MCNY Blog: New York Stories

Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org

Minnie Fisher, Immigrant and Labor Activist

The Museum completed processing our Pamphlet Collection over the past summer and shared the finding aid online with funds from the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, and has now completed item level cataloging for 500 highlights from the collection.  The pamphlet collection contains printed materials from the late 18th to 21st centuries on a wide variety of topics: history, museums, commerce and economy, and New York City infrastructure, neighborhoods, and landmarks.

One of the particular strengths of the pamphlet collection is the fact it holds publications of some lesser know organizations in the city, such as the the Community Documentation Workshop at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery.  The Workshop was founded in 1975 under the direction of Arthur Tobier to record and publish oral histories of residents of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. In 1976 the Workshop published the account of Minnie Fisher, who immigrated to the United States in 1914.

Born One Year Before the 20th Century: Minnie Fisher, An Oral History © 1976 Community Documentation Workshop

St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery (New York, N.Y.). Community Documentation Workshop. Born One Year Before the 20th Century: Minnie Fisher – An Oral History. 1976. Museum of the City of New York. 83.81.8

Minnie Fisher was born in an isolated village surrounded by forests in the Minsk province of the Russian Empire. As a child she observed how wealthy villagers maintained their fortunes by taking advantage of less fortunate neighbors:

“Although it was a government forest, the rich people used it as if it belonged to them. They made the peasants get permission from them to pick berries and mushrooms and nuts, or to gather the wood that was growing in the forest. Even if the peasants needed logs to build their homes, they had to pay these wealthy owners, and they would pay in labor. The pani [rich people] used the peasants like slaves.”

Fisher sensed the impending peril of her family’s living situation:

“Then the pogroms against the Jewish people in Russia began. […] It was around this time, moving toward 1910, that we began to feel, you know, that leaving was becoming inevitable.”

Most of the Jews who fled pogroms lacked resources necessary for immigration, so organizations such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) formed to address their needs. In addition to their main headquarters at 229-231 East Broadway, HIAS established an office on Ellis Island to provide translation services, counsel to prevent deportation, obtain bonds to guarantee employable status and lend the $25 landing fee.

 

Samuel Landsman. [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.] ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.1883

Samuel Landsman. [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.] ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.1883

Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society. Immigration card for Agranskaja, Reisel. Arrived October 12, 1913 on steamer Kursk. Museum of the City of New York. 2015.11.3

Hebrew Sheltering and Immigrant Aid Society. Immigration card for Agranskaja, Reisel. Arrived October 12, 1913 on steamer Kursk. Museum of the City of New York. 2015.11.3

Notwithstanding the efforts of HIAS and other organizations, immigrants were vulnerable to exploitation. Fisher recalled that people who capitalized on immigrant labor came from the same region as the immigrants themselves:

“What would happen is that one person from a little town, from a little village, would go to America and start some kind of business, like a tailoring business, or something, and then bring over some people who they called landsleit, which means people from the same village or town. And they exploited them here. This was their cheap labor.”

Fisher had mixed feelings about leaving the old country. She was grateful to escape the increasing danger faced by those who remained in Russia. But she was distressed over the people left behind:

“You had the feeling that you could never come back, that the relationships you were leaving behind – uncles, aunts, cousins, friends – would be completely cut off. […] I remember the day I left. My heart sank.”

 

Burt G. Phillips. [Ellis Island.] ca. 1907. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.10001

Burt G. Phillips. [Ellis Island.] ca. 1907. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.10001

Fisher and her family settled on Ninth Street at the intersection of Avenue C. The immensity of the city impressed her. The political meetings that occurred at Union Square and the labor protests that took over the city’s streets galvanized her.

 

Photographer unknown. [Protest for a seven hour workday.] ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.11377

Photographer unknown. [Protest for a seven hour workday.] ca. 1915. Museum of the City of New York. X2010.11.11377

Fisher was 14 years old when she took a job in the needle trade. She organized a committee with other young women colleagues to pressure the boss for more money. Fisher recalled: “The boss screamed and screamed, but in the end we started to make more money. I guess he realized that it would be better to give in than to fight us. […] From that day on, he named me Emma Goldman. This was my nickname in the shop.”

 

George Grantham Bain (1865-1944). Emma Goldman. 1909. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.564

George Grantham Bain (1865-1944). Emma Goldman. 1909. Museum of the City of New York. F2012.58.564

 

Fisher attended the Rand School of Social Science on 7 East 15th Street, which prepared her for labor activism: “We started to understand the life of human beings. We started to understand capitalism.”

 

Edmund Vincent Gillon. [National Association of Machinists AFL-CIO, 7 East 15th Street.] 1970-1990. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.2.56

Edmund Vincent Gillon. [National Association of Machinists AFL-CIO, 7 East 15th Street.] 1970-1990. Museum of the City of New York. 2013.3.2.56

Fisher and her colleagues remained optimistic about the impact their activism would have: “We were learning to protect the country for the working class, but we also felt that the people who had been elected to run the government were more or less honest.”

Over the years, Fisher continued to stand up for the rights of others. As she concluded her account, she recalled her response to a familiar refrain. Her words are as relevant today as they were in 1976:

“[…] Notwithstanding the fact that I say now to the fascists, ‘You tell us to back to where we came from -‘ They were an accident here, we were not an accident. We came because this was our choice. That’s why we very much wanted our country, and why I want it still; I still believe that our country will be an example; we will overcome a lot of things.”

 

St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery (New York, N.Y.). Community Documentation Workshop. Born One Year Before the 20th Century: Minnie Fisher - An Oral History. 1976. Museum of the City of New York. 83.81.8

St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery (New York, N.Y.). Community Documentation Workshop. Born One Year Before the 20th Century: Minnie Fisher – An Oral History. 1976. Museum of the City of New York. 83.81.8

About Lauren Robinson

Digital Projects Cataloger

One comment on “Minnie Fisher, Immigrant and Labor Activist

  1. Pingback: The Hebrew Society and the Oxenhandlers | odessasecrets: the 1905 pogrom

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