By Peter Thomas Alter

Excerpt from a dissertation “The Serbian great migration: Serbs in the Chicago region, 1880s to 1930s”

Another of Gary (Indiana’s) social service organizations, the International Institute of Gary (IIG),  also encouraged  democracy  and  Christianity  among Gary’s immigrants, working most effectively on a case-by-case basis. The  IIG, although technically not a settlement house because it had no residents, provided services similar to those offered  by the SCNH,  the SEC, the AH, the GNH, and the CFH.[1] Also, as these settlements did, the IIG worked mainly with Gary’s various immigrant populations. Therefore, in this study, the IIG will be treated  with the  settlement  houses.  The  Young Women’s Christian  Association (YWCA) founded the  founded the IIG in 1919, according to its by-laws, “to promote better understanding between native and foreign-born people.” While working for “better understanding,” the IIG practiced a staunch assimilationist ethic. This ethic focused clearly on women as the key to including immigrant groups, such as the Serbs, in Anglo-American culture.[2]

As evidence of this philosophy, the IIG advertised its main function as a “bureau of service for foreign born women.” Immigration historian Donna Gabaccia maintained that immigrant women became the focus for reformers of immigrants. Through women, Gabaccia asserted, reformers hoped to reach their children, the second or third  generations. Civilizing the children would save all future generations of the immigrant community.

Immigration historian Sydney Stahl Weinberg uncovered similar trends for immigrant women in her study of immigration historiography. In this study, Weinberg claimed that immigrant “women bore a primary responsibility for adapting Old World traits and thus preserving group culture.” Furthermore, we have already discussed maternalist policies as an avenue by which Progressives taught immigrant women how to be American mothers through the most current scientific methods of childrearing and housekeeping. This assertion definitely rang true for Serbian women involved with the IIG’s programs and clubs. Although the Liberal Progressives of the IIG focused on immigrant women’s culture, nativists saw immigrant women as far more sinister.

As women’s historian Katrina Irving made clear, nativists, such as Madison Grant and E. A Ross, believed immigrant women threatened Anglo America. Because of their supposed fecundity, immigrant women from southern and eastern Europe would produce offspring who would over run Anglo America. IIG workers, however, took no such vigorous misogynist and xenophobic stance.[3]

The IIG also offered the typical settlement house programs to all immigrants, both women and men. These programs included hygiene, citizenship, and English classes, translation services, one-on-one case work, referral services to local professionals, and clubs for adults and children. Immigrant clubs and organizations independent of the Institute frequently used the Institute’s class rooms and halls. Also, the IIG, throughout the inter-war period, concentrated on assisting immigrants in filing papers for citizenship.

Much of the case work files on Serbian women and men deal with gathering information for filing these citizenship papers. For example, the IIG often corresponded with Serbian immigrants’ previous employers, relatives, or friends in the United States to establish the immigrants’ length of stay in the United States.[4]

Unlike all other Progressive organizations of the Chicago area heretofore mentioned, the IIG had a specific worker who addressed the needs of the local Serbian immigrant community and who spoke Serbo-Croatian. Anka Sretkov filled this full-time position for much of the 1920s. Sretkov’s job title was ‘‘Nationality Worker, Jugoslavs.” Her post covered Serbian, Croatian, Slovene, and Macedonian immigrants. She, herself was a Bulgarian immigrant, speaking Bulgarian, French, German, and Hungarian, in addition to Serbo-Croatian. As the nationality worker who administered the Serbs, Sretkov made frequent visits to St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church in Gary. As a result of these visits, she explained to the IIG staff such Orthodox celebrations as Easter. Sretkov also formed a “Jugo-slavensky [sic] Woman’s Club” for educational and social purposes and an all-women’s string orchestra.[5]

Despite Sretkov’s official title, IIG monthly reports often referred to her as the “Serbian secretary.” Furthermore, a promotional brochure produced by the IIG listed Croatians and Serbians as the only Yugoslav groups served by the Institute. In this manner, the IIG developed an inconsistent understanding of South Slavic identities.

