and sweatshops. As they attained higher levels of education and social acceptance, Irish women moved into teaching, retail, and clerical work, while Irish men worked as police officers, firefighters, and civil servants. By the middle of the twentieth century, the Boston Irish were well established as political and business leaders, a trend highlighted by the election of President John F. Kennedy in 1960.



With its proximity to both Quebec and the Maritime provinces, Massachusetts attracted more Canadian immigrants than any other state, with many coming to the Boston area.

The majority of Canadian immigrants to Boston belong to two groups: English-speakers from the Canadian Maritimes (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island) and French Canadians from Québec and surrounding areas of eastern Canada. As the provinces of British North America only united as a confederation in 1867, there was little sense of Canadian nationalism until a century later. Provincial, ethnic, and religious identity and loyalty were thus more central to Canadians in Boston.

The first wave of immigrants from the Maritime Provinces arrived in New England between the 1860s and 1890s. Industrialized manufacturing put many traditional craftsmen out of work, and increased mechanization of the lumber and fishing industries displaced many loggers and fishermen. Rural farmers in the Maritimes also suffered from Britain’s elimination of protective tariffs for its North American colonies. Initially, most immigrant Maritimers were young, unmarried men who intended to stay temporarily, but towards the 1890s increasing numbers of families migrated and stayed permanently. The second wave of Canadian Maritime immigration lasted from the 1920s to the early 1930s, comprised again of primarily blue-collar workers fleeing the collapse of both the rural and industrial economies of Atlantic Canada.

French Canadians who immigrated to New England came in three different waves. From the 1840s to the 1880s, economic hardship and political instability in Québec spurred the first group, who frequently returned home. The second (1880-1895) and third (1923-1929) waves were caused by similar factors as the Maritime migrations: agricultural failures, the repeal of protective tariffs, and instability in Québec’s lumber and milling industries.

Both Maritime and French Canadians frequently went back and forth to their home provinces, following the ups and downs of the Massachusetts labor market. Some also practiced seasonal migration to western Canada, where they worked the harvests in the late summer and fall. Rather than return to the Maritimes, many found their way to Boston.

During and after the Great Depression, immigration from both Québec and the Maritimes decreased, and some earlier migrants returned to Canada. Despite the imposition of quotas for Canada beginning in the 1970s, Canadian immigration to the US grew in the post-World War II era and has shifted toward white-collar technical and professional workers.


Both Maritimers and French Canadians tended to settle in New England, due to its geographical proximity to their homelands and the economic opportunities provided by industrialized New England. According to the 1880 Census, 57 percent of all Nova Scotian immigrants in the United States lived in Massachusetts, as did 29 percent of New Brunswickers and 50 percent of Prince Edward Islanders.

About 20 percent of all Maritimers lived in Boston in 1880. In the early twentieth century, many settled in the city’s “streetcar suburbs” of Roxbury, Dorchester, East Boston, and West Roxbury. Other Maritimers made their homes in nearby Cambridge and Lynn. Unlike the more homogenous French Canadian community, Maritimers tended to live among neighbors with whom they shared ethnic or religious ties. For example, Irish Catholics from New Brunswick identified more closely with the South Boston Irish than with ethnic English or Scottish Protestants from New Brunswick, and a similar phenomenon occurred with Nova Scotian Presbyterians and immigrants from Scotland in East Boston.

Scottish Presbyterian churches, founded in the South End in the 1880s, were clustered around “Scotch Corner” (Warren Ave. and Brookline St.). It was so named because of the Gaelic speakers from Nova Scotia who gathered there after church on Sundays. In the mid-twentieth century, these churches and their Maritime congregations moved out to the suburbs. They continued to attract congregants from different provinces: Cape Bretoners at Newton Presbyterian, Prince Edward Islanders at Quincy First Presbyterian, and many others.

Much more so than Maritimers, French Canadians usually settled in tight-knit ethnic enclaves where they could preserve their language, devotion to the Catholic Church, and close family and kinship networks. The philosophy of la survivance, or the preservation of a defiant French Canadian culture, was a crucial element of Québecois identity. By 1920, roughly three quarters of French Canadian immigrants lived in New England. Most created ethnic enclaves in mill towns outside the Boston area, but sizeable French Canadian communities could be found in Salem, Lynn, Cambridge, and Boston.


For immigrants from the Canadian Maritimes in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the jobs they found in the United States often corresponded with their livelihoods in their home country. Farmers and other agricultural workers in Canada became laborers or teamsters in America, and craftsmen joined the building trades and shipbuilding industry. Women who migrated from the Maritimes to the Boston area frequently worked as domestic servants or clerical workers. Speaking English and sharing an Anglo American culture, Canadian Maritimers were more easily incorporated into American society and often rose to middle-class professional jobs within a generation.

By contrast, immigrants from Québec remained in mostly blue-collar manufacturing work, mainly in textile and shoe factories but also in brickworks and sawmills. With their slower integration into English-speaking society and a skepticism toward mainstream American education, more than 40 percent of French Canadians in 1950 were still employed as factory workers. In the decades to follow, however, second- and third-generation French Canadians ascended into white-collar professions and the middle class.



Jews from central and eastern Europe and Russia have come to Boston in multiple waves since the 1840s. Religion has helped shape both their economic and cultural life in the region.

Passover seder provided by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society for new arrivals at the East Boston immigration Station, 1921. Photograph by permission of the American Jewish Historical Society-New England Archives, Boston, MA.

Although small numbers of Sephardic Jews passed through Boston in the colonial era, the city had no significant Jewish presence until the mid-nineteenth century. In the 1840s and 1850s, Jews from Poland and Germany began arriving, coming especially from the Prussian-ruled provinces of Posen and Pomerania. Fleeing economic deprivation and religious persecution, the new Jewish arrivals to the city numbered about a thousand on the eve of the Civil War.

Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society worker welcomes DPs from Eastern Europe at the East Boston Immigration Station, 1948-49. Photograph by permission of the American Jewish Historical Society-New England Archives, Boston, MA.

Beginning in the 1880s, a much larger wave of Jewish immigrants arrived from the Pale of Settlement in Russia and Eastern Europe. During the nineteenth century, the Russian czars had confined Jews to this region and subjected them to religious persecution, expulsions, and forced military conscription. Passage of the May Laws in the 1880s made matters worse by forbidding Jews from owning or renting land outside of towns or cities and limiting their access to education. From 1881-1883 and again in the early twentieth century, Jews were also targeted in violent riots or “pogroms” that left thousand dead and caused many more to flee.

After World War II, a small wave of Holocaust survivors and other refugees were resettled in greater Boston through the efforts of local Jewish philanthropies such as the Boston Refugee Committee and Jewish Family and Children’s Services. Later, some of these same refugees and organizations would work to resettle Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. Roughly 10,000 had settled in greater Boston by the early 1990s, and Jewish emigration from Russia and the former Soviet republics has continued into the twenty-first century.


Prior to the Civil War, Jews from Central Europe originally settled largely in what is now the theater district and later fanned out across the lower South End. Second wave Russian immigrants settled here as well, but the surge of new arrivals soon pushed Jewish settlement into the North and West Ends. The latter would become especially important: by 1910, roughly 40,000 Jews were living in the West End.

William Allen Rogers, The Jewish Quarter [North End], Boston, 1899. Courtesy of Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

New arrivals were also attracted to industrial communities north of the city, especially Chelsea and Lynn, where expanding factories employed thousands of immigrant workers. With Jews making up nearly half of Chelsea’s population by the 1930s, it became known as “the Jerusalem of America.”

Back in Boston, prosperous Jewish merchants and their families had begun moving to the more bucolic Roxbury neighborhood in the late nineteenth century. Soon, middle and working class Jews followed. In the first half of the twentieth century, Jewish settlement spread progressively south along Blue Hill Avenue, from Roxbury to Dorchester and Mattapan. After World War II, many moved further out to suburbs such as Brookline, Newton, Swampscott, Marblehead, and Sharon, bringing their synagogues and other community institutions with them.


Early Jewish immigrants in Boston worked mainly as peddlers and tailors, with the most successful opening retail businesses or garment shops. The later Russian Jews were more likely to work in the region’s growing shoe and textile mills, but especially in the garment industry of the South End, shops often run by the older Jewish entrepreneurs. Like their predecessors, second wave migrants also worked as peddlers and small business owners, including many who worked recycling rags, scrap metal and other industrial refuse. Despite these humble beginnings, many of their children were able to pursue education and advancement into white-collar professions. In the late twentieth century, Jewish refugees from the Soviet Union tended to be more highly skilled and educated than earlier groups. Many were professionals who found work in technology, engineering, and medicine.



Since the 1880s, Italians have been flocking to Boston, settling in both the city and surrounding communities. They were one of the largest ethnic groups of the second wave migration.

Boy saluting, immigrants arriving in Boston, Photograph by Edmunds E. Bond, ca. 1915. Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library

The peak period of Italian immigration to the United States occurred between 1880 and 1921, when approximately 4.2 million Italians came to America. The vast majority of these immigrants, about 80 percent, hailed from the Mezzogiorno in southern Italy, a region in the midst of great tumult and hardship. Having only been officially unified in 1860, political tension between the government in the north and the rural peasants in the south increased in the 1870s, when the government placed an onerous tax on wheat and salt, which were necessities for southern farmers and fishermen. In the 1880s, disease ravaged both staple and cash crops; malaria and other epidemics also devastated southern Italy during this period. Additionally, a series of earthquakes and the eruptions of Mount Etna and Mount Vesuvius in the early 1900s destroyed cities and killed tens of thousands of people.

Conditions in the United States during this era appeared to be very favorable to many in southern Italy. Wages for both skilled and unskilled laborers in the industrialized US could be three times greater than wages for the same work in the depressed Italian economy. Even illiterate day laborers could find better paying jobs with better working conditions in cities like Boston. In the late nineteenth century, Italian immigrants were often referred to as “birds of passage”–young men who migrated alone, earning money to buy land and support their families at home and eventually returning to Italy. After World War I, however, immigration patterns changed and more Italian immigrants began to bring their families over and put down permanent roots in the region.

Patterns of Settlement

Postcard of Paul Revere’s house in the Italian North End, ca. 1900. Courtesy of Trustees of the Boston Public Library

Boston’s North End neighborhood became the locus of Italian settlement in eastern New England. Once the home of English colonists and revolutionaries like Paul Revere, Irish and Jewish immigrants settled in the North End before the wave of Italian immigration in the late 1800s. By the early 20th century, the North End was densely filled with tenements, in which tens of thousands of Italians lived. Much of the appeal of the North End for immigrant groups was its proximity to work opportunities on the waterfront and in downtown Boston. By 1920, over 50 percent of Italian immigrants in Boston lived in the North End. Those who could afford more spacious dwellings moved across the harbor to East Boston, which by the mid-twentieth century became the city’s largest Italian-American community. Others moved to nearby suburbs such as Somerville, Revere and Saugus, especially after World War II. But even as immigrants and their children moved to these areas, many Italian small businesses and restaurants remained in the North End, and it is still an important center of Italian culture in New England.

Workforce Participation

Most Italian immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries worked menial, unskilled jobs upon their arrival in Boston, as day laborers, dockworkers, or fruit sellers. Others began small businesses in the North End, and some skilled workers (like tailors) found higher-paying jobs. For the earlier “birds of passage,” assimilating into the wider American culture was not a priority; for more permanent Italian settlers, however, cultural obstacles such as the language barrier and lower levels of education made upward mobility difficult. Within a few generations, however, Italian Americans in Boston became better educated and were able to move into middle-class and professional occupations, including some of the highest echelons of business and politics



Coming mainly from the Azores, Portuguese immigrants have been settling in Massachusetts since the mid-19th century. They now constitute some of the largest Portuguese communities in the United States.

Procession of the Holy Ghost Portuguese Society on Trinity Sunday in Hudson, Mass., 1915. Courtesy Hudson Historical Society

Portuguese men first arrived in Massachusetts via American whaling ships that recruited crew members from the island of Faial in the Azores. Colonized by Portugal, the Azorean archipelago lay about 850 miles west of Portugal in the mid-Atlantic and was an important supply point for the whaling ships. Azorean crewmen first arrived in the whaling port of New Bedford prior to the Civil War. Most had been farmers and fishermen in the Azores, where overpopulation and land pressures drove many to sea and abroad in search of work. They soon settled across southeastern Massachusetts, bringing their wives and families to join them.

A small number made their way north to the Boston area. The beginning of direct steamer service from Faial to Boston in 1902 made the transatlantic trip easier, convincing more to come. Increasingly, migrants to Boston also arrived from neighboring islands such as Saõ Miguel and Santa Maria as well as from Madeira, another Portuguese-ruled island to the southeast. Only a small percentage came from mainland Portugal. As with other European groups, Portuguese immigration peaked in the 1910s and then fell sharply with immigration restriction in the 1920s.

In 1957, however, a series of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes devastated the island of Faial, causing many to flee. Responding to calls by Portuguese Americans and Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy, Congress passed the Azorean Refugee Act in 1958, which allowed several thousand Azoreans to enter the US outside the quotas. With family connections to older generations of Faial emigrants, many of the refugees came to Massachusetts. With the passage of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, increased quotas and family reunification exemptions allowed for additional migration. This second wave peaked in the 1970s, but even today, the Portuguese in greater Boston make up the largest foreign-born group from Europe.


Origins of foreign-born Portuguese in Cambridge and Somerville, 1977. From James P. Ito-Adler, “The Portuguese in Cambridge and Somerville,” Cambridge Department of Community Development, September 1980, p. 42.

While the majority of Portuguese immigrants settled in southeastern Massachusetts, a smaller number moved north to Boston and Cambridge. Beginning in the 1880s, sizeable Portuguese communities developed in Boston’s North End, East Cambridge, and East Boston. After 1900, the Portuguese population of Cambridge surpassed that of Boston and included many new arrivals from the islands of Saõ Miguel and Santa Maria. By the mid-twentieth century, Cambridge Street had become a commercial mecca of Portuguese-owned stores and businesses in East Cambridge that served immigrants across the region. Portuguese families also moved into neighboring Somerville as well as to the towns of Hudson, Peabody, and Gloucester.

In the city of Boston, the foreign-born Portuguese population gradually declined after 1910. But other Portuguese American communities continued to grow, and the post-World War II wave of Azorean newcomers mainly settled in these same towns and cities. By the 1960s, Somerville had attracted hundreds of Portuguese families and homeowners, making it the largest Portuguese American community in metro Boston.


As the whaling industry died out in the 1870s, Azorean immigrants turned to seasonal fishing and farming as well as factory work, particularly in the large textile plants of New Bedford, Lowell, and Lawrence. In the Boston area, fishing and factory work were the most common occupations. Portuguese in the waterfront communities of the North End, East Boston, and Gloucester worked as fishermen and dockworkers. As industrial jobs expanded in East Cambridge in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Portuguese residents there found work in furniture, rubber goods, meatpacking, shoemaking, and other industries. As those industries began closing in the 1970s, Portuguese workers shifted into service jobs such as hotel and restaurant work, cleaning, transportation, and healthcare.



Dating back to the 1870s, Boston’s Chinatown was one of the largest in the country. Despite later exclusion, immigration rebounded after World War II, making the Chinese the largest foreign-born group in the region.

Chinese funeral on Harrison Street in Chinatown, ca. 1890. Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library

Large-scale emigration from China to the US began in the 1850s as overpopulation, land shortages, colonial warfare, and recurring famines ravaged Guangdong and other southern provinces. Going first to California, Chinese immigrants began settling in Massachusetts in the 1870s after a North Adams manufacturer recruited them during a shoemakers strike. Before long, some moved to new work sites in Worcester and Boston. By 1900, the Census counted more than a thousand Chinese in Boston, the majority from the Toishan region of Guangdong. With the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other restrictive measures, however, Chinese immigration was reduced. Although a small number of elite immigrants and “paper sons” (those with falsified documents) arrived thereafter, the Boston Chinese community remained heavily male and grew increasingly older.

During the World War II years, the repeal of Chinese exclusion and the passage of the War Brides Act allowed a small infusion of new Chinese immigrants, most notably war brides who married Asian American GIs. In the ensuing Cold War, recruitment of Chinese science and engineering students to local universities brought several hundred more new residents, many of whom sought refuge in the US after the Chinese revolution of 1949. Subsequent communist restrictions on emigration, however, meant that until the 1980s most Chinese immigrants would come from the Republic of China in Taiwan and the British colony of Hong Kong.

Once US diplomatic relations with the Peoples Republic of China improved, a growing number of students and immigrants from the mainland began arriving in the 1980s. These newcomers came from across the country and soon outnumbered those from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Many spoke Mandarin as well as their local dialects, in contrast to the older settlers who spoke mainly Cantonese and Toishanese. Making use of the skill preferences and family reunification exemptions of the 1965 Immigration Act, the Chinese have become the largest foreign-born group in the city and state.

Settlement Patterns

The earliest Chinese arrivals pitched their tents along Oliver Place (now known as Ping On Alley) in what would soon become Chinatown. Chinese occupancy spread to adjoining blocks as far south as Kneeland Street and later spread further south as neighboring Syrians and Irish moved out. Although the pre-World War II Chinese population remained heavily concentrated in Chinatown—the nation’s third largest at the time—there were also small pockets of settlement in Cambridge, Lynn, and other nearby towns. These communities grew after World War II as a small but growing number of Chinese American families relocated to the suburbs.

After World War II and especially after 1965, growing Chinese immigration and urban renewal brought extraordinary land pressures on Chinatown. In the 1960s alone, the construction of the Massachusetts Turnpike Extension, the Southeast Expressway, and the Tufts Medical complex reduced Chinatown’s land base by half while its population grew by 25 percent. Although many residents fought against unbridled development, thousands of Chinatown dwellers decamped for other neighborhoods such as the South End, Mission Hill, and Allston-Brighton. Other working and middle class families settled in nearby suburbs such as Malden and Quincy. In fact, the latter became so popular with newcomers that by 2000 its Asian American population was more than triple that of Chinatown’s. In addition, Chinese American professionals have taken up residence in affluent suburbs across the metro area, including Brookline, Newton, Arlington, Lexington, Burlington, and Acton.

Workforce Participation

Chinese hand laundry workers, 1881

Some of Boston’s earliest Chinese settlers were laborers hired to build the Pearl Telephone Exchange downtown or to work in the railroad yards around what is now South Station. By the early 20th century, though, most Chinese immigrants were employed in a growing enclave economy made up of hand laundries, restaurants, and other Chinese-owned businesses. In fact, the US Census of 1900 indicated that 88 percent of Chinese workers labored in laundries, mostly small one or two-man operations scattered across the metro area.

Other immigrants found work as cooks, servers, and dishwashers in a growing network of Chinese restaurants that became popular with a broader American clientele after World War I. By the mid-twentieth century, many family-owned Chinese restaurants employed numerous male migrants, while Chinese women often took up sewing work in the city’s garment industry. With the closing of these shops in the 1970s and 1980s, many of the women shifted into the service sector.

At the same time, a growing stream of students and educated professional workers entered the country after 1965. Graduating from local universities, or recruited for their professional and technical expertise, Chinese immigrants have been vital contributors in the sciences, engineering, medicine, and information technology. Some have gone on to launch their own businesses in software development, biotechnology, electronics, and other industries.



Fleeing ethnic and religious persecution in Ottoman Turkey, Armenians have been coming to greater Boston in large numbers since the 1890s. Watertown, especially, has become a center of Armenian-American life and heritage.

Armenians were prominent among the many immigrant workers at the Hood Rubber Company in Watertown, Massachusetts. Courtesy of the Watertown Free Public Library

During the nineteenth century, Armenians were scattered across the eastern mountains and plateaus of Anatolia (presentday Turkey). Some had also migrated westward to cities such as Constantinople (Istanbul), Smyrna (Izmir), and Adana. Under Ottoman rulers who regarded them as infidels, Christian Armenians were subject to segregation and oppression that would intensify toward the end of the century.

Contact with the West grew during this period as American Protestant missionaries began opening schools across Anatolia. At the behest of the Americans, a handful of Armenians began arriving in Massachusetts to be trained as clergy at Andover Theological Seminary. Others came as domestic servants for Massachusetts missionaries in the 1860s and 1870s. Before long, they found better-paying work in local industries and began spreading the word to friends and family back home. The largest number of migrants came from the Kharpert Plain, where missionary activity was intense and agricultural and artisanal industries were failing.

Kharpert in Western Armenia, the homeland of many Armenians in Massachusetts, ca. 1915. Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives, Watertown, MA.

This migration surged in the 1890s following the widespread massacres of Armenians led by Sultan Abdul Hamid. Hostilities continued in the twentieth century, as the Turks levied steep taxes on agricultural produce and forcibly conscripted Armenians into the Ottoman army. Another round of violence occurred in 1909, when the Turks drove thousands of Armenians from their homes in Adana, killing them or forcing them into exile. But the most horrific violence occurred during World War I when the Ottomans charged the Armenians with treason and slaughtered an estimated 1.5 million people. Most historians agree that the mass violence of 1915-1916 against the Armenian people constituted genocide. It also left tens of thousands of widowed and orphaned refugees who later fled to the United States, the Middle East, and Western Europe.

Armenian immigration to the US dropped off with the restriction measures of the 1920s, but a smaller number of refugees arrived after World War II under the Displaced Persons Act. With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, another wave of emigrants left the former Soviet Republic of Armenia, but relatively few have come to the East Coast.

Patterns of Settlement

Following trails blazed by the earlier missionary-led migration, the Boston area became a major center of Armenian settlement. Along with immigrants from Syria, Greece, and China, Armenians initially settled in the South Cove neighborhood then known as “the Orient of Boston” (now Chinatown). During the late 1890s, an Armenian businessman named Moses Gulesian helped to resettle hundreds of refugees from the massacres, housing them in his cornice factory in the South End. Smaller settlements of Armenian workers also sprung up around industries in East Cambridge, Lynn and Chelsea.

The most important destination, however, was Watertown, where the new Hood Rubber factory opened its doors in 1896. Coinciding with the exodus of Armenians from the 1890s massacres, a direct pipeline developed between the Armenian provinces and east Watertown. In the years following the genocide, thousands more arrived. By 1930, there were more than 3500 Armenians living in Watertown—nearly ten percent of the population. In subsequent years, the town would become a major center of Armenian culture and heritage, even as later generations dispersed to surrounding suburbs.

Workforce Participation

Armenian women workers at M.S. Kondazian Coat Factory, Boston, 1912. Project SAVE Armenian Photograph Archives, Watertown, MA.

Prior to 1910, most Armenian immigrants were men who had worked in skilled trades as well as farming and day labor. They had one of the highest literacy rates of any migrant group, with nearly three-quarters able to read in their own language. Nevertheless, in Massachusetts, they took up mostly unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in the shoemaking, textile, rubber and metal industries. In the wake of the massacres and the mass violence of World War I, more Armenian laborers and peasants arrived as well as a growing number of widows with children. Women would thus become a vital part of the workforce at Hood Rubber and other boot, shoe, and garment manufacturers in the Boston area.

From the beginning, Armenians also became entrepreneurs who ran coffeehouses and boarding houses for their countrymen. By the mid-twentieth century, many had left factory work to open tailor shops, groceries, and shoe repair businesses. In greater Boston, Armenian entrepreneurs have been especially prevalent in the rug business and in studio photography. Since World War II, Armenians arriving from the Middle East, Europe and Soviet Armenia have included both educated professionals as well as blue-collar workers.

Syrians, Lebanese and Other Arab Americans


Since the 1880s, Boston has been a popular destination for Christians from Syria and Lebanon. More recently, Arab newcomers have been predominantly Muslim and come from countries across the Middle East and North Africa.

Syrian immigrants on Hudson Street, Boston 1909. Lace work was a common occupation among Syrian women. Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library

Arab immigrants from the Eastern Mediterranean—mainly those from what is now Syria and Lebanon—began settling in the Boston area in the 1880s. Overwhelmingly Christian, these Arab newcomers left an ailing silk industry and a declining agricultural sector as well as a growing burden of taxation and conscription under the Ottoman Empire. Many of them came from the mountainous areas of northern Lebanon (then called Mount Lebanon) around Bsharri and Zahle as well as from Damascus.

Initially, male sojourners made up the bulk of the migrant population, with many returning to their homeland after a few years. By the early twentieth century, however, women and children had joined the migrant stream, and many Syrian families settled permanently in Massachusetts. Younger women and widows, in fact, were sometimes the first to migrate in their families and helped bring other relatives over. At the time, Boston had the second largest Syrian community in the United States after New York.

Syrian immigration was dramatically curtailed in the 1920s, but with the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, a new wave of Arab immigrants arrived in greater Boston. Responding to the postcolonial nation-building efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, many of them first came as students to train at local universities. Those from Syria and Lebanon were now joined by newcomers from Egypt, Morocco, and other Arab countries. Unlike the earlier Syrian arrivals, many were urban, educated professionals and most were Muslims.

Recurrent wars in the Middle East—the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Persian Gulf War (1991), and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria—also led to refugee crises that fueled further emigration. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, though, immigration from many predominantly Muslim countries has become more difficult, while fears of terrorism have fueled a nativist backlash against Arab and Muslim immigrants that continues to the present.

Patterns of Settlement

Prior to World War I, most Syrian immigrants clustered in the South Cove neighborhood that would become known as Little Syria or Syriantown and later Chinatown. The earliest arrivals in the 1880s and 1890s settled alongside Chinese immigrants on Oliver Place (now Ping On Alley) and Oxford and Edinboro Streets. As more newcomers arrived, they spread southward, replacing older native-born and Irish residents along Tyler and Hudson Streets and Harrison Avenue. Anchored by three Christian churches—Maronite, Melkite, and Orthodox—the area south of Kneeland Street became the center of Syrian settlement with numerous churches, bakeries and coffee houses serving as communal centers.

From the early 20th century until after World War II, several hundred Muslim immigrants from Syria and Lebanon lived in this Quincy Point neighborhood near the Fore River shipyards. Courtesy of the National Archives.

As late as 1920, nearly three quarters of Boston’s Syrian immigrants still lived in Syriantown. But in the interwar period, Syrian settlement spread across the South End, centering along Shawmut Avenue. Muslim immigrants, by contrast, were concentrated in Quincy in a much smaller community near the shipyards in Quincy Point. After World War II, many Syrian and Lebanese families bought homes in West Roxbury and Roslindale, and their Christian churches followed. The Arab students who arrived after 1965 tended to live near universities in Boston and Cambridge; those who stayed after graduating joined a growing community of Arab professionals who settled across the western suburbs.

Workforce Participation

The first generation of Syrian settlers mainly worked as peddlers. Carrying fabrics, linens, lace, and other goods in boxes on their backs, peddlers went door-to-door in Boston and nearby suburbs selling their wares. Others ventured to rural areas across New England or traveled by train across routes that stretched as far as the Midwest. While men dominated the early peddling trade, Syrian women became a common sight on local streets in the early twentieth century. Successful peddlers might use their profits to buy a horse and wagon, but in the long run, many looked to open their own dry goods and grocery stores.

Syrian immigrants were also drawn to the region’s manufacturing industries. While thousands labored in the textile mills of Lawrence and New Bedford, Syrians in Boston worked mainly in the garment shops along Harrison Avenue. Together with Jewish needleworkers, Syrians became a mainstay of the local garment industry prior to World War II. And like the Jews, the more successful opened their own shops where they employed women and men from their homelands. Syrian workers were also well represented in the local shoe and candy industries.

Like other immigrant groups from the Mediterranean, Syrians aspired to own property and start small businesses. Many used their earnings as peddlers or factory workers to buy small stores or South End town houses that they turned into rooming houses for local workers. It was not until the second generation or after that Syrian Americans entered professional work in large numbers. By contrast, Arab immigrants arriving after 1965 found employment in higher paying fields such as medicine, information technology, engineering, and research science.



One of the oldest “new” immigrant groups, Haitians have been coming to Boston since the 1950s. Since then, the metro region has become one of the top three sites of Haitian settlement in the US.

Haitian students at an ESL class at the Haitian Multi-Service Center in Dorchester, 1987. Courtesy of the Boston Globe

Coming in search of higher education and professional opportunities, the first wave of Haitian settlers began arriving in Boston in the late 1950s and 1960s. Mainly professionals, artists, and intellectuals, the early arrivals were drawn from the island’s urban Catholic, French-speaking elite. Violent repression and human rights abuses under US-backed Haitian President Francois Duvalier (1957-1971) continued under his son Jean-Claude Duvalier (1971-1986), driving still more into exile. A more diverse group of Haitians arrived in Boston after 1980, including Kreyol-speaking middle-class and poorer migrants from both rural and urban areas of the island.

While political instability, violence, and poverty continued to fuel the Haitian diaspora after 1980, biased US refugee policies (that favored those from Communist countries) meant that a growing number entered as unauthorized migrants. Some were later granted asylum or Temporary Protected Status under the 1990 Immigration Act, including those fleeing the destructive hurricanes of 2004 and 2008, as well as the devastating earthquake of 2010. Boston’s Haitian population also grew as a result of secondary migration from Miami and New York, with the region’s educational institutions as a major draw. With a diasporic community that is now more than fifty years old, greater Boston is one of the top three destinations for Haitian immigrants to the United States, and Haitians make up one of the largest foreign-born groups in the metro area.

Patterns of Settlement

The city’s early Haitian settlers originally clustered around two Catholic parishes in south Dorchester. Still predominantly white in the 1960s, the parishes of St. Leo and St. Matthew in the Franklin Field (now Harambee Park) neighborhood soon became the center of Boston’s Haitian community. As the migrant population grew, settlement expanded southward into Mattapan, then a predominantly Jewish district. Beginning in 1968, Haitian home ownership in the area grew precipitously after the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group instituted a federally backed home loan program for black buyers. By the 1980s, Mattapan Square had become the heart of the city’s Haitian community, anchoring a crescent of settlement that extended north up to Roxbury and south to Hyde Park. Across the Charles, a smaller Haitian community had developed in East Cambridge, but by the 21st century, gentrification and rising housing costs had convinced most new arrivals to look elsewhere.

Led by a growing professional class in the 1980s, Haitian immigrants also fanned out into surrounding suburbs. Most moved southward, with Randolph and Brockton becoming the two most popular destinations, but several thousand also moved north to Everett and Malden. By 2010, the majority of Haitian immigrants in the metro area lived outside of Boston and Cambridge.

Workforce Participation

Since their arrival in Boston in the late 1950s, Haitians have been concentrated in the healthcare professions and services. Some of the city’s pioneer settlers were doctors seeking advanced medical training and employment, while subsequent generations have been dominant in the nursing profession. Ranging from registered nurses to certified nursing assistants, the nursing professions employed roughly half of all women workers of Haitian descent in the Boston area by the early 21st century.

Haitian men have worked in a variety of occupations, from physicians and educators to transportation and food service workers. Working-class Haitian men have been particularly prevalent among taxi cab drivers. Some of them managed to purchase their own vehicles and medallions; they then leased their cabs to fellow Haitians, creating a niche in the industry. In recent years, though, most have worked for large taxi companies where contract-style labor has yielded long hours and low pay.



Vietnamese refugees and immigrants have been coming to Boston since the end of the Vietnam war in 1975. Centered in Fields Corner in Dorchester, they are now the second largest Asian ethnic group in the city.

Lunch time at Banh Mi Ba Le, a Vietnamese-owned shop in Fields Corner, 2015. Jesse Costa/WBUR

Vietnamese refugees and immigrants have been coming to greater Boston since the end of the Vietnam War and are now the second largest Asian immigrant group in the region. In the wake of the Vietnam War, a thirty-year conflict that killed millions of people and left the country devastated, the US became one of several countries to resettle Southeast Asian refugees. The first to leave were several thousand South Vietnamese military and government officials who departed with US forces in 1975. As a refugee crisis unfolded over the next decade, the US took responsibility for resettlement of roughly a million people who feared persecution under Communist rule. The Boston area was one of the top ten resettlement sites in the country; by the year 2000 more than 30,000 Vietnamese were living in Massachusetts, roughly a third of them in the city of Boston.

While those who came after the war were mainly from the country’s Catholics elite, subsequent arrivals came from various class and religious backgrounds. They included many ethnic Chinese—mainly entrepreneurs who were often resented by the Vietnamese—and those from rural areas of Vietnam. Many of these so-called “boat people” of the 1980s fled the country in small leaky boats, facing perilous crossings, violence, and trauma. Most spent months or even years in refugee camps in neighboring countries. A final surge of refugees came to Boston in the early 1990s under special US legislation granting entry to former political prisoners and Amerasians (children of Vietnamese women and American GIs). Although the refugee migration trailed off in the early 1990s, Vietnamese continued to migrate to the Boston area under family reunification provisions.


In the 1970s, federal refugee policies dispersed Southeast Asian arrivals across the country, placing them in areas where few immigrants lived. Feeling isolated, many relocated to larger cities or towns where they could find support among family and countrymen. In the 1980s, federal policy changed to permit clustering of refugees within certain neighborhoods. Vietnamese refugees thus resettled in Boston’s Chinatown (especially the ethnic Chinese) and Allston-Brighton, as well as parts of Dorchester and East Boston.

Soon the Fields Corner section of Dorchester emerged as the region’s largest and most important Vietnamese community, accounting for roughly a third of the city’s Vietnamese population by 1990. At the same time, surging housing costs and development pressures drove many Vietnamese out of Chinatown and Allston-Brighton. Many of those families moved to Fields Corner but also to the suburbs of Quincy, Randolph, and Malden, all of which developed substantial Vietnamese communities by the twenty-first century.


While the earliest arrivals were mainly professionals, most of the Vietnamese who followed were less educated and initially found work in computer assembly and other manufacturing plants. Over time, they moved into lower paid service occupations such as restaurant work and transportation. Locally, the Vietnamese developed niches in occupations such as floor sanding and nail manicuring. The second generation has demonstrated a higher level of educational attainment and a greater number have moved into professional, sales, and other white-collar occupations.

Small business has been a main avenue of upward mobility for the Vietnamese. The proliferation of Vietnamese restaurants, bakeries, and nail salons has played an important economic role in the Asian enclaves of Fields Corner, Chinatown, and North Quincy. In the 1980s and 1990s, in fact, Vietnamese entrepreneurs who opened restaurants and businesses along Washington Street helped to revitalize the western edge of Chinatown while displacing the Combat Zone, a notorious adult entertainment district.

Cape Verdeans


Cape Verdeans have been coming to Massachusetts since the 1840s, but have only moved into the Boston area in large numbers since the 1970s. Today they are one of the city’s top ten immigrant groups and the largest hailing from Africa.

Cape Verdean Student Association of Boston College celebrating publication of a new Cape Verdean Kreyol-English dictionary, 2016. Courtesy of Daija Carvalho/Mili-Mila.com

Settled by Portuguese in the mid-fifteenth century, the Cape Verde archipelago consists of ten arid islands off the coast of Senegal in West Africa. As the Portuguese imported slave labor from the mainland, the islands soon became a center of the slave trade and a provisioning point for ships traveling along the African coast. In the mid-nineteenth century, severe drought conditions and poverty drove many former slaves and mixed-race Cape Verdeans to seek work on whaling ships plying the Atlantic. Some later settled in the whaling port of New Bedford, setting in motion a migrant stream to southeastern Massachusetts that peaked between 1890 and 1921. Coming mainly from the islands of Brava and Fogo, the early migrants were disproportionately male, often migrating seasonally on packet ships run by Cape Verdean companies.

Postcard showing the Cape Verdean island of Saõ Vincente, early 20th century

Migration declined dramatically in the early 1920s under US immigration restriction and tight Portuguese controls on Cape Verdean emigration. Even after passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, emigration rates remained low; it was not until the Republic of Cape Verde won its independence in 1975 that foreign visas became more widely accessible. By the 1980s, Cape Verdeans would be migrating across Europe, Brazil, and the US, but particularly to New England, which was well known because of its historic connections to the islands.

The new immigrants differed in many ways from the old. Their island origins have been more diverse—they come not only from Brava and Fogo but also from Saõ Tiago, Saõ Vicente, and Saõ Nicolau. The gender ratio of the new wave has been much more balanced, and the newcomers also include the more prosperous and educated as well as the poor.


During the first wave of migration, most Cape Verdeans settled in New Bedford, as well as in adjacent areas of southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Over the course of the twentieth century, a small migrant community developed in Boston, but most of the city’s Cape Verdean population has arrived since 1975. Coming earlier than other African national groups (who mainly arrived after 1990), Cape Verdeans are the city’s largest African group and the sixth largest foreign-born group overall. Constrained by racial discrimination and segregation, Cape Verdeans have settled in predominantly black and Latino areas of Roxbury and Dorchester, especially in the area between Dudley Square and Upham’s Corner. The city of Brockton, an older industrial city located between Boston and New Bedford, has been another key settlement area, with Cape Verdeans making up roughly a third of the city’s foreign-born population in 2014.


With the decline of whaling in the late nineteenth century, Cape Verdean immigrants moved into maritime jobs on the docks and on merchant ships, as well as doing seasonal agricultural work picking cranberries in southeastern Massachusetts. A smaller number found work in New Bedford’s textile mills, but usually in less desirable, lower-paying positions.

The second wave of Cape Verdean arrivals also initially found work in factories in the Boston and Brockton areas, but gradually moved into the service industries as manufacturing plants closed down. Although Cape Verdean immigrants have not been known for occupying particular employment niches, they have developed a vibrant small business sector of restaurants, groceries, real estate and insurance offices, and other enterprises. In recent years, the second generation has also been moving into professional, managerial, and civil service occupations.

Central Americans


Fleeing civil wars, violence and repression, newcomers from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras began arriving in greater Boston in the early 1980s. Thirty years later, Central Americans make up a large portion of the region’s Latino population.

