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RIVER LIFE

Navigating Changing Identity in a New Country

Minneapolis Tribune 11/21/20

Minneapolis Tribune 11/21/20

See entire Do New Americans Know About Thanksgiving article.

Originally named Danish Flats for its first two residents, the neighborhood became known as Brewery Flats when two breweries were built above the flats. Called the Connemara Patch for a wave of Irish settlers, Little Venice when the flats flooded in the spring, and the West Side Flats purely for its location, the Bohemian Flats was definitely the most popular name. The Bohemian Flats is now a park, but the surrounding community of Cedar-Riverside continues to provide a home for the city’s recent immigrants.

Map courtesy of Perry-Castañeda Library.

By 1900, the population at the flats was almost entirely Slovak. These people fled their native land to escape the regime of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which exploited less developed areas to benefit the rest. Map courtesy of Perry-Castañeda Library.

Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Under the rule of the Hungarian government, many Slovaks endured “Magyarization,” an attempt to eliminate Slovak culture and language in favor of Hungarian Magyar. The Bohemian Flats, set below the city, provided a refuge to practice Slovak language and customs. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

Photo courtesy of the Hennepin County Library

Photo courtesy of the Hennepin County Library

This map depicts the ethnicity of families living at the Bohemian Flats in 1910. By this time, the population was about 75% Slovak. Many of these families stayed for decades; parents watched their children grow older, move in next door, and begin families of their own, keeping the Bohemian Flats a Slovak community. [Link to interactive census maps] The lighter colored points reflect the origins of first generation Americans.

This map depicts the ethnicity of families living at the Bohemian Flats in 1910. By this time, the population was about 75% Slovak. Many of these families stayed for decades; parents watched their children grow older, move in next door, and begin families of their own, keeping the Bohemian Flats a Slovak community. The lighter colored points reflect the origins of first generation Americans.

What is a Bohemian?

Bohemia is an area now part of the Czech Republic. Although it was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bohemians were not as oppressed as the Slovaks. Many Slovaks opposed the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, afraid they would be “Czech-ified.” Both Bohemians and Slovaks in Minneapolis opposed the name “Bohemian Flats,” attempting to maintain as much of their ethnic identities as possible while adapting to American life.

Today, “Bohemian” is used to describe someone who is free-spirited or artistic. When Bohemian Flats Day was held in the mid-2000s, all who embodied the word “Bohemian” were invited and a discussion of its different meanings was included. How might these varied connotations affect the way the residents of the Bohemian Flats are remembered today?

Institutions like the Seven Corners Library (below) provided English lessons, Americanization classes, and social clubs to help acclimate new immigrants to American life and keep children out of trouble and men out of the bars.

Seven Corners Library. Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

Seven Corners Library.
Courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

Courtesy of Minneapolis Tribune, August 5, 1905.

Courtesy of Minneapolis Tribune, August 5, 1905.

In 1910, a group of Slovaks convinced President Taft to request “mother tongue” in the federal census instead of simply “ethnicity” for fear of being mislabeled. Slovaks were assigned a number of incorrect labels in the census including Bohemian, Austrian, Hungarian, Slavic, and Czechoslovakian. Image from 1920 United States Census.

In 1910, a group of Slovaks convinced President Taft to request “mother tongue” in the federal census instead of simply “ethnicity” for fear of being mislabeled. Slovaks were assigned a number of incorrect labels in the census including Bohemian, Austrian, Hungarian, Slavic, and Czechoslovakian.
Image from 1920 United States Census.

 

Finding a Place to Worship

While flats residents of Scandinavian, German, or Irish descent could join established ethnically affiliated churches, the Slovak population in Minneapolis chose to form their own. Religion was very important to Slovaks, informing political and social beliefs, and leading many to travel long distances to attend church. Religious diversity caused the community to split across many congregations; when residents moved off the flats, they generally moved toward their churches and away from one another. These churches still exist today, though most have lost ethnic ties.

