Part Two, Section Two by Alice Boberg


The Early Years 

More than 4 1/2 million Poles have settled permanently in the United States. They came at different times, for different reasons and from different backgrounds and circumstances which affected where they settled in the United States. Up to the 1900’s, about 18% of the total arrived; from 1901-1914 about 59%; from 1914-1950 about 23%, with the peak year in 1921. Arrivals since then have been under the rigid quota system and have been minimal.

Up to 1883 about 95% of America’s immigrants came from Northern and Western Europe. The earliest Polish settlers, although only a handful, were prosperous businessmen, adventurers and political exiles. Outside of Jamestown, the earliest settlements were in New York, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania, and the immigrants found employment on individual farms, plantations and in businesses.

Polish immigrants, like many others, often had romantic visions of reestablishing their old homeland in America. This was especially true of exiles from a land partitioned by Prussia, Russia and Austria, where their only means of identity was a language and a religion. In 1834, a group of exiles from Austria illustrated this desire. In a petition to the Congress they asked for land in Illinois to establish a new Poland. The petition was granted, but the land was ultimately abandoned and the original political exiles settled in New York, Albany, Philadelphia, Boston and the Midwest.

The “pioneer” period of Polish settlement began with the founding of a farming community at Panna Maria, Texas, in 1854, under the direction of the Franciscan Father Leopold Moczygemba. These hardy Silesians, consisting of around 800 men, women and children, had to contend with hardships that were completely foreign to their background; ultimately many left and settled in San Antonio, St. Hedwig and Yorktown.

In 1855, a family from West Prussia settled in Portage County, Wisconsin and founded Polonia which eventually grew to a prosperous rural community. The Polish population of Wisconsin continued to grow and by 1885 the state had the largest number of Polish residents in the United States. Patterns of settlement shifted after 1885, and other states rapidly caught up and passed Wisconsin in the total number of Polish residents.

Although small numbers of Poles immigrated to the United States through the mid-19th century, the large influx of Poles did not begin until the 1870’s. Early settlements were mostly on an individual basis, many immigrants taking advantage of the Homestead Act. It is difficult to ascertain the number of arrivals during this period but in all likelihood it was fairly small. By 1870, only 10 parishes had been formed, a statistic of great importance, as Father Jasinski points out:

Probably the most poignant suffering and the most far-reaching in its effects was that caused by the strange environment and foreign tongue. Unprepared for his new living conditions, the immigrant Pole found himself frequently exploited. He became painfully aware of his ignorance of the language and customs of his new country. He sensed the danger of personal, moral, religious and social disintegration. To avoid this tragedy, he clung to his Polish Catholic traditions, to his prayers and devotions; he associated closely with fellow immigrants, preferably with those from the same region of Poland as himself. Hewas thus saved from being absorbed by his non-Catholic and non-Polish environment and from disappearing in it without a vestige like many Polish immigrants of earlier years.[1]

Polish immigrants in America tried to reconstruct, as far as possible, the primary social system of the old country. They settled in compact masses, where rent was low and land was cheap, and established communities in which they could build a church.

By 1860 at least 30,000 Poles lived in America scattered throughout the thirty-four states and seven territories comprising the Union. Poles fought for both the South and the North. After the Civil War, American railroads imported Polish immigrants to Illinois, Nebraska and Iowa to settle in agricultural and mining colonies. The Burlington-Missouri Railroad, alone, moved 300 families to Nebraska in 1877 to land that it had acquired by Congressional land grants and resold to the Poles.

Poles as Farmers

At least one-third of the total Polish immigration ventured into farming; some in the South, some in the Midwest and the others scattered over the Northwest. Poles had been recruited to work on tobacco and vegetable farms as early as 1870. With their knowledge of the land, they restored hundreds of thousands of depleted acres to high-grade yield again.

The Poles lived on friendly terms with their neighbors and became as much an integral part of the region as the original New Englanders. This was especially true of the Poles in Orange County of New York. After a few immigrants discovered this paradise of the onion and their affinities for raising it, they informed their relatives and friends in Poland and soon hundreds of Poles worked in the onion fields.[2]

Wherever they settled, they were highly praised as farmers.