Boston Banda de Paz, a Salvadoran “peace” band, marches in East Boston, 2014. Courtesy of El Planeta

Central Americans began arriving in large numbers in the Boston area in the early 1980s when violence and civil war swept through their homelands. Following the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979, US-supported military regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala launched wars against leftist guerillas that led to mass killings and widespread human rights abuses. Tens of thousands of refugees fled the region, mainly workers and peasants, including indigenous Maya displaced from the rural highlands of Guatemala. Political tensions in nearby Honduras also propelled out- migration there, with several thousand landing in greater Boston.

Because of its ties to anti-communist regimes in the region, the US did not grant refugee status to these migrants; instead, many entered illegally hoping to apply for asylum. A local sanctuary movement provided support for Salvadoran and Guatemalan newcomers in the mid-eighties, and their communities grew—from fewer than 2000 statewide in 1980 to more than 14,000 by 1990. Some of these newcomers later won asylum following a 1991 legal settlement in American Baptist Churches v. Thornberg, while others avoided deportation by applying for Temporary Protected Status under the 1990 Immigration Act. Although official hostilities in Central America subsided in the 1990s, Central Americans have continued to arrive in Massachusetts as political repression, poverty, crime, and youth violence have fueled an ongoing exodus.

Patterns of Settlement

Declaring itself a sanctuary for unauthorized Central American migrants in 1984, the Old Baptist Cambridge Church became an early center for Salvadorans and Guatemalans seeking asylum. Many settled in the East Cambridge neighborhood known as the Port, where Puerto Rican and Dominican migrants had established a thriving Spanish-speaking community in the postwar era. In 1985, Cambridge declared itself a sanctuary city, making it a relatively safe haven where migrants could live without harassment from federal immigration authorities. Central Americans also settled in East Boston in the 1980s and 1990s, another older Puerto Rican settlement that later became a pan-Latino community.

As gentrification and the end of rent control in 1995 pushed housing costs upward in Boston and Cambridge, Salvadorans moved into the nearby suburbs of Somerville and Chelsea, while Guatemalans settled in Chelsea, Lynn, and Waltham. By contrast, Hondurans remained more concentrated in the city of Boston, mainly in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan, but they too joined the growing Central American community in Chelsea. The combined impact of Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran settlement helped make Chelsea a majority Latino city by 2010 as well as the city with the highest immigrant population in Massachusetts.

Workforce Participation

Historically, Central American migrants in Massachusetts have had high rates of employment; in the year 2000, more than 70 percent of Salvadorans and Guatemalans who were 16 or older were engaged in the labor force (compared to 66 percent of the total population). These workers were concentrated in lower-paid manufacturing and service industries, particularly food services, cleaning, and building maintenance, where the work was often part-time and without benefits. Even with multiple workers per family, Central Americans have had significantly lower median family incomes and higher poverty rates compared to the general population. Lower levels of educational achievement, both in their homelands and in greater Boston, have also contributed to the concentration of Central Americans in lower-paying occupations. Likewise, their historically high rates of unauthorized migration—combined with more restrictive federal and state laws—have limited migrants’ employment options and their children’s access to higher education. Nevertheless, Salvadoran and Central American-owned businesses have been proliferating in both East Boston and Chelsea, making them a more vital and visible part of those communities.

South Asians


Attracted by higher education and professional opportunities, South Asians have been coming to Boston since the 1960s. Today, Indians are one of the largest foreign-born groups in the metro area.

Indian Americans in Lexington celebrate the Hindu festival of Diwali in 2011. Courtesy of the Boston Globe

Although the first wave of South Asian migration to the United States began in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies, South Asians did not arrive in significant numbers in the Boston area until the second half of the 20th century. Instead of a quota system that limited immigration from particular countries, the Immigration Act of 1965 allowed higher numbers of educated immigrants to enter the United States. During this second wave of migration from 1965-1980, most of the South Asians who moved to the Boston area were middle-class Indians and Pakistanis. Many of these Indian immigrants were highly educated in medicine, engineering, and other scientific fields; since Indian independence in 1947, several Boston-area research institutions, including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, formed close relationships with Indian research institutions and provided education and employment to immigrants during the second wave.

The third wave of South Asian immigration, from the 1980s to today, includes higher numbers of migrants from Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Some of these immigrants were motivated to leave their home countries in the 1990s due to limited economic opportunities, but many were refugees fleeing violence and political instability. For example, the ethnic violence in Sri Lanka in the 1980s and 1990s sparked migration to the United States; according to the U.S. Census of 2000, Massachusetts is home to the third-highest number of foreign-born Sri Lankans, after California and New York.


When significant numbers of South Asians first settled in Massachusetts between 1965-1980, the majority lived in the Boston area because of its proximity to jobs in the medical and technology fields. As these immigrants prospered and had American-born children, they formed ethnic enclaves in suburban towns in the Metrowest area. Since 1980, third-wave Indian immigrants continue to arrive and settle in towns like Framingham and Ashland. Today, there are sizable Indian communities in both Burlington and Quincy.

Although the most recent Pakistani immigrants are more spread out across the greater Boston area, many Pakistanis are similarly highly educated and live and work near universities in Cambridge and Boston. Many from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal tend to live in lower income neighborhoods and towns in the Boston area.

Today, the highest concentrations of foreign-born Indian residents of Boston tend to live in neighborhoods near medical centers and universities, such as the West End near Massachusetts General Hospital and MIT, and Harbor Point in Dorchester, adjacent to the University of Massachusetts Boston. There are also smaller concentrations in parts of Allston, Back Bay, Fenway, the South End, and Mission Hill.


From 1965-1980, Indian and Pakistani newcomers to greater Boston were mostly middle-class and highly educated in medicine, engineering, and other scientific fields. Many of these immigrants worked as doctors, professors, or researchers at Boston-area hospitals and universities. Since the 1980s, Indian and Pakistani immigrants in the region have continued to expand their presence in these occupations, as well as the newer fields of biotech and software development. With the establishment of the H-1B visa program in the 1990s, local technology companies recruited a large crop of Indian computer programmers and engineers, some of whom settled in the region permanently.

The most recent wave of South Asian migration also includes refugees and working-class migrants from counties like Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. With often lower levels of education, these newcomers have been more likely to work less-skilled jobs in the service industry. Many South Asians in the Boston area have also become entrepreneurs and small business owners, particularly in the restaurant and technology industries.



Coming originally as agricultural workers in the 1950s and 1960s, Dominicans have become the region’s largest Latino immigrant group and have settled across the metro region.

Red Sox baseball legends David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez were among the best known Dominicans in Boston, and best loved by the local Dominican community. Courtesy of the Boston Globe

According to recent federal census surveys, Dominicans are the largest immigrant group in Boston. They have been moving to the region since the 1950s, and especially after the death of Rafael Trujillo, a brutal dictator who was assassinated in 1961. A period of political instability followed, and the US intervened, sending troops to Santo Domingo in 1965. Elected in 1966, President Joaquín Balaguer proved to be another repressive leader who arrested and tortured his political opponents, driving many to emigrate. Balaguer’s industrial development program also stalled in the 1970s, leading to falling wages and widespread unemployment. Economic woes continued in the 1980s, with soaring consumer prices, joblessness, and currency devaluations that led many Dominicans to look for better opportunities abroad.

Birth province of Dominicans who immigrated to metro Boston from 1952-1999. From Enrico Marcelli, et al., Permanently Temporary? The Health and Socioeconomic Integration of Dominicans in Metropolitan Boston, Center for Behavioral and Community Health Studies, San Diego State University, 2009.

While most went to New York, a sizeable Dominican community formed in Boston by the late 1960s. Most of these early arrivals came from the northern Cibao region around the cities of Santiago and Salcedo. Another key source of migration to Boston was the Peravia province west of Santo Domingo, the capital city, which also sent many migrants. Beginning in the 1980s, other provinces such as La Altagracia on the east coast and María Trinidad Sánchez on the northeast coast also became popular sending regions (see map). Some Dominicans arrived directly from the Dominican Republic; others were secondary migrants from New York or came by way of Puerto Rico, making the journey in rickety boats called yolas.

The early arrivals tended to be more urban, educated, and middle-class, but in the 1980s and after, more working-class migrants arrived, some of them from small towns and rural areas. The biggest surge in immigration occurred in the late 1980s to mid-1990s, partially in response to the amnesty provision of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which allowed formerly unauthorized migrants to adjust their status and sponsor other family members.


Initially, Dominicans settled near existing Puerto Rican and Cuban communities in the South End, Roxbury and the Port area in Cambridge. In the 1980s, however, the South End and the Port saw their Latino populations decline under pressures of redevelopment and gentrification. During this period, Jamaica Plain became the most important new center of Dominican settlement. Many of its residents came from the village of Miraflores and other towns in the province of Peravia.

By the 1990s, however, gentrification and rising housing prices began to drive Dominicans out of Jamaica Plain, pushing many to nearby Roxbury and to neighborhoods such as Dorchester, Roslindale, South Boston, and Charlestown. Like other Latinos, they have spread widely across the city and beyond. By the twenty-first century, Dominicans were moving out of Boston to northern suburbs like Lynn, Chelsea, and Salem, and especially to nearby Lawrence, a Dominican-dominated city about 40 miles to the north. Today, the majority of Dominicans in the metro area live outside the city of Boston.


Dominican immigrants originally found work at local shoe factories, garment shops, and other manufacturers, even as these industries were declining in the sixties and seventies. Dominicans today continue to be disproportionately concentrated in manufacturing, but many have shifted over to the service sector. They have been especially prevalent in janitorial work, food service, building maintenance, childcare, construction, and transportation. While the second generation has made gains in technical, professional and managerial occupations, lower educational attainment—both in the Dominican Republic and in Boston—continues to be a challenge.



Greater Boston has attracted more Brazilian immigrants than any major metropolitan area in the country, in part because of its historic Portuguese-speaking communities.

Brazilian fans watching the World Cup at the Tropical Cafe in Framingham, June 2014. Courtesy of the Milford Daily News

In recent years, greater Boston has attracted more Brazilian immigrants than any major metropolitan area in the country. Some of the earliest arrivals came in the 1960s and 1970s, laying the groundwork for large-scale migration that began in the mid-1980s. Brazilians have been drawn to Massachusetts in part because of its historic Portuguese-speaking communities that helped facilitate settlement.

From: Enrico Marcelli, et al., (In)Visible (Im)Migrants: The Health and Socioeconomic Integration of Brazilians in Metropolitan Boston, Center for Behavioral and Community Health Studies, San Diego State University, 2009.

Early migrants came mainly from the state of Minas Gerais and particularly the city of Governador Valadares. Connections between this area and Massachusetts date back to World War II when Boston engineers and technicians were posted to Minas Gerais to work on the mining of sheet mica used to insulate radio tubes and detonators. Contacts between the Bostonians and the residents of Minas Gerais resulted in cultural exchanges that encouraged some Brazilians to come to Boston to attend school or find work. Later, migrants came from adjoining parts of southern Brazil, including the states of Espírito Santo, São Paulo, Goiás, Paraná, and Santa Catarina.

The driving force fueling emigration in the 1980s was the collapse of the Brazilian economy due to rising international interest rates, growing debt, and an oil crisis. As Brazil repeatedly devalued its currency, massive inflation resulted. Hard-pressed Brazilians increasingly looked abroad for better paying jobs to help support their families. Many of those who came to greater Boston were from the middle class and had at least a high school education. But because of their relatively late arrival (many came too late to qualify for the amnesty program of 1986), a significant percentage was undocumented. During the Great Recession, many returned home as the Brazilian economy improved and used their savings to buy property or start small businesses. Nevertheless, greater Boston remains one of the top centers of Brazilian migration in the country.


Brazilians have tended to settle in places where there were substantial Portuguese population, churches, and other community institutions. Initially, Somerville, Framingham, and the Allston-Brighton neighborhood of Boston hosted the largest communities. By the end of the twentieth century, Everett, Malden and Marlborough had also attracted sizeable communities. By 2010, Framingham’s Brazilian population had surpassed Boston’s, making this metrowest community one of the most Brazilian places in the US and an official sister city of Goverador Valadares. Many of the communities where Brazilians settled were older industrial centers where deindustrialization and outmigration had left vacant, relatively lower cost housing. As Brazilian immigrants bought homes and opened small businesses in the 1990s, the commercial areas were revitalized, as in downtown Framingham and Everett.


Brazilians have been concentrated in construction and service fields but underrepresented among professional and managerial workers. In greater Boston, Brazilian men developed substantial self-employment niches in home construction and landscaping while women have been concentrated in house cleaning. For many educated, middle-class Brazilians, starting their own businesses was a means of combatting the downward mobility that some initially experienced because of their lack of English proficiency or US professional credentials. Family-owned businesses also helped support newly arrived family or friends or those without documentation. As their clientele grew, owners spun off new routes or sub-contracts to their countrymen and women, thus expanding the local Brazilian business sector.

West Indians


Immigrants from the English-speaking Caribbean have been settling in Boston since the early twentieth century. Coming mainly from Jamaica and Barbadoes, they have built flourishing communities in Dorchester and Mattapan.

Boston Caribbean Carnival in 2007. Courtesy of BostonCarnival.com

Because of its maritime location and historical connections to the Caribbean and the slave trade, Boston has been home to black West Indians since colonial times. Voluntary migration to the city began in the late nineteenth century, but it was not until the 1910s that a more permanent West Indian community emerged. Their numbers would increase to roughly five thousand by the early 1950s, or roughly 12 percent of the city’s black population.

Postcard showing Jamaican workers loading bananas in Port Antonio, Jamaica, ca. 1905

During these years, immigrants came mainly from the islands of Jamaica, Barbados, and Montserrat. West Indians came to rely on migration as a survival strategy amid longterm structural problems in the British island economies, including over-reliance on single cash crops, exploitative foreign commercial activities, and an underdeveloped manufacturing sector. Perpetually low wages and high unemployment drove many Jamaican and Barbadian men to seek work building the Panama Canal in the early twentieth century, and many later used their earnings to subsidize family members’ migration to the US. Seeking greater economic stability, West Indian newcomers also came north in search of better educational opportunities for their children.

Advertisement for United Fruit Company’s Great White Fleet, ca. 1920

But perhaps the most important reason that West Indians ended up in Massachusetts was the United Fruit Company’s direct steamer service from Boston to Kingston and Port Antonio, Jamaica. Headquartered in Boston from 1899 to 1938, the United Fruit Company (a predecessor of Chiquita) was one of the world’s largest banana and tropical fruit producers. By 1920 more than eighty West Indians were arriving in Boston per year via United Fruit’s Great White Fleet, either as ticketed passengers or as workers who stowed away or jumped ship.

Immigration dropped off precipitously after passage of the McCarran Walter Act in 1952, which assigned restrictive quotas to colonies in the western hemisphere. After 1965, however, the ceilings were raised, and many Jamaicans and Barbadians made use of family reunification provisions to reunite with relatives in the Boston area. In the 1990s, sizeable new migrant groups also began arriving from Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas, Grenada, Dominica, and St. Vincent. This new wave has also included more highly educated professionals, whose skills have helped them secure H-1 work visas.


West Indians settled largely within or near existing African American communities in Boston, reflecting the role of racism and segregation in shaping the choices of black immigrants. In the early twentieth century, they settled mainly in the Crosstown area of the South End (around Massachusetts Avenue) and in the historically black sections of Cambridgeport. By the late 1930s, some West Indian families—along with African Americans—were moving south into Roxbury as Jewish families moved out.

The diffusion of West Indian settlement accelerated after 1968 when the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group agreed to end racially discriminatory lending practices across a swath of Roxbury, Dorchester and northern Mattapan. With mortgages now more readily available, West Indian families were among the first to purchase homes in these formerly white (and mainly Jewish) neighborhoods along Blue Hill Avenue. By the 1980s, these areas became predominantly black, with visible concentrations of new immigrants from Haiti and the West Indies. A smaller percentage of West Indians have also moved to the suburbs, mainly to Randolph, Malden, and Brockton.


In the early twentieth century, most West Indian newcomers—whatever their education or skills—were limited to employment as laborers, service, or domestic workers. Most men worked loading freight on the docks or railroads, or as janitors or porters. West Indian women found work primarily as domestics. For many of these newcomers, who were among the most educated and driven in their home islands, such jobs provided higher wages but were clearly a step down in status.

For the new wave of immigrants arriving since the 1960s, service work has become even more important. West Indian women continue to find work in childcare but have also moved into the burgeoning healthcare industry, from nurses’ aids to hospital administrators. Increasingly, West Indians and their children have been accessing higher education and pursuing careers in professional fields such as teaching, nursing, business, and civil service. Although their mean incomes surpass those of native-born blacks, they continue to lag behind those of native-born whites.



Starting with a trickle of textile workers in the 1970s, thousands of Colombians have settled in Massachusetts in recent decades. The largest number live in Boston, and especially in the neighborhood of East Boston.

Marcella Correa, the mayor of Don Matías, Colombia, addressed Colombians in East Boston in 2015. Photo by Jorge Caravallo

Boston’s Colombian community dates back to the 1970s when skilled Colombian textile workers began migrating to Massachusetts through the H2 guest worker program. Most came from the area around Medellín in northwestern Colombia, which was the heart of the country’s textile and garment industries. They came for jobs, but also to escape La Violencía, a prolonged conflict between the two main political parties that killed or displaced tens of thousands of people.

The unrest deepened in the 1980s, as guerrilla groups such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) battled government forces, and violent drug cartels took hold in the region around Medillín. The widespread violence, together with neoliberal economic restructuring programs that devastated the economy in the 1990s, spurred many Colombians to emigrate and join family members in Massachusetts.

Since the 1980s, Colombians have come from the areas around Medellín and Bogotá, as well as smaller cities such as Don Matías, an agricultural center north of Medellín. Colombian migration to Boston has slowed since the 2008 recession, but according to 2015 Census estimates, more than six thousand were living in the city and seventeen thousand in the metro region.


While Colombian workers initially settled in Lowell in the 1970s, the decline of the textile industry prompted some to seek out jobs and homes in Boston in the 1980s. Many ended up in East Boston, a predominantly Italian American neighborhood with a growing Latino population. By 2014 the neighborhood was home to more than three quarters of the city’s Colombian immigrants, who had become East Boston’s second largest foreign-born group.

Across the city, Colombian immigrants can be found in neighborhoods such as Allston-Brighton, West Roxbury, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale. North of the city, Revere also hosts a large Colombian population, with nearly three thousand living there in 2015. Both Revere and East Boston have abundant triple-decker housing which Colombians have purchased, living in one unit while renting out the other two to friends or family members. As with earlier immigrant groups, this housing arrangement has facilitated chain migration and helped Colombian homeowners pay their mortgages.


Once known for its Italian eateries, East Boston now has Colombian-owned pizzerias like this one, which also serves Latin American specialties such as arepas and empanadas. Photo by Jorge Caravallo.

