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Citizenship Day Used to Be Called ‘I Am an American Day.’ Here’s How It Came to Be—and Why It Changed

7 minute read

The reason why Tuesday is Constitution Day is clear: Sept. 17 is the anniversary of the 1787 signing of that all-important document. But in the U.S., Constitution Day also shares the bill with Citizenship Day, and the story behind that observance is more complicated.

Long before Citizenship Day was made official, there was “I Am An American Day.” Its initial conception was a sign of its times, and its evolution has been significant too.

David F. Schmitz, a professor of History at Whitman College, credits a Polish refugee for organizing the first “I Am An American Day” celebration on May 31, 1938, in Huntington, N.Y. on Long Island. Bronislava du Brissac, better known in the United States as Mrs. Paul d’Otrenge Seghers, fled Poland after the 1917 Russian Revolution, and she and her husband had a farm on the North Shore. “She had achieved the American Dream as a refugee immigrant to the U.S., to now being part of a wealthy, successful family,” says Schmitz.

She organized “I Am an American Day” through the Helios Foundation, a group she founded that organized charitable activities that benefited the larger community. The celebration featured patriotic speeches, songs, prayers and a parade from Walt Whitman’s birthplace to the Seghers’ Sunnyhill farm, complete with people dressed up in colonial- and revolutionary-era costume. Women carried baskets of grass, which they scattered along the parade route as a nod to Whitman’s famous “Leaves of Grass” poem.

But the concept of a day dedicated to promoting civic responsibility didn’t catch fire until a year later.

In 1939, 350 young people who had just turned 21-year-olds participated in a ceremony in Wauwatosa, Wisc., celebrating their new ability to vote. (The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 in 1971). William Randolph Hearst saw coverage of the ceremony in the Hearst newspaper in Milwaukee, and described it in June 4, 1939, editorial as an “idea worthy of emulation.” He called on cities nationwide to hold similar events, which many did later that month. In New York, 5,000 new 21-year-olds took part. A foundation in Los Angeles lobbied for a federal law establishing an “I Am an American Day” program, even advocating for a pledge that newly-turned 21 year olds would be required recite as a rite of passage.

The next year, in May 1940, Congress passed and President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a joint resolution declaring the third Sunday in May “I Am An American Day.” Legislators ultimately let towns and cities decide how they wanted to celebrate, though the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Department of Justice did publish guidelines for celebrations, highlighting the example set in Highland Park, Mich., where representatives of 29 nations processed into the room with floral wreaths, “symbolizing the ‘gifts’ that are the trades and crafts practiced in the old country,” to present to Uncle Sam.

In several ways, the observance was an assertion of the nation’s values. For one thing, the early May timing can be seen as, in part, an effort to “steal the thunder” from May Day celebrations of the global labor movement, says Christopher Capozzola, an expert on the history of citizenship and a professor of History at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “There were never a lot of socialists or communists in the U.S., but there were more in the ’30s than ever before or since. May Day celebrations scared a lot of people. ‘I Am An American Day’ is a little bit of a challenge to that,” he says.

In addition, being an American citizen had recently taken on a new level of importance, thanks to FDR’s New Deal public-assistance programs. Externally, the U.S. also had new reason to want to take a stand on values: though the U.S. had not yet entered World War II, Britain and France had declared war on Nazi Germany less than a year earlier. And, Capozzola notes, “the rates of naturalization were higher during World War II than any time before or since.”

Starting on May 4, 1940, the Immigration and Naturalization Service aired “I Am An American” radio broadcasts every Sunday for a year, featuring interviews with famous naturalized Americans. For example, the June 22, 1940, broadcast featured Albert Einstein, who had recently taken the citizenship test. “America will prove that democracy is not merely a form of government bound to a good Constitution,” he said, “but also a way of life supported by a people who have a good tradition — a tradition of moral strength. And the fate of the human race is more than ever dependent on its moral strength today.” (Einstein was naturalized on Oct. 1, 1940.)

Once the U.S. formally entered the war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, “the Roosevelt administration saw the advantage of using this in connection with the war effort, and turning it into a contrast between America and its enemies during the war, and the speeches became more and more about that,” says Schmitz; the image above shows an “I AM AN AMERICAN” banner hanging outside an Oakland, Calif., grocery store the day after Pearl Harbor.

The rhetoric in general was “very welcoming to refugees” but in keeping with a mindset focused on European immigration to the exclusion of the rest of the world, he says. For example, some “I Am An American Day” festivities explicitly didn’t mention Japanese-Americans, even as American citizens who were Japanese were being sent to internment and incarceration camps. Los Angeles’s 1942 parade even marched through the “ghost-town-like” Little Tokyo neighborhood.

The most famous “I Am An American Day” ceremony took place on May 21, 1944, when judge Learned Hand addressed a crowd of 1.5 million who attended a ceremony where 150,000 people were becoming American citizens in Central Park in New York City. He described the U.S. as a nation of immigrants “who had the courage to break from the past and brave the dangers and the loneliness of a strange land” to seek “the spirit of liberty,” which is a “freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves.” It’s that spirit, he said, “for which our young men are at this moment fighting and dying.”

By 1945, more than 1,600 “I Am An American Day” events took place annually. Once the war was over, however, enthusiasm for the celebrations waned.

For many, enthusiasm for immigration waned too. In the post-World War II years, as the Cold War and then the Korean War ramped up, U.S. Senators Pat McCarran (D-NV) and Francis E. Walter (D-PA) introduced a bill that invigorated discussions of a new kind of immigration law that would account for fears of Communist ideology spreading to the U.S. The legislation made immigration easier for people from Western European countries and harder for Eastern Europeans.

When that law passed in mid-1952, it overrode a veto from President Harry S. Truman, who had that February signed into law a bill that moved “I Am An American Day” to September, having picked the Constitution’s birthday as an appropriate day for such an observance. That bill also renamed it “Citizenship Day.”

In a statement, he said that he hoped “every citizen of the United States, whether native-born or foreign-born, should on September 17 of each year give special thought and consideration to his rights and responsibilities under our Constitution.” On the first Citizenship Day a couple of months later, Truman explained that he believed that any list of “dangers to free government” ought to include a lack of understanding of civic responsibility. And, he said, pride in the American system is a bulwark against any of the feared communist brainwashing.

Today, as the United States debates what it means to be an American citizen, and who gets to be one, the connection between Constitution Day and Citizenship Day continues, with programs that include discussions of immigration law and the 2020 Census. And, between Sept. 13 and Sept. 23, nearly 34,000 people will celebrate in a particularly special way: by being sworn in as new American citizens during 316 ceremonies nationwide.

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com