The story of immigrants from the Slavic countries—Russia, Poland, Romania, and Bohemia (now the Czech Republic and Slovakia)—in the South between 1870 and 1900 is one of an uneasy courtship on both sides. In the decades following the Civil War, most southern states saw white immigrant labor as the best way to rebuild their cotton-based economies, either on the plantations or later in the textile mills. To that end, Mississippi’s Republican legislature in 1873 established the Department of Agriculture and Immigration, a combination that Louisiana echoed in 1894. Southern rail lines also distributed pamphlets across Europe, seeking to entice settlers to come buy some of the companies’ millions of acres of land in Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Texas, and elsewhere. In 1902 the Southeastern Railway Land and Industrial Agents’ Association was founded to seek to direct some of the immigrant stream southward. At the same time, however, many southern businessmen, journalists, and politicians expressed a fervent desire to attract only “higher-quality” European immigrants—from Britain if possible, from northwestern Europe if necessary, but not from southeastern Europe. In 1905 the editor of the Manufacturer’s Record dismissed the Slavs: “The South will have human sewage under no conditions.”
Similar xenophobic sentiments were expressed in the industrial centers of the rest of the United States; however, immigrants’ own life goals also caused them to bypass the South in favor of the coal, steel, and textile centers of the North and Midwest. Unlike immigrants from some other countries, who came to the United States to escape persecution, to avoid famine, or to buy land and thus intended to stay permanently, Slavs often came with plans to make as much money as possible as quickly as possible so that they could return to their home countries and bolster their status. These immigrants thus generally sought out the higher wages available in the steel mills, factories, coal mines, and woolen mills of the Northeast and Midwest. A few Slavs who were skilled craftsmen or versed in small-business skills became shopkeepers, jewelers, or wireworkers in cities: an 1896 letter in the newspaper Slovák v Amerike (Slovak American) told of Jozef Kurncar, a native of Trenčín, in what is now western Slovakia, who had opened a jewelry store in Bay St. Louis.
The 1890 census found just 120 Mississippi residents who had been born in Bohemia, Russia, or Poland, and only Claiborne, Coahoma, and Washington Counties had more than ten people from those countries. A decade later, Mississippi still had a miniscule 504 immigrants from the Slavic countries, with double-digit populations only in Adams, Bolivar, Claiborne, Clay, Coahoma, Harrison, Hinds, Lauderdale, Leflore, Sharkey, Warren, Washington, and Yazoo Counties.
Not surprisingly, given these small numbers, Slavic fraternal organizations had virtually no presence in the state. In fact, the state’s sole chapter of the National Slovak Society, located in Perkinston, about twenty miles north of Biloxi, was not founded until March 1955, long after the height of Slavic immigration to the United States.
- June Granatir Alexander, The Immigrant Church and Community: Pittsburgh’s Slovak Catholics and Lutherans, 1880–1915 (1987)
- Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race, vol. 1, Racial Oppression and Social Control (1994)
- Josef J. Barton, Peasants and Strangers: Italians, Rumanians, and Slovaks in an American City, 1890–1950 (1975)
- R. Vladimir Baumgarten and Josef Stefka, The National Slovak Society, Hundred-Year History, 1890–1990 (1990)
- Rowland T. Berthoff, Journal of Southern History (August 1951)
- Henry M. Booker, “Efforts of the South to Attract Immigrants, 1860–1900” (PhD dissertation, University of Virginia, 1965)
- M. Mark Stolarik, Immigration and Urbanization: The Slovak Experience, 1870–1918 (1989)
- University of Virginia Library, Historical Census Browser website, http://mapserver.lib.virginia.edu
- Mark Wyman, Round Trip to America: The Immigrants Return to Europe, 1880–1930 (1996)
- Robert M. Zecker, American Studies (Summer 2002)