In the 1970s, Colombian immigrants worked mainly in the Lowell textile mills, where their skills tending and fixing old American-made looms (many of which had been sold off to Colombian textile plants) made them valuable workers. Others who had work experience in Colombia’s apparel industry, found employment in Boston’s garment shops. But as manufacturing plants closed in the 1980s, Colombian workers moved into the service sector. By 2000, more than 40 percent of foreign-born Colombians in the city were employed in service work, with many in lower paying jobs such as food serive, cleaning, and maintenance.

On the bright side, Colombians have made marked strides in retail sales and self employment. The percentage of self-employed Colombians has grown from 2 percent in 2000 to nearly 10 percent in 2013, with many Colombian-owned stores and businesses operating in East Boston. Such businesses have provided employment for the community but also helped entrepreneurs to support family and businesses back home. Remittances sent back to the town of Don Matías, for example, have helped support local businesses and improvement projects, cementing bonds between the two communities.

Refugees and Asylees


Boston has been a magnet for refugees since its founding in the 1600s. But especially since World War II, hundreds of thousands of those fleeing violence and persecution have resettled in the region, laying the foundations for later immigrant communities.

Cambodian refugees arriving in Khao I Dang camp in Thailand, 1980. In the years following the Vietnam war, thousands of Southeast Asian refugees resettled in greater Boston. Courtesy of UNCHR/M. Munz

Massachusetts has been home to refugees for more than four hundred years. Since the arrival of the Pilgrims fleeing religious persecution, oppressed people from across the globe have been seeking refuge in America. But the origins and treatment of refugees has changed significantly over time. Although the United States has embraced refugees as part of its democratic and humanitarian principles, its policies toward them have also been shaped by larger geopolitical concerns and a desire to advance America’s national interests.

What is a refugee? Prior to Refugee Act of 1980, the US had no official definition. It was generally understood that refugees were victims of political or religious persecution who fled their homeland and could not return. Yet before World War II, there were no explicit policies or laws relating to refugees. In the wake of the Nazi Holocaust, however, international and US efforts to protect refugees have grown, as has the diversity of refugee populations. But exactly who qualified as a refugee was often determined by the political and foreign policy issues of the day.

The Vaznaian sisters, Victoria (third from right) and Maritza (second from left) escaped the Armenian genocide in 1915 and came to the Boston area. Family photo courtesy of Boston.com

Prior to World War II, the largest refugee migrations to Boston involved Jews from Russia and Armenians from the Ottoman Empire. Between the 1880s and the 1920s, tens of thousands of Jews fled the Russian empire as violent pogroms, expulsions, and anti-Semitic laws targeted the Jewish population. New arrivals settled in the North and South Ends as well as in East Boston, often with help from the Boston branch of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) founded in 1904. Another mass exodus occurred from the Ottoman empire, where massacres in the 1890s and genocidal violence directed at Armenians during World War I killed more than a million people. Boston, Cambridge, and Watertown all hosted large refugee communities, and the latter became an important center of Armenian-American life.

World War II

The Second World War was a key turning point in the treatment of refugees, but one which came in the wake of a dismal failure to aid refugees in Europe. With the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party in 1933, anti-Semitic violence grew and several hundred thousand Jews emigrated over the next five years. Jewish organizations in the US, including the HIAS and the Boston Committee for Refugees, aided those fleeing the Nazis and lobbied the US government to admit them. But amid strong restrictionist sentiment, pervasive anti-Semitism, and high rates of unemployment during the Great Depression, Congress and President Franklin Roosevelt took little action, leaving many Jews to die in the concentration camps.

After the war, Jewish survivors along with millions of people left homeless by the conflict languished in refugee camps across Europe. Cooperating with the United Nations, the US and other countries worked to resettle these displaced persons. Congress authorized their entry under the Displaced Persons Acts of 1948 and 1950, the first US laws to explicitly address refugee admissions. Several thousand came to Boston in the late 1940s and 1950s.

A decade later, Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy co-sponsored the Azorean Refugee Acts in response to calls from Portuguese Americans in Massachusetts. The acts provided visas for five thousand Portuguese from the Azores after a devastating series of volcanic eruptions and earthquakes on the island of Faial. Many of the refugees moved to Massachusetts, including some who settled in East Cambridge and Somerville. The repeated need for short-term legislative solutions to refugee problems helped convince Congress to set aside ten thousand visas for refugees under the 1965 Immigration Act.

The Cold War Years

Cuban refugees arriving at Logan Airport in December 1962, some of the thousands who fled Cuba following the Cuban revolution. Courtesy of the Boston Globe

During these years, the politics of the Cold War deeply influenced refugee policy and admissions. From the 1950s to the 1980s, refugees from the USSR and other Communist countries made up the vast majority of those admitted to the US. America welcomed these expatriates as a humanitarian act but also as a way of condemning Soviet aggression and the failures of Communism.

The US resettled these newcomers by partnering with local voluntary agencies in Boston such as the International Institute, the International Rescue Committee, Catholic Charities, and the Lutheran Refugee and Immigration Service. With government support and funding, they found housing for refugees in affordable neighborhoods and paired them with local sponsors to help them find jobs and needed services. Many of those refugees would in turn sponsor other family members, thus building the foundations of new immigrant communities. Places like Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, Lynn, and Revere have all hosted such refugee-spawned communities.

Small numbers of Eastern European refugees arrived in Boston in the fifties, but the most visible new group were those fleeing the Cuban revolution of 1959. Coming in several waves between 1959 and 1973, anti-Communist Cuban exiles received extensive resettlement funds and services from the US government and were assisted locally by Catholic Charities and local parishes. Most of the early refugees were white and affluent, and many bought homes and opened businesses, especially in Jamaica Plain and Allston-Brighton—home of the city’s largest Cuban communities.

Boston area students protesting Soviet ships in Boston, 1973-74. Such protests were part of a larger campaign to pressure the Soviet Union to allow Jewish refugees to emigrate. Photograph by permission of the Jewish Heritage Society of the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

An even larger group of refugees came to Massachusetts from the Soviet Union, beginning with a trickle of arrivals in the 1970s to more than a thousand a year from 1988 to 1998. Mainly Jews facing discrimination and repression under the Soviet regime, many lost their jobs, were barred from universities, and denied the right to emigrate. Jewish advocacy groups such as HIAS and Action for Soviet Jewry relentlessly lobbied local and national officials to pressure the Soviets to release them. With the lifting of travel restrictions in 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, a mass emigration ensued. Between 1986-2016, more than 23,000 refugees from the Soviet Union or Russia came to Massachusetts, more than any other national group. Settling mainly in the greater Boston area, the refugees were aided by an impressive network of Jewish organizations and synagogues, and many settled in suburbs with established Jewish communities.

Also arriving in this period were large numbers of refugees from the Vietnam War. Given America’s central role in the conflict, the US took responsibility for the postwar refugee crisis, bringing more than a million refugees from Southeast Asia. Greater Boston was one of the top ten resettlement areas, especially for Vietnamese and Cambodians. Vietnamese began arriving in small numbers with the end of the war in 1975 and then came in much greater numbers in the late seventies and eighties. While initially resettled across the region, Dorchester’s Fields Corner neighborhood emerged as the center of the Vietnamese refugee community. Cambodians were placed in Boston, Revere, and Lynn, but they increasingly gravitated north to Lowell. Both groups have since developed thriving ethnic enclaves, religious centers, and refugee organizations across the region.

Source: Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Refugee Arrivals in Massachusetts by Country of Origin, 1986-201

Growing concerns for human rights helped fuel these resettlement efforts and also spurred the passage of the 1980 Refugee Act. The act defined refugees broadly as victims of persecution (not just Communist persecution), raised the annual ceilings for refugee admittance, reserved spots for asylees (those who applied for protection after entering the US), and expanded resettlement programs. But not all refugees seemed to qualify. Under the Reagan administration of the 1980s, those fleeing violence in Haiti and Central America—countries whose leaders were aligned with the US—were still turned away. Some Haitians successfully claimed refugee status beginning in the 1990s, but appeals by Central Americans fleeing gang violence have often been denied.

The End of the Cold War and 9/11

Source: Massachusetts Department of Public Health, Refugee Arrivals to Massachusetts by Country of Origin, 1986-2016

With the end of the Cold War, refugee admissions began to decline in the 1990s. Those who did qualify came from a larger number of countries, many of them riven by new forces of ethnic nationalism and religious conflict that grew in the aftermath of the Cold War. In Boston, new arrivals from the Balkans came to escape the wars and ethnic cleansing unleashed by the breakup of Yugoslavia. Political instability and tribal tensions also grew in Africa, and a growing number of refugees came to Boston from Somalia, Liberia, Ethiopia, and Central Africa.

The terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 stoked widespread public fear and growing anti-Muslim sentiment as well as bringing a severe reduction in refugee admissions. Soon, however, the prolonged fighting and devastation of the US-led war in Iraq brought more than five thousand Iraqis to Massachusetts. At the same time, ethnic and religious repression in Bhutan and Myanmar likewise sent a stream of Lhotshampas (ethnic Nepalis from Bhutan) and Rohingya (a Muslim minority group in Myanmar) to the Boston area.

Most recently the war in Syria, raging since 2011, has brought several hundred displaced Syrians to the state. Unlike the earlier refugees, however, recent newcomers are more likely to be resettled in other parts of the state.  High rents and a tight housing market have made Boston a less suitable place for refugees to start a new life. Moreover, President Donald Trump’s bans on travel from several majority Muslim countries have severely limited those refugees’ ability to enter the US, while new rules on asylees will likely bar most people fleeing domestic or gang violence.

Immigrant Places

The North End

The North End is Boston’s oldest and most iconic immigrant neighborhood. Its proximity to the waterfront and the city’s downtown markets made it an enduring gateway for new arrivals from Ireland to Russia. But it was Italians who proved to be the neighborhood’s most important denizens in the twentieth century, and it soon became known as Boston’s Little Italy, a reputation it still has today.

Italian saint’s festival on Hanover Street in the North End, ca. 1930. Leslie Jones, Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library

The North End is Boston’s oldest and most iconic immigrant neighborhood. Its proximity to the waterfront, transatlantic commerce, and the city’s downtown markets made it an enduring gateway for new arrivals from Ireland to Russia. But it was Italians who proved to be the neighborhood’s most important denizens in the twentieth century. Known as Boston’s Little Italy, the North End’s rich history continues to attract millions of tourists each year.

One of colonial Boston’s first residential areas, the North End became home to some of the town’s most elite families of the eighteenth century, including those of Governor Thomas Hutchison and Paul Revere. After the revolution, however, the exodus of loyalists and the migration of elite families to Beacon Hill ushered in a period of decline in the North End. As property values dropped, English and German migrants took up residence as well as newly arrived Irish who began to settle there in the 1820s. With the founding of St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Endicott St. in 1836, the city’s first Irish enclave grew up around the parish.

Immigrant homes on Lime Alley and Charter Street, ca. 1893. Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library

As the Great Famine dramatically accelerated emigration from Ireland, Irish newcomers began settling around North Square in the 1840s. To accommodate the influx and recoup income, landowners broke up the old mansions into boarding houses and tenements. Irish settlement thus expanded northward, and by 1850 the Irish made up more that 50 percent of North End’s population. Living conditions here were the worst in the city. Grinding poverty, overcrowding, and poor sanitation led to epidemics of smallpox and cholera, while drinking, violence, and prostitution became common features of North End life in these years.

After the Civil War, the Irish remained dominant but had to share the neighborhood with newcomers, mainly Russian and Polish Jews and Italians who first arrived in the 1860s and 1870s. By 1895, these two groups together would outnumber the Irish. Jews settled in a triangular area between Hanover, Endicott and Prince Streets, establishing a cluster of synagogues and businesses along Salem Street.

Italians arrived around the same time, but their greatest growth occurred a few years after the Jewish surge. Early Italian arrivals in the 1860s were mainly Genoese from the North who settled around Ferry Court (near the current entrance to the Sumner Tunnel). Southern Italians from provinces such as Sicily, Calabria, and Campania followed a decade or two later. They settled along North Street and especially on North Bennett Street, where St. John the Baptist Catholic Church opened in 1843 to serve both Italian and Portuguese immigrants. Nearby, a small Portuguese community had sprung up on Fleet Street, an enclave of several hundred Azoreans that flourished between the 1880s and the First World War.

Such distinct ethnic enclaves were typical of the North End around the turn of the century. Newly arrived Jews, Italians and Portuguese sought familiarity and support among coethnic businesses, religious institutions, and social organizations. Likewise, the newcomers’ arrival created turf pressures with existing Irish residents who sometimes responded with violence and resentment. Ethnic enclaves thus provided protection amid social instability and growing intergroup tensions. (see map).

Many North End immigrants worked locally in small factories and on the waterfront unloading ships or moving freight. Others worked in the produce, meat, and fish markets at Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market or branched out on their own as street peddlers or shopkeepers. Portuguese and Sicilians came to dominate the local fishing fleets, while other Italians, like the Irish before them, were heavily concentrated in unskilled labor.

After 1900, the Italian presence in the North End increased as Jews moved out to the South and West Ends. By 1920, Italian immigrants and their children made up roughly 90 percent of the North End’s population and owned more than half of its residential property. The bustling neighborhood became known as Little Italy during these years and had one of the highest population densities in the world.

By the 1930s, however, the North End’s population began to decline as restrictive legislation reduced immigration and older ethnic residents moved out to East Boston, Chelsea, and other northern suburbs. Remaining Italian residents—mainly the older generation—faced continued deterioration of the housing stock and major disruptions caused by the construction of the Central Artery and the Callahan Tunnel in early 1950s. More than a hundred families in the path of these projects lost their homes to the wrecking ball.

The fate of the North End improved in 1970s as the historic neighborhood attracted new investment around the bicentennial, but gentrification and luxury development made life increasingly unaffordable for the area’s older residents. Although the neighborhood has managed to attract some recent Italian immigrant professionals who can afford its steep rents, its ethnic character lives on mainly through its Italian stores and restaurants that have become one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

The West End

Once an outlying rural peninsula, the West End became one of Boston’s most populous immigrant districts at the turn of the twentieth century. The expansion of the railroad and other industries attracted thousands of newcomers, especially Jews and Italians. When its population declined after World War II, the West End became the site of the city’s first major urban renewal project, displacing many of its immigrant residents.

Corner of Spring and Chambers Streets in Boston’s West End, 1910. Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library

Once an outlying rural peninsula, the West End became one of Boston’s legendary immigrant districts at the turn of the twentieth century. Expanded through landfill in the early 19th century, the construction of the railroad and accompanying industries attracted thousands of immigrant workers and residents, including Irish, Jews, Italians, and Poles. When its population declined after World War II, the West End became the site of the city’s first major urban renewal project, one that razed and ultimately transformed the neighborhood beyond recognition.

During the colonial era, the West End was an outlying rural peninsula separated from the more populated North End by Mill Pond. Its residents were mainly farmers, but also included operators of gristmills, ropewalks, and distilleries. The development of Beacon Hill and the West Boston (Longfellow) Bridge attracted affluent Yankee residents in the early 19th century, as well as a small population of black Bostonians who settled on the adjoining north slope of Beacon Hill after the state outlawed slavery in 1789.

In the 1810s and 1820s, the city launched it first major landfill project, filling in Mill Pond and adding fifty acres to Boston’s downtown and West End. In the 1840s, a railroad terminus was built on the site (North Station), which soon attracted dozens of smaller industries and new workers. These developments coincided with a surge of Irish immigration driven by the Great Famine, and Irish newcomers soon poured into both the North and West Ends. Looking to maximize profits, local landowners subdivided older family homes into tenements and boarding houses. By 1850, the Irish made up a majority of the West End’s population, and their numbers continued to grow for the next thirty years.

Population pressures increased after 1880 as newer Jewish, Italian and other immigrants moved into the neighborhood, displacing many of the older Irish and black residents. Jews from Russia, Poland and other parts of eastern Europe were the largest new group. By 1910, they made up roughly a quarter of the population of the West End and supported more than ten synagogues. Southern Italians and Polish Catholics were also well represented, along with smaller groups from Lithuania, the Ukraine, and Hungary. During these peak migration years, the West End became a crowded district as landowners tore down old wooden homes and replaced them with four and five-story brick tenements. New construction filled up nearly all available land, giving the West End the second highest population density in the city.

After World War I, Jewish West Enders began to disperse to the more suburban districts of Roxbury and Dorchester while the Italian population grew. By the 1950s, the neighborhood was predominantly Italian-American, but its population declined as the younger generation moved to East Boston and adjoining northern suburbs.

During these years, the city targeted the West End as one of the first of many federally funded urban renewal projects designed to eliminate “slums” and revitalize the downtown economy. Facing relatively little resistance, the city began demolition in 1958, displacing 12,000 people from the 48-acre site. Most of the West End’s working-class residents left the area permanently, unable to afford rents at the new luxury highrises of Charles River Park. Today the foreign born are among those who live in this transformed West End, but they are more educated and highly skilled that earlier West Enders and come mainly from Asia, particularly India.


Once the edge of Boston’s South Cove, the Chinatown neighborhood dates back to the 1870s and remains the largest center of Asian-American life in New England. Chinatown Atlas, a digital project on the neighborhood’s history, offers an exciting window into its culture and evolution.

A circa 1880 postcard of Harrison Ave in Boston’s Chinatown

By the late 1880s, Chinatown had located on both sides of Harrison Avenue between Essex St. and Beach St. The area had become undesirable because of the many streetcar routes and the manufacturing and warehouse uses generated by the terminus and railroad yards. But that same proliferation of transportation also provided access for the hundreds of Chinese laundrymen scattered throughout the region.

A community base was established with the services and sense of home needed by those who worked hard and lived lonely lives except for Sundays. Because of the Exclusion Act, they were men without their families. There were stores selling groceries and supplies; restaurants serving familiar food; barbers to cut and trim the queues; village associations where letters from home could be picked up and kinsmen to talk to. For entertainment and escape, tongs ran gambling joints and opium dens. Periodic episodes of violence broke out among the tongs over control of illegal activities.

Chinese restaurant on Harrison Ave. 1890s. Boston Public Library

Bostonians were both fascinated and appalled by Chinatown, torn between support and active hostility. Protestant churches in Boston in their evangelical mission established Sunday Schools to provide English lessons and other aid in their effort to convert the Chinese immigrants. That led to the establishment of a permanent mission on Oxford St. and the founding of the Chinese branch of the Young Men’s Christian Association to provide rooms and services for the single men.

The liberal tradition of the abolitionists and churches defended the rights of the Chinese. One of the critics of the Chinese Exclusion Act was the anti-slavery/anti-imperialist Republican Senator George Frisbie Hoar of Massachusetts and William Lloyd Garrison Jr. But the strangeness of the new comers in language, appearance, customs and the indulgence of some of them in opium and gambling caused fear in many, including the fear that the young would be corrupted.

