Ethnic Women of Cleveland: An Oral History Project
January - December, 1986
The specific goal of the Oral History Project on Ethnic Women in Cleveland has been achieved: to initiate during the year of our nation's Liberty Celebration systematic recording of the histories of ordinary Cleveland women of East European heritage now advanced in age who are daughters of parents born in other lands or were themselves born there. Thirty completed histories, five more than proposed, will be placed in the Cleveland State University Library for use by interested community persons, students and scholars. This statement is to report on the conclusion of the project.
Status of Interviews
Each interview was tape recorded and all interviewing was completed by December, 1986. A copy of the initial transcription was returned to each interviewee for review and further comment. The interview was subsequently typed in final form. One copy was bound and sent to the interviewee and the other was prepared for permanent placement in the University Library. Because the oral history has proved to be of considerable interest to younger family members, the greatest delay in the process has been the interviewee's lag in returning the transcript for final typing. All persons interviewed have signed a release for the histories to be placed in the library to be used for educational purposes.
Thirty interviews have been done. Two interviews included more than one person. The first was an interview with two long-time, close friends. The second was done with four sisters whose birthdays were between 1912 and 1921. The sisters regretted that the fifth sister, who had passed on, was not a part of these sessions. Nineteen of these interviews are now ready for the library. All other interviews in the first draft form have been given to the interviewees for their review and further comment. The intervening holidays, a busy time for grandmothers, doubtlessly caused some further delay. These interviews will be typed in their final form and added to the collection as soon as they are returned.
The histories of these 30 women strongly support the position of Dr. Martha Bohachevsky-Chomiak, professor of history at Johns Hopkins University, who has stated that early ethnic women in this country were in fact the first feminists, pragmatic feminists, but untitled as such and deliberately so. These interviews are stories of women of great strength, courage and creativity as they did what they had to do to maintain their families, their churches, their values and traditions while building their communities. Simultaneously, an implicit part of their perceived diffuse responsibilities was retention of traditional male and female role distinctions.
Other Retention of Culture
It is of course difficult to make more than a limited number of general observations regarding the histories of these thirty women who were capable of such independence. Each, however, was devoted to family life, church and community. Among the findings of interest are first and foremost, today all are enthusiastic United States citizens. Five aspects of the homeland culture seem to have been retained for the longest period. These are: religion; celebration of holidays, including weddings; ethnic foods and cooking styles; music; and home arts and handcrafts such as embroidering. Most of the respondents still listen to ethnic radio programs, especially ethnic music. The radio programs also provide a way of keeping in touch with the native language. For the first generation born in this country, there was considerable retention of homeland culture. But the next generation did not seem as interested in retaining the ways of the parents, and many of the parents were themselves concerned with "Americanization" of the children. An unexpected finding was that the language usually lasted only one generation. Among our respondents, very few of the next generation were fluent in the language.
The ethnic groups included in the interviews were Polish, Czech, Slovak, Hungarian, Ukranian, and Lithuanian. We did not get to do any of the southern Slavic groups, such as Slovenians or Serbians. Many of the women were born of parents who had come to this country from eastern Europe. The oldest person interviewed is 94 years old. She was born in Europe. She recalled seeing the Statue of Liberty when she arrived in the United States in 1912. This oral history project, during our period of celebration of the Statue, had particular meaning for her. The Lithuanian interviewees were also born in Europe. It is clear that this is a significant beginning of an important project which we hope to continue and expand to include the other ethnic groups in Cuyahoga County.
Subsequent Usage and Consequences of the Project
The initial announcement of the project elicited considerable public interest as indicated in the interim report. Attached is a news article that was carried after the submission of that report. We anticipate that public announcement of the library collection will generate additional public interest and initiate public use of the materials.
The oral history collection will be available for use by the students in the Women's History course that is scheduled for Spring Quarter, March, 1987. It will, of course, be available for other Women's Studies courses as well. The Ohio Oral History Association has invited the Principal Investigator to participate on a panel May 1 in Columbus, to discuss this project. She has also planned to develop a paper on the first generation, i.e., the mothers of the interviewees: some of their acculturation concerns, goals, problems, and successes. This paper will be ready for presentation in Spring, 1987 and it will subsequently be presented to the Cleveland State University Library to be retained as a part of this collection. As an unexpected indication of the validity of this project, the Project Administrator at the request of the Ohio Humanities Council, served as their evaluator for an oral history project funded by the Council.
Focus upon the project with participation by the Ukrainian National Women's League of America, Inc. Ohio Regional Council is being planned for Women's History Week, March, 1987. We will subsequently be participants in a section of the League's National Convention Program "Communicating Through Barriers" which is being held in Cleveland, May, 1987.
We look forward to developing a course in oral history in order that the students themselves may learn directly and participate in the continuation of the project. Because of the timeliness of this resource, we are continuing to seek funding so that the project may be continued in some form, even during the period that we are developing the related course for students.
We recognize and appreciate the immediate value and use of the unique information acquired from this project as indicated above and in the interim report. Just as important and perhaps of even greater significance is the project's ultimate implication for this and new generations of students as it begins to bridge the gap of understanding, continuity and appreciation between the generations. The award winning author, Alice Walker, has cogently identified the status of our prevailing intergenerational information when she states that our mothers and grandmothers have given us a sealed envelope, it is our responsibility to open it and articulate its contents.
Finally, we can only reiterate that because oral history, the preservation of lives, is a timely undertaking, finding ways to continue this work is a necessary priority even if on a case by case basis. We have even now become aware of at least four more oral histories that simply must be done. Our sincere appreciation to The George Gund Foundation. Without the award of five thousand dollars, this project could not have been accomplished.