Polish Americans are American of predominantly Polish descent. Their community is often called Polonia. The major immigration of Polish Catholics came to the U.S. 1890-1914. Some returned but most stayed. They were unskilled farm workers but did not enter farming in America. Instead they took unskilled manual labor jobs in burgeoning heavy industry, especially coal mining (in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Illinois), meatpacking (in Chicago), steel (Pittsburgh, Gary), construction (in many large cities). The favorite destinations were large industrial cities near the Great Lakes, especially Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee and Cleveland, Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Other destinations they commonly went to included New York City, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Kansas City, St. Louis, and New England cities, such as Boston, Hartford, and Providence.
Immigration occurred in three waves. The largest group came before 1929, mostily 1900-1914, and comprised peasant farmers who immigrated for economic reasons; the second group consisted of post-World War II displaced persons and was more likely to be urban and educated. The third group contained more recent urban, educated immigrants who were escaping a Communist government. The first generation became unskilled industrial laborers. Few became farmers (but many became home owners in industrial cities.) By the second generation, after 1940, social-occupational mobility turned upward.
Chicago's Polonia sustained diverse political cultures, each with its own newspaper. In 1920 the community had a choice of five daily papers - from the Socialist Dziennik Ludowy [People's daily] (1907–25) to the Polish Roman Catholic Union's Dziennik Zjednoczenia [Union daily] (1921–39) - all of which supported workers' struggles for better working conditions and were part of a broader program of cultural and educational activities. The decision to subscribe to a particular paper reaffirmed a particular ideology or institutional network based on ethnicity and class, which lent itself to different alliances and different strategies.
Wincenty Michal Barzynski, born in Poland, served as a Roman Catholic missionary to the new Polish communities in Texas in 1866 before beginning a 25-year-long tenure as pastor of Saint Stanislaw Kostka parish in Chicago in 1869. One of the most important and controversial individuals in late-19th century Polonia, his work provides insight into the reaction of Polish immigrants to the world of modern industrial capitalism. While working-class Poles generally felt that capitalism strained and ruptured familial and social ties, they nonetheless rejected radicalization and socialism, thanks in large part to the leadership and opposition to socialism of priests like Barzynski. For pastors such as Barzynski, the issue of labor versus capital was less important than the greater struggle to build a lasting Polish community in the United States. By 1900 the priests allowed the workers to join labor unions, at least those controlled by conservative Irish Catholics.
Polish Americans kept a low profile in politics after 1900. The urban machines tried to minimize the number of voters before 1928 (so they could control local elections), but reversed course in 1928, so that big city majorities could carry the state's electoral votes. Poles started voting, but few became politiians.
During the Progressive Era (1890-1932) Chicago's public school system offered English-language basic adult education and literacy classes to Lithuanian and Polish immigrants. Lithuanian and Polish immigrant community leaders - parish priests, newspaper editors, and the professional elite - called on members of their communities in various immigrant publications to attend these classes. They agreed with the Yankee and Irish Catholic educators who maintained that immigrants needed English-language skills to advance in society, but they also wanted their own ethnic groups to outshine other groups. In addition to the Chicago public schools, Lithuanian organizations like the Lithuanian Women's Educational Society and the Aurora Society, and Polish organizations, such as the Polish National Alliance and the Polish Women's Alliance, established classes for their respective immigrant groups. Neither Lithuanians nor Poles responded to their leaders' calls for involvement in literate activities to the degree hoped. Workers cited a lack of time and energy, and yet they found the time to pursue amusements like dancing and playing poker. The Catholic school system operated Polish-language elementary schools, but the Catholic high schools and colleges were English-language and multi-ethnic, which speeded assimilation and intermarriage with other Catholic ethnics.
A wave of Polish immigrants after 1980 put new pressure on both the public and parochial school systems of Chicago and other large cities to institute bilingual education programs, similar to those for Spanish-speaking students. After many years of uneven results, Chicago in 2003 had Polish bilingual programs in 19 elementary schools and five secondary schools. The Catholic schools prefer the immersion approach with non-English speaking pupils placed in regular classrooms, sometimes with help from volunteers. Another change in Chicago education has been the development of Saturday schools that offer specialized language and cultural classes that are unavailable in the regular school systems. These Saturday schools are found in the suburbs as well as in Chicago itself and allow Polish Americans to encourage their children to learn and appreciate their heritage.
- The Polish Museum of America, based in Chicago; includes Archives of the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America
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- Celia Berdes, and Adam A. Zych, "Immigration Incarnate: Elderly Polish Immigrants and Ethnics Demonstrate the History of an Immigration and its Effects on Social Class." Polish American Studies 2005 62(1): 43-51. Issn: 0032-2806
- Jon Bekken, "Negotiating Class and Ethnicity: the Polish-language Press in Chicago." Polish American Studies 2000 57(2): 5-29. Issn: 0032-2806
- John Radzilowski, "Rev. Wincenty Barzynski and a Polish Catholic Response to Industrial Capitalism." Polish American Studies 2001 58(2): 23-32. Issn: 0032-2806
- Edward R. Kantowicz, Polish-American Politics in Chicago, 1888-1940 (1975)
- Frederick J. Augustyn, Jr. "Together and Apart: Lithuanian and Polish Immigrant Adult Literacy Programs in Chicago, 1890-1930." Polish American Studies 2000 57(2): 31-44. Issn: 0032-2806
- Geraldine Balut Coleman, "Educating Polish Immigrants Chicago Style: 1980-2002." Polish American Studies 2004 61(1): 27-38. Issn: 0032-2806