Citizenship Day Used to Be Called 'I Am an American Day.' Here's How It Came to Be—and Why It ChangedBreaking News
tags: citizenship, immigration, Citizenship Day
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.