How has cultural diversity changed in Anoka?

by Bob Kirchner

Cultural diversity has ebbed and flowed throughout Anoka’s history.

The graph shows the changing percentages of foreign born, non-white and Hispanic Anokans from 1850-2010.

The percentage of foreign born Anokans grew rapidly during European immigration in 1860-1880 peaking at 33 percent.

A majority of these immigrants were Swedes with a few Norwegians and Germans. Together, they made up 18 percent of Anoka’s population which was the largest proportion of non-English speaking people in the history of the city so far.

After 1880 the percentage of foreign born declined dramatically as immigration subsided and those immigrants had many Anoka-born children.

The graph also shows the foreign born percentage increased slightly during 1930-1945. This was largely due to emigration from pre-war and war-torn Europe. Then it declined rapidly again.

The rise in foreign born residents since 1980 was due to increased immigration from eastern Europe, Africa and Asia.

The non-white population showed up in the 1870s and the 1920s when a few African-American families settled in Anoka.

The first families came north after emancipation. Anoka was known as an abolitionist town. In fact, the famous African American orator Frederick Douglas gave a speech in Anoka in 1873.

In the 1920s others migrated from the rural south to northern cities seeking economic opportunity.

The rise in non-white residents since 1980 had three causes: northern migration, suburban migration and Asian and African immigration.

The recent increase in Hispanic residents was due to migration from southern states and immigration from Mexico and Central America.

The period of least diversity was between 1950 and 1980 when all three indicators were low. This resulted from low immigration and high rural to urban migration within the state. These Minnesota migrants were descendents of the earlier New England migrants and European immigrants and so were mostly white, native born and English speaking people.

But since 1980 all three indicators of diversity have been on the rise.

So when did Anoka experience its greatest diversity? It may have been during 1870-1890 when the percentage of foreign born or non-English speaking Anokans reached 33 percent or 18 percent respectively.

But if we measure all three indicators and the variety of different languages spoken, it may be in the near future, if current trends continue.

There are more languages spoken in Anoka now than any other time in the city’s history.

According to the Anoka-Hennepin School District website, more than 53 languages are spoken at home by 2,600 students currently enrolled in their English as a Second Language program.

And students in schools in the city of Anoka are 12.2 percent non-white and 4.2 percent Hispanic for a total of 16.4 percent, compared with 13.9 percent in the general population.

So Anoka is becoming more culturally diverse again. But how diverse? And how long will this diversity last?

If history is any indication, diversity will increase for some time but not last for more than a generation. First-graders learn English quickly.

Our American culture absorbs and transforms us just as it transformed immigrants of past generations. And most immigrants are fine with that. That is why they move to a new home – to find a new life.

But we continue to celebrate our cultural origins, albeit from a comfortable distance.

Bob Kirchner is a local historian, seminary student and city of Anoka’s part-time community development director.

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