How the Czechs Shaped Chicago History

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Czechs in Chicago raw on WTTW on Friday, May 20 at 8:00 p.m.

At the turn of the 19th century, Chicago had the third largest Czech population in the world, according to the Chicago Encyclopedia, behind only Prague and Vienna. The prominent presence of Czechs in the city was evident in the names of neighborhoods like Pilsen or sites like the Bohemian National Cemetery on the northwest side, and in the emerging political career of Czech immigrant Anton Cermak, who would be elected mayor of Chicago in 1931 as a Democrat. There has been no Republican mayor since.

Cermak “is a kind of George Washington of the Democratic machine”, says Laurence Jacobs, producer and editor of the new documentary Czechs in Chicago, which airs on WTTW on Friday, May 20 at 8:00 p.m. “And he represents the freethinking movement to the Czech people of Chicago,” adds Susan Marcinkus, producer and director of the documentary. “There is this independent progressive strain among the Czechs.”

The Freethinkers were anti-Catholic and made up a significant portion of Chicago’s Czech population – the Bohemian National Cemetery was founded by them, and they had their own newspaper. “Czeches have always had a more liberal view of religion, dating back centuries to the reformer Jan Hus, and they have always been very attached to their native language and their traditions,” says Marcinkus. “So it was difficult for them to be under the domination of the Austro-Hungarian Empire for so long. If they wanted to advance in life, they had to become Catholics and their language was suppressed.

According to Marcinkus family lore, his grandfather, a Slovak, was arrested for speaking Slovak in public. (The Slovaks, neighbors of the Czechs, were also part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The two peoples were combined into an independent Czechoslovakia first established after World War I. After various iterations, it split into two states in 1993: the Czech Republic and Slovakia.)

“Like many immigrants, Czechs came to America and Chicago for economic reasons,” says Marcinkus, “but — it’s a wonderful thing — I think a lot of them came for freedom. wanted that freedom of which they were so deprived during the empire.

The long Czech tradition of dissent and anti-institutionalism, especially among freethinkers, manifested itself in political action in Chicago. Czech workers played a major role in Chicago’s tumultuous labor movement at the end of the 19th century, playing a significant role in both the National Railroad Strike of 1877 and the 1886 Strike for a Day’s Work. eight hours that led to the tragic Haymarket affair.

“I was unaware of the involvement of Czechs in the working world, and along the way we realized, wow, that’s quite a contribution,” says Jacobs. “Their sense of rebellion and independence impressed me the most.”

Chicago Czechs also worked for their nation’s independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, providing funds and support and frequently hosting one of the eventual founders of an independent Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Masaryk . “Chicago was the main American city for the activity that ultimately brought freedom and sovereignty to the Czechs just after World War I,” says Marcinkus. “There was, and still is, a very strong bond between Chicago and the Czech lands.”

Masaryk’s daughter Alice, a sociologist, also spent what she described as a formative time in Chicago, working with Jane Addams at Hull House. She was one of many Czech women writing in Chicago: “There was a huge Czech women’s press, and it was all women, from typographers to printers to publishing and writing,” Marcinkus says. , another example of Czech progressivism.

“I think the United States and Chicago specifically gave the Czechs a great sense of empowerment to achieve their goals,” Marcinkus says. “They valued democratic ways very much and were very keen to engage in the democratic process.”

They were also deeply involved in their communities, notably through the sokols, or gymnastic societies, which served as gathering places and cultivated a sense of community. “They had a very strong business sense and they assimilated very quickly,” says Marcinkus. “Several Chicago historians, including Dominic Pacyga, have told me how the Czechs assimilated faster than almost any other ethnic group. Their upward mobility was enormous.

As Czech communities became established, they continually moved west: first to the near west side, then to Pilsen and what is now Little Village, then to the suburbs of Cicero, Berwyn and River side. (The path follows Cermak Road, named after this Czech politician.) But they retained their culture and their connection to Europe: “Often people said that English was the second language, and until fairly recently , more Czech was spoken than English” in some countries. these neighborhoods, says Marcinkus.

Chicago Bears founder George Halas was Czech, as was McDonald’s global expansion manager Ray Kroc. Judy Baar Topinka, Illinois’ first female state treasurer, broke with the Czech tradition of allegiance to the Chicago Democratic Party that had resulted in Cermak being elected mayor.

As Marcinkus puts it, “the Czechs brought a wealth of gifts to Chicago.”


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