Just another American story being told

BY John Krull


In my den at home sits a moving crate that’s more than 100 years old.

It was the kind used by the waves of immigrants who came to the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The lettering on one end offers just a name and a destination – “O.A. Krull, New York, U.S.A.”

I have no idea if it belonged to a distant kinsman or a complete stranger. Years ago, a colleague at the newspaper where I worked spotted it when he was out rummaging one weekend and picked it up for me.

I keep it now as a reminder of where I came from and how I got here.

My great-grandfather was among that wave of hopefuls from Europe who journeyed here in pursuit of a better life. German by birth, he arrived in the tapering years of the 19th century.

He was an itinerant laborer, a taciturn man who settled for a time in the upper Midwest, worked hard, married and fathered children, the youngest of whom was my grandfather. Two hammer blows — the death of his wife, my great-grandmother, and the anti-German hysteria in the U.S. that accompanied World War I — prompted him to return to the land of his birth, where he died before he reached the age I am now.

It didn’t take much for that hysteria to flourish.

Many Americans in those days were suspicious of immigrants, convinced they posed a threat to the American way of life. They passed repressive measures designed to limit immigrants’ access to jobs and opportunity. Their leaders in Congress even capped — caps that linger to this day — the weight immigrants’ votes would have in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Electoral College to keep them from gaining political clout.

My mother’s people probably were among those worried about the tide of immigration. My ancestors on Mom’s side of the family arrived in the Carolinas in the 1760s, fought in the Revolutionary War, then moved west and settled in the hills of southern Indiana around the time of the War of 1812. (If they had a taste for reactionary politics, my mother, my sister and my daughter could be members of the Daughters of the American Revolution.)

They were old stock, Scotch-Irish, fervent in their devotion to country and cause.

The irony — the abiding irony of American history — is that, over time, their line met and mingled with that of the people they may have fretted about and feared.

The descendants of that quiet German laborer and the Hoosier farm people who came to this land when Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Hamilton still walked the earth now include lawyers, executives, software developers, aspiring doctors, educators and, yes, writers.

And we all apparently pay more in taxes than the current president of the United States.

O.A. Krull’s moving crate sits just a few feet away from me as I write these words. I use it now to store family keepsakes, small things I may want to pass onto my own children and grandchildren.

Sometimes when I’m working late at night or early in the morning and my wife and children are asleep, I find myself contemplating that crate and the mysteries of family and time.

I’m German-Scotch-Irish, with a dollop of Dutch that entered the mix somewhere along the way. My wife is of French and German ancestry. Our children are a blend of all that created us.

We’re a family of classic mutts, not a pure-bred among us.

In my daughter’s friend circle are Muslims, evangelical Christians and Jews. My son, who worships America’s pastime with a pilgrim’s fervor, routinely plays baseball with boys who speak Spanish as their native tongue.

Little of this would have been imaginable when O.A. Krull, whoever he was, shouldered that crate down the plank as he landed on these shores however many decades ago.

We tend to think when we ostracize and demean immigrants that we’re going to war with the world.

We aren’t.

Instead, we’re fighting with who we are, who we will become.

We’re fighting with the future.

We’re fighting with our children, our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren.

May they forgive us.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students. Send comments to [email protected].