Most of the farming settlements were established by 1880. The Polish immigrant, by reclaiming abandoned farms and specializing in onion and tobacco crops, prospered. In the Midwest they planted corn and wheat; in the Connecticut Valley they raised tobacco, onions and asparagus; on Long Island they specialized in truckfarming. “Even Calvin Coolidge admitted once that it took the Polish immigrants to show the Yankees how to till the soil.”[3]

By 1911, 90% of the foreign born Polish farmers and 55.7% of Polish agricultural laborers resided in ten states: Michigan, Wisconsin, Texas, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, New York, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Of this number, 63.4% resided in the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

City Dwellers

The “closing” of the frontier by 1890 forced the nation’s, immigrants to look to other than agriculture for work. The post-Civil War period was the beginning of the large flow of Polish immigrants to the United States:

The decade 1870-1880 added nearly 35,000 Poles to the population of the United States; the decade ending 1890 nearly 99,000; and the last decade 1890-1900 nearly 236,000. In 1900 there were 383,407 natives of Poland in the United States.[4]

The Polish immigrant quickly joined the ranks of the foreign-born who filled the opening jaws of industrial expansion. The “Great Migration” brought enormous numbers to the cities, settling wherever cheap labor was needed. Four-fifths of the immigrants who came after 1880 stopped within the great urban triangle formed by St. Louis, Washington and Boston. Many immigrants got no further than their first stop, New York City. Thousands settled on the Lower East side, living in crowded tenements and working in the garment industry. The largest concentration of Poles is still to be found in New York City.

The constant growth of population was absorbed within the existing communities causing sanitary problems as apartments were divided and subdivided.

In 1901, still prior to the peak years of Polish immigration, the City Homes Association, published its REPORT on the housing conditions of three ethnic pockets that had been bypassed by urban expansion. The Association’s REPORT graphically demonstrated the wretched living conditions facing first generation Polonia. The total population of this sample neighborhood was 13,825, an average of 3339.8 tenants per acre; 2,716 families were compressed into forty acres in which no building rose higher than four stories. This put the density of the “Polish Quarter” (at) three times that of the most crowded portions of Tokyo, Calcutta, and many other Asiatic cities.[5]

It was incredible that in one city block area, a total of 1,601 people (832 children) comprising 316 families lived in an area measuring three and one half acres. There was an average of 3.62 apartments per building and the sample survey revealed that 72% of the “apartments” were 400 square feet or less.[6]

This continuous flow of immigrants had a subtle change which was particularly critical at a time when the native birth rate was beginning to fall.

From a demographic point of view, the specific features of this immigration were exceedingly stimulating. Among the arrivals was a large percentage of the young and early middle-aged. There was therefore an accession to the American population of people in their most vigorous years. Apart from the economic result – that they became immediately productive, without passing through a preliminary period as consumers – the peculiar age distribution had significant demographic consequences. The immigrants enjoyed a high reproductive rate, both because of a high birth rate and because those groups were concentrated in the most fertile ages. The net result was an exceedingly rapid rate of population growth with all the concomitant effects upon the economy of quick expansion and rapid development.[7]

Poles went to the cities because of their own economic needs and the demands of industrialization, not because they were urban folk. They found employment wherever they could; they were forced to go into the mills and down into the worst mines. Poles were often disliked and feared by their English-speaking counterparts because of their determination and hard work. They were manipulated and swindled by employers who were hungry for profit. In desperation and for protection, Poles formed tighter and tighter groups that others called a ghetto and the Poles knew as “home.”

Industrial growth and the increasing demand for labor centered along the eastern seaboard and followed the railroads across the Midwest. Poles followed these paths, too, employed mostly as unskilled laborers. There was no industry in which they were not represented, but most were either in manufacturing or mining industries. Since the earliest arrivals were husbands and sons, outnumbering women two to one, they often accepted the most menial jobs to raise the necessary funds to bring their families over.

Pennsylvania had one of the largest groups of immigrants, a result of its coal industry and advertising. In the advertisements attention was called to the state’s universal suffrage with equal rights to all regardless of race, religion or belief. It emphasized that Pennsylvania, moreover, was the only state that tolerated Roman Catholics, with the exception of Maryland.[8]

Union Beginnings

With the arrival of wives and children, the need for better wages, and a concern for better living conditions, pushed the Poles to an equal level with their English-speaking workers. The arrival of most of the Polish immigrant families made the Poles realize the need to organize, and they began to look closely at the unions.[9] By 1887-88, they were heavily employed in the anthracite coal mines of western Pennsylvania and they were poorly paid.

