Slovak immigration to the United States began in the late 1870s, when Slovakia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire administered by Hungary. Because U.S. immigration officials did not keep separate records for each ethnic group within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it is impossible to determine the exact number of Slovak immigrants who entered the United States. Between 1880 and the mid-1920s, approximately 500,000 Slovaks, mostly men immigrated to the United States.
Before 1899 U.S. immigration officials listed immigrants by country of birth. Thus, until 1899 Slovaks were recorded as Hungarians. Even after immigrants were enumerated by nationality, the Magyarization policies had been so effective that many Slovaks did not identify themselves as such. Also, perhaps one-third of the Slovaks who came to the United States were not immigrants but instead migrants. Often called "birds of passage," they worked temporarily in America and then returned to Europe. They wanted to earn money to buy property in their homeland. It was common for Slovaks to make several trips between the United States and Upper Hungary.
Over time, many birds of passage decided to stay in America and sent for their families. The reasons for staying varied. Some were unable to save enough money to buy land and in some regions of their homeland no land was available. Others decided that America promised a better future while others married and decided to stay.
Most of the Slovak immigrants were men. They gravitated to areas where industries were expanding and needed unskilled labour. More than half the Slovak immigrants went to Pennsylvania and primarily to the mill towns and coal mining districts in the state's western region. Other popular destinations included Ohio, New Jersey, New York, and Illinois. Slovaks "chain migrated," that is they went to places where previous Slovak immigrants already lived. Between 1908 and 1910 an astounding 98.4 percent of Slovaks entering the country were joining relatives or friends.
Eighty percent of Slovak immigrants had been common or farm labourers in their homeland. Having few skills Slovaks found jobs as manual labourers in heavy industries, especially in steel and allied industries that produced durable/trvanlivý, odolný/ goods. A large number of Slovaks also worked in coal mines. In 1910 survey revealed that 82 percent of Slovak males laboured as miners or in iron and steel mills.
Some Slovak women were employed as domestics, but in cities they often worked in food processing plants. Fewer employment opportunities existed for women in small mill towns. Those who were unable to find domestic service jobs typically remained unemployed and helped at home until they married. Widows and married women often ran boarding-houses where they cooked and did the laundry for residents.
Slovak culture traditionally did not place a high emphasis on education. Many Slovak immigrants who came before World War I (1914-1918) could neither read nor write. This high illiteracy rate reflected the rural background, farming heritage of most immigrants and the Hungarian government's Magyarization policy. Slovak American parents typically encouraged children to seek secure jobs rather than social or economic advancement. They did not hesitate to put their children to work at early ages. Therefore, most second-generation Slovak American men became industrial labourers. The first Slovak school in America was established by St. Stephen's Parish (dedicated in 1883, one of the first Slovak churches in the United States) in Streator, Illinois. Only few Slovak Americans entered such professions as law and education. The value system of both first- and second-generation Slovaks placed women in the traditional role of wife, mother, and homemaker; therefore, education was considered even less valuable for daughters than for sons.
Slovak was the primary language spoken among immigrants and between them and their children. However, the language has not persisted among successive generations in the United States. Several factors contributed to this decline. First, children gave way to the pressure in American society to abandon foreign languages. Second, immigrants were often barely literate. Although they taught their children, especially the older sons and daughters, to speak Slovak they could not teach them to read and write the language.
Slovaks established parochial schools where language instructions were provided, but these classes often either proved inadequate or students did not remain in school long enough to become literate in Slovak. However, Slovak is taught in various Sunday schools for children and in universities, including the University of Pittsburgh. Several American libraries have Slovak-language collections.
POLITICS AND GOVERNMENT
Slovak involvement in politics has changed over the decades. At the turn of the century few immigrant workers regularly participated in political activities. Such involvement was typically limited to leaders of Slovak fraternal societies. Slovak immigrants and their children helped organize and joined unions, especially in the steel and mining industries where so many of them worked. In his powerful novel, Out of This Furnace (1941), Thomas Bell, a second-generation Slovak, vividly describes the work experiences and union activities of Slovaks in western Pennsylvania where he grew up during the Great Depression.
