Buffalo in the ’20s: Protesting foreign languages in city government

       By Steve Cichon

With an influx of people speaking languages other than English in Buffalo during the 1910s and ’20s, civil service positions were created in Buffalo to provide city services to those who spoke Polish or Italian as their primary tongue.

Civil service tests were offered specifically to Polish and Italian speakers to become police officers, especially in neighborhoods where those were the primary languages spoken.

In 1928, the municipal civil service office offered tests for Italian and Polish speaking social welfare visitors, even as city fathers slashed the social welfare budget and questioned the ability of the City Hospital to continue helping patients who couldn’t pay for services.

There were also charges of politics and even “the blackhand” playing a role in the selection process.

In 1928, powerful Niagara District Councilman John C. Montana insisted on a budget change that created a position for an Italian speaking welfare visitor. He was then accused of manipulating the selection process and ignoring the civil service test rankings in making a hire.

Decades later, in 1957, Montana was picked up by state police straddling a barbed wire fence running away from the infamous Apalachin meeting of Mafia bosses. He eventually served jail time for conspiracy to obstruct justice, but was released after a judge decided there was no proof any crime was committed at Apalachin.

Even when selected legitimately, the foreign language positions weren’t popular with the rest of the population. After one test was offered in search of a Polish-speaking clerk, The News printed a letter in opposition to the practice. Knowing Polish, wrote one would-be test taker, shouldn’t be a prerequisite to a job.

“Our opinions are that the rules governing civil service examinations bar nobody from an examination for clerk or carrier if he be a fit person and capable of passing the examination.

“We say give every man his dues and if he be a Chinaman and he passes highest let him be appointed first man.”