According to the IIG, the Serbs were either Jugoslavs along with three other Balkan groups or independent Serbians with their own secretary at the IIG. Also, Sretkov, as a Bulgarian, did not speak fluent Serbo-Croatian. She, at times, had difficulty producing accurate Serbo-Croatian to English translations. The IIG, unlike other local Progressive institutions, such as the SCNH and the CFH, did attempt to understand Serbian identity by employing a speaker of Serbo-Croatian. Yet the Institute confused the identities of various Balkan groups and did not employ a Serbian as the “Serbian secretary.”[6]

While Sretkov clearly symbolized the IIG’s supposed cosmopolitanism the myriad of celebrations sponsored by the IIG displayed cosmopolitanism to the public. For example, an art exhibition at the IIG in March 1926 praised the virtues of immigrant handiwork. The Serbian contribution to the show was a six hundred-year-old rug. A Chicago area Serbian Orthodox priest, Petar O. Stijacic, and a Serbian publisher from Chicago, John R. Palandech, both spoke on Serbian culture at the exhibition’s “Serb­ Croatian-Slovene night.” Serbian dance and choral groups also performed.[7]

Annual celebrations of other immigrant gifts to American culture came in the form of Christmas pageants sponsored by the IIG. For the 1928 Christmas program, Serbian immigrant women with Stretkov’s help performed the Serbian badnjak [yule log] ritual. The IIG also displayed further support of immigrant Christmas celebrations in its monthly newsletters for December. These publications listed the various phrases for Merry Christmas” in the immigrants’ languages, including the Serbo-Croatian Sretan Bozic .[8]

Christmas commemorations and art exhibits represented only a small fraction of the Institute’s overall attempts at superficial cosmopolitanism. During the 1920s and 1930s, the IIG sponsored a host of immigrant spectacles and pageants in which the Serbs frequently participated. These programs generally followed the same pattern. In the Harvest Pageant of 1920, numerous Gary immigrant groups, such as Poles, Czechs, and Serbs, had separate scenes within an act. The Serbian participants performed a South Slavic dance called a kolo [dance]. Ten Serbian women, in 1933, participated in the “Spring and the Sun Prince” performance in which they danced a kolo. In a 1927 folk festival produced by the IIG, local Serbian performers portrayed a wedding scene from the Srem region of eastern Croatia. Ten years later, in a similar IIG folk festival, a Serbian trio sang a love song while a Serbian orchestra played music for social dancing. In 1936, the IIG also hired an outside folk performer, a Czech immigrant Stella Marek Cushing, who worked to integrate the major groups of Yugoslavia into her “Jugoslavia – Land of Many Contrasts” performance. Cushing used Serbian choral, dance, and instrumental groups from the Gary Serbian community in her performance. This performance echoed the IIG’s overall cosmopolitan message. For example, in her program notes Cushing called  the  Yugoslavs “a fine, brave  people.”[9]

While both Serbian women and men sometimes participated in these programs, Serbian women comprised  the great majority of  planners and  performers.  For  example, only Serbian women danced the kolos in both the 1920 “Harvest  Pageant” and the “Spring  and the Sun Prince”  show of 1933. In these shows,  Serbian men played no discernable  roles. Certainly, Serbian women’s predominance in these productions reflected the IIG’s emphasis as a “bureau of service for foreign born women.” Furthermore, the yule log ceremony  reenactment  of  1928, supervised and carried out by Serbian women,  represented  a significant  departure from  the ceremony as performed  in the Balkans.  Serbian  men, in  the Balkans, totally controlled the badnjak festivities from the moment they cut  the logs in  the forest. Thus, the IIG struggled to make Serbian women, of both the first and second generations,  the cornerstone  in moving Serbian  immigrants  up from their  hunky status.[10]

