Piast Institute lecture ‘Detroit Polonia: The Forgotten History’

By Andrew Ładak

On October 19 I attended a presentation by Dr. Thaddeus Radziłowski, president of the Piast Institute, titled “Detroit Polonia: The Forgotten History.” It was the second in a six-part lecture/discussion program called “Reflections on Polish and Polish American History,” presented by the Piast Institute.

In his introduction, Dr. Radziłowski made the somewhat puzzling statement that, as Polish Americans, “We just don’t exist” in the history of Detroit. What he meant, he explained, was that despite being one of the largest ethnic groups in Detroit (in fact, the largest between 1910 and 1950), the Polish community—known as Polonia—seldom figures in published histories of the city. He attributed this relative absence to several factors. One was the tendency of early Polish immigrants to live in predominantly Polish (and Polish-speaking) contiguous neighborhoods, each centered on its own church. Prejudice against Poles was another factor. Xenophobia among “real” Americans began growing in the 1890s as increasing numbers of immigrants arrived from central, eastern and southern Europe. Native-born, more established Americans of Irish, English or German descent looked down on Poles and other immigrants from eastern Europe.

Perhaps the main reason for Poles’ absence in the written history of Detroit is that from around 1918 Poles found themselves increasingly excluded from the city’s politics. New laws, aimed at “reforming” city council elections, eliminated patronage, forbade party involvement, reduced the council from 42 members to eight, and required all members to be elected “at large” rather than within their own (perhaps heavily Polish) ward. As a result, Poles were largely eliminated from Detroit’s city council and, effectively, from the city’s political life. That, in turn, limited their overall visibility and influence for decades.

Poles began arriving in Detroit after the Civil War, said Dr. Radziłowski, a scholar of Polish, Russian and East Central European history as well as the history and Poles in America, related the story of Polish immigrants and their descendants in Detroit. At the time Poland did not exist as a sovereign country, having been divided since 1795 between the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Russian Empire. The earliest Polish immigrants were mainly Kaszubs, from what was then western Prussia and Wielkopolska. They were followed by immigrants from Austrian-occupied lands and, in the early 1900s, from Russian Poland.

The greatest influx of Poles to Detroit occurred after 1910. Like other immigrants, they were drawn to jobs in the emerging auto industry. Many arrived directly from various parts of Poland, which was still under foreign domination. Others came from the coal mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia or from the textile mills of upper New York. Still others moved to Detroit from the copper mines in northern Michigan or from farms in Michigan and Wisconsin. By 1920 there were 120,000 Poles in Detroit, about 12 percent of the total population. However, immigration from Europe largely stopped in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. During and after the war hostility against European immigrants steadily grew for ethnic, cultural and economic reasons. Viewed as not being real Americans, many immigrants were seen as radicals or even (in the case of Poles and other Eastern Europeans) as Bolsheviks. Widespread anti-immigrant attitudes led to drastic restrictions on immigration. At the same time, the post-war period opened up opportunities for Southern blacks, who began moving to Detroit and other Northern cities in search of jobs. They were joined by newcomers from Appalachia (and, interestingly, from Canada).

To a greater extent than other European immigrants in Detroit, Poles built their own houses and created new neighborhoods around churches. They weren’t particularly concerned with upward social mobility. Instead, they devoted themselves to family and community and their initial goal was owning a house on their own land. Dr. Radziłowski noted that the intelligentsia was a small part of Detroit’s Polonia at the time (compared to Chicago’s Polonia, for example). Eighty percent of Poles worked as unskilled laborers, and in 1920 only 15 percent were middle class. Unfortunately, many Poles of this period placed little value on education. Often their children left school after their First Communion because the family’s priority was paying for the family house and maintaining the community as a physical, moral and social anchor. On the other hand, Polish neighborhoods were unusually stable. With a variety of stores and businesses (many owned by Polish Jews) nearby, residents had little reason to leave their community, let alone move elsewhere.

In the 1920s and ‘30s Poles formed a major part of Detroit’s industrial work force—the Dodge Main plant, for instance, was largely Polish—so it was not surprising that they became heavily involved in the union movement. With 50 percent of its working-age members unemployed during the Great Depression, Polonia supported organizing efforts by providing an institutional base in the form of organizations (Falcons, Dom Polski, Polish radio programs, etc.) and their facilities, and the organizations offered a pool of potential union members. The militancy of Polish women, many of whom worked in factories, often under terrible conditions, warrants particular attention. As one example, Polish women in a cigar factory, where they constituted 85 percent of the workers, led a 90-day strike that eventually won them improved working conditions. In 1935, Polish women, agitating for lower meat prices, organized a “meat strike” that shut down 75 percent of the local butcher shops.

Unlike many others involved in union organizing, the Poles were not inspired by then-fashionable left-wing or communist sympathies, but by concern for their families and communities. Those concerns, along with other work-related problems, did not fade with time. The year 1941 (at the end which unemployment in Detroit stood at 250,000) was particularly difficult for Polish workers, largely because of Henry Ford’s determination to break the unions. Ford (who, it’s worth noting, was a notorious anti-Semite, xenophobe and long-time admirer of the Nazis) recruited African Americans to fight the unions. Inevitably, this, along and other union-busting tactics, led to violent confrontations between blacks and immigrants, among them Poles.

In general, though, relations between Poles and blacks in Detroit were relatively benign, said Dr. Radziłowski. In many areas (Hamtramck, for instance) the two groups lived alongside each other in comparative harmony. For one thing, there were still relatively few blacks in the city, so there were presumably fewer opportunities for racial friction. Hamtramck, where blacks were more numerous, had many black lawyers, doctors and dentists. When Poles and blacks did clash, the conflicts tended to involve rivalry over jobs rather than housing or outright racism (which was more common between Poles and blacks in other cities, including Chicago).

Prejudice against Poles continued well into the 1960s, said Dr. Radziłowski. It was only in 1960, he noted, the Polish Americans “became white” (that is, officially classified as such). As recently as 1965 Poles were the second-most likely group (just behind African Americans) to be discriminated against. They also continued to lag behind other groups in education and income. Not until the 1970s and ‘80s did Polish Americans, as a group, reach—and eventually surpass—national averages in education and income.

The lecture covered the highlights of the Polish experience in Detroit from the late 1800s to the early 1970s. There is much more, of course, to the story of Poles and their descendants in Detroit, in other Michigan communities and elsewhere in America. As I listened to Dr. Radziłowski, and afterward, I reflected on other aspects of this history, including the experiences of Poles (like my wife’s and my own parents) who arrived in Detroit after World War II. Why they came to America and how they became Americans is a part of the story that, to a large extent, still remains to be told.

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