Magazine article Humanities

Through the Eyes of Children

Magazine article Humanities

Through the Eyes of Children

Article excerpt

As America changed from a rural to an urban society in the last century, the lives of its children changed. A new website in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, tells childrens' stories in their own words. They remember their parents and uncles coming to this country as immigrants, Italians moving into neighborhoods where Irish and Germans had come before, and the struggle to keep bread on the table as families learned the ways of a different world.

Rose Carini tells about a tragic time: the deaths of her two-and-ahalf-year-old sister and eight-month-old brother nearly ninety years ago. "There was an epidemic. Now, I don't remember if it was the measles or scarlet fever, but they died, I think, in 19 12. My mother lost two children within hours. My little sister died in the late afternoon. My little brother died during the night."

Anthony Dicristo remembers hard times in general: "In all my years, I never had a toy. And when I talk about a toy, I' m talking about a bicycle, roller skates, nothing. I would ask my dad ... He'd say 'Son I'd love to do it. I can't. 'Let' s say five dollars. 'For five dollars I can get forty pounds of spaghetti and I gotta feed the family first."'

These oral histories are being gathered by an associate professor of history at Marquette University, James Marten. "I think children's issues often loom more important in urban areas," says Marten. "Certainly in the last one hundred fifty years-the period we cover on the website-social issues often appear first and, perhaps, more deeply, in cities: immigration and diversity, the expansion of schools, child labor, government programs." Marten directs the Children in Urban America Project (CUAP), a digital archive of primary sources telling the story of Milwaukee through the experiences of childhood.

From its beginnings in the 1830s as a trading post on Lake Michigan, Milwaukee attracted immigrants to work in its foundries, factories, and rail yards. By 1860, half of its residents were bom outside the United States. Today some 70 percent of students are of African American, Hispanic, or Asian descent.

Politics, too, shaped the lives of Milwaukee's children. Socialist administrations ran the city from 19 10 through the Depression and introduced wide-ranging reforms, among them new child labor and education laws. The documents available on the CUAP website offer visitors glimpses into the city's past, from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first.

One of the oldest Milwaukeeans to recount his childhood experiences for the archive is Guiseppe Balestrieri. He was born in Milwaukee in 1900, the second son of an Italian fisherman who emigrated from Sicily. He talks about how his education was interrupted to help support his family: "Oh, I must have been about thirteen or fourteen years old .... I had three different jobs. I used to work at the factory from eight to four. Four-thirty to six-thirty I would deliver telegrams, and on Saturday I would work in the shoe store to clean the shoe store."

The atmosphere of the Old Country lived on in many neighborhoods during the first half of the twentieth century. In the Third Ward, Italian was spoken in homes and on the street. Parents and older children attended night school to learn English; younger children went directly into local public school. There they found friends among the other immigrant children from countries across Europe.

"My mother one morning told me I had to go to school," recalls Rose Carini. "She said, 'This is our home and we're not going back to Italy.. you have to learn to read and write...seeing that we're going to be citizens of the United States.' Well, my mother and dad, I used to try to help them as best I can, but then when we got in the older grades, one day the principal of the school came in the class and said, 'The school board allows your mothers and fathers to come and learn how to speak English. …

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