Boston Globe 1896

Many attempts were made to drive the Chinese out of Boston – the most damaging of these was the widening of Harrison Avenue, then the center of Chinatown. Ostensibly, this project was to improve traffic flow, but the real intent was to force the Chinese to disperse. However, Chinatown emerged in better shape than before – having rebuilt to higher standards and consolidating their presence on Harrison Avenue, Oxford Place and Oxford Street. But the anti-Chinese furor and demands for expulsion continued to grow. In 1903, the murder of Wong Yak Chong, a Hip Sing Tong member by the On Leong Tong gave the police and the immigration officials the excuse to round up and deport unregistered Chinese. The raid took place on the Sunday of the funeral for Wong when hundreds of laundrymen from the Boston region were rounded up and held if they could not produce the proper papers. Two hundred thirty-four were arrested and about 50 were eventually deported.

Boston Globe

Despite the efforts to drive the Chinese out of Boston, Chinatown slowly grew beyond Harrison Avenue. The opportunity for the Chinese to expand was created by the building of the El along Beach Street and degrading property values. The Irish and Germans who had first settled this area left followed later by Syrians and Greeks.

The Garment Industry, which had grown with the demand for ready-made class, established itself near South Station. This enabled the buyers and salesmen to travel to the major market in New York. With land prices depressed by the El, the industry expanded south of Essex Street and multi-story buildings were built, mostly on the corners to take advantage of natural light. The result was a mix of 19th century row-houses occupied by the Chinese and garment factories in loft buildings. The two worlds coexisted but did not mingle. No Chinese worked in the garment industry until after World War II.

East Boston

Situated just across the harbor from the North End, East Boston has been a zone of emergence for striving immigrants since its founding in the 1830s. Today it has the highest proportion of foreign-born residents of any Boston neighborhood.

Homes of immigrant families on Marginal Street, 1909. Courtesy Boston City Archives

During the colonial era, the area that would become East Boston was comprised of five islands in Boston Harbor–Noddle’s, Apple, Governor’s, Bird, and Hog Islands. Samuel Maverick was the first European settler on Noddle’s Island in 1633, but it would be another two hundred years before major development and landfilling began. In 1833 General William Sumner founded the East Boston Trade Company, which began filling the swamps, building wharves, and developing a railroad freight terminal. In 1836, the city of Boston annexed East Boston–or Eastie, as locals later called it–and new industries sprung up, including a sugar refinery, an iron forgery, a timber company, and numerous shipbuilders.

Launching of the Glory of the Sea clipper ship from Donald McKay’s shipyard on Border Street, 1869

The best known of East Boston’s industrialists was Donald McKay, an immigrant from Nova Scotia who opened a shipyard on Border Street in 1845, Over the next forty years, McKay produced clipper ships that set speed records around the world. McKay hired skilled workers from Canada’s Maritime Provinces, Scotland, and Scandinavia. During the nineteenth century, in fact, East Boston had more Canadian-born residents than any other neighborhood in Boston. Growing from a community of roughly 1300 in 1855 to about 9000 by 1900, Canadians worked mainly in the shipyards or later as carpenters, machinists, pile drivers, and clerks.

As in other parts of the city, the Irish made up the largest foreign-born group in East Boston. Irish migration surged with the Great Famine of the 1840s, and the Census recorded more than 3500 Irish-born residents in 1855. The majority worked as laborers who drained the swamps, built the wharves, and later moved goods on East Boston’s bustling waterfront. Until the 1880s, they lived mainly near the waterfront around Jeffries Point, Maverick Square, and Eagle Hill. Irish Catholics founded St. Nicholas Church—later renamed Most Holy Redeemer—in 1844. The church and its parochial school became the center of Irish Catholic life in East Boston and would remain the largest immigrant-serving parish for later ethnic groups.

Founded in the 1880s, the Protestant-run Immigrants Home offered shelter for newly arrived women and children on Marginal Street, pictured here in 1910. City of Boston Archives

With the completion of the first railroads to the mainland in 1875 and the first streetcar tunnel to downtown in 1901, East Boston became more closely connected to the rest of the city. And it soon became a convenient landing area for a new wave of immigrants from Russia, Italy, and Portugal. The neighborhood’s population thus grew from 36,930 in 1890 to 62,377 in 1915. The newcomers found work in the railroad docks, coal yards, machine shops, and candy, shoe, textile, and garment factories that replaced the old wooden shipbuilding industry. In the 1880s two settlements, Good Will House on Webster Street and Trinity House on Meridian Street, as well as the Immigrant’s Home on Marginal Way, were established to help the new arrivals. Moreover, the influx of newcomers created a need for new family housing, and hundreds of triple deckers were constructed beginning in the 1880s.

Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe were the first of these newer migrant groups to arrive in East Boston in the 1890s. Fleeing violent pogroms in the Russian empire and the crowded living conditions of the North and West Ends, Jews settled in the area north of Maverick Square and in Eagle Hill. By the early twentieth century, there was a thriving Jewish retail area of kosher markets, restaurants, and other businesses along Chelsea and Porter Streets. Several synagogues were located nearby, including the largest, Ohel Jacob, on the corner of Gove and Paris Streets. Jewish population peaked around World War I, with an estimated five thousand foreign-born residents. It was likely the largest Jewish community in Boston at the time.

During these same years, Italians also began settling in East Boston. Many came from the North End, but soon others arrived directly from Calabria and Sicily. In the early years of the twentieth century, they settled in Jeffries Point and in the blocks north of Maverick Square, while a smaller population of immigrants from northern Italy settled in Orient Heights. This Italian-born population more than doubled between 1910 and 1920, growing from 4565 to 10,151. Serving the religious needs of the growing Italian community, Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church on Gove Street opened in 1905, offering masses and other services in Italian.

After World War I, Italians and Italian Americans became the dominant ethnic group in East Boston and remained so until the late twentieth century. Eastie’s Irish, meanwhile, drifted north to Orient Heights and Winthrop while local Jews moved to Chelsea, Roxbury, Dorchester, and other rising Jewish communities. Noting the neighborhood’s role as a gateway for immigrant strivers who later moved on to higher income areas, settlement workers dubbed East Boston “a zone of emergence.”

East Boston’s population peaked in 1925, with over 64,000 residents. Immigration restriction in the 1920s, however, gradually reduced the migrant population thereafter. The East Boston Immigration Station, which opened in 1921, acted mainly as a screening and detention center for unauthorized immigrants and deportees. Eastie, meanwhile, became a largely Italian-American neighborhood, whose population began to decline after World War II. As Boston’s economy shifted from a manufacturing to a service-based economy, many local plants closed, including East Boston’s Maverick Mills in 1955, the Bethlehem Shipyards in 1983, and P&L Sportswear in 1986. Nevertheless, the growth of Logan Airport employed many of Eastie’s ethnic families, stimulating the economy but also prodding development that encroached on neighborhood space and quality of life.

Salvadoran women performing a traditional dance at the Salvadoran American Day Parade in East Boston, 2016. Courtesy of the Salvadoran Consulate

The passage of the 1965 Immigration Act opened a new era of migration that later replenished Eastie’s population with a diverse new crop of immigrants. Beginning in the 1980s, a growing stream of Southeast Asians and Latin Americans began settling in the neighborhood. The largest groups came from Central America and Colombia, where civil wars, drug-related violence, and economic turmoil spurred many to leave. Others were refugees from the Vietnam War and the Cambodian genocide. As they settled among the older and declining white population, some of them found a hostile or even violent reception. Nevertheless, new arrivals continued to settle in Eastie in the 1990s and beyond, including newer groups from Mexico, Brazil, Peru, and Morocco.

Today, East Boston is an extremely diverse neighborhood with the highest percentage of foreign-born of any Boston neighborhood. Recently, housing costs have increased significantly as new luxury condominiums have been built along the waterfront, raising rents and forcing out many working-class immigrants. Throughout its history East Boston has endured numerous changes, but it has long acted as a home for immigrant strivers. It remains to be seen, however, whether East Boston will retain its reputation as a zone of emergence or if the impending gentrification will mark a new chapter for the neighborhood.

The South End

Built on landfill in the early nineteenth century, the South End became the city’s most diverse neighborhood. From the Irish and Germans of the 1840s to the Latino migrants of the 1970s, the neighborhood attracted a dazzling array of immigrants until redevelopment and gentrification made the area unaffordable for many.

South End street scene from 1903, looking south down Harrison Avenue near the corner of Plympton Street. Courtesy of Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Transfer from the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Social Museum Collection

Boston’s South End is largely built on landfill in what was originally a tidal marsh. In the early nineteenth century, a strip of land known as the Neck (along presentday Washington Street) was all that connected downtown Boston to Roxbury and the mainland. During the mid-nineteenth century, a series of landfill projects led to the development of dozens of streets and hundreds of fashionable townhouses. Over the next century, the South End would house numerous immigrant groups and become one of the city’s most racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

The Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Washington Street was dedicated in 1875 and has served generations of immigrant Catholics in the South End. Illustration from Moses King, King’s Handbook of Boston, 1881.

Initially occupied by the Yankee middle class, the neighborhood also hosted smaller numbers of skilled artisans from Germany and Ireland. Catholics from southern Germany raised funds to build Holy Trinity Church on Shawmut Street, which opened in 1875 and would become a center of German life in the city. Central European Jews also lived there as early as the 1840s, bringing their synagogues, Ohabei Shalom and Adath Israel (Temple Israel), from the North End. After the leveling of Fort Hill where many famine-era Irish immigrants lived, the Irish too began moving into the South End. Over the next decade, they helped build and fill the pews at the new Cathedral of the Holy Cross, the center of the Boston Archdiocese that opened in 1875.

With the arrival of new railroads and industries in the neighborhood and the financial Panic of 1873, the South End became less attractive to wealthy Bostonians. Gradually, many began moving to the newly developed Back Bay. Taking their place were growing numbers of poorer immigrants who occupied older homes that had been broken up into tenements and lodging houses. The Irish made up the largest group; most lived in tenements but some became homeowners who took in boarders or ran lodging houses for Irish newcomers. Other lodgers were immigrants from the British Isles and Canadians from Nova Scotia.

By the turn of the century, Jews and Italians had become a significant presence in the South End, especially along Dover (East Berkeley) Street and in the New York Streets (formerly between Albany and Harrison Streets). Many of them worked in local factories and steam laundries or along the docks and railroads that proliferated south of Washington Street. In the early twentieth century, a growing garment district along Harrison Avenue and nearby Chinatown also employed many Jewish and Italian workers.

Shown here in the 1950s, just before the area was demolished, the New York Streets was one of the poorer tenement districts of the South End. It housed successive waves of new migrants to the city. Courtesy of the City of Boston Archives.

Moving out from the North End, many immigrants from southern Italy lived in the New York Streets and worshipped at Our Lady of Pompeii on Florence Street, founded in 1902. Jewish residents were also concentrated in the New York Streets and along Dover Street and Harrison Avenue. From the 1890s to the 1930s, they established at least 14 different synagogues in the neighborhood, with congregations from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and East Prussia. Notable residents included the Jewish writer Mary Antin and Hollywood studio owner Louis Mayer. The South End House and other settlement houses opened around the turn of the century to provide services and help Americanize these newer immigrant groups.

Since the 1890s, male immigrants from the eastern Mediterranean—Syrians, Greeks, and Armenians—had been settling in the adjoining areas of Chinatown and the South Cove, where they worked mainly as peddlers. After World War I, many of these men brought their families and began moving into the South End, opening small shops and lodging houses. As late as the 1970s, Syrian and Greek groceries, bakeries and restaurants could be found along Shawmut Avenue, but most of their patrons had dispersed to the suburbs.

The South End also attracted Africa Americans from the South, who began settling there in the late nineteenth century. The black population grew significantly in the early twentieth century and included newer immigrants from Jamaica and Barbados. Facing widespread discrimination and segregation, these West Indians settled among other black residents in the Crosstown area around Massachusetts and Columbus Avenues. Unwelcome in the local Episcopalian Church, they formed their own congregation, St. Cyprian, which met in a series of local buildings until they built their own church on Tremont Street in the 1920s.

In the years after World War II, suburban flight, disinvestment, and structural deterioration accelerated the decline of the South End. The older immigrant population declined, replaced by a growing black population and new arrivals from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, who settled around West Newton Street in the 1960s and 1970s. During these years, the city targeted the South End for urban renewal. The first round of redevelopment took place in the 1950s when the city demolished the New York Streets—displacing many Jewish, Italian, and West Indian families. Other parts of the South End were also destined for the wrecking ball. At the same time, development projects in nearby Chinatown/ South Cove also displaced Chinese residents, some of whom moved into nearby streets and housing developments in the South End.

By the late 1960s, black and Puerto Rican residents were fighting displacement through community organizing, public protests, and occupations. One of the fruits of this activism was the building of Villa Victoria, a community-planned and operated housing development in the Puerto Rican section that would become the center of Latino life and culture in the South End. Run by the community development corporation Inquilinos Boricuas en Acción (Puerto Rican Tenants in Action), Villa Victoria has more than five hundred affordable housing units, sponsors a variety of community programs, and hosts the largest Latino arts center in New England.

Since the 1970s, ongoing development projects and rampant gentrification have driven most low-income families and newer immigrants away from the neighborhood. Skyrocketing property values mean that, outside of a few subsidized housing developments, only prosperous immigrant professionals can afford to live there. Although its population is still relatively diverse, the South End now has a somewhat lower percentage of foreign-born residents than the city as a whole.


Originally a separate town west of Boston, Roxbury began attracting immigrants even before it was annexed by the city in 1868. Since then Irish, Jewish, West Indian, Dominican, and African immigrants have all shaped the neighborhood’s development and culture–even as its African American population remains a strong presence.

Corner of Dudley and Warren Streets (Dudley Square) in 1856, as Irish and other immigrants were first moving into this emerging streetcar suburb. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library

Founded by English colonists of the Massachusetts Bay Company in 1630, Roxbury was originally a sprawling town that included the present-day neighborhoods of West Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. During the 17th and 18th centuries, Roxbury gradually evolved from a rural satellite of Boston into an early industrial community. Mills, tanneries, and quarries that mined the town’s distinctive Roxbury puddingstone marked the landscape by the time of the American Revolution. While the completion of a horse-drawn bus line in 1820 and the Boston-to-Providence Railroad in 1835 helped to turn Roxbury into a fashionable suburb for Boston’s Yankee elite, new immigrants soon followed.

Foremost among these were the Irish, who remained a dominant presence in the neighborhood for the next century. Recently unearthed headstones near the site of St Joseph’s, Roxbury’s first Catholic church, show that a number of the town’s famine-era Irish came from County Donegal. Roxbury’s 19th-century Irish worked in factories as well as in day labor, domestic service, and in a number of trades.  By the turn of the 20th century, they had transformed several blocks along Dudley Street into a cultural hub packed with dance halls and performance venues like Hibernian Hall. They also formed a substantial enclave around Mission Hill, named after the Mission Church founded by the Redemptorist Fathers in the 1870s.

Mission Hill was also home to an expanding German community beginning in the middle of the 19th century. Breweries and other German-operated businesses proliferated along Stony Brook, while tenements and row houses accommodated the neighborhood’s growing numbers of industrial workers. Eager to incorporate these new industries into the city, Boston annexed Roxbury in 1868. By 1900 Roxbury was home to a strikingly diverse array of immigrants from Europe and the Americas: Irish, Germans, Jews, Scandinavians, Italians, Latvians, and a substantial enclave of Maritime Canadians, who briefly became Roxbury’s largest immigrant group in the first decade of the 20th century.

Known as the Blue Hill shul, Adath Jeshurun occupied this building from 1906 until 1967. It was one of dozens of Jewish synagogues founded in Roxbury in the early 20th century.

Ten years later, Roxbury’s rising Jewish population had become the dominant presence in the neighborhood. The first wave had begun arriving in the 1870s, as families that had found a measure of success in the North and South Ends moved south to the “first suburbs” of Roxbury and Dorchester. By the 1890, synagogues and kosher food suppliers were common sights in the Grove Hall area. The first two decades of the 20th century saw a second influx of Jewish immigrants, many of them fleeing persecution in the western provinces of the Russian Empire. To accommodate these new arrivals, temples like Adath Jeshurun (1906) and Mishkan Tefila (1925) proliferated throughout the neighborhood. Jews remained a dominant group in Roxbury until World War II, when a second migration began to western “second suburbs” like Newton and Brookline.

Roxbury’s ethnic composition changed once again in the middle decades of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1930s, native-born African Americans who had previously lived in Beacon Hill and the South End, as well as new immigrants from the Caribbean, came to dominate Lower Roxbury and the old Jewish neighborhood around Fort Hill. West Indians, many of whom worked as domestics, had a small but growing presence in Roxbury by the end of the Depression decade, and the ongoing migration of Jamaicans and Barbadians during and after World War II helped transform Roxbury into one of the Northeast’s most prominent Black communities. Other factors contributed to the midcentury demographic shift, too: redlining, white flight, and blockbusting by real estate groups further cemented Roxbury’s status as a predominantly Black neighborhood by 1970.

The Rafael Hernandez School, founded in 1971, has long served the Latino community of Roxbury and Boston and is now a two-way bilingual school. Courtesy Rafael Hernandez School.

The neighborhood’s Latino presence also grew substantially in the postwar decades. Dominicans began arriving in the 1950s; migration accelerated after the 1961 assassination of Rafael Trujillo and the ensuing political instability. The Puerto Rican population in Roxbury also grew in the late 1950s and 60s, and a number of community organizations formed to accommodate the neighborhood’s rising Spanish-speaking population. La Alianza Hispana community center was founded in 1970 to provide the neighborhood’s growing numbers of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans with Spanish-language services. Puerto Rican Pentecostals founded the Canaan Defensores de la Fe in 1966, while the evangelical Center for Urban Ministerial Education provided preachers with Spanish-language instruction beginning in 1976.

In recent decades, newcomers from the Caribbean have continued to account for much of the immigration to Roxbury. The Dominican community has expanded since 1990 to become the neighborhood’s largest immigrant group by a wide margin; many moved from Jamaica Plain as gentrification and the repeal of rent control in 1994 drove up property values. Meanwhile, Africans constitute a smaller, yet growing, segment of the foreign-born population. Cape Verdeans, for example, were an almost invisible presence in the neighborhood in 2000, but by 2015 they were second only to Dominicans. St. Patrick Catholic Church on Magazine Street has become an important religious center for both of these groups.

Since the 1990s, Africans from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya, and Somalia have also arrived in a small but steady stream. These immigrants have opened new restaurants and businesses in the community as well as helping establish new churches and a mosque. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center—then under construction in Roxbury Crossing—became the center of a major controversy that lasted for most of the decade. The mosque ultimately opened in the summer of 2009 and now represents more than sixty nationalities. These newer groups, together with older African American and Latino residents, have come together to form vibrant community organizations like the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative, which administers a number of essential neighborhood programs and works to empower Roxbury’s residents in local politics.

These groups are at the forefront of Roxbury’s rich immigrant past. Today, this growing immigrant neighborhood—about 28 percent foreign born, mirroring the statistics for Boston as a whole—remains on the frontline of ongoing struggles around immigration, gentrification, housing, and development.


Once known as the “Jerusalem of America” because of its many Jewish residents, Chelsea was a major industrial center that attracted thousands of immigrants. Today, it still has the largest foreign-born population in Massachusetts, with many hailing from Central America.