The Immigration Commission of 1911 accused America’s immigrants of being the cause for long hours, low pay, poor working conditions and, consequently, for the failure of labor unions. In fact, the truth is that the United Mine Workers entered the field only after spontaneous demonstrations by Poles in 1897 and 1899:

The former contest started as a single mine protest and spread quickly through all the Middle Field, Hungarian settlements. Unfortunately the demonstrations ended in the tragic Lattimer Massacre where about 60 striking immigrants were killed or wounded. All the casualties were Polish, Lithuanian, or Slovak; none were Anglo-Saxon. In 1899 labor unrest centered in Polish Nanticoke and Glen Lyon where the union did participate but objected to immigrant aggressiveness. In both cases the workers won significant gains.[10]

Whether in 1887, 1897, or 1902 no Pole dared object to supporting the strike because of the pressure of the group, and few could live outside in the isolation of “Yankeedom.” Wages in the coal industry were always low.

Poles in Industry

New factories like those in Cincinnati and Cleveland attracted immigrants, employing skilled and unskilled laborers. The leading centers of Polish growth were Chicago, New York, Detroit, Buffalo, Cleveland and Philadelphia. By 1910 Poles were the largest number of workers in Midwestern industries and mining. In addition, Polish immigrants worked in the steel and iron industries in Akron, Youngstown and Toledo, Ohio; Gary, Indiana; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Patterson, New Jersey; and in the Ford factories in Detroit. They were heavily employed in the textile mills of New England: the 1903 census showed 600 Poles in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and by 1910 the number had increased to 2100; there were between three and four thousand Poles in New Bedford in 1910. They were also employed in cloth manufacturing in Baltimore, but in much smaller number. Poles worked in glass factories in Mississippi, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York, New Jersey and Maryland. In Milwaukee they worked in the leather industry. In Chicago they were primarily employed in the slaughtering and meatpacking houses.

Without America’s wealth of ready and able foreign-born laborers, the nation’s growth, prosperity and power would have been seriously hampered:

Such immigrants supplied the manpower that built the railroads and the national communications systems. They furnished the hands, in the construction industries, that erected great cities and equipped them, with housing, streets and utilities. And the immigrants were the proletarians who operated the machines of the new and ever-expanding factories. With their assistance, American industry was able to grow and to compete successfully with the older establishments of Europe. Yet the United States did so without pauperizing its own population. It enjoyed, therefore, the double advantage of a cheap labor force and of markets that continued to grow with the rising prosperity of the native population. Unskilled labor was thus of critical importance to the economy of the country in the period.[11]
“America Letters” are an excellent source for weekly and hourly wages. Maks Markiewicz earned $12.50 – $14.00 a week for an eight-hour day while working in a glass factory. As a carpenter, he worked in Chicago and made 35¢ an hour.[12] Pay in an iron foundry, another letter reveals, was 9, 10 or 12 dollars per week for adults, with the children earning merely 4 or 5 dollars.[13] On a wage scale comparison the Poles were the poorest paid:
One can catch a glimpse of how “poorest paying” it was from a study carried out among the Brooklyn Poles. The average annual income of immigrants before World War I in this community was $721. The average for the Norwegians residing there was $1142; for the English, $1015, for the Czechs, $773; but for the Poles, only $595.[14]
There were huge wage discrepancies in other industries also:
The Swedes and Irish were receiving a weekly wage of $15.00 in the iron mines; the Poles, $14.06. The Welsh were paid $22.75 in iron and steel works; the Poles, $12.67. The Scots, English and Dutch earned $12.00 weekly wage in the leather works; the Poles for $9.88. The worsted mills paid Bulgarians, Scots and Swedes $12.00 a week; they paid the Poles $7.84. In the oil refineries, where Scots were hired for $17.00 a week and Irish for $15.00, the Poles received $12.68.[15]

