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The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

SERBS - The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

SERBS. Although the Serbs are not one of Cleveland's largest ethnic groups, they have made themselves widely known throughout the city. Serbian immigration to Cleveland came in 2 main periods: from the beginning of the 20th century to the beginning of World War I, and from the end of World War II to the mid-1980s. Serbs as a group maintain a strong ethnic identity, and while they adapt readily to American life, they do not quickly assimilate into American society. Many, although they may be 3rd- or 4th-generation American Serbs, maintain traditional beliefs and customs. Lazar Krivokapic, a Serb from Montenegro who settled in Cleveland in 1893, is considered the city's first Serb. It was not until after the turn of the century, however, that significant numbers of Serbs came to Cleveland. Virtually all of these Serbs were not from Serbia but from the Austrian Military Frontier in Croatia; consequently, they were part of the enormous migration from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The largest group came from the area called Lika, while many others came from Banija, Kordun, Backa, and the Banat. There were also a significant number from Dalmatia and some from Montenegro, which at that time was an independent kingdom. Most intended to come only to earn enough money to pay debts at home or to ensure a more comfortable life in their native regions. They were virtually all of peasant origin. They worked in factories, especially steel mills such as Otis Steel or American Steel & Wire. Many Serbs did return to their native regions, but most stayed and established new lives in the U.S. Few women came in the early migration, and most of those who did ran boarding houses where large groups of Serbs lived.

Most Serbs lived in the area from the E. 20s to the E. 40s north of Superior Ave. Hamilton and St. Clair avenues were particularly dense areas of Serbian settlement. Many CROATIANS, especially Greek Catholics from the area of Zumberak, had also settled in this area. Serbs felt especially friendly toward the Zumbercani, as these Greek Catholics were called, because their religious customs were similar to those of the Serbian Orthodox religion and because their dialect was similar to that of the Serbs from the Croatian Military Frontier. Roman Catholic Croats also lived in this area, and slightly farther to the east was the large settlement of SLOVENES, with whom the Serbs felt some kinship as fellow South Slavs from Austria-Hungary. It is estimated that at the time of World War I, approx. 1,000 Serbs lived in Cleveland. A small group of Serbs began St. Sava Lodge in 1904 as a mutual-benefit society to aid members who were ill or injured or to provide death benefits for those far from their families. More women gradually came to the settlement, usually wives or sisters of Serbs already here. As children were born to the immigrants, other organizations were needed. In 1909 St. Sava Lodge organized St. Sava Church so that Cleveland Serbs could observe their, religious and ethnic customs. A succession of houses served as churches until 1919, when the community purchased a German Lutheran church on E. 36th St. World War I stopped immigration, and with Serbia playing a key ry, tin that war, Cleveland Serbs, in cooperation with other Slavs in the city, became involved in anti-Austrian demonstrations. Some returned to Europe to fight for the Serbian cause.

Stabilization and AMERICANIZATION were the key factors affecting the Cleveland Serbian community until the second period of immigration, beginning after World War II. New lodges were formed and united under one large fraternal organization called Jedinstvo, or Unity, with its headquarters in Cleveland until 1963, when it merged with the Serb Natl. Fed. Many Serbs began moving from the original St. Clair Ave. settlement, often called Centrala, to other areas closer to their work. The COLLINWOOD area in particular, because of available jobs at the COLLINWOOD RAILROAD YARDS and FISHER BODY DIVISION OF GENERAL MOTORS CORP., attracted many Serbs. Other settlements were in the E. 55th and Broadway area for those who worked at REPUBLIC STEEL CORP.; Madison Ave. on the west side; and an area near the WEST SIDE MARKET, where many Serbs from Dalmatia settled. Americanization became a stronger force as the number of American-born Serbs increased and as many of the early settlers died. The restrictive immigration policies enacted during the 1920s prevented a new influx of immigrants, so the community stopped receiving the influence of new immigrants.

The migration immediately following World War II was markedly different from the earlier one. Nearly all the immigrants were displaced persons, people who had been prisoners of war in Germany and did not want to return to a Communist Yugoslavia, or political refugees such as Chetniks who fled Yugoslavia after their military defeat. Many were from Serbia proper and were schooled professionals from urban backgrounds. With their strong commitment to Serbian culture and their large numbers (over 700 came to Cleveland between 194952), they instilled new life into Cleveland's Serbian community. They formed new organizations, cultural, fraternal, and political, and strengthened the St. Sava Serbian Orthodox parish. Many were employed at Republic Steel and settled in the E. 55th and Broadway area. Tensions and resentments between members of the two migrations arose, with many American-born Serbs not inclined to understand the strong political commitments that the "DPs" held. Many newer immigrants felt that the earlier migration had lost much of its Serbianness and that its members were reluctant to share power in organizations with the newcomers. These tensions were not exclusive to the Cleveland Serbian community, but were common to all communities in the U.S. where the two migrations coexisted.

These tensions grew particularly strong in the 1960s,, when a new facility for the St. Sava congregation was erected in PARMA. The new St. Sava church, completed and consecrated in 1963, immediately became the object of legal, religious, and political arguments between the two groups. Each side had its own board and priest, held services separately, and claimed to be the legitimate holder of parish property. From 196375, the contention between the two factions, expressed through litigation in courts and public demonstrations, filled the Cleveland news media. Eventually the controversy was resolved, with each group maintaining its own St. Sava Church (See ST. SAVA SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH CONTROVERSY). The church schism created a deep rift in the entire Serbian community. Some families and friends were split on the issue, and many Serbs felt uncomfortable having to take a stand for either side. After the settlement in 1975, separation of Serbian communities continued, although rancor had begun to subside in the 1980s. In 1992 with Serbs worldwide recognizing the need for unity, the schism in the Serbian Orthodox Church ended, with both sides loyal to the Serbian Patriarch in Belgrade, and in Cleveland it was marked by a joint service of the two Serbian congregations. The locations of both churches, which together have a membership of approx. 850 families, have had a pronounced effect on the housing patterns of Serbs throughout Cuyahoga County, with the great majority in the southwestern suburbs, particularly Parma, Parma Hts., Seven Hills, and Broadview Hts. A reduced settlement remains in the E. 55th and Broadway area.

From the 1960s through the mid-1980s a large number of Serbs immigrated to Cleveland from Yugoslavia, as Yugoslav emigration policy was liberalized. Changes in U.S. immigration policy and the warfare following withdrawal of states from Yugoslavia ended that period of immigration. These immigrants, many of them educated professionals, have strongly influenced the maintenance of Serbian cultural values. The Serbian language is still widely spoken throughout the community, and radio programs in Serbian continue to be popular. Cultural organizations and lodges remain active. With the dismantling of much of Yugoslavia and the ensuing warfare in the 1990s, many Cleveland Serbs, feeling that the Serbian viewpoint in the conflict was not represented in the American media, joined together to disseminate that viewpoint and to aid Serbian war refugees. The Serbian community has thus maintained a high ethnic consciousness, in contrast to many other ethnic groups in Cleveland where that consciousness has waned.

Donald A. Tipka

Cleveland Public Library

Georgevich, Dragoslav et al. Serbian Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland (1977).

Ledbetter, Eleanor. The Jugoslavs of Cleveland (1918).

Last Modified: 22 Jul 1997 01:47:59 PM

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