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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

CZECHS - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

CZECHS. Cleveland's Czech community forms one of the city's oldest and largest ethnic groups. Approximately 37,000 people of Czech birth or background resided in the metropolitan area in the 1990s. The term Czech refers collectively to Bohemians, Moravians, and Silesians. Czechs immigrated to America and settled in Cleveland in three distinct waves. The first major migration began when political persecution by the Austrian government forced many well-educated Czechs to flee their homeland. Some had participated in an unsuccessful revolt against the Austrian government in 1848. Peasants and skilled craftsmen from the villages also immigrated to America between 1848 and 1870. Unlike some immigrant groups of this period, the Czech immigration consisted primarily of family units whose intention was to settle permanently, many hoping to homestead in Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin. Immigrants who stopped to rest along the way in cities such as Cleveland often found a haven where they settled and welcomed fellow immigrants. In 1850, there were three Czech families in Cleveland; by 1870, 696 Czech families, or 3,252 individuals, resided in the city.

The largest wave of Czech migration occurred between 1870 and World War I, prompted primarily by economic conditions in the homeland, where employment opportunities were meager, incomes low, and taxes intolerable. The Austrian government's demand that young Czech men serve three years in the army contributed another reason for migration. The Czech immigrants as a group had an extraordinarily low illiteracy rate, as they had enjoyed one of the best education systems in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The illiteracy rate of 1.5% among post-1880 immigrants was lower than that of most states in the Union at that time. By 1890, there were 10,000 Czechs in Cleveland, and the years 1900 to 1914 witnessed the greatest influx of Czech immigrants to the area. Czech migration to the U.S. declined significantly between the world wars for political reasons in both the U.S. and Europe. The U.S. National Origins Act in 1924 restricted immigration into the country, while a democratic Czechoslovakian nation was established in the homeland following WORLD WAR I, removing a major motive for earlier migrations. The third, or post-World War II, wave of migration consisted of Czech refugees, exiles, and expatriates whose flight was prompted by the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948 and the ill-fated Dubcek revolt in 1968. Approximately 30,000 Czechoslovakians arrived in the U.S. between 1948 and 1962. In 1970, roughly 47,000 Czechs lived in metropolitan Cleveland. By 1983, the number had fallen to 37,000 because of emigration restrictions of the Communist government in Czechoslovakia, and a general decline in the area's total population.

Early Czech immigrants of the 1850s settled on Hill, Cross, and Commercial streets, now part of the FLATS. Czechs did not settle in old neighborhoods but preferred, to build their own settlements on the outskirts of the city, where they could cultivate small vegetable and flower gardens. During the 1870s and 1880s, Czechs built two settlements. One was on the west bank of the CUYAHOGA RIVER south of OHIO CITY, while the other was on the east bank of the river near Croton Street. As industry began to intrude into the enclaves, the residents moved farther west, toward West 41st Street between Denison and Clark avenues, and farther east and southeast toward Quincy Avenue and East 80th Street, Buckeye Road, lower Fleet Avenue, and Broadway around East 55th Street. The Broadway area from East 37th Street to Union Avenue, known as "Little Bohemia," contained the largest and most prosperous Czech settlement in Cleveland from the late 1870s to the end of World War I. The influx of immigrants, coupled with encroachment by large industrial plants into the Broadway section, led to a new Czech settlement around East 131st Street and, after World War I, the beginning of the move to the SUBURBS. MAPLE HEIGHTS soon became one of the most important Czech communities in the county, and a dozen other suburbs gained significant Czech populations. However, as late as 1994, the Broadway-Fleet and Clark-Fulton areas still retained a small Czech population. Many of the early immigrants were tailors, shoemakers, masons, stonecutters, blacksmiths, and carpenters. The unskilled immigrants often worked on farms or made barrels in JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER's refineries. The Broadway section of the city offered easy access to the factories. By the turn of the century, Czechs were engaged in every kind of business. The first Czech industrialist in Cleveland was FRANK J. VLCHEK, founder of the VLCHEK TOOL CO., which manufactured tool kits for cars.

Czechs were bound together by a common language and by shared customs, but religiously the community was fractured into two antagonistic groups: Catholics and freethinkers. Nearly all Czech immigrants had identified themselves as Catholic at the time they entered the U.S., but by the end of the 1880s, more than half of Czech-Americans had left the church. Most of the disaffected rejected any religious affiliation and were known as "freethinkers." The majority of freethinkers were anticlerical agnostics, with beliefs similar to those of Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine. A minority was atheist, and others were simply indifferent toward organized religion. Some Czech-Americans who rejected Catholicism were either converted or joined Protestant churches, primarily Methodist, Baptist, or Congregational. The irreconcilable philosophies of the two groups forced every Czech-American to make a choice. Each settlement in Cleveland contained at least one church, established by the religious, and a hall, founded by freethinkers,, both of which served as cultural, civic, and social centers and housed ethnic schools. Not until the 1930s did freethinkers and Catholics freely associate with each other. In recent decades, the number of positive freethinkers has declined, as the younger generation has not been attracted to the movement, and is instead indifferent toward religion.