Formation of National Organizations

Polish community growth and cohesion were maintained through language, religion and especially its social aspects, the desire for independence and rapid intro-community organizational growth. The exile of the Jesuits from Poland in 1872 brought priests to America who could speak Polish and who had the education and the capability of forming cohesive groups.
By necessity, Poles worked in situations where no Polish was spoken. To combat loneliness and the strangeness of American customs, unity with fellow Poles was cherished. Desires to unite all Polish Americans brought about the development of national organizations for the betterment and the support of the Polish community in the United States. Since the primary focal point for community organization had been the parish church, it naturally followed that the first national Polish organization evolved from the efforts of a priest. Father Gieryk of Detroit formed the Polish Roman Catholic Union in 1873. It was followed by the Polish National Alliance in 1880 which later became the strongest Polish fraternal organization in America. Another group that was formed for the well being of the Poles was the Polish American Congress. The Association of Polish Women, with similar goals and purposes as the Polish Roman Catholic Union, was formed by the women.
These primary groups, family, church and fraternal organizations contributed to the growth of the established Polish community:
There follows a further territorial concentration of Poles. The original population – Italians, Germans, Irish – slowly moves out as the neighborhood becomes predominantly Polish. The parish thus becomes the community. Polish business is developed, associations of the type enumerated in document 140 are formed, affording their members economic advantages, social entertainment, a field for economic cooperation, educational opportunities, help in expressing and realizing their political ideals, and a congenial social milieu in which the desires for recognition and response are satisfied. Even Poles who are not religious are thus drawn into the parish institutions.[16]
Document 140 enumerates the organizations connected with the largest Polish parish in America, St. Stanislaus Kosta, in Chicago. This one parish, alone, had 74 different organizations.

Parishes and Schools

By 1875 there were 50 Polish parishes in the United States with important Polish parishes established in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. By 1889, there were 132 parishes mostly east of the Mississippi River and north of the Ohio River. At the turn of the 20th century, two parishes were larger in size than many dioceses. In 1889, St. Stanislaus Kosta Parish in Chicago boasted a membership of over 50,000 parishioners, and the Buffalo parish of St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr numbered 30,000.[17] The Polish parish became the transplanted village, providing social as well as spiritual needs. The church also became the disseminator of news, of shipwrecks and other calamaties. And of great importance, it also provided for the education of the immigrant’s children:
Like the church, the parish school brought the Polish immigrants territorially together; created a bond between the old and new generation by preserving the Polish language; encouraged the young people to acquire the cultural traditions of their parents; and developed familiarity with the civilization and problems of the old land.[18]
The remarkable growth in parochial schools in the Polish parish can be attributed to the arrival of the Felician Sisters in 1874 at the invitation of Reverend Joseph Dabrowski. It was also through his efforts that a Polish Seminary was established in Detroit in 1885. In 1910 the Seminary moved to Orchard Lake, Michigan where it took over the site and buildings of the Michigan Military Academy. The Polish Seminary has since expanded to include a preparatory boarding high school for boys, a liberal arts co-educational college, and a graduate school of theology. Through the years it has been the single most important contributor of leadership to the Polish parishes in the United States.[19]

