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You see it at pro-immigrant rallies, posted on signs and T-shirts: Immigrants Feed America. The simple sentence acknowledges that our country’s food system is, in large part, dependent upon the work of foreign-born farmers, restaurant workers and processors, some of whom are undocumented.

But while the concept has gotten a boost in response to President Trump’s rhetoric over the past year, this idea of immigrants feeding America is one that’s as old as — well, America. Also not new: policies designed to limit those same immigrants’ presence and influence here.

These competing realities have run parallel for decades, occasionally colliding throughout history. In fact, that happened in Louisville nearly a century ago.

The History of the Haymarket

“The Haymarket was a destination because it’s where the customer [could come] and do all their shopping,” says Tom Owen, the archivist for regional collections at the University of Louisville’s Archives and Special Collections at Ekstrom Library.

He continued: “Be it ‘Mama’ coming on a streetcar once a week with shopping bags heavily laden with a week’s worth of meat and produce — it would have been where mom and pop grocers would have loaded up the stuff they were going to sell in their stores. It would have been a place where farmers came with their farm wagons, and while there they would have picked up some seed.”

The Haymarket was a very popular open-air market of trucks, sheds and carts bounded by shops — sort of a proto-farmer’s market that specialized in meat and produce. It began informally in downtown Louisville in the late 19th century.

“And where was it,” Owen says. “It was essentially, for all practical purposes, it was between Floyd and Brook, and Liberty to the South, and Jefferson to the North.”

This version of the Haymarket existed in a variety of forms up until 1962, when it was finally cleared to construct a ramp for I-65. That is what’s on the site now (a later, enclosed version of the Haymarket existed from the 1989 to the mid-2000s, when it was replaced by the Nucleus Building.)

But its legacy lives on — and Owen says the Haymarket is especially remembered for the large number of immigrants who staffed it.

“We had Eastern Jews, we had Syrian-Lebanese and some Italians and some Greeks,” Owen says. “As well as, according to the city directories, who gave a racial designation up to 1924 through 1928, there were a goodly number of African-Americans mingled in on the periphery of the Haymarket district.”

Owen says for many immigrants, working at the Haymarket was their first job upon arriving in the U.S. As such, it was often called Louisville’s “melting pot.”

A.J. Thomas’ grandfather, John Thomas, was one of these immigrants. He originally came to the United States in 1886 or 1887 from Lebanon and started working as a fruit peddler at the Haymarket.

Ashlie Stevens |

A.J. Thomas’ father’s shop on the Haymarket.

“The Haymarket was a place where people could go to work that didn’t have a good grasp of the English language,” A.J. Thomas says. “They were willing to work hard, work long, seven days a week. And with this blend of people, this blend of businesses, they brought with them a certain culture to the city that even today is admirable.”

After the deaths of his daughter and wife, John Thomas returned to Lebanon. While there, he remarried, started a new family, and eventually came back to the states in 1923 — one year before the Immigration Act of 1924.

Or, as Tom Owen puts it, right under the wire.

Immigration as a ‘Quota System’

“To make a long story short, the gist of that law as I understand it, favored northwestern European immigrants,” Owen says. “Be that British Isles as well as German, potentially French, Belgian, Swiss, but prevailed against heavier numbers of immigrants from central and Eastern Europe and the mediterranean world.”

The 1924 Immigration Act became law under President Calvin Coolidge — for whom Kentucky had voted in the presidential election that same year.

It established a quota system that limited the number of immigrants who could come to the United States from a variety of countries, favoring northwestern Europe. For the next 41 years, fewer Lebanese, Greek, Italian, Polish and Czechoslovakian immigrants were allowed to enter — even though those were the same immigrants who, on a local level, helped keep Louisville fed through their work at the Haymarket.

Owen says the law was prompted by a number of things — two massive waves of immigration had already occurred in the United States, and Congress also wanted tighter national security in the wake of World War I. But he says xenophobia played a role, too.

“And why? They were considered less educated, less robust — meaning persistently healthy. They were from poor countries,” Owen says. “They were less inclined to easily adapt to ‘American institutions,’ however you define that, and they had demonstrated some tendencies to criminality or leftist politics.”

These quotas were so strict that in 1924, more people from Southern and Eastern Europe left the United States than arrived as immigrants. And those same quotas remained in place with only minor alterations until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

If the timing had worked out differently, A.J. Thomas says his grandfather and father may not have made it back to Louisville. In reality though, Thomas’ dad, Anthony — who worked at the Haymarket from age 13 on — ended up establishing the incredibly profitable Thomas Meat Market.

Ashlie Stevens |

A.J. Thomas had mugs created for customers at his meat shop, many of which depict scenes from the Haymarket.

“The way he started his occupation in the meat business is a good friend of his during WWII was drafted,” Thomas says. “My dad was unable to serve because of severe arthritis. His friend agreed my dad would run his meat market and after the war, my dad would turn it back over to him.”

He became really good at the meat business — good enough that he started his own shop after the war and staffed generation after generation of Thomas’ family members.

“As time went on his business grew,” Thomas says. “Other family members joined. Myself, my siblings, nephews, nieces, my children, wife, sister, sisters-in-law. We all went into this at different times in our lives.”

And just as the Haymarket provided an economic start for Thomas’ Lebanese family, immigrants from other parts of the world are still working to provide the underpinnings of Louisville’s food system today.

As part of Louisville Public Media’s partnership with Al Dia En America, you can read this story in Spanish here