This collection was processed thanks to funding from the ECCF Merrimack Valley General Fund, an Essex Heritage Partnership Grant, the Stearns and Russell Trusts, and the White Fund.

Alice O'Connor (1886-1968) was an immigration worker in Boston, Massachusetts. Between 1918 and 1962 she worked as the executive secretary, social worker, executive official, and finally board member for the Massachusetts Department of Education's Division of Immigration and Americanization. She sought to ensure that all immigrants to Massachusetts were treated without prejudice and were given the opportunity to gain an education, earn a living, and become citizens of the United States. Living her entire life in Lawrence, Massachusetts, she was a very religious woman for whom family and friends were very important. Her diaries and thesis document both her personal and professional lives.

Subjects: Immigration History, Immigration Law, Discrimination, Naturalization, Citizenship, Massachusetts Division of Immigration and Naturalization, International Institute of Boston, National League for American Citizenship, National Citizenship Education Program, Massachusetts Displaced Persons Commission, Education, Economics, Social Clubs, Political Clubs, Emmanuel College, Social Work, Lawyers, Great Depression, Works Project Administration, World War II, Cold War, McCarran Act, Red Scare, Communism, Religion, St. Francis Purgatorial Society, Families, Genealogy

People: Pauline Rever Thayer, Mary Guyton, Mary O'Connor, Susanna O'Connor, Eleanor O'Connor, John P. O'Connor, Susanna (Brassill) O'Connor, Walter H. Bieringer, Senator/President John F. Kennedy, Dennis E. Callahan, Governor Leverett Saltonstall, John E Sweeney, Mary Sweeney, Mary O'Connor (Alice O'Connor's Aunt), Maurice Mahoney, Maggie Leary, Charles O'Donnell, John Joyce, Ellen O'Connor, Abigail O'Connor, John Higgins, Timothy Sweeney, John P. O'Connor, Mary O'Connor Sullivan, Annie Hart, Honora F. Brassill, Bridget Brassill, Johanna Brassill, Nora Brassill, Patrick Brassill, Jan Coakley, Richard H. Forshay, Marjorie (Putnam) Coakley, Jennie Joyce, Katie A. Brassill, Captain Michael F. Sullivan, Mary A. Sullivan, John S. Sullivan, Richard J. Sullivan, President Calvin Coolidge, President William Howard Taft, President Herbert Hoover, President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Her Story

Immigration Reformer

Alice Winifred O’Connor was born on June 11, 1886 in Lawrence, Massachusetts to John P. and Susanna (Brassill) O'Connor. Both of Miss O'Connor's parents were Irish immigrants. John was a police officer in the Lawrence Police Department and Susanna was a housewife. Alice O'Connor was the youngest of four daughters, her sisters being named Mary, Susanna, and Eleanor. 

O'Connor was raised in Lawrence, graduating from the Oliver Grammar School in 1899 and the Lawrence High School in 1903. She was the valedictorian of her high school class. She continued her education at the Lowell Normal School as well as the Lawrence Training School for Teachers, graduating from the latter in 1906. 

Miss O'Connor spent her life meeting the needs of the immigrants throughout the state of Massachusetts. Her career spanned several fields, including education, social work, and law. She also participated in several important committees and organizations, including the National Citizenship Program and the International Institute. She lived her in her family's home at 19 Logan Street until her death in 1966.

Teaching Years, 1906-1918

It is an understatement to say that teaching in Lawrence during the early years of the 20th century was a challenge. The rapidly growing textile manufacturing industry made it necessary to recruit 10,000 new workers. In addition to the Irish, English, German, French and Italians already engaged in the mills, mill owners expanded their search to include eastern Europeans from numerous nations and even from the Middle East. 

From 1890 to 1915, the city’s population more than doubled, from 44,000 to 90,000. Immigrant children in the schools exhibited far more needs than other students. They spoke many different languages; most were impoverished; and they would attend school sporadically, in some cases because they had to work in the mills. 

They needed more than a teacher, and they got it in O’Connor. After graduating from the Lawrence Training School for Teachers in 1906 she began teaching at the Lawrence School Department headquarters, located at 177 Haverhill Street. Her classes there focused on teaching immigrant students who spoke little or no English. Later in her teacher career O'Connor worked at the Prospect Street and Oliver Schools. 

By the time of the Lawrence Strike of 1912, O’Connor would have acquired substantial first hand knowledge of the lives of the newcomer families. This is reflected in the 1914 thesis she prepared, which documented their situation. The thesis, drawing on information about living and working conditions found in the newspapers, the Lawrence Survey, City and State reports, other immigration researchers, included such topics as a description of the contemporary population of immigrants, the places these immigrants worked, the discrimination they faced, and relief agencies available to immigrants in need of help.