Post World War I: Assimilation

The period following World War I can be considered a turning point at which Polish immigrants were faced with a major decision concerning their futures. For those who had been waiting for a free Poland, it was now possible to return home. Others had to make the choice of whether they wished to become United States citizens and to define themselves regarding nationality, as Poles or Americans. The vast majority had families, and they considered a second uprooting undesirable:
The Polish foreign-born population in the United States numbered about 1,140,000 in 1920 and rose by about 130,000 to a total 1,270,000 within the next decade despite the Immigration Acts and the return of approximately 100,000 to Poland. Of these emigrants from the United States, 835 had been naturalized as citizens, and 32,561 were American-born. Many of these were children whose parents decided to return to Poland. The peak year for departures was 1921 when over 50,000 sailed for Poland.[20]
The immigrant of 1920 was entirely different from the Polish immigrant of 1910. Of the new arrivals only 2.6% were unable to read and write, in contrast to 35% in 1910. About 31% of the immigrants arriving in 1910 had less than $50, whereas in 1920, less than .5% had less than $50. They were not destitute, like their precursors, in spite of the fact that most of the immigrants after World War I were refugees.[21]
Poland’s independence after World War I confronted the Polish community with the possibility of its own disintegration. Those who chose to remain permanently in the United States had to face new difficulties. As they obtained a functional command of the English language, they were exposed to the non-Catholic, assimilationist propaganda of the schools, the government, the press, the theater, the radio, friends, neighbors and classmates. They were torn between their Polish Catholic heritage and the modern, technical American society. To be truly American, they fearfully believed, meant to give up their language, culture and friends. The American Catholic Church also echoed such ideas. Bishops Ireland and Gibbons promoted the “hibernization” of the immigrants, that is, “civilizing” them by demanding conformity to American Catholic doctrine, ritual and leadership.
These attempts to assimilate the Poles periodically created feelings of contempt for everything Polish in some immigrants and their children, and to rejection of their Polish heritage by changing their names to hide their Polish past. The situation created social problems within the home and the church, and a gap between the younger and older generations grew. The use of Polish language was abandoned in some parishes and some Polish parochial schools eliminated Polish language instruction from their curricula. Despite such serious problems, the Polish American community was maintained. Poles received little assistance in their efforts to find solutions to the problems of assimilation and isolationism. Tragically, they felt themselves caught between being poor citizens and poor Catholics, or Poles.
Poles felt insulted by the paternal condescension of the American community and reacted against racist, anti-Catholic and anti-Polish hostility. Their sense of frustration was further compounded by the desire in Catholic circles to “Americanize the immigrants in order to Catholicize America.”[22]
It was a desperate and debilitating situation:
The Catholic Poles thus found themselves in a dire predicament: to become accepted Catholics in America they would have to reject their Polish heritage; to become accepted Catholics in America, they would have to reject their own Catholic Polish heritage and adopt an Americanized version of English culture together with the equally unfamiliar form of English Catholicism.[23]
Some of the foreign born chose to sever relations with their parish and Polish Catholic heritage. Others fell away from the church and joined Protestant denominations. An independent religious denomination, the Polish National Catholic Church in America, was organized by other immigrants under the leadership of Reverend Francis Hodur. The majority, however, chose to remain Polish Catholic and to remain a distinct group within the American environment.
The children of the immigrants had to face the Americanization process, designed to assimilate them into the American way of life. Public school policy was intended to acculturate the foreigners, and it was for this reason that the Poles established their own educational system with over five hundred schools, a remarkable phenomenon for a people who had no such system in their partitioned homeland. Yet, the success of their schooling and efforts to compete with the public schools was only partial:
Brought up in this environment, the next generation of Polish Americans was not content with simply an elementary education. Just as their parents were not content with their own educational experiences and went on to build their elementary school system, they sought secondary education. And though a number of high schools were built within the framework of the Polish American educational system, the costs involved made it impossible to construct a secondary system as complete as the primary system already in existence. More and more Polish Americans of this generation went to the hostile environment of the public high schools, where things Polish were generally ignored or distorted, often reflecting the attitude of the partitioning powers towards Poland.[24]
Anglo-conformity theories of assimilation and the myth of the melting pot had a profound influence on second, third and even fourth generation American Poles. Polish Americans, like all the nation’s ethnic groups, have felt the push to substitute mainstream cultural values for their own ethnic and historic values. Typical of the Anglo-Teutonic scholarly prejudice at the turn of the century is the writing of the famed educator Ellwood Cubberly. His influence on public school attitudes toward Southern and Eastern Europeans was enormous:
These southern [sic] and eastern [sic] Europeans are of very different type from the north [sic] Europeans who preceded them. Illiterate, docile, lacking in self-reliance and initiative, and not possessing the Anglo-Teutonic conceptions of law, order, and government, their coming has served to dilute tremendously our national stock, and to corrupt our civic life. The great bulk of these people have settled in the cities of the North Atlantic and North Central states, and the problems of proper housing and living, moral and sanitary conditions, honest and decent government, and proper education have everywhere been made more difficult by their presence. Everywhere these people tend to settle in groups or settlements, and to set up their national manners, customs, and observances. Our task is to break up these groups or settlements, to assimilate and amalgamate these people as a part of our American race, and to implant in their children, so far as can be done, the Anglo-Saxon conception of righteousness, law and order, and popular government, and to awaken in them a reverence for our democratic institutions and for those things in our national life which we as a people hold to be of abiding worth.[25]
Pressure to assimilate was constant, some informal and without design, and much, it is clear, through organized and conscious effort:
Among the unfortunate young Catholic Poles of this period were also those who succumbed to the perverse direct or indirect influences of American freemasonry and other non-Catholic religious movements to which they were exposed by civic or social contacts or by reading such fanatical publications as the Voice of Freedom, a monthly published at Nashville, Tennessee, attacking Roman Catholicism especially the Pope and the hierarchy, or the Converted Catholic, a magazine published in New York by apostate Catholic priests.[26]
No more than their parents, however, have the children and grandchildren of the Poles assimilated in any great numbers.

