Michelle Ann Kratts

A Little Election Day Story by Michelle Ann Kratts

In The Italians of Niagara Falls, New York, Uncategorized on November 6, 2012 at 5:36 am

I have a little story for you, on this Election Day, 2012. 

Once upon a time, in a place not so far away, one woman made a difference.  Her name was Elizabeth Howe.  She came to Niagara Falls from Boston back in 1919 in order to set up an International Institute;   its main purpose being to assist the immigrant women.  After the First World War, there were so many thousands of immigrants flooding into Niagara Falls that it had become necessary to start providing some help to these people.  In fact, statistics revealed that Niagara Falls had the second highest percentage of immigrants of any city in New York–only New York City having a higher percentage.  My own great grandparents came to Niagara Falls during this time period, as well.  I’m not sure if they ever utilized the services of the International Institute or met with Elizabeth Howe.  I hope that they did.

Miss Howe was the most remarkable woman Niagara  ever encountered.  She spoke many languages and had worked for many years in Europe and then returned to this country with a mission to help these poor souls.    She toiled morning, noon and night and fought battles every which way she turned;  against the establishment, the priests, the men, even the women, themselves.

After searching through the city for a place to set up shop (and being turned down by many landlords as they weren’t keen on the idea of her having poor immigrant people around) she found an old macaroni factory that was smack in the seediest area of town.  It was perfect.  She taught English, citizenship classes, provided health care, food, clothing, had book clubs, took care of children, counseled people, found jobs for them, kept statistical information and so much more.  She was steadfast in her belief that the women must learn to fend for themselves and primarily by learning English and how to read and write.  Some of these women didn’t even know how to read and write in their native language.  At first her numbers were small and then it turned to thousands of women’s lives she touched.  Somehow she brought Armenian and Polish women together with the Italians.  The Spanish and the Syrians.  The Russians and the Greeks.   She arranged for special teas with the wife of one of the biggest factory owners in town.  She found them jobs and took care of them when they were thrown out by their husbands.  She fought with the priests (who didn’t like the idea of this liberating notion of teaching the women English).  She had an incredible staff (of mostly immigrant women) and they became leaders in our community.  One young Armenian girl was the youngest person ever to graduate from Niagara Falls High School.  Elizabeth changed the history of Niagara Falls.  I try and imagine how many lives  she did touch.   Her notes reveal thousands of charitable acts.   And there are even notes that are not available.

Unfortunately Miss Howe died very young.  She  died from overwork and exhaustion.  We have her incredible notes today (you can read them at the Lewiston Public Library).  They are  the stuff of legend.  A wonderful story with Niagara in the background.  Our great and powerful Niagara framing day and night with such power….always there.  She is buried in Oakwood Cemetery in Strangers Rest  beside the stunters.  I like to think that was quite appropriate as she fought against all odds, herself.

There are many stories I can tell you about Miss Howe and her work but I will always find the following to be the most moving story for me personally, as a woman, and as the great granddaughter of Italian immigrants.

In November of 1920 she writes of  a heavy snowfall and a conversational English class. She had been worried about a particular Italian woman who was frightened to come to class in the winter as she was terrified of walking through the ice and the  snow.  (Yes, usually there was ice and snow in early November back in those days….).  The other women knew that it was unlikely “Mrs. S” would make it and they sat and waited.   Finally she appeared, panting from the walk up the stairs. The women clapped with joy when they saw her –for they were instilled with the belief that each class was a treasure and it was a tragedy to miss one.  Mrs. S. exclaimed:  I had given up all hope of being able to come to school…and then I looked out of the window and saw that a path led straight to the Institute’s door.  I grabbed my coat and tam o’shantor, put on my rubbers and here I am…

I just can not read this without getting emotional.  I think of those women  fighting against all of these odds in order to learn how to read and write English.   And then there was that magic of a shoveled path–and “here I am…”  It’s my favorite part of her notes.  This one line.  Here I am.  It’s  the rallying cry of the entire women’s rights movement.  Of course, Miss Howe never intimates who shovelled the walkway…but Im sure we all know the answer to that.
Amazingly, the story of the snowy November day was not over with that magical moment.  There was  more.    Elizabeth writes next:  ” Mrs. S. is the wife of an American citizen and when Mr. S voted, Mrs. S voted too.  I am sorry to add to the story that Mrs. S voted according to the advice of her husband.  I did not ask for whom…”

There was some disappointment that “Mrs. S” merely voted for who her husband voted for but Miss Howe was not about to give up on this wonderful woman.    It’s one step, she writes.  One day “Mrs. S.” will vote for whomever she would like to vote for…or perhaps, her daughters will.

This was November 1920 and a poor Italian immigrant woman in Niagara Falls had voted in the first American election that women could cast a vote. It gives me the chills especially when put in historical perspective.  Even as she merely followed her husband’s advice, she was a pioneer.  She voted.

Sadly, like most of Niagara Falls, the International Institute is gone and so is everything else on the street.  It’s desolate.  Just an open field near Holy Trinity Church.  But this beautiful moment will live on if we remember our grandmothers and great grandmothers and how they went against all odds so that we could know what it really means to be an American.

So, ladies, go out and vote.  Remember “Mrs. S.” and make sure you tell your daughters about the Italian lady in Niagara Falls who cast her vote for the very first time.   Maybe she was your grandmother.

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