Augsburg's Immigrant Roots
On Augsburg's campus, at the intersection of 21st Avenue and 8th Street South, is the "New" Old Main. This was the center of campus for most of the 20th century and while it continues to host classes and student activities, most students now flock to the Christiansen Center. When "New" Old Main opened in 1902, it replaced the original Old Main, once located a block to the north. Old Main provided all the classrooms, dormitories and dining facilities as well as a gymnasium and a chapel for Augsburg's early students.
When Old Main opened in 1872, the halls were filled with young men speaking Norwegian on their way to classes. Augsburg's early leaders had a dual mission: to preserve their Norwegian heritage (through language and religion) and to prepare Norwegian students for life in America (by learning English and through civic participation). They saw "assimilation," or adapting to American life, as a two-way process where Norwegian immigrants could maintain a distinctly Norwegian identity as they also became Americans. These two objectives were hard to balance. If students wanted English classes, they had to take them at the University of Minnesota. Norwegian language prevailed in many Augsburg classes, among student groups and in the student newspaper, The Augsburg Ekko, into the early 20th century.
Norwegian Lutheran values sometimes conflicted with American culture. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, faculty and students who pursued a pious life on campus, did not like the proliferation of saloons, bars and dance halls in the neighborhood. Some participated in Temperance campaigns which put them at odds with some of their neighbors, while others stayed close to campus, earning them a reputation for being insular. But Augsburg students fiercely debated issues of the day through clubs like the Demosthenian Society. Early debates held in Old Main, for example, concluded that (a) the library was more important than the temperance lodge, (b) co-education of sexes was most recommendable and ought to be introduced to every institution of learning, (c) unlimited religious freedom as practiced in the US was productive of religious revolution, and (d) the Scandinavian element in the US ought to as soon as possible assimilate with the American element. These debates were held in English, which was rare for Augsburg student groups.
Today you are more likely to hear Spanish or Somali in the halls of Old Main than Norwegian. In fact those halls where the original Norwegian students rushed to class have been gone since 1947 when demolition of the original Old Main created room for Science Hall.
Augsburg has played an important role for the Norwegian community and its descendants in Minnesota. The demographics have changed over the last 150 years and so has the curriculum. True to its origins as a school founded by immigrants, however, Augsburg has remained an important institution for waves of newcomers and residents in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.