Changes in Settlement Patterns

The Quota Acts of 1920 and 1924 affected the settlement patterns of the Poles. Both the disappearance of the strong primary group contact with Poland and the rapid decline in immigration made Poles acutely aware of their American status. They started to interact more with American institutions. The institution that most affected this change was the school: the higher the education the more likely they were to change their name and move to a better residential area. Yet, as Stanley Lieberson found in his study of ethnic patterns in cities, while “residential segregation from the native-white population declined through time” because of the higher rate of interaction, there was still a “remarkably high degree of segregation among ethnic groups.”[27] Recency of arrival, he discovered, was the most important factor in influencing segregation from the general population. This concurs with other research that the second and third generation were more inclined to seek upward mobility than their parents, but that identity and community integrity persisted as indicated by the active and vital force of the parish for the majority of Poles.[28] Interviews with the pastors of 546 parishes showed that the parishes were still ethnic in varying degrees. Yet the data also found significant discrepancies in Wisconsin and Illinois.
Wisconsin reported 5 parishes, rather than 92, and Illinois reported 44, rather than 93:
This might reflect the inroads of industrialization and movement to the suburbs out of the ethnic parishes probably more prevalent in Illinois than in Wisconsin, a possibility further implied in the fact that Illinois returned only 62.3 per cent of the questionnaires, in contrast to Wisconsin’s 79.3 per cent, a tacit expression of indifference possibly resulting from a higher degree of assimilation.[29]
A similar apparent decline in the salience of ethnicity was found in the Hamtramck suburb of Detroit. Young people with small children have been moving out of the town, i.e., away from the Polish core community. However, the decline was more apparent than real, because “many of these younger people still return for the important events of life; their marriages and funerals are held in Hamtramck as well as their church services.”[30]
Such changes in residential patterns occurred, in part, because of competition for housing arising from the urban migration of Negroes and poor whites and their competition in the work force as cheap labor. The Quota Acts of the 1920’s and the Depression of the 1930’s stablized the Polish settlements for the first time in their history. During the first decades of the 20th century, most Poles were laborers, but their children began to see the necessity of a higher education.
In the 1930’s, poor and middle income farmers, regardless of background, were drawn to the agricultural programs of the New Deal. The Poles fared the Depression as well as any other group, and probably better, because of their attachment to the land.
Small gardens have always been a part of a Polish community, and in the crisis they “lived off the land” meager as it was.

