Immigration in Lexington


We have all heard the saying that America is a nation of immigrants. Almost all Americans today either immigrated themselves or are descended from immigrants, whether from England in the colonial era, other parts of Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, or Latin America and Asia in more recent times. This trend shows no sign of stopping, and, on a national, state, and local level has made us a more economically dynamic and culturally rich society.

According to the American Immigration Council, one in six Massachusetts residents is an immigrant, while one in seven residents is a native-born U.S. citizen with at least one immigrant parent. Here in Lexington, immigration trends have changed over the centuries. With each new settlement, the look of Lexington has also changed. From Irish workers in the 19th century to the more recent addition of Asian professionals, immigration has made our town that much richer and more diverse.  And it will continue to evolve and develop in fascinating ways.

Irish immigration 

Above: Situated at the corner of Burlington and Hancock Streets, the 200-acre Kinneen farm spanned the area from Grove Street to where Diamond Middle School now stands and included what is now Kinneen Park. Photo from the Lexington Historical Society Archives.

By 1850, the Irish were the largest ethnic group in Boston. A significant number of Irish immigrants found work in Lexington, maintaining the railroad, working on farms, or as maids – especially at local hotels. It was only natural that those who farmed in the old country would migrate to farming communities such as Lexington.

By 1865, the number of Lexington citizens born in Ireland had grown to 353. The flood of Catholic Irish into town brought about the founding of the first Catholic church in 1875. In the Centennial of St. Brigid’s Parish, Robert Wright (p. 9) stated that “the foundation of the infant church and later the large super structure would thusly be paid in large part by the maids and the gardeners and the farmers out of the meager earnings they gathered in the great houses of the town.” Of the 266 families surveyed in the 1885 Lexington census, 61 had a head of household born in Ireland.

Most of the Irish lived across the railroad tracks by the streets now known as Woburn, Vine, and Cottage. Integration with the long-term Lexington citizens was slow. Some Irishmen found it difficult to purchase land, but eventually they succeeded.

By 1870, approximately 12 Irish residents had managed to purchase their own farms in Lexington. Situated at the corner of Burlington and Hancock Streets, the 200-acre Kinneen farm spanned the area from Grove Street to where Diamond Middle School now stands and included what is now Kinneen Park. The Maguire family purchased the Katahdin Woods property in 1864; they owned the eastern length of Wood Street by the turn of the century. James Alexander Wilson, who immigrated in 1877 to work on his uncle’s farm, bought a farm along Pleasant Street in 1903. We know that farm today as Wilson Farms.

Lexington became well known for its dairy and animal breeding. In 1875, only Worcester produced more milk and grazed more cows than Lexington.

The Next 100 Years

According to the 1885 State Census, the proportion of residents who were first or second-generation immigrants was 45 percent. By the end of the century, Lexington was becoming more of a town as the farmland turned into house lots.

In the 1950s and 1960s, after Route 128 was opened, entire neighborhoods were created such as Turning Mill and Peacock Farm.  The fields of celery, corn, and tomatoes were cleared, and affordable houses aimed at young middle-class families were built. Lexington was now  accessible to young families desiring to live in the green-grassed suburbs but commute to work along 128 or in Boston.  Many of the men worked at nearby universities and research institutions. Their wives cared for the children, ran the household, and volunteered in the community.

The exodus  from the older neighborhoods in Greater Boston to the suburbs created new Jewish communities in many towns, including Lexington. Many Jewish scientists, business people, and entrepreneurs found careers in Route 128 industrial parks west of Boston. The welcoming and caring spirit of the town is evident in that three Lexington churches—Methodist, First Parish, and Hancock—generously offered worship space to the Jewish congregation. Temple Isaiah, with 71 families, was on its way.  In May of 1963, the first Annual Meeting was held in the new building; on September 13-15, 160 member families celebrated  the official Dedication Weekend for the new building.

Between 1979 and 1990, Lexington residents came together through the Lexington Ecumenical Resettlement Coalition to help 16 Cambodian families fleeing the horrors of genocide in their country and assist them in resettling here in Lexington. Within this supportive network, the Cambodian families adjusted to the United States and had the opportunity to create a community for themselves.

From the early 20th century, waves of Armenians arrived In the United States for political reasons and economic opportunities. In 1982, Armenian Sisters’ Academy at 20 Pelham Rd. opened, and Armenian families moved to Lexington to offer their children an Armenian/American education. The now-defunct Armenian Sisters’ Academy was a comprehensive Armenian elementary and middle school committed to educating the whole person.

Today, Lexington has continued its tradition of being a warm, welcoming community by forming a coalition of concerned citizens from the town and surrounding communities, calling itself the Lexington Refugee Assistance Program or “LexRAP.” LexRAP is a Lexington-based non-profit organization helping refugees to settle in the United States and to become productive and well-adjusted members of the community. This assistance includes a support network for housing, food, clothing, transportation, health care, education (especially learning English), employment, legal aid, and socialization. Beneficiaries of this assistance must have received (or be legally seeking) permission to live in the U.S., either temporarily or permanently.

Asian Immigration

In 1940, Lexington residents included only five people from a race other than Black or White in its population of 13,187. The 1970 census shows Asians composed  2% of the population, but in those days, the categories listed under ‘Asian’ were only ‘Chinese’ and ‘Other Asian.’

The family photo above is of Jinling Liao and her family who immigrated from China.

The loosening emigration restrictions under Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leader of the People’s Republic of China, in the late 1980s and the end of the Soviet state in 1991 stimulated more foreign-born scientists and researchers to immigrate. Although Chinese immigration to the United States dates back to the 19th century, the Chinese immigrant population multiplied during the 1990s and 2000s. According to the Migration Policy Institute, today, there are almost as many native-born U.S. citizens who claim Chinese ancestry as there are Chinese immigrants.

The Chinese moved to Lexington because of its good schools, welcoming diversity, and proximity to Boston and Route 128.  My friend Jinling says, “Living in  Lexington  made us feel we have been truly living in our American Dream:… having the opportunity to become whatever we want to be as long as we are willing to work hard;  being  able to get  our children the best education  we can have in the world; being accepted by a lot of  friends who are well educated, open-minded and warm-hearted intellectuals in this diversified community .”

According to the Pew Research Center, “the Indian population in the United States has doubled since 2000. Many are engineers, doctors, and scientists. Indians are highly educated (72%) with bachelor’s degrees or above compared to other U.S. Asians (51%) and the general U.S. population (30%).”

Today, according to a recent Boston Globe article (6/7/2021), Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in Greater Boston, “surging 207 percent from 1990 to 2019 compared with 166 percent for Latino people and 52 percent for Black people.  Disparities within the Asian American community are enormous, often reflecting the wide range of immigration paths from refugees to employment-based visas.”

In 1990, Lexington’s Asian population was about  6.5%. Like many others, they are skilled professionals wanting to settle down and attracted to Lexington because of its professional and academic residents and commitment to good schools. Many Asians are engaged in town government and participate on its many boards or committees.

The U.S. Census (July 1, 2019) estimates that the town’s population was 33,132, the racial makeup of the community was 63.8% White, 30.1% Asian 1.3% Black or African American, 0.2% Native American, 0.0% Pacific Islander, 0.5% from other races, and 3.7% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino were 2.1% of the population. Although Lexington may not precisely reflect immigration trends nationwide, our town has nonetheless benefited immeasurably through the centuries from the influx of people from other countries. Our culture is enriched, ideas exchanged, and minds expanded. Who knows what Lexington will look like in another 100 years?

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