Chelsea Square, ca. 1905, just prior to the massive fire of 1908 that would destroy the dowtown but also bring thousands of Jewish and other immigrants to this industrial city north of Boston.

Located across the Mystic River just north of Boston, Chelsea was incorporated as a town in 1739. For the next century it served as a rural resort and retreat for Boston’s elite. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, a wooden shipbuilding industry developed along the waterfront, followed by oil, paint and varnish manufacturers in the decades after the Civil War. Irish immigrants and Canadians from Nova Scotia were among the early migrant settlers who found employment in these industries.

Opening its doors in 1908, Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Mill Hill served some 130 French-speaking Acadian families in Chelsea. The church closed in 2005.

The city’s largest Catholic parish, St. Rose of Lima, was founded in 1848 to serve Chelsea’s growing Irish community.The Canadians, though mostly English speaking, also included a cluster of French-speaking Acadians who settled in the Mill Hill neighborhood. They initially worshipped in a mission organized by St. Rose but later founded Our Lady of the Assumption Church, an ethnic French parish in 1907. Another ethnic Catholic church, St. Stanislaus, was founded in 1905 to serve Chelsea’s growing Polish community.

Around the turn of the century, Chelsea underwent an industrial boom, thanks to its prime waterfront location and rail connections to Boston and points north. The city soon attracted machine shops, foundries, and manufacturers of rubber goods and paper boxes. But shoemaking was the most important new industry, one that had outgrown its birthplace in nearby Lynn. By World War I, Chelsea was home to several shoe factories including the mammoth A.G. Walton and Company, established in 1907, which employed some 1800 workers.

Employers found a ready supply of labor among second-wave immigrants from Russia, Poland, Lithuania, and Italy. While Chelsea was home to only a few dozen Jews in 1890, several thousand arrived over the next decade, settling mainly in the downtown area between Arlington and William Streets. By 1915 the Jewish community had expanded to more than 9000 people—nearly half the city’s population. They worked in the shoe industry but also took up garment work and rag and junk collecting, recycling the abundant waste produced by local businesses.

Ironically, this astronomical growth was the result of a major fire that swept through the city in April 1908, destroying its waterfront, and much of downtown. With some 18,000 left homeless, there was a mass exodus out of Chelsea, both among the immigrant working class and the city’s more prosperous native born. Among the latter were dozens of downtown shopkeepers who closed down their burned-out businesses and relocated to nearby suburbs.

Birds eye view of the ruins of the Chelsea fire, April 12, 1908. Courtesy of the Chelsea Public Library.

The Jews, however, soon returned to Chelsea in greater numbers. Many came from older Jewish settlements in the North and South Ends, but especially from East Boston, just across the Chelsea River. More prosperous immigrants bought up fire-scarred properties downtown and rebuilt them as kosher groceries and other retail businesses. Yiddish was the dominant language and was frequently heard on the city’s downtown streets.

Gordon’s Theater, downtown Chelsea, one of many of the city’s Jewish-owned businesses in early 20th century.

By World War I, Chelsea had become the largest Jewish community in Massachusetts outside of Boston, a distinction that gave rise to the city’s nickname “the Jerusalem of America.” At its heyday in the early twentieth century, the city had more than a dozen Orthodox synagogues, a Hebrew school, a Young Men’s Hebrew Association, and at least a dozen other Jewish social and charitable organizations.

Chelsea’s Jewish community remained vital through the Depression and World War II, but saw a rapid decline in the 1950s. Many younger families sought homes in Swampscott, Marblehead, Brookline, and other suburbs with growing Jewish communities. High residential tax rates, decrepid housing stock, and the building of the Mystic River Bridge–that sliced through the heart of the city–all contributed to Chelsea’s postwar decline. Another massive fire in 1973 destroyed roughly 20 percent of the city, spurring further outmigration.

By the 1970s, Puerto Rican and other Latino newcomers were becoming a visible part of the Chelsea community. Photo by Arnie Jarmak.

Facing a shrinking labor supply, local employers began recruiting Puerto Rican agricultural workers who had migrated to the region in the years after World War II. By 1970, more than 1600 Puerto Ricans were living in Chelsea. They were joined by a smaller number of Cubans who were resettled through the Cuban Refugee Center at St. Rose of Lima Church, a parish that became a center of Latino life in the city. By 1980, Latinos made up 14 percent of Chelsea’s population.

Over the next decade, the Latino population surged with the arrival of thousands of refugees from Central America. Fleeing violence and civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, the newcomers—many of them undocumented–settled in the city’s old downtown neighborhoods. Salvadorans were the single largest group, with more than 5000 residents counted in the 2010 Census. Hondurans and Guatemalans followed, with the former showing big gains in the last decade.

With the arrival of these new groups, Chelsea became a majority Latino city in the early 2000s and now has the highest percentage of foreign-born residents in the state, with 46 percent in 2016. Some found jobs in the city at the New England Produce Center, Kayem Foods, and other local employers, but many other industries closed down or moved out of Chelsea during these years. Most new immigrants thus commuted to Boston or adjoining suburbs for lower paid work in the service sector.

A Know-Your-Rights workshop for immigrants held at the Chelsea Collaborative, 2017. Courtesy of the Chelsea Collaborative.

Despite the loss of jobs and related social problems, Central Americans and other immigrants have continued to settle in Chelsea because of its supply of lower-cost family housing, its small-city setting, and its declaration as a sanctuary city in 2007. Moreover, since the 1990s, poorer immigrants have been priced out of Cambridge, Somerville, and East Boston, neighborhoods where Central Americans initially settled. New immigrants have also found assistance from community-based groups like the Chelsea Collaborative, a social justice organization founded in 1988. As a result, Chelsea has become a preeminent center of Latino life in the Boston area, playing a similar role as it did for Jews a hundred years ago.


Once part of Roxbury, Roslindale became a “garden suburb” of Boston where immigrant Irish, German, and Canadian workers made their homes in the late nineteenth century. Migrants and refugees from Europe and the Mediterranean followed, establishing small ethnic businesses in this outlying Boston neighborhood. Since the 1980s, newcomers from the Caribbean, Latin America, and the Middle East have moved in, opening an array of ethnic businesses that give Roslindale Village its distinctly international flavor.

Corner of Belgrade Avenue and Aldrich Street in Roslindale, 1899. Courtesy of Roslindale Historical Society.

A residential and commercial community known today for the many ethnicities of its shop owners, Roslindale is part of the shifting landscape of neighborhoods and immigration in southwest Boston that was once a section of colonial Roxbury. Following independence, elite Yankee Protestant entrepreneur families such as the Welds and Atwoods found Roslindale’s rolling hills, forests, and the Stony Brook waterway and valley an ideal location. They established expansive estates, complete with orchards, pasture for sheep (whose wool supplied Lawrence mills), and farmlands that provided agricultural goods to communities along the new Boston and Providence Railroad line.

The first 19th century immigration to the area provided the cheap labor for these holdings. Born in Ireland in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Irish women and men fleeing the potato famine came to Roslindale as field and stable hands, blacksmiths, domestics, and other skilled and unskilled workers. Testimony to their presence are Irish surnames–such as O’Brian and Cahill–on the headstones of the small Tollgate Cemetery near Forest Hills, established in the 1860s to meet the needs of these immigrant Catholics. The numbers of Irish immigrants grew in the 1870s as a consequence of renewed depression and of political persecution of Irish nationalists.  For many, Roslindale offered opportunities: S. W.C. Canniff, a stonecutter who came from of County Cork, Ireland in the 1880s, used granite from nearby Quincy to start what is today W.C. Canniff’s & Sons Monuments. More generally, the Irish found work in a variety of trades, and they stayed in the area. Numbering over 2300 towards the end of the century, they were the largest foreign-born group in Roslindale.

At the center of their community was the new Sacred Heart Church, established in 1893 by Father John Cummins—for whom Cummins Highway was named—a popular figure who spoke alongside William Lloyd Garrison in support of Irish Home Rule and helped put Roslindale on the map of Boston’s Irish politics. As elsewhere, once an ethnic community prospers, more immigrants settle there. One hundred years later, Irish-born priest Father Gerry O’Donnell would be giving mass and hearing confession in Gaelic at Sacred Heart for the newly arrived from the west of Ireland, where Irish is still widely spoken.

Map from 1896 showing streets named after German and Austrian composers in the “German” section of Roslindale. Note also Germania Hall, labeled “German Verein” at the top right hand corner. From George W. Bromley, Atlas of the City of Boston, West Roxbury, Plate 26. Courtesy of the Norman P. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

With Boston’s annexation of Roslindale in 1873, the area developed as a “garden suburb,” where residents could escape the city’s crowded neighborhoods and industrial areas. Improved train transportation also made Roslindale more accessible. Sunday day trippers arrived to picnic on its bucolic slopes in the Arnold Arboretum, established in 1872. The Boston Herald advertised Roslindale as the “choice outlaying district.” Doctors recommended it to TB patients for what was known as the “climate cure. “ By 1890 the Yankee estate owners had gone into real estate, clearing tracts of land that were then sold in parcels for building well-to-do residences as well as more modest homes.

Soon many first and second-generation immigrants settled on the neighborhood’s tree-lined streets, put in gardens, and often raised small farm animals in their yards. Although British Canadians, Germans, and Italians were all part of this movement, the latter two made deep inroads. Of the roughly one thousand Germans who lived in Roslindale by the 1870s, most were Protestants who came with business experience, formal education, and professional skills. Their financial resources allowed them to establish Germania Hall (a German cultural and community center), open the German Lutheran Church on Kitteridge Street in 1887, and promote classical music and German language. Smaller numbers of Italians arrived toward the end of the century, and they too brought skills and culture–especially opera. But fleeing abject poverty, they brought fewer financial resources. They often found work in construction or clearing land, while others used their wits and artistic talents to earn a living.

Born in 1880 on a ship traveling from Italy to New York, Marino Persechini settled in Roslindale in 1900 where he became a legendary hurdy-gurdy performer. To support his growing family, he hauled the heavy organ to downtown Boston where he played for small change. He performed until age 94.

Throughout the twentieth century Roslindale was a middle and working-class neighborhood. The German immigrant presence faded, while that of Italians and Irish remained steady without significant increase. Although the percentage of foreign born was less than in other areas of Boston in the 1900s, Greeks and Arabic speaking Syrian-Lebanese settled there, especially in the wake of World Wars I and II and military coups in the 1960s and 1970s. Primarily Catholic, they enriched the area with the churches and festivals of Eastern Orthodoxy, along with their bakeries, repairs shops, and small groceries.

When Roslindale businesses and property values took a dive in the 1970s, largely due to the spread of shopping centers and the racialized fears of busing that led to “white flight,” it was immigrants who revived Roslindale. In addition to Greeks and Syrian-Lebanese, Haitian and Dominican professionals and workers began to arrive in the 1980s, settling along Washington Street and adjoining blocks south of Forest Hills. Often well educated, Haitians brought their island culture and the buoyancy of a tight-knit community evident in worship centers such as Eglise Baptiste du Tabernacle, multiple Kreyol language professional services, and the vigor with which they have organized relief for recurring crises back home.

Dominicans, along with smaller groups of Colombians and Central Americans, have broadened use of the Spanish language in the neighborhood and introduced Latino music to its streets. Opening bodegas, barbershops, and other small businesses, Dominicans have been part of the rejuvenation of Washington Street, one replete with a mural of David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, and Pedro Martinez, Red Sox stars from the Dominican Republic.

Washington Street mural of David Ortiz and other Boston baseball stars

By 2000 Roslindale was becoming, once again, renewed as an immigrant place. The remarkable shift in the percentage of Hispanic and non-white population, from 23 percent in 1990 to 53 percent in 2010, is largely the result of immigration. As of 2016, the foreign born made 29 percent of Roslindale’s population, a higher percentage than the city overall. The neighborhood’s diversity is especially evident in the vicinity of Roslindale Village–or the Square as many residents call it–where merchants hail from Albania, Algeria, China, Colombia, Dominican Republic, England, Ghana, Greece, Guatemala, Jamaica, Japan, Haiti, Hungary, Italy, India, Lebanon, Senegal, Syria, Venezuela, and Vietnam.

South Boston

Once known as Dorchester Neck, South Boston became a major industrial center and the city’s preeminent Irish and Irish-American neighborhood for more than a century. But it has also been home to eastern and southern Europeans as well as recent immigrants from Asia and the Caribbean.

Workers’ housing on Second Street in South Boston, 1932. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library

Settled by the Puritans in 1635, the peninsula known as Mattapannock or Dorchester Neck was used as a grazing area for much of the 17th and 18th centuries. After Boston annexed the area in 1804 and two bridges were built connecting it to the South End and downtown, the South Boston peninsula underwent rapid industrial development. As glassworks, chemical manufacturers, foundries, and machine shops sprung up in the lowland areas near the bridges, immigrant workers and their families moved across the channel to Southie’s lower end.

From the 1820s on, the Irish were the neighborhood’s dominant immigrant group. Many of the early settlers were skilled craftsmen and business owners, but with the onset of the potato famine in the 1840s, the Irish population surged. Impoverished newcomers settled mainly in the Lower End between A and F Streets, where they worked as laborers and dockworkers. The Irish population grew rapidly again after the Great Fire of 1872 swept through Boston’s Fort Hill neighborhood, driving some of the city’s poorest immigrant residents into South Boston.

Irish immigrants buying fish at the Dover Street bridge in South Boston, 1856. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library.

The Archdiocese of Boston opened a spate of new Catholic churches to serve Southie’s burgeoning Irish communities. Outgrowing the small St. Augustine Chapel on Dorchester Street, Saints Peter and Paul Church opened on Broadway in 1845, followed by Gate of Heaven (1863), St. Vincent (1874), Our Lady of the Rosary (1884), St. Monica (1907), and St. Brigid (1908).

While Irish immigrants fueled most of South Boston’s growth in the nineteenth century, the neighborhood also attracted a large number of Canadians from the Maritime Provinces. A smaller group of German immigrants also settled there before and after the Civil War, finding work in the neighborhood’s breweries and bakeries. Other northern European groups began to arrive in the 1890s. A sizeable community of Polish immigrants settled around Andrew Square, founding Our Lady of Czestochowa Catholic Church in 1894. Lithuanian immigrants also settled in the Lower End around C and E Streets, where they too built a Catholic parish, St. Peter’s, in 1899. Moving out across the Dover Street Bridge from the South End, a small community of Russian Jews settled on Fourth Street and later opened a Hebrew school there. Further east, a small Italian settlement grew up along Third Street between H and L Streets. This infusion of new immigrants boosted Southie’s population to roughly 70,000 by World War I—more than double what it is today.

Although its population had diversified somewhat by the early twentieth century, the neighborhood maintained its Irish identity and continued to attract newcomers from Ireland. Alongside its churches, dozens of Irish social and charitable organizations flourished in Southie, including eleven chapters of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Beginning in 1901, local residents convinced the city to host an Evacuation Day parade in South Boston to celebrate the British retreat from the area on March 17, 1776. The event evolved into a St. Patrick’s Day celebration and has continued to the present day.

Evacuation Day parade in South Boston, 1930. Courtesy City of Boston Archives.

South Boston remained largely Irish American long after other Boston neighborhoods in part because of its enviable location on the waterfront and its sizeable landmass. This allowed generations of Irish American families to move up from the crowded triple deckers of the Lower End to the more fashionable homes in City Point and other beachside districts. The long tenure of the Irish in South Boston gave its residents a particularly strong sense of place and a fierce determination to protect their turf from newcomers, especially African Americans. It was this defensive localism, combined with resentments of political decisions made by liberal suburban elites that helped make Southie the epicenter of the desegregation and busing crisis of the 1970s.

The racial animus and violence of that era deterred both African Americans and new immigrants from settling in the neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s. As the foreign-born population grew across the city, in South Boston it dropped from 14 percent in 1960 to 7 percent in 1990. In the nineties, however, gentrification and the desegregation of the Old Colony and D Street public housing projects resulted in the first increase in foreign-born population in many years. By 2016, immigrants made up 14 percent of Southie’s population, with Dominicans, Chinese, and Albanians making up the largest groups. Still, the percentage of foreign-born residents continues to lag well behind the city as a whole and suggests that Southie’s days as a major immigrant gateway may not return any time soon.


Once a center of Boston’s slaughter houses and its immigrant workers, the twin neighborhoods of Allston and Brighton are still brimming with newcomers from across the globe. But today many come via the area’s universities and live amid a diverse streetscape of ethnic eateries and businesses.

Postcard of Harvard Avenue in Allston Village, between Commonwealth and Brighton Avenues, 1921. Courtesy of the Brighton Allston Historical Society.

While immigration has long been a part of Allston-Brighton’s history, the rise and fall of the cattle industry has been a defining feature of life in these neighborhoods. Before 1807, the two interlocking neighborhoods now known as Allston-Brighton belonged to the town of Cambridge and carried the moniker “Little Cambridge.” When the Continental Army was headquartered in Cambridge before the British evacuation of Boston, George Washington contracted with the Winship family across the Charles River to supply his troops with beef. By the time Little Cambridge separated to form the new town of Brighton, the Winships held the title of largest meatpackers in Massachusetts.

Above: Abattoir workers, many of whom were Irish immigrants, undated. Below: The Brighton Stock Yards on North Beacon Street, 1950s. Courtesy of the Brighton Allston Historical Society.

As Irish immigrants flooded the area at mid-century, they found work in the multitude of jobs available in Brighton’s cattle industry, including droving, farming, slaughtering, and rendering of animal by-products. The Irish presence spurred the founding of Brighton’s first Catholic church in 1855, St. Columba’s—later St. Columbkille. As hundreds of thousands of cattle, hogs, and sheep arrived each year for slaughter, fears grew that the sprawling meatpacking operations posed a threat to public health. In 1872 the Butcher’s Slaughtering and Melting Association gathered the many slaughterhouses into the Brighton Abattoir, a large scale facility built along the Charles River at the corner of Market and Arsenal Streets. The stockyards moved to nearby North Beacon Street in 1884.

This consolidation of cattle industry functions freed up land for residential building in Brighton, most of which turned into housing for the Irish immigrants who dominated the livestock and slaughtering trades, hotel and saloon keeping, small-scale manufacturing, and local politics. Italians, many of whom congregated around Oak Square and Lower Allston, boasted the second-largest immigrant group around the turn-of-the-century. Although the Lebanon Kosher Wurst Company occupied a section of the abattoir for kosher slaughtering in 1900, the Jewish population of Brighton would not grow to substantial numbers until the postwar years (from 1200 in 1920 to 13,000 in 1950), as evidenced by the 1948 establishment of a Brookline-Brighton-Newton Jewish Community Center in Brighton. Some were newly arrived refugees, but others came from the declining Jewish sections of Dorchester and Mattapan.

The Brighton Abattoir was demolished in the 1950s, and the stockyards closed in 1967. Around the same time as the cattle industry exited, Allston-Brighton’s white middle-class residents were moving to suburbs farther away from the city. The new residents came from two separate backgrounds: students from the three abutting universities—Harvard University, Boston University, and Boston College—and new immigrants from a myriad of countries coming for about as many different reasons.

