Wrap Up: The Ethnic History of Syracuse

In this four week lecture series funded by a cultural education grant from Senator John DeFrancisco, distinguished speakers describe the history and experiences of the many immigrant communities that have made Central NY their home.

Dennis Connors began the series on September 29th, 2016 with a presentation about the broad ethnic history of Syracuse.  Below, find a wrap up of his excellent lecture.  Following lectures will be recorded on video and uploaded to YouTube.

The early pioneers that settled Onondaga County were from New England or the eastern parts of New York State.  New immigrant groups began arriving as Syracuse formed in the 1830s and 1840s, developing from a marsh into a city with an economic boom.

In the mid- to late-19th century, the largest immigration groups included the Germans and the Irish.  In 1865, there were more native-born German and Irish (4,000 each) than any other ethnicity in the city, the total population of which was 31,000.  French Canadians made up the next largest group at 1,600.

Germans began immigrating to American cities early in the 19th century.  Many of them were fleeing the destruction of the Napoleonic wars and found work in Syracuse with the salt industry, which offered good wages for low or non-skilled workers.

They settled in the 1st and 2nd wards in the Northside of the city.  In fact, St. Joseph’s Hospital was founded by Franciscan nurses serving that German population.  The community featured many signs in German for services and businesses like candle-making, cigar-making, and breweries.


The other large group of mid-19th century immigrants was the Irish, who settled in Salina village (near where Washington Square is) and Geddes village (what we now call Tipp Hill).  Like the Germans, they were treated with suspicion and fascination.

The third largest group of immigrants were French Canadians, who came to Syracuse for employment.  In 1897, there were 2,500 French Canadians, centralizing around the Gertrude and Green streets.  They were largely assimilated by the mid-20th century.

In addition to the German Christian immigrants, there were many German Jewish immigrants to Syracuse.  They settled around Jefferson, Madison, and Harrison streets.  The original Concord Temple was established in 1851 near the current location of the Everson Museum to serve this population, which included many tailors and merchants.

Russian and Polish Jews began immigrating to downtown Syracuse as the German Jewish community moved toward Euclid and the eastside of the city.

By 1900, the Jewish quarter, southeast of downtown, was a tenement area.  There was a lot of clothing tailoring done from inside homes, and the streets had delicatessens, fish shops, and signs in Hebrew.  This area became known as the 15th ward and was demolished for the building of the I-81 elevated highway.

Italians began arriving in Syracuse a few decades after the large German and Irish immigrant waves.  The first “Little Italy” was centralized around what is now the location of Dinosaur BBQ around 1900.

There were about 5,000 native Italians in Syracuse around 1900.  This community moved in the former German neighborhoods while the 2nd and 3rd generation Germans moved toward Park St.

Italians were often builders, contractors, and railroad employees.  Connors showed one example of an ad for an Italian renaissance man of Syracuse who touted his ability to be an interpreter as well as a foreman; the ability to bridge the workers’ language and the bosses’ language was valuable.

In the 1930s, the US cut back on the number of immigrants who could enter the country.  This was in part due to the anti-European sentiment following the World War and also, of course, partly due to the Great Depression and limited domestic employment opportunities.  Still, in 1930, 30,000 Syracuse residents were 1st, 2nd, or 3rd generation immigrants.

Most of the Eastern Europeans who arrived in Syracuse were Polish.  There were 1,500 in 1897 and 10,000 by 1924.  They were drawn to the west side of the city and to the Town of Geddes for factory and railroad jobs available there.

There were also many Armenians who arrived, beginning in the 1890s.  One of those was Harutan Azadian, an instrument maker, established a factory for machine gauges that employed many Syracusans in the 20th century.

Onondaga County did have slavery, but not on the scale of the Southern United States; typically only 1 or 2 slaves would live in any household, and in total, there were about 60 slaves in early Onondaga County.  There was also a small population of free blacks in the 1840s and 1850s.

While Syracuse was lauded for the 1851 Jerry Rescue today, Connors remarked that abolitionism was not unanimous in the city.   There was a petition signed by over dozens of residents complaining that the Jerry Rescue was illegal and served as an embarrassment to the city.  There is a register of the former Wesleyan Methodist Church that documents escaped slaves, including the Carter and Baker families, who continued running to Canada when slave catchers followed them to Syracuse.  Syracuse also had KKK rallies in the 1920s and discrimination like so many other cities.

There was employment as well as housing discrimination against African-Americans, so their employment was largely limited to day labor, housekeeping, and jobs like waiters or porters.  However, noted Connors, Edward Wilson, hired in 1881 by the USPS as the first black Syracuse mailman, was the third ever black mailman in the country.

The Great Migration of African Americans from the Jim Crow laws of the South into northern cities like Syracuse occurred from the 1930s through the 1950s.  The black community was segregated into the 15th ward.  What we would now call “white flight” saw the 2nd and 3rd generation European immigrants leave the city into the suburbs, such as many Italians moving into Liverpool and many Irish moving into Camillus.

Strong ethnic neighborhoods were a “double-edged sword,” noted Connors.  They provided familiarity and aid for new immigrants, but reinforced the “otherness” and therefore compounded discrimination and segregation issues.   The largest groups of immigrants, such as the Irish and Germans, benefited from a critical mass of numbers that could create associations and political clout.

The 19th century lacked government or public safety nets, so welfare came from private organizations, such as the Americanization League, which helped immigrants pass the citizenship test.  These organizations were funded through local philanthropy.

Connors ended with an infographic of contemporary Syracuse and its refugee arrivals, highlighting the diversity of this city: