What is an Americanization School? Before the First World War, there was some concern that certain immigrants were not being integrated into the country quickly enough and that they needed to learn to speak English and otherwise learn the ways of their new country. This sense only increased when the country joined the war in 1917; thereafter, there was a concerted effort made to teach the immigrants, not least because many of those army draftees who were illiterate were immigrants.
One of the first places used for Americanization work was none other than Schott’s Alley, where house number 129 was taken over for this very task. The building was a free-standing house in the middle of the alley. While three times larger than other buildings on the alley, the house was about the same size as those structures that were on the streets surrounding Schott’s. Under the direction of Miss Maude E. Aiton (pictured) the schools worked day and night to help the locals. She described the school in the December 1934 issue of the Journal of the Americanization School Association of the District of Columbia:
This is a school for the whole family. The father may come to prepare for naturalization, the mother, bringing her baby and leaving it in the nursery, may be learning to speak English, the children of grade age or kindergarten age may be with her too; for there is a coaching class where non-English speaking children may learn the language and be sent to their proper age grade as soon as possible, and a kindergarten which meets the needs of the five-year old neighborhood child.
While the school was run by the city, the money came from many sources – including the Daughters of the American Revolution. However, the main source of funds came from Congress, and thus Aiton had to face the Appropriations Committee to explain what she was doing:
[We] get them to speak English, and through getting them to speak English constantly to carry to them, through the content of what we are giving them, a knowledge of not only reading, writing, and the ideals of our country, but to try to get them to understand the institutions of our country. For instance, a group of women in Schotts Alley, just across from the Capitol, had never been to this building until I brought them here, although some had lived in the country as long as 20 years.
The work at the Americanization Schools in Washington continued well after the Second World War, outlasting even Aiton’s death in 1946. By then, much larger facilities were needed, and the Webster School at 10th and H Streets, Northwest, became the center of activity. As late as 1972, there was an Americanization School in Georgetown.
Aiton was buried in Congressional Cemetery, and her name lives on in an DCPS elementary school just off East Capitol Street, east of the Anacostia.