The Formation of the Hungarian Ethnicity in the United States:
The Movement to Erect the Statue of Kossuth Lajos in Cleveland

Copyright (c) 1998 by the Slavic Research Center( English / Japanese ) All rights reserved.

Migration studies have remarked that the formation of ethnic identities of immigrants in their areas of settlement cannot be a simple reproduction of their former, pre-migration identities, but rather a dynamic process of acculturation in which such factors as their mother country, host country, native region, and settled locale each play definite roles. This essay tries to illuminate this process, focusing on the discourse and symbols in a movement of "Hungarians" in Cleveland at the turn of the century who were asking to erect a statue of Kossuth Lajos.
Cleveland, in the State of Ohio, was one of the American cities which attracted immigrants from Hungary, in particular from its north-eastern region. The 1848 Revolution resulted in the influx of a significant number of political refugees from Hungary. This was followed by "petit-bourgeois" emigration for economic reasons (of those who became craftsmen, storekeepers, and skilled laborers in the United States), and in the 1880s a tidal wave of immigrants from Hungary provided Cleveland with abundant labor power for its rapid industrialization.
Immigrants from Hungary settled in different districts of Cleveland according to the period of their immigration, their faith, language, and social status in the motherland. Largely, the early petit-bourgeois immigrants settled on the West side of the Cuyahoga River, whereas the later massive settlement of immigrants sprawled within the East side, from the central Hay Market district to the vigorously industrializing Buckeye Road district. The "source" region of Hungarian immigrants spread too, from Abauj-Torna prefecture, which was stimulated by the early emigration from Bohemia and Galicia, to other territories of the Kingdom of Hungary. Divided both geographically by the Cuyahoga and socially by their varying former social statuses in the motherland, the two groups of Hungarians hardly contacted each other until the issue of the Kossuth statue was raised.
In the early period immigrants from Hungary relied on "information channels" they had brought from their motherland, i.e., on their relatives and other people from the same village. After the massive immigration began, the newcomers organized themselves into societies for mutual aid and cultural and confessional organizations, which were distinct from the previous networks based on kin and parochial relations. It was through these new organizations that numerous immigrant groups from Hungary were integrated into a nascent single ethnic group which professed itself "Hungarian." These cultural organizations invented a "Hungarian culture," which began to replace the authentic folk cultures transplanted from various regions of Hungary.
A previous movement to erect the Kossuth statue in New York had ended in failure. In contrast, the movement in Cleveland for the same cause gained mass support not only from Hungarian immigrant organizations in the city, but also from the Hungarian population in the United States as a whole, and developed under close cooperation with admirers of Kossuth in Hungary. It should not be ignored that the political establishment of Cleveland cooperated with the movement too. The movement was launched to commemorate two events surrounding Kossuth: the fiftieth anniversary of his visit to the United States and the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth. Actually, Kossuth visited the United States in 1851-52 in search of financial and moral support for the independence of Hungary. He was welcomed as a "champion of freedom" by the American public, in particular by the "Young America" faction in the Democratic Party.
In July, 1901 the erection of the Kossuth statue was proposed by the Honved (National Guardsmen) Veteran Club. This club had been established in the 1890s by the participants in the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. Aiming at erecting the statue, various Hungarian immigrant organizations were integrated for the first time into the United Hungarian Societies which, before long, were transformed into the Kossuth Statue Committee. This committee consisted of a major commission, an advisory commission, and an executive commission through which the Hungarian middle class, notables, and religious and cultural leaders were mobilized respectively. Thus the nascent "Hungarian" identity found its organizational expression.
A major Hungarian newspaper campaigned for "widow's mite" and thus popularized the movement beyond the scope of the existing immigrant organizations. Moreover, the movement aimed at bringing the immigrants closer to their motherland. The statue was sculpted as a replica of a statue in Nagyszalonta in Hungary (now Salonta in Romania). The Statue Committee sent a circular to all the prefectural authorities in Hungary, asking them to send a handful of soil from the battlefields during the 1848 Revolution and other historical places. "Sacred soil" and mythic national memories legitimized the emerging "Hungarian" identity by accentuating the closeness of the two nations of freedom fighters - Hungarians and Americans.
It was precisely at this point that Slovakian and Czech priests of the Catholic Church and other leaders of Slavic immigrants in Cleveland protested against erecting the Kossuth statue. In their opinion, Kossuth was not a freedom fighter at all, but rather a "Magyar" aristocrat and dictator who betrayed his own Slavic origin and mercilessly executed many Slavic people who had requested the same status as the Magyars enjoyed in the Habsburg Empire. Considering this protest, Mayor Tom L. Johnson proposed to erect the statue not in the Public Square (the center of the city) as had been planned, but in the eastern part of the city which was, as mentioned above, a developing industrial area at that time and not far from the settlement of Hungarian newcomers (i.e., the Buckeye Road district). The city council approved this proposal. Thus the Kossuth issue polarized the two groups from Hungary - Hungarians and Slavs - who had settled in the same districts of the city. It is noteworthy that both groups used "American values" as their legitimizing cause.
The Kossuth statue was unveiled in September 28th, 1902. More than eight thousand people participated in the parade from the Public Square to Wade Park where the statue was to be erected. The parade exhibited "Hungarian-style" dress and decorations which had never actually existed in Hungary. In the parade, the Kossuth statue was covered by the Stars and Stripes, and it was unveiled in Wade Park by old ex-soldiers of the 1848 Hungarian Revolution. This symbolized that Kossuth was not a mere freedom fighter and Hungarian patriot, but an incarnation of American values. This metamorphosis was much needed by the city's political leaders - both Hungarian and non-Hungarian - for the political education of immigrants from Eastern Europe. Thus Kossuth and glorious memories of Hungarian history were reinterpreted so that the immigrant Hungarians could become Hungarian Americans or "good Americans" and climb up the social ladder in America.
What did this movement for the Kossuth statue signify for party politics in the city ? At the turn of the century in Cleveland the majority of the immigrants from Eastern Europe voted for the Democrats. Because of this support the reformist, Johnson, could be elected as mayor in 1901. The Republicans, while their traditional supporters were Anglo-Saxon protestants, tried to stretch their influence to the immigrants. The Russian-Jewish Bernstein and his successor, the German-Jewish Maschke were the Republican bosses in charge of this strategy. Hungarian immigrants were the harbingers in this ethno-machine politics, whereas Czech and Polish immigrants were integrated in the city politics only in the 1910s, and Slovakians - no earlier than the 1920s. Theodore Kundtz, who had immigrated from Abauj-Torna prefecture in the early 1870s and become a factory owner in the West side, was one of the bosses that bolstered Johnson's city hall.
Although there was no Hungarian representative in the City Council then, the movement for the Kossuth statue was closely connected with the city leaders from the beginning. This was enabled by the bosses of the Hungarian machine, such as Kundtz, Black, and Weizer. Moreover, the movement for the Kossuth statue resulted in the cooperation of the first and second generations of immigrant bosses. If the first generation had been tempered by their biographies per se, the second was more adept in mass mobilization due to their commitment to religious and cultural activities. This cooperation of the generations was a source of strength of the Cleveland Hungarians which distinguished them not only from other immigrant groups from Eastern Europe in the city, but also from Hungarians in New York who failed in erecting the Kossuth statue.
As this essay illustrates, the Hungarian identity in the United States was formed through multi-dimensional social relations: between immigrants and their mother country; between various social groups of immigrants; between authentic cultures and American values; between Hungarians and other Slavs; between the urban political establishment and the immigrants as voters; and between generations of immigrant leaders.

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