Slovak Diaspora

Presidents Kovac, Clinton and Havel

Presidents Kovac, Clinton and Havel

In the 1990 census, more than 2 million Americans and Canadians claimed Slovak descent.

by June G. Alexander

Large-scale Slovak immigration to the United States began in the late 1870s, when Slovakia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire administered by Hungary. Because U.S. immigration officials did not keep separate records for each ethnic group within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it is impossible to determine the exact number of Slovak immigrants who entered the United States. Between 1880 and the mid-1920s, approximately 500,000 Slovaks immigrated to the United States. About two-thirds of these immigrants were men. Most Slovaks immigrated for economic reasons. Seeking employment, they moved to regions where major industries, such as steel manufacturing and coal mining, needed unskilled labor. More than half of Slovak immigrants settled in Pennsylvania. Other popular destinations included Ohio, Illinois, New York and New Jersey.

Many Slovak immigrants who came to the United States before World War I(1914-1918) could neither read nor write. This high illiteracy rate reflected the rural background and farming heritage of most immigrants. The repression of Slovak culture by Hungary, which governed the Slovak region until 1918, also discouraged the development of literacy among Slovaks. Slovak American parents typically encouraged children to seek secure jobs rather than social or economic advancement. Although some Slovak Americans entered such professions as law and education, most second-generation Slovak American men became industrial laborers.

The number of Slovaks entering the United States declined sharply during World War I. At the end of the war in 1918, the Slovak and Czech regions formerly controlled by Austria-Hungary were united as a single country known as Czechoslovakia. Immigration to the United States resumed after the war, but nearly halted in the 1920s due to changes in U.S. laws that established very low quotas for immigrants from Eastern Europe. From 1929 to 1965, the United States set the immigration quota for Czechoslovakia at just 2874 persons per year. However, because some categories of people, such as family members of U.S. citizens, could enter as "nonquota" immigrants, the number of Slovak immigrants entering the United States was substantially higher.

From 1948 to 1989, Czechoslovakia was ruled by a Communist regime backed by the USSR. Most Slovak American organizations supported U.S. policies that opposed the Communists. In 1989 a bloodless coup, known as the Velvet Revolution due to its peaceful nature, overthrew the Communist government of Czechoslovakia. After the fall of Communism in Czechoslovakia, Slovak American organizations generally advocated more autonomy for Slovakia and approved when Slovakia was established as an independent nation in 1993. While events in Slovakia still stir interest, no clear pattern of relations between Slovak Americans and their ancestral homeland has developed.

Contemporary Culture

According to the 1990 census, most Slovak Americans have white-collar jobs that do not require physical labor, such as office work. Very few are self-employed. Nearly three-fifths of Slovak Americans reside in the five states in which most Slovak immigrants originally settled: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, New York, and New Jersey. The overwhelming majority of the Slovak American community is made up of the descendants of immigrants who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Slovak Americans maintain some aspects of their ethnic heritage through religious and family traditions. During the Christmas and Easter seasons, Slovak American families gather together for traditional Slovak celebrations and foods. The majority of Slovak Americans belong to the Roman Catholic Church, but a substantial percentage attend Protestant churches. Lutherans comprise the largest Protestant group among Slovak Americans, followed by Presbyterians.

Each religious denomination established Slovak churches, organizations, and newspapers in the United States. Slovak American Catholics and Lutherans still maintain institutions and publications. The longest-running Slovak American newspapers are Jednota (Unity), published by the First Catholic Slovak Union, and secular periodical Slovk v Amerike (Slovak in America). Other groups that don't operate exclusively in the US include the Slovak World Congress and Matica Slovenska.

Also see our Slovak Genealogy Section.