Churches3

1. John’s Byzantine Rite, Est. 1907: Greek Catholics worshipping at St. Mary’s and St. Cyril’s joined Ukrainians and Rusins to form St. John’s. (Greek Catholicism was also called Byzantine.) Photo courtesy of St. John’s Byzantine Rite.

1. John’s Byzantine Rite, Est. 1907: Greek Catholics worshipping at St. Mary’s and St. Cyril’s joined Ukrainians and Russians to form St. John’s. (Greek Catholicism was also called Byzantine.)
Photo courtesy of St. John’s Byzantine Rite.

Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral, Est. 1888: Formed by Greek Catholics who left St. Cyril’s, St. Mary’s parishioners had to convert to Greek Orthodoxy when Archbishop John Ireland refused to approve Pastor Alexis Toth who had once been married. Photo courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

2. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral, Est. 1888: Formed by Greek Catholics who left St. Cyril’s, St. Mary’s parishioners had to convert to Greek Orthodoxy when Archbishop John Ireland refused to approve Pastor Alexis Toth who had once been married.
Photo courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

St. Cyril’s Catholic Church, Est. 1888: This church was named for Slovak Saints Cyril and Methodius, a choice rejected by Archbishop John Ireland who believed a church could only bear the name of one saint. Though officially called St. Cyril’s, members continued to use the longer name. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

3. St. Cyril’s Catholic Church, Est. 1888: This church was named for Slovak Saints Cyril and Methodius, a choice rejected by Archbishop John Ireland who believed a church could only bear the name of one saint. Though officially called St. Cyril’s, members continued to use the longer name.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Holy Immanuel Lutheran Church, Est. 1888: The only church located on the flats, Holy Immanuel Lutheran Church occupied this chapel for two decades until it moved across the river. The chapel was later used for kindergarten and Sunday school. Photo courtesy of the Hennepin History Museum.

4. Holy Immanuel Lutheran Church, Est. 1888: The only church located on the flats, Holy Immanuel Lutheran Church occupied this chapel for two decades until it moved across the river. The chapel was later used for kindergarten and Sunday school.
Photo courtesy of the Hennepin History Museum.

Immanuel Slovak Baptist, Est. 1917: The First Slovak Baptist was formed by members of Holy Immanuel Lutheran who had been converted by a Slovak Baptist missionary. Many of the founding members were women from a town called Vasec. Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

5. Immanuel Slovak Baptist, Est. 1917: The First Slovak Baptist was formed by members of Holy Immanuel Lutheran who had been converted by a Slovak Baptist missionary. Many of the founding members were women from a town called Vasec.
Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

Trinity Slovak Lutheran Church, Est. 1923: This church was formed by dissenting members of Holy Immanuel. It eventually moved to Minnehaha Avenue and changed its name to Prince of Glory Lutheran. Photo courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

6. Trinity Slovak Lutheran Church, Est. 1923: This church was formed by dissenting members of Holy Immanuel. It eventually moved to Minnehaha Avenue and changed its name to Prince of Glory Lutheran.
Photo courtesy of the Hennepin County Library.

See the Exhibit Pages of Each Panel

  1. “No Place Like Home”: Remembering the Bohemian Flats
  2. Navigating Changing Identity in a New Country
  3. “A Squatter’s Domain”: Life on the Banks of the Mississippi
  4. “High Waters on River Flats”: Living on the Mississippi River
  5. “The Laborer’s Lot”: Poverty, Employment, and Social Programs
  6. “Adieu, River Flats”: The Eviction and Legacy of the Bohemian Flats
Contact Us!
Send us a note at rvrlife@umn.edu to make suggestions for other places we should look, media to track, and stories to tell!
River Life in Video
Come Along for a Water Walk with Kare11 and River Life, and see Gifts at Work: The Mississippi River by the University of Minnesota Foundation
Open Rivers: Rethinking the Mississippi
A joint project of River Life, the Institute for Advanced Study, and the University of Minnesota Libraries, Open Rivers is an interdisciplinary online journal that recognizes the Mississippi River as a space for timely and critical conversations about people, community, water, and place.