History of the Czechs in Baltimore
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The history of the Czechs in Baltimore dates back to the mid-19th century. Thousands of Czechs immigrated to East Baltimore during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, becoming an important component of Baltimore's ethnic and cultural heritage. The Czech community has founded a number of cultural associations and organizations to preserve the city's Czech heritage, including a Roman Catholic church, a heritage association, a festival, a language school, and a cemetery. The population began to decline during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, as the community aged and many Czech Americans moved to the suburbs of Baltimore.
By 1870, there were approximately 1,000 Czech Catholics in Baltimore. Within a decade that number increased to over 5,000. In 1870 there were 766 Bohemian-born residents of Baltimore, making Bohemia the third largest source of immigration to Baltimore after the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland and Germany.
According to the US Immigration Office, the Baltimore Czech community numbered around 10,000 people between 1882 and 1910.
In the 1920 United States Census, there were 7,750 Czechs, making Baltimore the fifth largest city for Czechs in the United States. Only Chicago, New York City, Cleveland, and St. Louis had larger Czech populations. In the same year 3,348 people spoke the Czech language, making Czech the third most commonly spoken Slavic or Eastern European language after Polish and Russian. During the same year, 7,000 Czech Roman Catholics belonged to the St. Wenceslaus Roman Catholic parish.
In 1940, 1,816 immigrants from Czechoslovakia lived in Baltimore. These immigrants comprised 3% of the city's foreign-born white population. In total, 4,031 people of Czech birth or descent lived in the city, comprising 2.9% of the foreign-stock white population.
The Czech community in the Baltimore metropolitan area numbered 17,798 as of 2000, making up 0.7% of the area's population. In the same year Baltimore city's Czech population was 2,206, 0.3% of the city's population.
Czech immigration first began in large numbers after the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe, bringing thousands of Bohemian Forty-Eighters to Baltimore. The Czech immigrants came from the regions of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, which at the time were part of the Austrian Empire and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Because the United States Census Bureau counted the Czechs as "Austrians" until 1881, it is difficult to know an accurate count for Czech immigrants before that time. Even after 1881, many Czechs were still listed as Austrians because of their Austrian citizenship.
The next great wave of Czech immigrants occurred from the late 1800s through the early 1900s. Enough Czechs had immigrated by 1860 that a small colony was formed. The developing community was thriving by the 1870s (construction had commenced in 1867), which was known then as Little Bohemia or Bohemia Village. Numerous rowhouses were built to accommodate the growing Bohemian community, which continued to grow throughout the 1880s and 1890s. The homes were constructed by Bohemian immigrants, most notably the architect Frank Novak (1877-1945). Many of the immigrants who settled here worked as weavers and tailors or owned market stalls.
The majority of the Baltimore Bohemians were Roman Catholics. In 1870, there were around 1,000 Bohemian Catholics and within a decade that number had increased to over 5,000. The St. Wenceslaus parish was organized in 1872, in order to serve the needs of the growing population, becoming the Bohemian National Parish of the Roman Catholic Church in Baltimore.
In August 1879, the Fairmount and Chapel Streets Permanent Building, Savings and Loan Association No 1 Inc. was founded to serve the needs of Czech immigrants. The bank was located on the second floor of Anton Rytina's Bar at 1919 East Fairmount Avenue. All bank records were written in the Czech language until 1948.
In 1880, the politician Vaclav Joseph Shimek helped establish the Grand Lodge Č.S.P.S. of Baltimore, the Baltimore chapter of the Czech-Slovak Protective Society. Shimek was the owner of the Bohemian Hall and the six-time president of Sokol Baltimore; he was also instrumental in helping found the National Sokol Organization. Shimek's Bohemian Hall, now the United Baptist Church at Barnes Street and Broadway, was located in the heart of Little Bohemia and was established as a meeting place for the Czech community. Shimek allowed the Hall to be used to hold Knights of Labor meetings for working-class Czech tailors and garment workers.
In 1884, the Grand Lodge Č.S.P.S. of Baltimore constructed the Bohemian National Cemetery, a cemetery for irreligious and Protestant Czechs and Slovaks. While the majority of Baltimore's Bohemians were Catholic, the Czech-Slovak Protective Society was largely composed of secular and religious freethinkers. The cemetery served as an alternative to the Catholic cemeteries where other Bohemians were buried.
The Bohemian Building, Loan and Savings Association was established in 1900, in order to serve the needs of Czech immigrants. Two years later, in 1904, the Madison Bohemian Savings Bank was also founded in order to aid Czech immigrants, particularly the Czech farmers of the Hereford Zone of Northern Baltimore County.
The Golden Prague Federal Savings & Loan Association was founded in 1912. The bank was created to aid the Czech community, but later expanded to serve non-Czechs as well.
A Czech immigrant living in Little Bohemia named William Oktavec invented screen painting in 1913. Screen painting became a popular form of folk art in Baltimore's working-class immigrant communities. During the peak of screen painting in the 1930s and 1940s there were approximately 100,000 painted screens by over 100 artists.