Anka Sretkov, the IIG employee who worked closely with the Serbs, founded the “Jugo-Slavensky [sic] Women’s Club” in the 1920s. Sretkov hoped this club would inform Yugoslav women, mainly Serbs, about their roles in the new Yugoslavia. To this end, Sretkov organized screenings of educational Serbian-language films about Yugoslavia. She also promoted the return of Serbian women who belonged to the club to their homeland to visit and understand their roles in the Serbian diaspora. Sretkov also used her women’s club as an organizing platform for an orchestra consisting of women from most of the immigrant groups that used the IIG, including the Serbs. Serbian immigrant women. Sretkov claimed through her leadership of the club, should comprehend their roles as mothers of citizens.[11]

According to Sretkov, these citizens might participate in the new democratic Yugoslavia or in the long-established democracy of the United States. In either case, Serbian women had to see their importance to the flourishing of democracy among their people in Gary or in the homeland. Ultimately, Sretkov believed, this faith in democracy would allow Serbian immigrants and Serbs of Yugoslavia into the fellowship of democratic nations. Sretkov, in this manner, offered a solution to the immigrant problem raised by John Morris Gillette when he dubbed the Serbs tribal and therefore anti­democratic. Furthermore, the IIG, in its approach to Serbian women. asked them to play a dual role. In the first role Serbian women, through these pageants and clubs, functioned as preservers of Serbian culture. The second role they served was as the entry point for American language and morality. Learning English and Protestant American virtue would eventually civilize these women and their families, raising them from their hunky status.

The IIG showed an unusual level of interest in teaching first-generation Serbian women English. As Gabaccia pointed out, most adult female immigrants did not learn English easily and often found it quite difficult. For example, Jerre Mangione, a second­ generation Italian from Rochester, New York commented that his mother refused to learn English systematically or allow her children to speak it at home. Some Serbian women, such as L. G., in 1919 attended English night classes at Gary’s Froebel High School. The IIG labeled her “very intelligent” and “well educated” in her native tongue, believing this would help her learn English. Yet, as a historian of Gary’s school system found, few women actually attended these classes at Froebel.[12]

The IIG also organized its own English-language classes every year, starting in the fall. The IIG saw Serbian women as a key component of the students for these classes. In 1922, the IIG encouraged D.A., a nineteen year-old Serbian immigrant woman, to join the IIG’s English classes. The IIG, in 1924, repeatedly contacted a Serbian girls’ parents until they enrolled her in a class “for non-English speaking children.” The IIG staff also viewed women’s attendance to English-language classes as a significant step toward citizenship.

For example, A. M., a Serbian woman, attended an English-language class during 1926. The IIG made a special notation of this in the chronology that recorded her steps toward citizenship. Other Serbian women. such as M. K. in 1931, according to the IIG, became “very anxious to learn English.” The IIG simply encouraged such women and worked to provide them appropriate instruction. According to the Institute’s staff: Serbian women. whether involved in Institute classes or instruction elsewhere, had to learn English so that they could bring civilized American customs into the chaotic Serbian household.[13]

While the Institute stressed Serbian women’s English-language literacy, they placed an even higher value on virtue and morality among them. Extra- and pre-marital sexual relations – the IIG’s major area of moral concern – did  not simply spring into the Serbs’ sexual vocabulary upon their arrival in the United States. In the case of infertile husbands, Serbian villagers in Europe allowed for these men’s wives to have sex with other men. This sex was solely for the purpose of pregnancy resulting in a male fetus to     eventually continue the  family’s traditions. To be sure, Serbian village women did not enjoy any significant  measures of sexual freedom.  Villagers often cast girls and women who had pre-marital sex figuratively or literally out of their villages. Certainly, the IIG  risked alienating its Serbian clients if the  IIG chose to intervene in Serbian sexual mores   too stridently. Therefore, the IIG had to  define a  path down which its staff could trod without  walking on  ground that the Serbian  men wanted  to  protect. The IIG, however, did not always successfully do this.[14]

