SLOVENES, a South Slav people whose homeland, Slovenia, declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, began settling in Cleveland in the 1880s, with immigration heaviest in the periods 1890-1914, 1919-24, and 1949-60. Prior to World War II, most emigrants were peasants from the economically underdeveloped rural areas of Slovenia, looking for economic betterment. The Slovenes who came after World War II were mainly political refugees, including a larger proportion of well-educated and professional individuals. The community was augmented by the 2nd generation, and also by Slovenes who came from elsewhere in the U.S. Cleveland became a magnet for Slovenes because of its rapidly expanding industrial base, requiring large numbers of unskilled and semiskilled laborers. Census data for 1910 listed 14,332 Slovenes in Cleveland, making it at the time the 3rd-largest Slovene city in the world. The 1970 census listed 46,000 foreign-born or mixed-parentage Slovenes in the Cleveland area. By the early 1900s, Cleveland had the largest Slovene settlement in the U.S., retaining that status into the 1990s.
The first Slovenes to arrive in Cleveland settled in the
As more Slovenes settled in the Newburgh, St. Clair, and Collinwood areas between the 1880s and early 1900s, a sense of community began developing. There is no evidence to indicate that these early arrivals, predominantly young males, considered themselves permanent residents. There was no interest in Americanization, or in acquiring citizenship. Their first institutions were responses to immediate needs. Enterprising individuals began opening taverns, which soon became social centers, with the owners assuming a prominent social and economic role among their fellow countrymen and often expanding into other business ventures. Over time, some of the immigrants sent for wives and children and fiancees; family units began to appear. Most of the Slovene immigrants came from a strongly Roman Catholic religious tradition and one of their earliest desires was to have their spiritual needs attended to by Slovene-speaking priests.
The early Slovene immigrants needed organized economic self-protection against illness, injury, and death, prompting them to form mutual insurance societies, some local and short-lived, while others eventually affiliated into national or statewide Slovene fraternal insurance societies. Among Cleveland Slovenes, the first such organization was
Already by 1914, a basic and permanent ideological cleavage had emerged within the Slovene community, both in Cleveland and in other major settlements. Reduced to essentials, this cleavage had religiously oriented Slovenes on one side, buttressed by the Slovene-American Catholic clergy, while liberal, "freethinking," and socialist Slovenes were on the other side. In Cleveland, this resulted in the formation of parallel sets of institutions. Many of the singing societies, for example, comprised in the main Slovenes from one side or the other, and this differentiation applied as well to the audience. The Lira singing society, formed in 1912, appealed primarily to Catholic Slovenes residing in the St. Clair community, for example, while the
The onset of World War I in 1914 effectively stopped immigration to Cleveland from Slovenia. The community continued growing rapidly as children were born, and also due to the arrival of Slovenes from other parts of the country. The fact that Slovenia, as a part of Austria-Hungary, was involved in the war from the beginning intensified interest in foreign affairs within the community, which increased with direct U.S. involvement in 1917. The war years seem to have been a watershed for many of the immigrants, as they came fully to realize the permanence of their commitment to America. One result was an intensification of activity within the community itself. Community leaders before the war wanted to build Natl. Homes, which would be centers of social and cultural life in the settlements. Efforts began in 1903 but did not succeed until 1919, when 4 such homes were dedicated. The largest, the
The appearance of the Natl. Homes was a seminal event for the Cleveland Slovene community. Each facility became a social and cultural center, with concerts, plays, dances, and banquets being held, especially during the 1920s and 1930s. Singing societies were formed: following Zarja (1916) came Jadran (1920) and
The period between the world wars saw the arrival of a professional class in the Slovene community, with attorneys and physicians especially prominent. During these years, some Slovenes became prominent in professional sports, especially baseball and boxing, while others launched successful political careers, especially Frank J. Lausche, mayor of Cleveland, governor of Ohio, and U.S. Senator. Frank Yankovic gained national recognition in the 1950s as a polka-band leader; known as the "Polka King," he was awarded a Grammy for his recordings of polka music in 1986 (see
World War II affected the Slovenes in 2 major ways. First, many Slovenes served in the armed forces. The Axis occupation of Yugoslavia and thereby Slovenia was followed by the rise in the original homeland of rival resistance groups. One, the Partisans, was controlled by the Communist party under Josip Broz Tito. The other was Catholic and anti-Communist. Cleveland Slovenes divided sharply over which of these resistance groups to support. Some opted for the Partisans; they were influenced by Louis Adamic, a nationally prominent Slovene-American writer of the 1930s and 1940s. These Slovenes organized material and moral support for the Partisans and continued their efforts into the postwar years. One result of these efforts was the eventual establishment in Cleveland of an official Yugoslav consulate, which was led by an ethnic Slovene. After the establishment of an independent Slovenia in 1991, its government opened an Honorary Consulate and appointed a local Slovene, Dr. Karl B. Bonutti, honorary consul.
Catholic-oriented Cleveland Slovenes largely distanced themselves from the pro-Partisan Slovenes and eventually found reinforcement for their views with the arrival in the U.S. of several thousand Slovene political refugees, many of whom came to Cleveland. As a rule, these refugees were better educated than their predecessors and politically very conscious. Although accepted by most of the Catholic community, they were viewed with suspicion and hostility by the liberal, or "progressive" wing of the Slovenes. These newest arrivals soon became active in the cultural life of the community, reinvigorating it. In the 1950s they founded the Korotan Singing Society and Kres Folklore Dance Group. In the later 1970s, their U.S.-born offspring established the Fantje Na Vasi men's chorus and were the backbone of the Lilija Dramatic Society. At St. Vitus and St. Mary parishes, Saturday Slovene-language schools remained active into the 1990s. Since the 1960s, the largest single project of the Cleveland Slovene community has been the
By the 1990s, the Slovene community in the Cleveland area numbered well over 50,000, although many of these were no longer ethnically conscious. Yet the community vigorously continued supporting literally hundreds of organizations reflecting their ethnic heritage and traditions. The Ameriska Domovina is still published once a week; the daily radio programs of Tony Petkovsek, begun in 1961, retain a substantial audience; concerts and other cultural performances still commonly fill the auditoriums of the Natl. Homes. While use of the Slovene language has all but disappeared in large parts of the community, there seems little doubt that Slovenes in Cleveland will remain a coherent entity for decades to come.
Rudolph M. Susel
American Home Publishing Co.