In the 1980s, the majority of new immigrants were Spanish speakers from Central America. The rest spoke French, Portuguese, Chinese, Russian, and other Asian languages. By 1985, 30 percent of Boston’s Asian population lived in Allston-Brighton, which totaled 12 percent of the neighborhoods’ residents. Many of the Chinese immigrants there had relocated from Chinatown, where urban redevelopment had demolished hundreds of apartments and businesses.

Several other groups fled their countries and came to Allston-Brighton as refugees. Since the late 1970s, Haitians came to escape the political and economic hardships in Haiti, while Cambodians and Vietnamese arrived in Allston-Brighton under refugee programs following the Vietnam war. Since the 1980s, Soviet Jewish refugees have also settled in the neighborhood in large numbers, making Russian and Ukrainian grocery stores a common sight along Harvard and Commonwealth Avenues.

A Brazilian drum band, Bloco AfroBrazil, performs on Harvard Avenue in Allston, 2012. Courtesy Allston Street Fair

As of 2010, the three largest immigrant groups in Allston-Brighton were Chinese, Brazilian, and Russian. Brazilians started arriving in greater numbers in the 1980s in response to inflation and unemployment in their homeland, and according to the Boston Globe in 1989, were “highly visible at several locations, including BU’s Malvern Field where between 50 and 100 Brazilians regularly play soccer on Sundays.” By the late 1990s, St. Anthony’s Church, built in 1895 to minister to the Irish and Italian butchers and stockyard workers of Lower Allston, claimed a sizable Brazilian community.

Allston-Brighton’s foreign-born population peaked in the early 21st century, making up more than 30 percent of the total population. By 2016, it had fallen to 26 percent, likely because of growing student populations, rising housing costs, and gentrification. Despite their shrinking numbers, the foreign-born of Allston-Brighton remain visible on the streetscape with the vast number and variety of ethnic food shops and stores along Harvard and Brighton Avenues. Chinese, Brazilian, and Mexican businesses still maintain a presence, but Koreans now dominate the street: one-third of Boston’s Korean population lives in Allston-Brighton, a 54 percent increase from the previous decade. Immigrants, an essential part of Allston-Brighton’s workforce and community since the cattle industry days, thus continue to power and stabilize the community.


A separate town until annexed by Boston in 1870, Dorchester attracted successive waves of Irish, Jewish, and other immigrants attracted by its extensive streetcar lines and triple decker homes. Today Haitians, Vietnamese, West Indians and Cape Verdeans call this neighborhood home.

Postcard showing Dorchester Avenue near the corner of Savin Hill Avenue, ca 1913. Courtesy of the Dorchester Historical Society.

Puritans began settling in Dorchester in 1630, many of them coming from Dorsetshire, England, which inspired the town’s name. Their first houses and a fort were built in the Savin Hill area, along what would become Pleasant Street. Later settlements developed in what is now Field’s Corner and Mattapan Square.

During the mid-1800s, an influx of Irish Catholic immigrants changed the ethnic and religious makeup of the area, particularly in the northern end of Dorchester closest to Boston and along the Neponset River where a chocolate factory and other mills offered employment. Efforts to build a Catholic Church in Dorchester met significant resistance from native-born Protestant residents. In 1854, a partially constructed church building in Lower Mills was destroyed in a fire that many believed was set by the Know-Nothings, a nativist political group. Eight years later, the Boston Archdiocese established St. Gregory parish in the same area, and a new church building was erected in 1863.

St. Peter Catholic Church in Meeting House Hill, ca. 1915, a predominantly Irish-Catholic parish at the time. Courtesy of the Dorchester Historical Society.

Over the course of the 19th century, Dorchester’s growing population transformed the region from farmland into a more suburban environment, attracting migrants who needed access to the city. In the 1830s and 1840s, the Boston & Providence and Old Colony railroad lines came to Dorchester, and in 1857, an electric tram service made Dorchester a “streetcar suburb,” spurring the construction of single-family homes. In 1870, the City of Boston annexed the town of Dorchester, and its population would surge from 12,000 to more than 100,000 by the early 20th century.

Around this time, a second Catholic parish, St. Peter, was established to serve the growing Catholic immigrant communities of north Dorchester.  The construction of St. Peter’s church in Meeting House Hill began in 1872 and was spearheaded by Father Peter Rowan, an Irish immigrant who raised building funds from nearby Irish female domestics, along with financial contributions from their non-Catholic employers. The huge gothic church, topped by a grand tower, seated more than a thousand and could be seen for miles around. In the ensuing decades, the parish built a rectory, school, and convent and spun off several other Catholic parishes including St. Margaret, St. Leo, and St. Paul.

Beginning in the 1890s, triple decker residences became common in Dorchester. Generally built along the streetcar lines, these structures appealed to builders because they cost considerably less than other dwellings. Italian, Irish, Polish, and Jewish immigrants all lived in these multi-family dwellings, and by 1910 the foreign born made up 27 percent of Dorchester’s population. Immigrants from Ireland, Canada, and Russia (mainly Jews) made up the largest percentages, respectively. The foreign-born population continued to grow for the next twenty years, peaking at 30 percent in 1930, with notable increases in Italians, Poles, and Lithuanians.

Blue Hill Avenue near Columbia Road, 1949. Located in the heart of Jewish Dorchester, the Franklin Park Theater originally featured Yiddish productions but later became a popular movie theater. Courtesy of Boston City Archives.

Around the turn of the century, many Italians moved away from the North End to Dorchester, while others came directly from Italy. They gathered around Quincy, Dacia, and Dove Streets, with some also residing along Norfolk Avenue and Willow Court. Beginning in the 1890s, Jews also moved out of the older downtown districts. They settled along Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester and Upper Roxbury, alongside a small but growing African American population. In 1912, a group of Jewish families built Dorchester’s first synagogue, Beth El, located on Fowler Street in the Mount Bowdoin district.  By the 1920s, there were at least 25 synagogues serving Dorchester’s booming Jewish population.

After World War II, Dorchester experienced continuous and radical demographic changes. Dorchester Jews left for the suburbs of Brookline and Newton, following their synagogues, which could relocate relatively easily. Others were motivated to move when the Boston Banks Urban Renewal Group removed racial restrictions on mortgage lending to black buyers in 1968, which led to block busting and racial turnover in the area. Irish American and other white ethnic groups also left Dorchester during these years, but did so more slowly because of ties to local Catholic parishes that could not relocate. By the time new waves of immigrants began to call Boston home in the 1960s and 1970s, many former Jewish neighborhoods in Dorchester were now predominantly Black.

New immigrant groups began to migrate more steadily into the Boston area following the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which facilitated migration by dissolving discriminatory quotas. Dorchester became a key receiving area for groups such as Haitians, Cape Verdeans, West Indians, Dominicans, and Vietnamese. By 2015, these New Bostonians–predominantly people of color–constituted more than a third of Dorchester’s population.

Haitians along Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester awaiting the Haitian Flag Day Parade, 2016. Photo by Gage Norris.

Spurred by political repression at home, Haitians were one of the earliest groups to arrive and formed a significant community in the Dorchester/Mattapan area by the 1970s. The growth of the immigrant community animated the establishment of resources like the Codman Square Health Center and culturally specific organizations like the Haitian Multi-Service Center and the Association of Haitian Women. Haitian immigrants were largely unified by their dominant Catholic faith, filling local churches such as St. Leo and St. Matthew in the Franklin Field and Codman Square districts. This unifying influence is still noticeable today in the community’s standing tradition of enrolling Haitian children in local parochial schools.

In the 1980s, a growing Vietnamese refugee population also moved to Dorchester. Originally settling in Chinatown and Allston-Brighton, many Vietnamese moved to Fields Corner as rents in other parts of the city were becoming unaffordable. Fields Corner became a stronghold of the Vietnamese community, and restaurants, businesses and community organizations like VietAID helped provide products and services and worked to preserve Vietnamese culture through classes, cultural programs, and festivals.

The Cape Verdean community is one of the more recent immigrant groups to come to Dorchester. Starting to move slowly into the community in 1975, it was not until the 1980s that Uphams Corner started to see a demographic shift. By 2016, 60 percent of Boston’s Cape Verdean immigrants lived in Dorchester. The neighborhood is also home to a large number of Dominican and West Indian residents. All of these groups moved to Dorchester because of its affordability and proceeded to found ethnic churches, restaurants, and other small businesses.

Since its founding in the 17th century, Dorchester has acted as a major receiving area for immigrants of various national origins and religions. The neighborhood today is filled with institutions and organizations that reflect this ongoing diversity. While prominent immigrant communities continue to thrive within Dorchester’s corners and squares, more upwardly mobile newcomers have begun to leave the neighborhood for suburbs like Randolph, Milton, Quincy, and Brockton. This, along with recent gentrification and a rising cost of living, suggest that the faces of Dorchester will continue to change.


General Works

Asian Americans

  • Bock, Paula and Ken Brusic. The Asians: Quincy’s Newest Immigrants. Quincy, Mass: Patriot Ledger, 1989.
  • Chung, Tom L. “Asian Americans in Enclaves—They Are Not One Community: New Modes of Asian-American Settlement.” Asian American Policy Review 5 (1995): 78–94.
  • Song, Elaine. “To Live in Peace: Responding to Anti-Asian Violence in Boston.” Boston, Mass.: Asian American Resource Workshop 1987.


  • Cebulko, Kara B. Undocumented, and Something Else: The Incorporation of Children of Brazilian Immigrants. El Paso, TX: LFB Scholarly Publishing, 2013.
  • Decker, Daniel Brasil. “The Brazilian Immigrant Experience: A Study on the Evolution of a Brazilian Community in Somerville and the Greater Boston Area.” 2006. Urban Borderlands Records. Tufts Digital Collections and Archives.
  • Fritz, Ines Catarina. “Brazilians in Boston: A Study of Contemporary Young Adults.” Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 2007.
  • Jouët-Pastré, Clémence, Leticia J Braga, and David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. Becoming Brazuca : Brazilian Immigration to the United States. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University, David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, 2008.
  • Marcelli, Enrico, et al. “(In)Visible (Im)Migrants: The Health and Socioeconomic Integration of Brazilians in Metropolitan Boston.” San Diego, Calif.: Center for Behavioral and Community Health Studies, San Diego State University, 2009.
  • Marcus, Alan P. “The Contexts and Consequences of Brazilian Transnational Migration Processes: An Ethnic Geography in Two Countries.” Ph.D diss., University of Massachusetts Amherst, 2008.
  • Marrow, Helen. “To Be or Not to Be (Hispanic or Latino): Brazilian Racial and Ethnic Identity in the United States.” Ethnicities 3, no. 4 (2003): 427–64.
  • Millman, Joel. The Other Americans : How Immigrants Renew Our Country, Our Economy, and Our Values, Chapter 7. New York, NY: Viking, 1997.
  • Sales, Teresa. Brazilians Away from Home. New York: Center Migration Studies, 2004.
  • Skorczeski, Laura. “Ethnic Place Making: Thirty Years of Brazilian Immigration to South Framingham, Massachusetts,” MS thesis., Portland State University, 2009.
  • Siqueira, C. Eduardo and Cileine de Lourenco. “Brazilians in Massachusetts: Migration, Identity and Work.” In Latinos in New England, edited by Andrés Torres, 187–202. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.
  • Tracy, Natalicia Rocha. “Transnational Brazilians: Class, Race, Immigration Status and Family Life,” Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 2016.



  • Burrill, Gary. Away: Maritimers in Massachusetts, Ontario and Albert: An Oral History of Leaving Home. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1992.
  • Kennedy, Albert J. “The Provincials,” Acadiensis, 4:2 (Spring 1975): 85-101.

Cape Verdeans

Central Americans


  • Blockstein, Mike, Reanne Estrada, David Lawrence, and Asian Community Development Corporation. A Chinatown Banquet. Boston, 2006.
  • Boston 200 Corporation. Chinatown. Boston: Boston 200 Corporation, 1976.
  • Chen, Thomas. “Desire Lines: Chinese American Geographies and Urban Development in Boston’s Postwar Chinatown.” Ph.D. dissertation, Brown University, 2014.
  • Chinese American Civic Association. “Report on the Conference on the Future of Boston’s Chinatown.” Boston, 1972. available at Boston Public Library.
  • Chu, Doris C. J. Chinese in Massachusetts: Their Experiences and Contributions. Boston: Chinese Culture Institute, 1987.
  • Chi-kan Richard Hung. “Separate but Connected: Challenges Amid Progress for Chinese American Enclaves in Boston.” Research paper. University of Massachusetts Boston, 2004.
  • Margaret C. Lam. “Chinese Immigrant Women in the Garment Industry in Boston, Massachusetts 1965-1985.” Honors Thesis, Harvard College, 1991.
  • Liu, Michael Chung-Ngok. “Chinatown’s Neighborhood Mobilization and Urban Development in Boston.” Ph.D., University of Massachusetts Boston, 1999.
  • Mike Liu. “Grass Roots Politics and Boston’s Asian Community.” Radical America 17/18 (Nov. 1983): 80–86.
  • Erika Muse. The Evangelical Church in Boston’s Chinatown: A Discourse of Language, Gender and Identity. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • Newendorp, Nicole. “Chinese-born Seniors on the Move: Transnational Mobility and Family Life Between the Pearl River Delta and Boston, Massachusetts.” Institute for Asian American Studies Publications, Paper 26, 2011.
  • Sullivan, Charles, Kathlyn Hatch, and Action for Boston Community Development. Planning and Evaluation Department. “The Chinese in Boston, 1970.” Boston, 1970.
  • Wang, Zhongxin. “A History of Chinese Churches in Boston (1876–1994).” Th.D. diss. Boston University School of Theology, 2000.
  • Wong, K. Scott. “‘The Eagle Seeks a Helpless Quarry’: Chinatown, the Police, and the Press; The 1903 Boston Chinatown Raid Revisited.” Amerasia Journal 22, no. 3 (1996): 81–103.



  • Barber, Llana. Latino City: Immigration and Urban Crisis in Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1945-2000. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017.
  • Levitt, Peggy. The Transnational Villagers. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.
  • Marcelli, Enrico, et al. “Permanently Temporary? The Health and Socioeconomic Integration of Dominicans in Metropolitan Boston.” San Diego, Calif.: Center for Behavioral and Community Health Studies, San Diego State University, 2009.


  • Cantave, Alix. “Incorporation or Symbiosis: Haitians and African Americans in Mattapan.” Trotter Review 19 (January 2010): 107–23.
  • Bernstein, David. “Don’t F*ck with Linda.” Boston Magazine, July 2014.
  • Jackson, Regine O. “After the Exodus: The New Catholics in Boston’s Old Ethnic Neighborhoods.” Religion and American Culture 17 (Summer 2007): 191–212.
  • ———. “The Uses of Diaspora among Haitians in Boston.” In Geographies of the Haitian Diaspora, edited by Regine O. Jackson, 135–62. New York: Routledge, 2011.


  • Ainley, Leslie G. Boston Mahatma. Boston: B. Humphries, Inc, 1949.
  • Dwyer-Ryan, Meaghan. “Ethnic Patriotism: Boston’s Irish and Jews, 1880-1929.” Ph.D. diss., Boston College, 2009.
  • Gamm, Gerald H. Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Handlin, Oscar. Boston’s Immigrants: A Study in Acculturation. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.
  • Harris, Ruth-Ann Mellish and Donald M. Jacobs. The Search for Missing Friends : Irish Immigrant Advertisements Placed in the Boston Pilot. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1989.
  • Hirota, Hidetaka. Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Origins of American Immigration Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • MacDonald, Michael Patrick. All Souls : A Family Story from Southie. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000.
  • Michalczyk, John J. Of Stars & Shamrocks: Boston’s Jews & Irish. Produced by Etoile Productions and National Center for Jewish Film, 2006.
  • Moloney, Deirdre M. “A Transatlantic Reform: Boston’s Port Protection Program and Irish Women Immigrants,” Journal of American Ethnic History 19 (Fall 1999): 50-66.
  • O’Connor, Thomas H. South Boston, My Home Town : The History of an Ethnic Neighborhood. New ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1994.
  • ———. The Boston Irish: A Political History. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.
  • O’Neill, Gerard. Rogues and Redeemers: When Politics Was King in Irish Boston. 1st ed. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012.
  • Quinlin, Michael P. Irish Boston: A Lively Look at Boston’s Colorful Irish Past. 2nd ed. Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 2013.
  • Ryan, Dennis P. Beyond the Ballot Box: A Social History of the Boston Irish, 1845-1917. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1989.
  • Ryan, Michael. The Irish in Boston. Boston: Boston 200, 1975.
  • Stevens, Peter F. Hidden History of the Boston Irish : Little-Known Stories from Ireland’s “Next Parish Over.”Charleston, SC: History Press, 2008.
  • Whyte, William. “Race Conflicts in the North End of Boston.” New England Quarterly 12 (December 1939): 623–42.


  • DeMarco, William M. “Ethnics and Enclaves the Italian Settlement in the North End of Boston.” Ph.D. diss., Boston College, 1980.
  • Ferraiuolo, Augusto. Religious Festive Practices in Boston’s North End : Ephemeral Identities in an Italian American Community. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009.
  • James S. Pasto. “Immigrants and Ethnics: Post-World War II Italian Immigration and Boston’s North End, 1945-2016,”in New Italian Migrations to the United States, Volume I: Politics and History Since 1945, ed. Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2017, 105-31.
  • Puleo, Stephen. The Boston Italians : A Story of Pride, Perseverance, and Paesani, from the Years of the Great Immigration to the Present Day. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007.
  • Riccio, Anthony V. Portrait of an Italian-American Neighborhood : The North End of Boston. New York: Center for Migration Studies, 1998.
  • Todisco, Paula J. Boston’s First Neighborhood: The North End. Boston: Boston Public Library, 1976.
  • Whyte, William. “Race Conflicts in the North End of Boston.” New England Quarterly 12 (December 1939): 623–42.


  • Antin, Mary. The Promised Land. 2d ed.. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1969.
  • Conway, Lorie and Leonard Nimoy, WGBH, and American Jewish Historical Society. The Jews of Boston.Boston: WGBH Education Foundation, 1996.
  • Coreth, Lake. “Chelsea Under Fire: Urban Industrial Life, Urban Crisis, and the Trajectory of Jewish and Latino Chelsea.” Senior honors thesis, Boston College, 2011.
  • Dwyer-Ryan, Meaghan. Becoming American Jews: Temple Israel of Boston. Waltham, Mass: Brandeis University Press, 2009.
  • Gamm, Gerald H. Urban Exodus: Why the Jews Left Boston and the Catholics Stayed. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999.
  • Levine, Hillel. The Death of an American Jewish Community : A Tragedy of Good Intentions. New York: Free Press, 1992.
  • Kazis, Bernice, Elaine Bakal, and Zelda Kaplan. Short Stories of a Long Journey: An Oral History of Russian Jewish Resettlement North of Boston. Swampscott, Mass: Hand-In-Hand Oral History Project, 2002.
  • Michalczyk, John J. Of Stars & Shamrocks: Boston’s Jews & Irish. Produced by Etoile Productions and National Center for Jewish Film, 2006.
  • Pierce, Alan S. A History of Boston’s Jewish North Shore. Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2009.
  • Sarna, Jonathan D. and Ellen Smith. The Jews of Boston. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Simon, Rita J. and Melanie Brooks. “Soviet Jewish Immigrants’ Adjustment in Four United States Cities.” Journal of Jewish Communal Service 60 (November 1983): 56–64.
  • Wieder, Arnold A. The Early Jewish Community of Boston’s North End; a Sociologically Oriented Study of an Eastern European Jewish Immigrant Community in an American Big-City Neighborhood between 1870 and 1900. Waltham, Mass: Brandeis University, 1962.


