Salem’s Person of the Century: A pioneering champion of immigrants

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Next year, the city of Salem will be celebrating the 150th anniversary of the birth of Caroline Emmerton, a champion of immigrants. In 1999, the Salem Evening News and its panel of local historians honored her as the “Person of the Century.” Emmerton was an exceptional philanthropist who dedicated her time and fortune to help immigrants adjust to American culture through language classes, vocational training, parental support, and history programs. Her signature achievement was the enterprising settlement program, which has withstood the test of time and continues to help newcomers prosper in their new country. She also endowed programs for the elderly, widows, orphans, and the poor, as well as the public library and historic preservation works.

Caroline Emmerton at a settlement class (Courtesy, The House of the Seven Gables)

Caroline Emmerton at a settlement class (Courtesy, The House of the Seven Gables)

Emmerton (1866-1942) was born into a prominent Salem family whose fortune was made by her grandfather, the maritime trader John Bertram. Despite her privileged position, Emmerton was moved by the reduced circumstances of the growing numbers of immigrants, mostly arriving from Eastern Europe. In 1908, she purchased the Turner-Ingersoll Mansion, which inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables. Emmerton restored the house and opened it to the public, thereby creating a revenue stream for her settlement programs for immigrant communities. Through the 1920s, she purchased and renovated other historic sites, and continued to develop her charitable activities.

Along with classes and training projects, the settlement program produced historical plays and reenactments so that immigrant families could learn about American and local history while enjoying a leisurely outing. Large numbers of new arrivals benefitted from the program, which significantly eased their adjustment and helped them flourish.

Emmerton’s vision was to welcome immigrants to America and fully integrate them into society, rather than marginalize them in impoverished ethnic ghettos.

Her philanthropic work continues through The House of the Seven Gables Settlement Partnership, which assists immigrant and at-risk groups. The current director of the program, Ana Nuncio, explains that their social service activities focus on Salem’s Point neighborhood and Latino communities. The organization funds a number of projects, such as the “Caribbean Connections” summer program, which introduces Salem’s immigrant youth and their families to the historical relationships between the city and their native countries in the Caribbean.

The Gables Settlement Partnership offers a number of educational opportunities at all levels. It sponsors Adult English as a Second Language and citizenship programs at the Bentley Academy Charter School in Salem. The Gables also hosts naturalization ceremonies for local residents who complete their citizenship program, and for new citizens from the Boston area.

(Courtesy, The House of the Seven Gables)

(Courtesy, The House of the Seven Gables)

Their “LEAP for Education” project provides additional help for immigrant families with college applications and preparation. The Partnership also sponsors the “Parent-Child Home Connection” program, an early childhood literacy project, and “Immigration Conversations,” a series of community lecture forums.

In a nod to its tradition of historical performances, another wonderful Gables Settlement Partnership activity is the “Express Yourself” theater organization, which introduces underserved young people to music, dance, and visual arts. This past May, a group of young women, primarily from the Dominican Republic, helped artists and dance instructors create a Caribbean-themed production, which was performed at the Citi Wang Theatre in Boston.

(Courtesy, The House of the Seven Gables)

(Courtesy, The House of the Seven Gables)

Caroline Emmerton’s generous and innovative spirit built a lasting legacy that few philanthropists can claim. Unlike many charities that collapse when their benefactors die, Emmerton’s settlement program continues to prosper. Her work with immigrants was characterized by compassion, not condescension – an approach still promoted by the Gables Settlement Partnership today. Their programs continue to reflect her pioneering method of resourceful integration without denigration, helping new generations of immigrants succeed in American society.

Contact Mary McCleary at [email protected]