Rhode Island Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Though an exceptionally small state, Rhode Island has had a history of diverse immigration, and immigration and politics have long been closely intertwined in the state. The state’s first major immigrant group was the Irish, who crowded into growing industrialized and urbanized areas during the nineteenth century. Because the state’s charter gave much greater representation to the declining rural areas, a political struggle began during the 1840’s that has continued to affect immigrant life in the state into the twenty-first century.

In 1790, the same year in which Rhode Island became a state, a mill at Pawtucket Falls on the Blackstone River mounted a cotton-spinning frame. This ostensibly minor event actually portended the rise of the state’s textile industry that would draw immigrant workers through the century to come. The first major immigrant wave was made up predominantly of Irish immigrants;Rhode IslandIrish. Many of them happened to arrive during the 1840’s, when Rhode Island was experiencing a constitutional crisis. This crisis reached a head in the 1843 Dorr Rebellion, which forced a change in the state’s electoral laws. The rebellion forced a major liberalization of the state’s voting laws. This change did not immediately benefit working-class immigrants, but it pointed the way toward further liberalization that would eventually allow immigrants–particularly the Irish–to play major roles in state politics.Rhode IslandRhode Island[cat]STATES;Rhode Island

Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, being welcomed by Narragansett Indians while making his first landfall.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Meanwhile, French Canadian immigrants;Rhode IslandFrench Canadian immigrants became an important and stable part of the workforce in Blackstone Valley Textile industry;Rhode Islandtextile mills at Woonsocket, Central Falls, and Pawtucket. Around 1890, Italian immigrants;Rhode IslandItalians began entering Rhode Island. By 1910, they were almost as numerous as French Canadians. Those who did not work in the mills on the Blackstone River settled in Providence. By this time the Irish had a firm grip on local political power. In 1907, Rhode Island elected its first governor with an Irish background. Franco-Americans and those of Italian and Jewish heritage gravitated to the Republican Party until those affiliations were weakened by the economic unrest of the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

Increasing Diversity in Immigration Patterns

During World War II, Rhode Island prospered from the development of defense-related industries. These, in turn, attracted new immigration to the state. After the war, the mix of immigrants became very diverse. Among the newcomers werePortuguese immigrants;Rhode IslandPortuguese-speakers from Europe, Cape Verde, and Brazil; Latinos from Puerto Rico, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic; Asians from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos; and Africans from Liberian immigrantsLiberia, Nigeria, and Ghana. Generally more prosperous than the others, the Portuguese speakers lived mostly in suburban areas near Providence. Other recent immigrants tended to settle in cities, particularly in Providence.

With growing populations of linguistically isolated families in which no members over the age of fourteen years could speak English well, the need for English as a second language;Rhode IslandEnglish as a second language and bilingual instruction grew in the schools. At the same time, a growing public conviction that many new immigrants had entered the country illegally led to strong efforts to root out undocumented immigrants and opposition to increased spending on English-language instruction and social services for immigrants.Rhode Island

Further Reading
  • Brault, Gerard J. The French-Canadian Heritage in New England. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1986.
  • McLoughlin, William G. Rhode Island: A Bicentennial History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978.
  • Perlmann, Joel. Ethnic Differences: Schooling and Social Structure Among the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Blacks in an American City, 1880-1935. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
  • Smith, Judith E. Family Connections: A History of Italian and Jewish Immigrant Lives in Providence, Rhode Island, 1900-1940. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.

Chae Chan Ping v. United States


English as a second language

Irish immigrants

Italian immigrants

Know-Nothing Party



Political parties

Portuguese immigrants

Categories: History