LATVIANS. One of Cleveland's smaller ethnic groups is composed of men and women who trace their ancestry back to Latvia, a small land along the Baltic Sea that enjoyed political independence from 18 Nov. 1918 until invaded by the SOVIET UNION on 17 June 1940. Soviet occupation of the land and oppression of the people long were the subject of meetings and ceremonies sponsored by local Latvians. Latvian immigrants first arrived in Cleveland in the late 19th century. Because they were often counted as RUSSIANS and sometimes as GERMANS, it is difficult to determine exactly how many Latvians lived in the area at different points in time. Pioneering Latvian families in the area are considered to have been the Raufmanis (sometimes given as Kaulomonis) family, who arrived in 1887 and opened a printing shop, and the Krastins (sometimes Krostius) family, who arrived in 1902 and operated an automobile plant. By 1897 enough Latvian LUTHERANS lived in Cleveland for Rev. Hans Rebane, the pioneer Latvian Lutheran minister in the U.S., to visit Cleveland from his home in Boston and organize Immanuel Church with 50 members on 13 June 1897. These early immigrants were married men ages 25-40 who came alone largely for economic reasons and later sent for their families. The aborted Russian Revolution of 1905 and the Latvian Revolution in 1906 sparked a brief period of Latvian immigration for political reasons after 1905. These immigrants found jobs in the steel mills, in automobile plants, and with the RAILROADS. Later immigration was slowed by World War I, by federal legislation restricting immigration, and by the Depression. The local Latvian population remained small, about 1,000 in 1930, and no distinct settlements existed in the area, although some Latvians lived together near W. 25th and Memphis and in the Buckeye Rd. area. As late as the 1940s, Immanuel Church (Scranton Rd. and Seymour Ave.), then with 125 members, was being served by Chicago clergymen who visited Cleveland's Latvian Lutherans 4 times a year; 2 church services were also held at the Church of the Master (Baptist) at E. 79th and Euclid. Between 1925-41, the Latvian consulate for Ohio and Michigan was located in Cleveland. The largest local Latvian organization in Cleveland during the 1940s was the Latvian Singing & Cultural Society.
The greatest period of Latvian settlement in Cleveland occurred following World War II. In 1949 the local community organized to help those displaced by the war and subsequent political upheavals, and an estimated 2,500 displaced Latvians settled in Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s, largely on the west side and in the SUBURBS. Many new immigrants were highly educated and had professional training. Their arrival began the greatest period of social organization in the history of the small Latvian community. In 1951 the Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church of Cleveland, Inc., and the Latvian Evangelical Church of Peace were formed; they merged in 1962 and in 1963 bought the Church of the Redeemer, the oldest church in LAKEWOOD, located at Detroit and Andrews. The remodeled church was dedicated on 5 Apr. 1964 as the United Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church, which became a leading Latvian organization and in 1971 built a Latvian cultural center on its grounds. Also organized in 1951 was the 60-member Latvian Baptist Church, led by Rev. Geo. Barbins, former executive secretary of the Baptist Assn. of Latvia. Barbins settled in North Carolina upon coming to the U.S., but after a visit to Cleveland to attend the Baptist World Alliance in 1950, he moved his family there and worked to encourage other Latvian immigrants to settle in Cleveland. By May 1953 he had arranged local sponsorships for 200 people in European camps for displaced persons.
In addition, the Latvian community formed numerous voluntary organizations to preserve Latvian heritage and serve the needs of the community. Cultural organizations such as the Latvian Assn. of Cleveland, the Latvian Folklore Club, and Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops were formed in the 1950s and 1960s, as were artistic groups such as the Latvian Theatre Group and the Pastalnieki Latvian Folk Dance Troupe; service organizations such as the Latvian Credit Union of Cleveland and the Cleveland Chap. of the Latvian Welfare Assn., Daugavas Vanagi; and social and veterans' organizations. Estimates of the Latvian population in Cuyahoga County in the 1970s ranged from 1,500 to 3,000. The Cleveland community hosted the Latvian Song Festival in 1963, 1968, and 1973. The first song festival held in Riga in 1873 is considered to have been "the first organized countrywide manifestation of nationalism," giving later festivals strong overtones of patriotism and nationalism. The first Cleveland festival reportedly brought 10,000 Latvians to Cleveland; the centennial song festival celebration attracted an estimated 15,000 Latvians to Cleveland. Local Latvians also held annual ceremonies to commemorate the 200,000 Latvians that were deported to Siberia during the Soviet occupation of Europe and to commemorate Latvian independence. In 1980 the president of the Latvian Assn. of Cleveland supported Latvian national organization's efforts to press Helsinki Accord delegates in Madrid to consider the plight of the Baltic nations. Upon the resumption of Latvian independence in Aug. 1991, many Cleveland Latvians began revisiting the homeland. A major concern of the local community in the 1990s is the preservation of Latvian heritage amid the pressures of Americanization. The president of Latvia visited Cleveland in Nov. 1994 to participate in the re-opening of the Honorary Latvian Consulate.
Kenneth W. Rose (dec)