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Accents: Why They Came Here

Wednesday, November 20, 2002 at 2:05 PM

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The identity of northeast Ohio is constantly changing. Years ago, Cleveland and its surrounding communities were built by immigrants and migrants that provided the labor to support the area's economic legs. The region that once drew thousands to work in its industrial centers is now looking to redefine itself as a hot spot for entrepreneurs and technology. So how can we use our historic diversity to help plan for the future? We'll try to answer that question with Accents - our month-long examination of ethnicity and immigration in northeast Ohio. But before we can look to the future, it's important to understand our past. Accents begins today with this history lesson from ideastream's Renita Jablonski.

Renita Jablonski: This week a fourth grade class from Coventry Elementary School took on new personalities.

Brynne Peluso: I was Jose Rivera. He came from Puerto Rico.

RJ: Students like Brynne Peluso searched through immigrant trunks in an educational program at the Western Reserve Historical Society. Using props and clothing found in the trunks, they put together the stories of real families that came to northeast Ohio looking for a new life.

BP: His brother, he had come before the rest of the family to get a job because there was better pay and later on they weren’t very, they weren’t very rich and they could only afford one ticket so the brother that came to Ohio had to work and then finally he got enough money and the rest of the family came.

RJ: Job opportunities and family: two of the biggest reasons behind any immigration or migration. John Grabowski is Director of Research at the Historical Society and a history professor at Case Western Reserve University.

John Grabowski: Well that’s the 64-dollar question: why Cleveland?

RJ: He says no matter what part of history you look at, jobs and family remain the foundation of what’s drawn people to northeast Ohio or any place for that matter.

JG: The people who followed Moses Cleveland immediately here in the early 1800s were largely people who had come out of the eastern states of the United States but if you scratch them you’d find out that their background was somewhere in the British Isles.

And if you look at this mixture in Cleveland it begins in the 1820s when the Irish become prominent as laborers and digging the canal.

RJ: During this same time, people of German background first started arriving in the region. And in the late 1830s the first organized group of Jewish people set foot in Cleveland. It wasn’t until after the Civil War and the years from the 1870s to the restriction of immigration in 1921 that the city started to explode with a large number of European immigrants.

JG: In the late 19th century when the large immigration from southern and eastern Europe built up, that’s when Cleveland’s industries were developing. And the industries at that time were structured so that anybody with no skills could work in a mill or a factory. The machines and the processes had been set up so you didn’t really need skill sets.

RJ: But as fourth-grader Jasmine Corc learned, it wasn’t just Europeans who were taking jobs in Cleveland’s industrial boom.

Jasmine Corc: I was Sally Johnson. Sally lived in Alabama, Birmingham, and she’s an African American and they migrated from Alabama because there was a lot of racism going on in her city. In the north, people, you were free to be whatever you wanted to be and you got paid more.

JG: Beginning in the 1890s in the deep south the phenomena that historians call the Great Migration took place and hundreds of thousands of blacks left the deep south fleeing Jim Crow laws, fleeing lynching and looking for opportunity in the factories of the north in cities like Chicago, cities like New York, Detroit, and Cleveland.

RJ: It wasn’t until after World War Two that United States started to let refugees into the country. Al Ruksenas is Director at the International Services Center, Cleveland’s refugee resettlement agency.

Al Ruksenas: Since World War Two a new flush of that migration was the refugee population, formal refugees from other parts of the world brought here for a formal program under the auspices of the United Nations and managed by our United States Department of State as part of our foreign policy in helping people at risk of their lives to reestablish their lives in a safe environment.

RJ: The National Origins Quota Act of the 1920s set high quotas for people from northern and western Europe, small quotas for people from southern and eastern Europe, and basically none for people of Asian descent. The act was repealed in the late 60s, opening up immigration to anyone. John Grabowski says that’s when northeast Ohio was finally able to welcome a new wave of Asian immigrants.

JG: And when one looks at some of the immigrants who came post-1965, the smaller numbers, you find researchers, you find doctors, you find nurses, all fitting into the strong scientific, technical, medical economy of northeast Ohio which is one of its strong points now.

RJ: Ruksenas points out that war and economic decline have prompted a new shift in migration to Cleveland with people from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union. But in general, the numbers have dropped considerably.

AR: In the past people came to northeast Ohio because of job opportunities, because of a growing industrial base here. That industrial base has peaked and in fact, there is not a large inflow of people into northeast Ohio right now.

RJ: And with that, many of the areas traditional neighborhoods have fallen into decline, as the generations that have followed those who were once new immigrants became American.

BP: I was Jose Rivera. I got changed to Joe or Joseph.

RJ: In Cleveland, Renita Jablonski, 90.3.

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