Of the city's Czech-Americans who are members of an organized religion, the majority are Catholic, some are Protestant, and some are Jewish. The first Czech Catholic church in Cleveland was ST. WENCESLAS CHURCH, founded in 1867 at the corner of Arch and Burwell streets, and named after the Czech patron saint. The second Czech parish was St. Prokop (1874), on the west side of the city. In 1892, the St. Wenceslas congregation built a new church at the corner of Broadway Avenue and East 37th Street, and with the move to the suburbs another St. Wenceslas church was built in Maple Heights in 1923. Eventually both St. Wenceslas churches within the city proper were razed. In 1994, there were five Catholic churches and a Protestant church, SCRANTON ROAD BAPTIST CHURCH, which retained a moderate complement of Czechs in their congregations. The Catholic churches included St. Wenceslas (Maple Heights), Our Lady of Lourdes, and St. John Nepomucene. In 1994, Cleveland still had three Czech halls: the Sokol Greater Cleveland Hall (BOHEMIAN NATIONAL HALL) and Ceska Sin Sokol Hall, which were established by freethinkers, and the Czech Karlin Hall, which was established by Catholics. Fraternal organizations also reflected the religious break in the community, each Czech fraternal having identified itself with either Catholicism or free thought and thereby institutionalizing the schism to this day. The first Czech society organized in Cleveland was the Slovanska Lipa, organized in the 1860s. Among the active Catholic bodies in the 1980s were the CZECH CATHOLIC UNION and the Catholic Order of the Foresters, while the Czechoslovak Society of America and the WESTERN FRATERNAL LIFE ASSOCIATION grew out of the freethinking community. In addition to providing social, educational, cultural, and recreational activities, an important contribution of the organizations was the provision of financial resources through savings and loan societies and insurance groups. Czechs also founded a number of savings and loans to meet similar needs, including the First Federal Savings & Loan Association of Cleveland, the Oul Savings & Loan Company, and the People's Savings & Loan Association.

Gymnastic training, with strong nationalist overtones, has been a vital part of Czech-American life, primarily through the Sokol organization. The first Sokol unit in Cleveland, Sokol Czech, was organized in 1879. Sokols also offered dramatic and musical training, lectures, libraries, and a sense of Czech brotherhood. One Cleveland Sokol unit, the, WORKERS GYMNASTIC UNION, sponsored gymnastic exhibitions and social events at Taborville, a Czech cooperative community southeast of CHAGRIN FALLS TOWNSHIP. Three other major Czech gymnastic units in the 1980s were SOKOL CLEVELAND, SOKOL GREATER CLEVELAND, and Sokol Ceska Sin. The Sokols were responsive to the aspirations of Czechs for a free nation-state. Before the U.S. entered World War I, several members of Cleveland's Sokols participated in the Czechoslovak Legions that fought with the Allies in Europe, and a total of 360 Czech and Slovak volunteers from the Cleveland area eventually joined the Czechoslovak Legionnaires. In 1915, Czechs and Slovaks met in Cleveland to plan a strategy to liberate and unify Czech and Slovak regions in an independent republic. Czech-American publications and ethnic leaders lobbied to influence American public opinion, and Monsignor OLDRICH ZLAMAL, pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes Church, encouraged Cleveland Czechs to become politically active and to petition for the independence of Czechoslovakia. The democratic Czechoslovakian republic created at the conclusion of World War I was a source of personal gratification for Czechs in this country until its Nazi occupation in 1938 and its fall to Communism in 1948.

Drama, musical, and dance groups have helped preserve the Czechs' ethnic heritage since the 1860s. In 1867 a musical organization, the LUMIR-HLAHOL-TYL SINGING SOCIETY, was established in Cleveland, followed by such groups as the VOJAN SINGING SOCIETY and the Vcelka Czech Dramatic Society. Music was an area of the arts in which many Czechs excelled, 10 of the 57 charter members of the CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA having been Czech. One of them, CHARLES V. RYCHLIK, was a successful composer and respected music teacher until his death in 1962. Families such as the HRUBYS and the Machans were active as performers and composers.

Czech newspapers in Cleveland presented the views of three different segments of Czech society: freethinkers, socialists, and religious. Toward the latter part of the 19th century, Cleveland was one of the major cities in the nation with a large population of Czech progressives or freethinkers. Pokrok (Progress), established in 1871, was the first progressive Czech newspaper in the city. It was followed by a progressive weekly, DENNICE NOVOVEKU (Star of the New Era), and a daily, Svet (The World) under the same management. Cleveland was also a major center of Czech socialism. In 1909, the weekly AMERICKE DELNICKE LISTY (American Workman's News) began publication. Its editor, JOSEPH MARTINEK, was active in, the struggle for old-age pensions in Ohio. Catholics preferred the American, a Czech newspaper founded by FRANK J. SVOBODA. In 1939, Svet bought out the American and became the SVET-AMERICAN. From then until the summer of 1950, when it ceased publication, the Svet-American was the only Czech daily newspaper published in Cleveland. Following its demise a new Czech daily, NOVY SVET (New World), provided Cleveland with a Czech voice until 1977.

The movement of Czechs toward the suburbs, which began shortly after World War I, has weakened the old neighborhoods and many of the institutions located in them, making it difficult to maintain ethnicity. The Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1948 further alienated Czech-Americans from their Old World roots. In the 1980s, however, Czech-American culture in Cleveland was still evident in gymnastic meets and congresses, in folklore demonstrations and fetes, in religious festivals, in commemorations of events significant to Czechs in Bohemia and Moravia as well as in America, and in the instruction in Czech history, language, and culture available at education centers. The fall of the Communist regime in the "Velvet Revolution" of 1990 served to strengthen ties between Cleveland's Czechs and the old country, opening the way to increased tourism by individuals and such groups as Sokol Greater Cleveland and Lubomir Hromadka's Old Style Bohemian Brass Band.

Nicholas J. Zentos, Lorain County Community College

Wendy Marley, Cuyahoga Community College

Ledbetter, Eleanor. The Czechs of Cleveland (1919).

Works Projects Administration. The Peoples of Cleveland (1942).

Last Modified: 20 Nov 2010 12:05:18 PM

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