In 1920 citizenship data started to be recorded by "country of birth". After this only 45.8 percent of Slovaks had become American citizens and could vote. During the 1930s the New Deal programs drew working-class Slovaks to the Democratic Party. Through the 1950s Slovaks seemed to remain loyal to the Democratic Party in state and local elections but the pattern in national elections became less clear. In 1960 John F. Kennedy's Catholicism and Cold War liberalism attracted Slovak American Catholics. In geographic areas where Slovaks have concentrated, they have been elected to local and state offices. But only one Slovak American has been elected to the United States Congress—Joseph M. Gaydos who represented Pennsylvania's twentieth district from 1968 through 1992.
The precise number of Slovaks who served in World War I cannot be determined. Military records for the period after 1920 categorize Slovaks and Czechs together as Czechoslovaks. According to the 1990 census, 6,566 persons, including 635 women, of Slovak ancestry were serving in the United States military.
Michael Strank, a Slovak soldier who came to the United States in 1922, was one of the six men immortalized by the famous photograph of the raising of the American flag atop Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima, on February 23, 1945; the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial monument located adjacent to Arlington National Cemetery is based on that photograph.
RELATIONS WITH SLOVAKIA
Slovak organizations also became involved in the politics of their homeland. Specifically to counter the Hungarian government's intensified Magyarization efforts, in 1907 Slovak journalists and national fraternal leaders organized the Slovak League of America. During World War I, the league and Slovak fraternal societies worked to secure American and international support for the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia. Their activities included lobbying American politicians and trying to influence public opinion. The league and its supporters pressured Thomas Masaryk, the future first president of Czechoslovakia, into signing the Pittsburgh Agreement on May 30, 1918. The document ostensibly provided for Slovak autonomy within the newly created state. According to the agreement's provisions Slovakia was to have its own independent administration, parliament, and court system. The Pittsburgh Agreement subsequently became one of the most controversial documents in Czechoslovakia's history. Its provisions were not incorporated into Czechoslovakia's constitution, and a centralized government was established instead. During the 1920s and 1930s several Slovak American organizations tried unsuccessfully to persuade Czechoslovakia's government to implement the Pittsburgh Agreement. During the Cold War, Slovak organizations actively supported American policies and those of other countries that opposed the totalitarian government in Czechoslovakia.
ORGANIZATIONS AND ASSOCIATIONS
First Catholic Slovak Ladies Association (FCSLA).
Founded in August 1892, the FCSLA is a religious fraternal/bratský/ organization that provides insurance benefits to more than 105,000 members. It also promotes the preservation of Catholicism and ethnic culture among Slovak American Catholics.
First Catholic Slovak Union of the U.S.A. and Canada (FCSU).
Founded in September 1890, the FCSU is very similar to FCSLA. It has more than 88,300 members. The FCSU also operates an orphanage and a publishing house, the Jednota Press, in Middletown, Pennsylvania.
National Slovak Society (NSS).
It was founded in 1890. This organization provides insurance benefits to more than 13,700 members. It preserves ethnic culture among Slovak Americans. It runs National Slovak Society Heritage Museum.
Slovak Catholic Sokol (SCS).
Founded in 1905, the SCS is a religious organization that provides insurance benefits to nearly 41,400 members. It promotes athletic and gymnastic programs as well as the preservation of Catholicism and ethnic culture among Slovak Americans.
Slovak League of America.
Founded in 1907, the Slovak League is an organization that promotes the preservation of Slovak culture in the United States. It also provides funds for projects to assist cultural and religious institutions in Slovakia.
TRADITIONS, CUSTOMS, AND BELIEFS
In their Slovak homeland, the celebration of Christmas and Easter was an event for both family and village. While Slovak American Christmas celebrations have taken on American features with a greater emphasis on gifts and a midday turkey dinner, many American Slovaks adhere to the custom of the family coming together for traditional Slovak foods on Christmas Eve. Visiting family during both the Christmas and Easter seasons has also remained an obligatory custom.
Slovaks were a deeply religious people. Some religious holy days were customarily observed with village processions while others were less dramatic. Their beliefs and customs were a blend of folklore and superstitions linked to the Christian calendar. A vast array of superstitions permeated their culture. For example, Slovaks performed rituals to rid or protect their villages from demons and witches.