The New Immigrants: Post World War II

World War II initiated a period of integration and intercultural cooperation changing the income, education, occupation, and life style for the Poles, as well as the general population:
Within a half-century the picture had changed considerably. Almost 45 per cent held white collar jobs, of whom 14.5 per cent were professional or technical workers, 15.2 per cent proprietors and managers, and 15 per cent clerical and sales workers. Close to ¼ in the labor force were skilled workers and over 19.5 per cent semi-skilled. Slightly more than three per cent were service workers, 5.1 per cent laborers (unskilled), and 2.2 per cent farmers.[31]
In the Cleveland area, 43% of Polish Americans, according to the 1970 census, had white collar jobs; 9.6% were professional or technical workers; 7.5% were proprietors and managers; and 25.9% were clerical and sales workers. The difference in the proprietor statistics probably fall in line with the findings of Polzin:
The increase in the number of professionals was consistent: from two to five to seven and one half per cent for the three generations, but the category of proprietors, managers, and businessmen fell from 25 to 19 per cent for the second generation, rising to 35 per cent for the third. The same pattern was discernible in the percentage of clerks and kindred workers, but reversed for “farmers,” with the second generation showing the highest percentage of the three. The percentage of service workers decreased consistently, though slightly, with each generation. These data indicate a rise in social class through the three generations, as measured by the occupational index.[32]
Polish American males have apparently experienced upward mobility in greater proportion than the national average in some categories:
This was true of 1) professional, technical and kindred workers; 2) managers, officials and proprietors; 3) clerical and kindred workers; 4) sales workers; and 5) craftsmen, foremen, and kindred workers. They ranked below the national average percentagewise in four categories: 1) operatives and kindred workers; 2) service workers; 3) farm workers and foremen; and 4) laborers – the field in which they were found predominantly in earlier decades.
Income gains have kept pace with changes in occupational status. The national census figures for 1969 compare the Polish community with the general American population:
Per Cent
$3,999 or less
Over 25,000
Using the 1970 census, these are the comparable statistics for Cleveland:
Per Cent
$3,999 or less
Over 25,000
The average median income for Poles was $12,599.[33]
Another indicator of the stability and prosperity of Poles is home ownership. Home ownership has always been high for Poles from the arrival of the first settlers. There are a number of theories as to why this is characteristic, but the speculation depends on who is interpreting the data. One theory asserts the influence of a lingering peasant heritage of land-hunger. “Another explanation holds that the phenomenon is related to the desire for the stability of which many were deprived while subjected to three dominant nations.”[34] It is also speculated that accumulation of property is a desire to be middle class and a need to rise on the social scale. Yet, this is suspect also. Whatever the reasons, home ownership is a well established fact and “outstanding testimony to Polish American stability.”[35] In general, Poles are a people who stay in a home for a lifetime, no matter how much money they make. The 1970 census illustrates the depth of this stability. It records the number of people of Polish descent living in the same residence for five years or more:
Per Cent
Anaheim, California
Boston, Massachusetts
Buffalo, New York
Chicago, Illinois
Cleveland, Ohio
Detroit, Michigan
Jersey City, New Jersey
Los Angeles-Long Beach
Miami, Florida
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Minneapolis-St. Paul
New York, New York
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
With the exception of New York City, there is a high degree of continuity with early settlement patterns, and for all its social problems, even New York City has a high rate of stability.
A fourth indicator of Polish socio-economic mobility is education:
By 1970 more than half of all Polish Americans over 25 years of age were high school graduates and nine per cent held college degrees. This was slightly below the national average of 55 per cent for high school and 11 per cent for college, but indicated considerable progress after World War II.[36]
Such gains are impressive when they are measured in the context of hostility represented by the Americanization movement. Education also challenged “the traditional endogamous values of the ethnic culture, as well as increase the opportunities to meet and marry someone from a different ethnic background.”[37] Education has influenced contemporary marriage patterns among Catholics. With some high school or less, 42 per cent of the Catholics married out of the ethnic group. For Catholics who graduated high school or attended college, the rate rose to 57 per cent. There was no significant difference between public and parochial school backgrounds.
One can conclude, with reference to the “Americanization” thesis of education and assimilation, that within the realm of American Catholicism at least, increased education does indeed lead to more ethnic exogamy, with the qualifications discussed. The issue of the type of school, however, becomes crucial for the specific ethnic groups involved.[38]
Intermarriage is also subject to regional influence: “Intermarriage by any given group tends to be more prevalent in those areas where that group is smaller in size and less proportionate in the total population.”39 Polish exogamy displays a discernible pattern:
With the Eastern European categories, there is only the slightest suggestion of exogamy among themselves; 5 per cent of the Lithuanians select Polish spouses, 4 per cent of the Poles chose equally both German and East European wives, and 6 per cent of the Eastern bloc marry Polish women.[39]
Change in the American Polish community also resulted from the immigration of over 100,000 displaced persons and refugees after World War II. They were different from earlier immigrants: mostly educated and upper-middle class, only a few unskilled laborers arrived. Most had the capital and resources to fulfill American admission requirements. If they had no capital, they had a skill to offer that was needed and were guaranteed a job upon arrival. These new groups and individuals were readily resettled because of the agencies prepared to help them with resettlement, and they never experienced the difficulties of their predecessors.
Today the descendants of the immigrants of the late 19th and early 20th centuries are the inheritors of a conflict that has developed into what Reverend L. Chrobot, the Dean of St. Mary’s College, Orchard Lake, has labeled the Folk/Urban Cultural Dichotomy:
Brought up in the closed situation of the Polish Ghetto, yet spurred on by the attractions of economic gain and social advancement, the sons and grandsons of the early immigrants are in many cases finding themselves caught in between these two cultural settings. Earning enough to be able to afford living in the suburbs, and at times, changing their last names so that “people can pronounce it easier,” the children of the immigrants have submitted to the “kulturkampf” of the “melting pot.”[40]
An interview with a Polish American, living in the Detroit suburb of Warren attests to this dichotomy. He is self-employed as a welder and is worth monetarily in the neighborhood of $150,000. He seems to have made it in “upward mobility,” by all the socially accepted standards and yet he looks back on the “old neighborhood” with something more than fond memories:
You’d really have to live out here to see how lonely you can be with alot of people of your own race, your own group. When we first moved here, I went from porch to porch every night trying to be friendly, but they would never be friendly back. Seven, eight years ago, I’m going to midnight mass. It’s cold, the snow is blowing. I see my neighbor, I say, “Merry Christmas!” The sonuvabitch walked right past! If he was Jewish I could understand it, but one Catholic to another!
Honest, I’m not looking for the Good Old Days, because they weren’t that good. They were in some ways, but for material things they weren’t worth a damn. What I’m trying to say is, money is nice – it’s nice to have. I work for it, I don’t steal it. I have a gun, but I don’t stick up banks. I’m glad to have these things, but I’m not happy if they’re making my kids and me unhappy.[41]
He is not alone. With further research into ethnicity, the ethnic group, and intercultural relationships, hopefully we will come to a better understanding of ourselves and our nation:
The persistence of ethnic values and traditional behavior as well as the extent of ethnic variation in patterns of change are challenges to a sociology of American society. We have yet to develop an understanding of the nature of change in a country that was shaped by the massive ethnic forces of voluntary and involuntary immigration, of slavery and bondage, and of exploitation and genocide. Our neglect of the meaning and influence of ethnicity stands out in marked contrast, say, to our more fully developed appreciation of the concept of social class. The reality of diversity – racial, religious, national origin, regional, and combinations of these – is still very much with us.[42]