  • Chai, Karen Jung Won. “Protestant-Catholic-Buddhist: Korean Americans and Religious Adaptation in Greater Boston.” Ph.D. diss., Harvard University, 2000.
  • —. “Inter-ethnic Religious Diversity: Korean Buddhists and Protestants in Greater Boston.” In Korean Americans and Their Religions, edited by Ho-Youn Kwon, Kwang Chun Kim, and R. Stephen Warner, 273-94. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
  • Curry, Thomas. “A Korean Catholic Experience: St. Philip Neri Parish in the Archdiocese of Boston.” US Catholic Historian 18 (Winter 2000).
  • New England Centennial Committe of Korean Immigration to the United States. History of Koreans in New England. Seoul, Korea: San-Hak Press, 2004.


  • Alvarado, Blanca. “Exploitation in the Shadows: Unauthorized Latina Migrants Tell Their Story.” Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 2007.
  • Borges-Méndez, Ramón, Michael Liu, and Paul Watanabe. “Immigrant Entrepreneurs and Neighborhood Revitalization.” Malden, Mass.: Immigrant Learning Center, 2005.
  • Bruno, Melania and Mauricio Gastón. “Latinos for Mel King: Some Reflections.” Radical America 17/18 (November 1983): 67–79.
  • Camayd-Freixas, Yohel and Russell Paul Lopez. Gaps in Representative Democracy: Redistricting, Political Participation, and the Latino Vote in Boston. Boston: Hispanic Office of Planning and Evaluation, 1983.
  • Chomsky, Aviva. Linked Labor Histories: New England, Colombia, and the Making of a Global Working Class. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008.
  • Coreth, Lake. “Chelsea Under Fire: Urban Industrial Life, Urban Crisis, and the Trajectory of Jewish and Latino Chelsea.” Senior honors thesis, Boston College, 2011.
  • Cuozzo, Joan. Hispanics in Chelsea: Income and Employment. Boston: University of Massachusetts Boston and Chelsea Commission on Hispanic Affairs, 1990.
  • Hardy-Fanta, Carol. Latina Politics, Latino Politics: Gender, Culture, and Political Participation in Boston. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
  • Hardy-Fanta, Carol and Jeffrey N. Gerson. Latino Politics in Massachusetts. New York, NY: Routledge, 2002.
  • Hernandez, Deborah Pacini. “Quiet Crisis: A Community History of Latinos in Cambridge, Massachusetts.” In Latinos in New England, edited by Andrés Torres, 149–70. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.
  • Jacobs, Glenn. “Service versus Advocacy: A Comparison of Two Latino Community-Based Organizations in Chelsea, Massachusetts.” Trotter Review 19 (January 2010): 81–106.
  • Melendez, Sarah Elba. “Hispanos, Desegregation and Bilingual Education: A Case Analysis of the Role of ‘El Comite De Padres’ in the Court-Ordered Desegregation of the Boston Public Schools (1974 – 1975).” Ed.D. diss., Harvard University, 1981.
  • Ospino, Hoffsman. “Latino Catholics in New England.” In Latinos in New England, edited by Andrés Torres, 203–23. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.
  • Rodríguez, Félix V. Matos. “The ‘Browncoats’ Are Coming: Latino Public History in Boston.” The Public Historian 23 (Fall 2001): 15–28.
  • Small, Mario Luis. Villa Victoria: The Transformation of Social Capital in a Boston Barrio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Somerville/Cambridge Latino Community History Project, 2002-2006. Urban Borderlands Records, Tufts Digital Collections and Archives.
  • Task Force on Children Out of School. “The Way We Go to School; the Exclusion of Children in Boston; a Report.” Boston, 1970.
  • Torres, Andrés, ed. Latinos in New England. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.
  • Uriarte-Gastón, Miren. “Contra Viento y Marea (Against All Odds): Latinos Build Community in Boston.” In Latinos in Boston : Confronting Poverty, Building Community, 1-33. Boston: Boston Persistent Poverty Project, Boston Foundation, 1992.


  • Ito-Adler, James P. The Portuguese in Cambridge and Somerville. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge Department of Community Development, 1977.
  • Olasky, Martin. “Life is Difficult for the Majority: The Portuguese of Massachusetts,” Boston Globe, April 30, 1973.
  • Pap, Leo. The Portuguese Americans. Boston: Twayne, 1981.
  • Rogers, Francis. “Portuguese” in Stephan Thernstrom, ed., Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1980, 813-881.

South Asians

  • Boston Redevelopment Authority, Imagine All the People: Indians in Boston. 2016.
  • Considine, Craig. Islam, Race, and Pluralism in the Pakistani Diaspora. London & New York: Routledge – Taylor & Francis Group,  2017.
  • Levitt, Peggy. God Needs No Passport. New York: New Press, 2007.
  • Masurkar, Alpita. “South Asians in Boston.” M.A. thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2012.
  • “How Asian-Indians Experience America.” Diversity, Spring 2007.


  • Boosahda, Elizabeth. Arab-American Faces and Voices. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003.
  • Hagopian, Elaine C. “The Institutional Development of the Arab-American Community of Boston: A Sketch.” In The Arab Americans: Studies in Assimilation, edited by Elaine C. Hagopian and Ann PadenWillamette, IL: Medina University Press International, 1969.
  • Shakir, Evelyn. “Good Works, Good Times: The Syrian Ladies Aid Society of Boston.” In Crossing the Waters: Arab Speaking Immigrants to the United States before 1940, edited by Eric C. Hoogland. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1987, 133-43.
  • Shakir, Evelyn. “Boston, Massachusetts: Dream of a Good Land,” in Taking Root, Bearing Fruit: The Arab American Experience, special issue of the ADC Issues, 1984, 43-47.
  • Tinory, Eugene. Journey From Ammeah. Brattleboro, VT: Amana Books, 1986.


  • Aguilar-San Juan, Karin. Little Saigons : Staying Vietnamese in America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
  • Bloemraad, Irene. Becoming a Citizen: Incorporating Immigrants and Refugees in the United States and Canada. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
  • Schipper, Henry. “The Boat People of Boston:” Boston Magazine, June 1980.
  • Nguyen, Thanh-Nghi Bao. “Vietnamese Manicurists: The Making of an Ethnic Niche.” Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 2010.
  • McGroarty, Patrick M. “The Lion in Fields Corner: Building a Vietnamese Community in the New Boston.”Senior honors thesis, Boston College, 2006.
  • Borges-Méndez, Ramón, Michael Liu, and Paul Watanabe. “Immigrant Entrepreneurs and Neighborhood Revitalization.” Malden, Mass.: Immigrant Learning Center, 2005.
  • Paul Watanabe. “The Rebirth of Fields Corner: Vietnamese Immigrant Entrepreneurs and the Revitalization of a Boston Neighborhood.” Western New England Law Review 31 (2009): 781–95.

West Indians

  • Johnson, Violet Showers. The Other Black Bostonians: West Indians in Boston, 1900-1950. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006.
  • –. “Relentless Ex-colonials and Militant Immigrants: Protest Strategies of Boston’s West Indian Immigrants, 1910-1950.” In The Civil Rights Movement Revisited: Critical Perspectives on the Struggle for Racial Equality in the United States, edited by Patrick B Miller, Therese Frey Steffen and Elisabeth Schafer-Wunsche, 9-20. LIT VERLAG/Transaction Publishers, 2001.

Refugees and Asylees

  • Aguilar-San Juan, Karin. Little Saigons : Staying Vietnamese in America. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
  • Bloemraad, Irene. Becoming a Citizen: Incorporating Immigrants and Refugees in the United States and Canada. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
  • Bon Tempo, Carl. “Refugees, Asylees, and Immigrants,” in Immigrants in American History: Arrival, Adaptation, and Integration, vol. 4, edited by Elliott R. Barkan, 1521-37. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2013.
  • Camacho, Paul, Abdi Dirshe, Mohamoud and Mohammad J. Farah. “The Somali Diaspora in Greater Boston,”Trotter Review 22, no. 1, 99-119.
  • Kazis, Bernice, Elaine Bakal, and Zelda Kaplan. Short Stories of a Long Journey: An Oral History of Russian Jewish Resettlement North of Boston. Swampscott, Mass: Hand-In-Hand Oral History Project, 2002.
  • Schipper, Henry. “The Boat People of Boston:” Boston Magazine, June 1980.
  • Smith-Hefner, Nancy Joan. Khmer American: Identity and Moral Education in a Diasporic Community. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.
  • Simon, Rita J. and Melanie Brooks. “Soviet Jewish Immigrants’ Adjustment in Four United States Cities.” Journal of Jewish Communal Service 60 (November 1983): 56–64.

Work and the Economy

Nativism, Racism and Violence

  • Asian American Resource Workshop. “To Live in Peace: Responding to Anti-Asian Violence in Boston.”Boston, MA, 1987.
  • Bock, Paula and Ken Brusic. The Asians: Quincy’s Newest Immigrants. Quincy, MA: Patriot Ledger, 1989.
  • De Milo, David. “Jury Duty.” Boston Magazine, November 1986.
  • Hirota, Hidetaka. Expelling the Poor: Atlantic Seaboard States and the Origins of American Immigration Policy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Johnson, Marilynn S. The New Bostonians: How Immigrants Have Transformed the Metro Area Since the 1960s. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015, chapter 5.
  • Stack, John F. International Conflict in an American City: Boston’s Irish, Italians, and Jews, 1935-1944. Contributions in Political Science, No. 26. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1979.
  • Tang, Suet-ling Shirley. “‘Enough Is Enough’: Struggles for Cambodian American Community Development in Revere, Massachusetts.” Ph.D. dissertation, State University of New York at Buffalo, 2002.
  • Whyte, William. “Race Conflicts in the North End of Boston.” New England Quarterly 12, no. 4 (December 1939): 623–42.


  • Chai, Karen Jung Won. “Inter-Ethnic Religious Diversity: Korean Buddhists and Protestants in Greater Boston.” In Korean Americans and Their Religions, edited by Kwon, Ho-Youn, Kwang Chun Kim, and R. Stephen Warner. State College: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2001.
  • — — — . “Protestant-Catholic-Buddhist: Korean Americans and Religious Adaptation in Greater Boston.” Ph.D., Harvard University, 2000.
  • Chaskel, Sebastián. “From Yucuaiquín to Somerville: Religious Beliefs and Traditions of a Transnational Community.” 2004. Urban Borderlands Records. Tufts Digital Collections and Archives.
  • Curry, Thomas. “A Korean Catholic Experience: St. Philip Neri Parish in the Archdiocese of Boston.” US Catholic Historian 18 (Winter 2000).
  • Dwyer-Ryan, Meaghan. Becoming American Jews: Temple Israel of Boston. Brandeis Series in American Jewish History, Culture, and Life. Waltham, Mass: Brandeis University Press ; Hanover NH, 2009.
  • Eck, Diana L. A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Now Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation. 1st ed.. San Francisco: Harper, 2001.
  • Emmanuel Gospel Center. New England’s Book of Acts. 2 vols. Boston, 2007.
  • Gerson, Jeffrey N. “Latino Migration, the Catholic Church, and Political Division: Lowell.” In Latinos Politics in Massachusetts, edited by Hardy-Fanta, Carol and Gerson, Jeffrey N., 127–52. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Hickok, Spencer and Vincente Cruz. “Religion and Community among Somerville Latinos.” 2004. Urban Borderlands Records. Tufts Digital Collections and Archives.
  • Jackson, Regine O. “After the Exodus: The New Catholics in Boston’s Old Ethnic Neighborhoods.” Religion and American Culture 17, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 191–212.
  • Johnson, Marilynn S. “’The Quiet Revival’: New Immigrants and the Transformation of Christianity in Greater Boston,” Religion and American Culture 24, no. 2 (Summer 2014): 231-58.
  • Lahaj, Mary. “Building an Islamic Community in America.” MA thesis, Hartford Seminary, 1992.
  • Levitt, Peggy. God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing American Religious Landscape. New York: New Press, 2007.
  • Lucken, Kristen. “Bosnians in Search of Community: Keeping Faith and Ethnicity Alive in Boston.” In What’s New About the “New” Immigration? Traditions and Transformations in the US Since 1965. Edited by Marilyn Halter, Marilynn S. Johnson, Katheryn P. Viens, and Conrad Edick Wright, 131-62. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2014.
  • Lucken, Kristen. “Identity Matters: Bosnian Identity Maintenance in a Post-Migration Setting.” Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 2010.
  • McComb, Veronica Savory. “The Bonds of Faith: Religion and Community among Nigerian Immigrants in the U.S., 1965-Present.” Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 2010.
  • — — — . “The Ties that Bind: Kinship, Religion and Community among Nigerian Immigrants in the United States.” In What’s New About the “New” Immigration? Traditions and Transformations in the US Since 1965. Edited by Marilyn Halter, Marilynn S. Johnson, Katheryn P. Viens, and Conrad Edick Wright, 163-96. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2014.
  • Muse, Erika. The Evangelical Church in Boston’s Chinatown: A Discourse of Language, Gender and Identity. New York: Routledge, 2005.
  • O’Connor, Thomas H. Boston Catholics: A History of the Church and Its People. Boston, Mass: Northeastern University Press, 1998.
  • Ospino, Hoffsman. “Latino Catholics in New England.” In Latinos in New England, edited by Andrés Torres, 203–23. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2006.
  • O’Toole, James. “‘The Newer Catholic Races’: Ethnic Catholicism in Boston.” New England Quarterly 65, no. 1 (March 1992): 117–34.
  • Petersen, Kristen A. “Contested Bodies and Souls: Immigrant Converts in Boston.” In Boston’s Histories: Essays in Honor of Thomas H. O’Connor, edited by James O’Toole,  and David Quigley. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004.
  • Sarna, Jonathan D. and Ellen Smith. The Jews of Boston. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.
  • Wang, Zhongxin. “A History of Chinese Churches in Boston (1876–1994).” Th.D.diss., Boston University School of Theology, 2000.
  • Wyche, Wendy Jane. “We Are the World: A Parish Struggles to Embrace Diversity and Become a Multiracial and Multicultural Community.” M.Div. thesis, Harvard Divinity School, 2005.


  • Bernstein, David. “Don’t F*ck with Linda.” Boston Magazine, July 2014.
  • Bloemraad, Irene. Becoming a Citizen: Incorporating Immigrants and Refugees in the United States and Canada. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
  • Bruno, Melania and Mauricio Gastón. “Latinos for Mel King: Some Reflections.” Radical America 17/18 (November 1983): 67–79.
  • Camayd-Freixas, Yohel and Russell Paul Lopez. Gaps in Representative Democracy: Redistricting, Political Participation, and the Latino Vote in Boston. Boston: Hispanic Office of Planning and Evaluation, 1983.
  • Cantave, Alix. “Incorporation or Symbiosis: Haitians and African Americans in Mattapan.” Trotter Review 19 (January 2010): 107–23.
  • Chinese American Civic Association. “Report on the Conference on the Future of Boston’s Chinatown.” Boston, 1972. [available at Boston Public Library].
  • Connolly, James J.. The Triumph of Ethnic Progressivism: Urban Political Culture in Boston, 1900-1925. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Green, James. “The Making of Mel King’s Rainbow Coalition: Political Changes in Boston, 1963–1983.” Radical America 17/18 (November 1983): 9–34.
  • Grossman-Crist, Shoshana. “Centro Presente: Building Community and Awareness of Rights among the Latin American Immigrant Population in Massachusetts.” 2006. Tufts Digital Collections and Archives.
  • Hardy-Fanta, Carol. Latina Politics, Latino Politics: Gender, Culture, and Political Participation in Boston. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.
  • Hardy-Fanta, Carol and Jeffrey N. Gerson. Latino Politics in Massachusetts. New York: Routledge, 2002.
  • Jacobs, Glenn. “Service versus Advocacy: A Comparison of Two Latino Community-Based Organizations in Chelsea, Massachusetts.” Trotter Review 19 (January 2010): 81–106.
  • King, Mel. Chain of Change: Struggles for Black Community Development. Boston: South End Press, 1981.
  • Liu, Michael Chung-Ngok. “Chinatown’s Neighborhood Mobilization and Urban Development in Boston.” Ph.D. diss., University of Massachusetts Boston, 1999.
  • Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. “Many Voices Joined for Justice: MIRA 25th Anniversary.” MIRA, 2012.
  • Melendez, Sarah Elba. “Hispanos, Desegregation and Bilingual Education: A Case Analysis of the Role of ‘El Comite De Padres’ in the Court-Ordered Desegregation of the Boston Public Schools (1974 – 1975).” Ed.D. diss., Harvard University, 1981.
  • O’Connor, Thomas H. Building a New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal, 1950-1970. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993.
  • — — — The Boston Irish: A Political History. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1995.
  • O’Neill, Gerard. Rogues and Redeemers: When Politics Was King in Irish Boston. New York: Crown Publishers, 2012.
  • Pineros Shields, Thomas. “DREAMers Rising: Constituting the Undocumented Student Immigrant Movement.” Ph.D. diss., Brandeis University, 2014.
  • Rodríguez, Félix V Matos. “Saving the Parcela: A Short History of Boston’s Puerto Rican Community.” In The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Historical Perspectives. Edited by Carmen Teresa Whalen and Víctor Vázquez Hernández, 200-226. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005.
  • Schow, Victoria. “The Local Political Incorporation of New Immigrants in Non-Traditional Gateways: A Case Study of Brockton and Lowell, Massachusetts,” Ph.D. diss., Northeastern University, 2016.
  • Small, Mario Luis. Villa Victoria: The Transformation of Social Capital in a Boston Barrio. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004.
  • Sullivan, Charles, Kathlyn Hatch, and Action for Boston Community Development. The Chinese in Boston, 1970. Boston: ABCD, 1970.
  • Task Force on Children Out of School. The Way We Go to School; the Exclusion of Children in Boston; a Report. Boston, 1970.
  • Uriarte-Gastón, Miren. “Organizing for Survival: The Emergence of a Puerto Rican Community.” Ph.D. diss., Boston University, 1988.
  • Vrabel, Jim. A People’s History of the New Boston. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014.

Originally published by Global Boston under the terms of a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.