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Tracing Salem’s history through its immigrants

Salem State University professor Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello has been studying the old Franco-American community that once thrived in the Salem Point neighborhood.
Salem State University professor Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello has been studying the old Franco-American community that once thrived in the Salem Point neighborhood.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff/Globe staff

For half a century until the late 1950s, a dense population of French Canadian immigrants lived, worked, and practiced their faith in the area off Lafayette Street in Salem.

Most of those families have since left the Point neighborhood, but Salem State University professor Elizabeth Duclos-Orsello is helping to keep their story alive.

As a scholar, teacher, and social justice advocate, Duclos-Orsello has spent years delving into the story of the old Franco-American community. That research has enabled her to educate her students and the public about a bygone era, and led to her working collaboratively with local immigrant leaders and others to address the needs of current-day Point residents.

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French Canadians first began arriving in Salem in the 1870s to work in the local mills. While some settled elsewhere in the city, most resided in the Point, which was predominantly Franco-American from the early 20th century until factory closures and improved economic circumstances led many families to relocate after World War II.

“If you walked through the Point from 1910 unit the end of the 1950s, you would hear French speaking everywhere,” Duclos-Orsello said. “You’d smell the aroma of pork cooking. You’d see small shops on the first floors of where bodegas are now. There would be French-speaking immigrants purveying their goods.

“On one end of the crowded neighborhood was the Pequot Mills, where most people worked. On the other end was St. Joseph’s, the French-Canadian church. People lived between those two places,” said Duclos-Orsello, Chair and Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and Coordinator of American Studies at Salem State.

Noting that the Point is now today largely Latino, she said the Franco-American era fits into a larger narrative of how the neighborhood was shaped by centuries of immigration and migration.

“That one square mile tells so many stories. It offers a brilliant opportunity to think about the history of Salem and New England,” said Duclos-Orsello, a Somerville resident.

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While the story of Salem’s settlement by Europeans and its later maritime industry are well known, Duclos-Orsello said the immigration that started in the 1840s is arguably an even more important chapter in the city’s history, noting that those arriving made Salem “the thriving city that it is today.”

Elizabeth Blood, a professor of French at Salem State who has teamed with Duclos-Orsello on some of her Franco-American local history initiatives, said by e-mail her colleague “has always been dedicated to public history, making her research available to the widest possible audience and engaging her students in community-based learning and research.”

“I admire her tireless dedication to civic engagement and the way she is able to weave together history, culture, and politics to engage both her students and the larger public in better understanding who we are as Americans,” added Blood.

Duclos-Orsello, who has also taught at Harvard University, Boston University, and on campuses in Germany, Greece, and Luxembourg, is author of a recent book, “Modern Bonds,” examining how the idea of “community” changed in cities a century ago with relevance for today.

She first became interested in the Point in 2004 when she came to Salem to direct a program that trained teachers to incorporate local history in their classes — she continued in that role after joining Salem State’s faculty in 2005.

The story of the Point resonated with her as a scholar whose interests include the struggles faced by marginalized people, and personally because she is of French Canadian descent. And she was struck by the parallels between the experiences of the neighborhood’s current and past ethnic communities.

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Noting that French-Canadian immigrants endured poverty and discrimination, she said, “Now you have the story repeating itself,” referring to the challenges facing low-income Latinos today.

In addition to extensively researching the Point’s history, Duclos-Orsello regularly incorporates the neighborhood in her teaching, including leading students on walking tours of the Point that link its early 20th century and early 21st century immigrant stories.

For the students, many of whom have family connections to the neighborhood, that exposure to local history serves as a “wonderful textbook,” helping them think about current issues such as “immigration, and fear of otherness,” she said.

With Blood, Duclos-Orsello has also created a website on French-Canadian heritage in Salem, a self-guided walking tour of the Point, and a French-Canadian digital archive, and undertook a local history project involving interviews with French-Canadians whose immigrant families settled in the Point.

Most recently, an exhibit Duclos-Orsello curated on the history of the Point was shown at the National Park Regional Visitor Center in Salem last summer. The exhibit was funded by North Shore Community Development Coalition, a nonprofit based in the Point that works to bring expanded housing, jobs, and other services to the area.

As a community activist, Duclos-Orsello serves as a board member of North Shore CDC, and heads a collaborative program in which her students learn about voting rights and then work with coalition staff to expand voter participation and protect voting rights in the Point.

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“She understands the rich history of the neighborhood and has been a huge leader in telling that story,” Mickey Northcutt, CEO of North Shore CDC, said of Duclos-Orsello. “But she also cares about the present. All the election work is targeted towards the people who live in the neighborhood now, which is great.”


John Laidler can be reached at laidler@globe.com.