When you think about the history of Salem, what comes to mind? Colonial houses, the Salem Witch Trials, Nathaniel Hawthorne? What about migration, immigration, and the history of The Point?
Many are unaware that the South Salem neighborhood The Point was once known as La Pointe - a Petit Canada - during the height of Salem’s Industrial Revolution; a time when thousands of French-Canadian immigrants inhabited the neighborhood with their U.S. born children.
As a means to understand the importance of The Point and immigration in contemporary terms, Salem State University American studies professor and interdisciplinary studies chairperson Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello curated an exhibit now on display at the Salem National Park Service Center.
Through photos and historical artifacts, the exhibit raises the profile of the neighborhood, which has been designated a National Historic District, and it communicates Salem’s migration and immigration history to the city and its visitors.
“The central story of The Point, like Salem, like Essex County, like New England, like the U.S., is one of migration and immigration,” said Duclos-Orsello, who studies immigration history and literature.
Duclos-Orsello’s exhibit, “Stage Point, La Pointe, The Point” highlights how Salem’s history of migration and immigration has shaped the historic neighborhood since the 17th century and focuses on the once booming French-Canadian population’s role in developing the city’s economic and cultural landscape; linking the past, present and future.
“The first English immigrants—as part of a settler colonial enterprise—displaced the indigenous inhabitants in the 17th century. The French-Canadians followed in the 19th and first half of the 20th century,” Duclos-Orsello said.
Many of the French-Canadian immigrants who resided in the Petit Canada originally came to Salem to earn a living making sheets and pillow cases in the Naumkeag Steam Company’s Pequot Mills.
“It’s critically important to tell the stories of regular people, past and present, in neighborhoods like The Point, including stories of the people who lived there 100 years ago who were trying to make a living and a life,” Duclos-Orsello said.
She added, “Today, the neighborhood is home to families with roots in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and a number of other countries who continue the tradition of building a vibrant community of neighbors seeking opportunity and improving life in Salem. This neighborhood is a microcosm of our city, our region and our nation.”
Prior to being featured at the Salem Visitors Center, the exhibit was on display at the North Shore Community Development Coalition’s (CDC) office on Lafayette Street, a building that also dates back to the days of the Petit Canada.
Duclos-Orsello said, “For a long time, that space had been a club for people who spoke French, French-Canadians and their families”.
Duclos-Orsello’s efforts to share this history with the public are an extension of her work educating Salem State University students on the importance and relevance of The Point, then and now. This education includes archival exploration, walking tours in the neighborhood and a multi-year service-learning collaboration with the North Shore CDC.
“Some of our students call this neighborhood home, or have friends or relatives who have called it home. Many of our students have immigrant or migration stories in their family that aren’t that far in the past. I have students who have newly arrived, and whose parents or grandparents were newly arrived,” Duclos-Orsello said. “For students, studying the history of immigration of one place in particular can unearth how the rise and fall of industry are tied to the economic and population changes and also how and why certain neighborhoods are celebrated or forgotten.”
Salem State graduate Anthony Divirgilio ’19 took many of Duclos-Orsello’s courses, including American Identities and Global America, and joined the professor and classmates in efforts to more deeply understand and celebrate the neighborhood.
“The Point neighborhood is relevant today as each new decade brings a new generation of immigrants to Salem, who in turn influence Salem’s culture through their food, traditions and celebrations,” He said. “Professor Duclos-Orsello’s passion in the classroom and in the community during service-learning portions of her classes, like the walking tours, is unmatched.”
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