In 1914, the Bohemian Catholics built the church of St. Wenceslaus in Baltimore, which by now had 7,000 members. St. Wenceslaus held services in both the Czech and English languages. At its height in 1920, the parish was the fourth largest Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.
With further construction in Little Bohemia the Czech community continued to grow. By 1927, the construction was finished in Little Bohemia. As the Czech population continued to expand, Czechs began to move into Patterson Park and became an important component of the neighborhood's growth.
The Fairmount and Chapel Streets Permanent Building, Savings and Loan Association No 1 Inc. changed its name in 1960 to the Fairmount Federal Savings and Loan Association, Inc. In 1963, they moved their headquarters to Baltimore's suburb of Rosedale.
In 1970, the Bohemian Building, Loan and Savings Association changed its name to the Slavie Savings And Loan Association Inc.
In 1986, the Czech and Slovak Heritage Association of Maryland, Inc. was founded in Baltimore. It has since grown into a national organization that offers courses on the languages, culture, and history of the Czechs and Slovaks. In 1987, the association started the Czech and Slovak Heritage Festival.
The Slavie Savings And Loan Association Inc., changed its name to the Slavie Federal Savings and Loan Association in 1987.
The Czech and Slovak Language School of Maryland was founded in 1988. The school was held at the parish hall of the St. Wenceslaus Church. After a few years the school moved to the Towson Unitarian Universalist Church and then to the Maryland School for the Blind. The school offers the only Czech and Slovak language courses in the Baltimore area.
Ze Mean Bean Café in Fell's Point opened in 1995. It is a restaurant which offers Slavic and Eastern European fare, including Czech cuisine. The restaurant was founded by Yvonne Dornic as an ode to her Czechoslovakian-born father Ivan Dornic.
In 1998, Sokol Baltimore moved to a new location at St. Patrick's Parish Hall on Broadway in Fell's Point.
In 2000, the Slavie Federal Savings and Loan Association became the Slavie Federal Savings Bank. The bank's headquarters were moved to the Baltimore suburb of Bel Air in 2001. By 2008, people of Slavic descent still made up ten percent of Slavie's customer base.
In 2007, the Golden Prague Federal Savings and Loan Association was purchased by the Bradford Bank and merged into it.
In 2014, after 114 years of business, federal banking regulators closed Slavie Federal Savings Bank after the bank's capital was depleted by bad loans.
As of 2014, there is still a small Czech population in Baltimore, but only a few traces of the community still remain. Little Bohemia is no longer a majority Czech neighborhood, as many Czechs have moved to the suburbs. While St. Wenceslaus still exists, the ethnic character of the parish has undergone a gradual change from a mostly Czech parish to one that is multicultural and multiracial, first as many Poles and Lithuanians moved into the neighborhood, and then as the neighborhood shifted to having an African American majority.
Between the 1860s and the 1910s, Bohemians chartered at least 20 building and loan associations. The first Bohemian organization was chartered in 1877, around 20 years after Bohemians started to arrive in the city in large numbers. Some of these associations were Jednota "Blesk", "Vlastimila" (sisters' benevolent union), the "Ctirada", the "Jaromíra", and the "Zlatá Praha" ("Golden Prague").
As of 2014 there were only 1,000 screen paintings left.
The American Visionary Art Museum features a permanent exhibition on screen paintings, including a re-creation of a row house and a documentary titled "The Screen Painters" made by folklorist Elaine Eff.
Historically, there was a strong connection between the Czech and Slovak communities in Baltimore and the Czech and Slovak communities in Prince George County, Virginia. The members of the two communities would often travel back and forth between Baltimore and Prince George County in order to cooperate on events.
Notable Czech-Americans from Baltimore
- August Klecka, a politician and newspaper editor.
- William R. Jecelin, a soldier in the United States Army who posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the Korean War.
- Frederick Jelinek, a researcher in information theory, automatic speech recognition, and natural language processing.
- Nancy Mowll Mathews, an art historian, curator, and author.
- Ric Ocasek, a musician and music producer best known as lead vocalist the rock band The Cars.
- William Oktavec, the inventor of screen painting.
- Michael Peroutka, a Maryland lawyer who founded the Institute on the Constitution.
- Dutch Ulrich, professional baseball player for the Philadelphia Phillies.
- Charles Yukl, a ragtime pianist and murderer.
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- Slezak, Eva. "Baltimore's Czech Community: The Early Years", Czechoslovak and Central European Journal, 9, No. 1 & 2 (Summer-Winter 1990), pp. 103–114.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Czechs in Baltimore.|
- Czech and Slovak Heritage Festival webpage
- Czech and Slovak Heritage Association website
- City man connects to Czech heritage through Wilson statue
- Grand Lodge Č.S.P.S. of Baltimore website
- History of Saint Wenceslaus Church
- Kolache Kreations
- Percentage of Czechs in Baltimore, MD by Zip Code
- Sokol Baltimore
- The Painted Screen Society of Baltimore
- Ze Mean Bean Café