By JIM HUNT
author, speaker, consultant
With all the discussion around immigrants, I thought I would focus this column on a group of immigrants that came to our country many years ago.
My grandfather and grandmother on my mother’s side came to this country around the turn of the century when the industrial age was in full swing. Coal mines, logging, steel mills and many other industries were in desperate need of workers and adventuresome people from Europe and elsewhere were eager to find their fortunes in the new country called America. My grandparents came from Slovakia, a country that looks a lot like West Virginia, and took their place in the labor force as laborers and housekeepers. They clustered together and lived in modest homes on dirt roads close to the mines and factories.
Their welcome to America was not unlike the welcome that some are receiving today. They were met with fear by some living in the community and restrictions were put in place to prevent them from moving into certain neighborhoods or joining certain clubs and organizations. Ethnic slurs were common and those who ventured outside of the neighborhoods were often met with some rebuke. They banded together and built churches, schools and social clubs and set about marrying and starting families in their new land. In the rush to get here, they learned the basics of the language but were far from fluent.
The ‘melting pot’ became the workplaces and, if you had a strong back, your ethnic background did not matter to the bosses. You worked alongside people from throughout the world and it was not uncommon to hear fellow workers talking in Italian, Polish, Russian and a host of other languages around the lunch table. The women would often take jobs as housekeepers and domestics for wealthy families and they learned a lot about their new homeland. The work was hard and there was little room for someone who did not pull their weight. As money was earned, it often went back to the ‘old country’ to help the families that were left behind. Husbands and wives were often separated until enough money was saved to allow the family to follow the husband in the new land.
My aunt told me about her experience as a young teenager coming to America from Slovakia to keep house for her father who worked in the mines. She had a small suitcase and her mother had written the destination on a paper that was pinned to her wool coat as she took a boat across the Atlantic. A lady from her village looked after her until they made it to New York City, but she was then on her own to make her way to West Virginia. When she arrived at the train station in West Virginia, her father was not there to meet her and two young men looked at the note on her coat and said, “We can take you to your father!”. Somewhat afraid, she reluctantly went with the men and took a streetcar to her father’s house. She made it safely and hugged her father when he came in from his shift in the mines.
My grandfather could never have envisioned the life that he provided for his children and grandchildren. He owned his home and even invested in a rental property to assist his children in starting out their lives. I am reminded of him each day as I go to my office which is in that rental house. I would hope that we could look at these new immigrants and remember that they are walking on a well-worn path and have much to contribute to our country.