Social Worker and Lawyer, 1918-1939

In 1918 O’Connor was hired as the Executive Secretary for the Massachusetts Department of Education’s Division of Immigration and Americanization. It was at this point that she began writing in personal and work diaries, something she would do throughout the rest of her life. O’Connor’s duties varied widely, including typing correspondence for the Director of the Division, filing paperwork, meeting immigrants as their ships docked in Boston Harbor, and assisting immigrants who came into the office. 

In the 1920s O’Connor began to take language and social work classes, graduating from Boston College in 1927 with a degree in social work. O’Connor also attended many different conferences and luncheons related to social work, immigration, and Americanization. Her duties at the Division became more complex throughout the decade, as she took on the role of a social worker. 

Her new responsibilities included speaking in front of local groups and college classes about the work of the Division and the plight of immigrants in Massachusetts. She also attempted to allay fears of a communist takeover by immigrants. 

In June of 1929 O’Connor graduated with an LLB from Portia Law School in Boston, a school designed specifically for women. She was then promoted to the position of Supervisor of Social Service. Her new responsibilities included managing Division employees, college student workers, and Works Project Administration participants. 

Throughout the 1930s O’Connor obtained more influence in the Division. She was often summoned by the Commissioner to discuss such important issues and would visit branch offices in order to analyze their efficiency. The Supervisor of Adult Alien Education, Mary Guyton, frequently asked O’Connor to speak to her classes or take charge of a class when the teacher was ill. 

During this time O'Connor became a member of the National League for American Citizenship as well as the Massachusetts Federation of Women’s Clubs. She was a very active member, giving talks and serving on special committees.

Leadership, 1940-1962

In 1940 the position of 'Director of the Division of Immigration and Americanization' was eliminated and the Supervisor of Social Service became the executive position. Thus O’Connor became the senior official on the Division staff, reporting directly to the Board. O'Connor was responsible for corresponding with officials in other state and national departments, formulating budgets, assigning and reviewing employee work, managing the daily goings-on of the main office, and hiring new employees. 

By the 1940s O’Connor was combating national fears that immigrant groups were being infiltrated by undercover agents from enemy countries. She began to receive visits from FBI agents and the Governor's Defense Committee regarding these groups, including the American Civic League. 

O'Connor worked with immigrants who feared being labeled adversaries of the United States, such as a young German boy who wanted to change his enemy alien status to 'Austrian.' During this time O'Connor also became a director of the International Institute as well as the Associate Director of the National Citizenship Education Program. 

After the end of World War II, O'Connor attended, and gave, several talks discussing the prejudices and other difficulties refugees from Europe faced, and the responsibility of the United States to help them. By 1948 she was a member of the Massachusetts Displaced Persons Commission, at one point serving as its executive secretary. 

In the early 1950s O'Connor combated national fears of a communist takeover by immigrants. O'Connor attended hearings for immigrants suspected of communist tendencies and held conferences in her office in order to discuss repealing the McCarran Act. 

In 1953 O'Connor was honored for all of her service to immigrants and displaced persons by receiving an honorary Doctorate of Law from Emanuel College. In 1956 O'Connor retired from her position as Supervisor of Social Service for the Division of Immigration and Naturalization and was appointed Chairman of the Division's Advisory Board. She remained very active in the Division’s affairs until she retired from the Board in 1962.

Personal Life and Death

O’Connor was a very religious individual, attending mass every Sunday throughout her life as well as on holidays until she was too ill to do so. She often wrote religious quotes in her diaries and sometimes noted days on which she did not pray. She was also very close to her family, spending a great deal of time with her sisters and nephews. They would often go shopping together as well as participate in family dinners. 

O’Connor also made friends with her coworkers at the Division. She and Mary Guyton became very good friends, often spending their lunch breaks together as well as meeting for dinner and drinks. In many cases they would also invite other coworkers from throughout the state government to accompany them. O’Connor remained friends with many of these individuals even after her retirement. 

O’Connor experienced multiple health issues throughout her years at the Division. This included abscessed teeth, fractured bones, and painful arthritis. After her retirement these health issues intensified, and by 1963 she spent more and more time at home and in Methuen’s Bon Secours Hospital. She often complained of dizziness, nausea, exhaustion, and forgetfulness. 

Alice Winifred O'Connor died in 1966 of cerebral thrombosis and was buried at the Immaculate Conception Cemetery in Lawrence, Massachusetts. She never married nor had children. You can learn more about the life and work of Alice O'Connor by viewing her thesis and diaries online or by contacting us at