In some cases, the IIG simply pushed male relatives to enforce Serbian sexual mores, such as in the case of K. C., a Serbian immigrant woman. K. C.’s husband abandoned her in Gary for a job in Akron, Ohio, in 1921. An IIG worker helped three of K. C.’s male relatives draft a letter in Serbo-Croatian to her husband. These men laid out their grievances against him in ten points. In the ninth point, they questioned his actions, writing: “Why does she [K. C.] say that you are a fraud and that she will not live with you and that you simply appear to be a trader in white slavery… ?” Through their reference to “white slavery,” these men called upon the then current concern over forced prostitution. Indeed, the Chicago Vice Commission, during the 1910s, fought against white slavery. Therefore, it seems that these men, either encouraged by the IIG worker or independently, believed K.  C. ‘s husband might sell her into prostitution if she  returned to him.[15]

Beyond this American-based image, K.C.’s male relatives also drew upon the symbolism of the turksko ropstvo [Turkish slavery]. This slavery took place during Ottoman  rule over Serbian lands from the  fourteenth  to the nineteenth  centuries.  In this manner, the IIG coaxed these Serbian men to intervene on K.C.’s behalf: using language and symbolism familiar to them. Yet, the ultimate outcome the IIG sought stood unclear. Any divorce between K. C. and her husband had to proceed through official Serbian Orthodox Church channels. If K. C. and her husband did not follow this procedure,  they would both be considered infidels in the church’s eyes. K.C. also exercised a freedom that she did not have in the Balkans. Simply by considering divorce and coaxing her relatives and the IIG to lobby on her behalf utterly contradicted the established patriarchy.

Therefore, by promoting American secular notions of separation and divorce, the IIG ignored Serbian custom. Yet, forsaking this custom, according to the IIG, allowed K. C. to be more virtuous and therefore more civilized and less hunky.[16]

The IIG also worked to stop sexual “evil,” (extra- and pre-marital sexual relations) as the staff put it, by changing Serbian women’s living situations before they arrived in Gary. In 1922 in the case of K. S., a Serbian woman, the IIG wrote a YWCA worker on Ellis Island that K. S. should reconsider her place of residence in Gary. K. S. planned to live in Gary with her kum [godfather]. The kum in Serbian culture functioned as an unofficial guardian, usually naming the child at her/his baptism. Often, a family chose the kum from among its closest friends. With the naming of a kum, the family also created an extended network of fictive kin, and in the Serbian diaspora this network proved useful.

However,  the IIG criticized  K. S.’ domicile choice as “a false situation” for which she could “pay the full penalty” as a woman living in sin. As the IIG did in the case of Serbian Orthodox canon law regarding divorce, it ignored Serbian moral dictates. While one could assume that extra-marital relations might take place between K. S. and her kum, the IIG ignored the fact that K. S. made a logical choice in residence by the dictates of her own culture.[17]

The IIG also developed other forms of intervention, such as education, as channels of “moral reform.” As previously mentioned, in 1924 the IIG continuously contacted M. V., a Serbian immigrant girl, in an effort to have her enrolled in English­language classes. Attending these classes would not only give her English-language skills, but also isolate her from her “suitor.” The IIG claimed that M. V. was too young, by American standards, to court. Although the IIG made no specific mention of her age, its staff did not consider Serbian custom for girls’ marriage age. For most Serbian girls during this time period, the acceptable marriage age usually started in the teens. The IIG also overlooked the fact that M. V. had two parents, a mother and a step-father, to supervise her. However, the IIG, through its actions, indicated that M. V. ‘s parents could not properly raise her. Certainly, if they were not civilized  how could they be expected to teach M. V. true moral virtues?[18]

Overall, Serbian women confronted by and involved in IIG programs faced cultural challenges similar to those encountered by other immigrant women throughout the United States. For example, historian George J. Sanchez pointed out that second-generation Mexican-American women in the 1910s and 1920s stood between “two conflicting cultures.” These women became the focus of Americanization movements in California and sometimes partook in IIG-style Americanization programs. Literary theorist Magdalena Zaborowska also posited that similar tensions existed in the works of Elizabeth Stern, a Polish-Jewish immigrant novelist in the 1920s. According to Zaborowska, Stern through her novels, asserted that immigrant women could “be of two worlds,” one American and one immigrant. Serbian women, involved in the IIG, continually saw their cultural values assaulted and their roles questioned. Indeed, they became the key, for the IIG, to civilizing Serbs and their eventual passage out of hunky status.[19]