  1. Rev. V. Jasinski, Introduction to The Contribution of the Poles to the Growth of Catholicism in the United States (Rome: Sacrum Poloniae Millenium, 1959), Vol. VI, p. 13.
  2. Sister Lucille, C.R. "Polish Farmers and Workers in the United States to 1914," Polish American Studies, XV, (Jan.-June, 1958), p. 2.
  3. Joseph Wytrwal, America's Polish Heritage (Detroit: Endurance, 1961), p. 86.
  4. Sister Lucille, C.R., "The Causes of Polish Immigration to the United States," Polish American Studies, III, 1951, p. 85.
  5. Joseph Parot, "Ethnic versus Black Metropolis: The Origins of Polish-Black Housing Tensions in Chicago," Polish American Studies, XXIX, 1972, p. 7.
  6. Leonard Chrobot, "The Polish American and Immigration," unpublished manuscript submitted to Harcourt Brace Publishers, 1973.
  7. Oscar Handlin, et al., The Positive Contribution by Immigrants (Paris: UNESCO, 1955), p. 22.
  8. Maurice R. Davie, World Immigration (New York: Macmillan Co., 1939), p. 28.
  9. Leonard Chrobot, op cit.
  10. Victor R. Greene, "The Poles and the Anthracite Unions in Pennsylvania," Polish American Studies, XXII (Jan.-June, 1965), p. 12.
  11. Oscar Handlin, et al., op cit., p. 21.
  12. Thomas and Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1927), p. 201.
  13. Ibid., p. 220.
  14. Theresita Polzin, "Social and Economic Conditions," The Polish Americans, Pulaski, Wisconsin: Franciscan Publications, 1973, p. 119.
  15. Ibid.
  16. William Bernard, ed., Americanization Studies, Vol. 3, The Acculturation of Immigrant Groups into American Society, (Thomas, New Jersey: Patterson Smith, 1971), p. 212.
  17. Joseph Wytrwal, op cit., p. 159.
  18. Ibid., p. 161.
  19. Leonard Chrobot, op cit.
  20. Theresita Polzin, The Polish Americans: Whence and Whither (Pulaski, Wisconsin: Franciscan Publishers, 1973), p. 133.
  21. Stanley Lieberson, Ethnic Patterns in American Cities (Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press, 1963), p. 72.
  22. Rev. V. Jasinski, op cit., p. 15.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Frank Renkiewicz, ed., The Poles in America, 1608-1972 (Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana Publications, 1973), p. 102.
  25. Ellwood P. Cubberly, Changing Concepts of Education (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1919), p. 16.
  26. Rev. V. Jasinski, op cit., p. 29.
  27. Stanley Lieberson, op cit., p. 45.
  28. Theresita Polzin, op cit., p. 138.
  29. Ibid., p. 139.
  30. Thomas Ford, ed., Social Demography (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1970), p. 493.
  31. Theresita Polzin, op cit., pp. 185-86.
  32. Ibid., p. 186.
  33. Ibid., pp. 188-89.
  34. Ibid., p. 191.
  35. Ibid., p. 241.
  36. Ibid., p. 192.
  37. Harold Abramson, Ethnic Diversity in Catholic America (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1973), p. 87.
  38. Ibid., p. 93.
  39. Ibid., p. 57.
  40. Leonard Chrobot, op cit.
  41. Maryanne Conheim, "He Lives in Warren and Wonders if Being Worth $150,000 Means Anything," Detroit Free Press, Aug. 6, 1972.
  42. Harold Abramson, op cit., p. 173.


Polish Americans and Their Communities of Cleveland Copyright © by Cleveland State University . All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book