Although the IIG workers focused on women as the key to civilizing the Serbs more than other reformers, these workers fundamentally concurred with the staffs of the other five social service organizations heretofore discussed. They all believed that Serbs could leave their position as hunkies by replacing Serbian cultural and moral values with American ones. This reformation would eventually allow them to participate fully in the American body politic with an understanding of American democracy. However, none of the six institutions took exactly the same approach. All expressed varying opinions and solutions to the so-called “Foreign Problem.”

[1] SCNH South Chicago Neighborhood House, SEC South End Center, AH Association House, GNH Gary Neighborhood House, CFH Campbell Friendship House

[2] “By-Laws for the International Institute of Gary, Indiana” (1937); and “International Institute of Gary, Indiana, Y.W.C.A.” (1920) in International Institute of Gary Papers Calumet Regional Archives.

[3] Donna Gabaccia, From the Other Side: Women, Gender, and Immigrant Life in the U.S., 1820-1990 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 117; Sydney Stahl Weinberg, “Treatment of Women in Immigration History: A Call For Change,” Journal of American Ethnic History 11 (Summer 1992): 38; and Katrina Irving, Immigrant Mothers: Narratives of Race and Maternity, 1890-1925 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), 40-1. Also see From the Other Side, 110-11, for a  synopsis of the historiography involving women as the center for cultural negotiation and adaptation.

[4] “International Institute of Gary, Indiana, Y.W.C.A” (1920); Esther Tappan to John N. Holloway, 20 February 1938; Gary International Institute News, October 1931, 3; International Institute of Gary Newspaper Clipping File, 28 September 1926 and 19 January 1933  in International  Institute of Gary Papers.

[5] “International Institute Yearly Report” for 1930; “International Institute Monthly Report[s]” for April 1925, October 1926, June/July 1927, and October 1927 in International Institute of Gary Papers.

[6] “International Institute Monthly Report[s]” October 1926 and October 1927; “International Institute of Gary, Indiana, Y.W.C.A.” (1920); Restricted International Institute Case Files of K. C.(Serbian woman) in International Institute of Gary Papers; ‘“Christmas’ in Many Lands” (14 December 1928) International Institute Program in Indiana Room Collection, International Institute File, Gary Public Library, Gary, Indiana.

[7] International Institute of Gary Newspaper  Clipping File for  9 and 11 March  1926, Indiana Room Collection.

[8] Gary International Institute News December 1937; and “‘Christmas in Many Lands.”

[9] “A Community Harvest Pageant” (16 November 1920) and “Spring and the Sun Prince” (14 June 1933) in Indiana Room Collection, International Institute of Gary File. “Folk Song and Dance Festival of All Lands” (28 April 1927); “International Folk Festival” (23 November 1937); International Institute of Gary Newspaper Clipping File 2 May 1933; Stella Marek Cushing to Inna Wagner (11 March 1936); Irma Wagner to Stella Marek Cushing (18 March 1936); “Jugoslavia – Land of Many Contrasts” (28 October 1936) in International Institute of Gary Papers.

[10] Olive Lodge, Peasant Life in Jugoslavia (London: Seeley,  Service,  1942),  234-5.

[11] International Institute Monthly Report[s]” for September 1926, October 1926, June/July 1927, and October 1927 in International Institute of Gary Papers

[12] International Institute of Gary Restricted Case File, L.G. (Serbian woman) in International Institute of Gary Papers. All individual and family case files of the International Institute of Gary are restricted. Therefore, the citations will include only the Serbs’ first and last initials and gender. Gabaccia, 113; Jerre Mangione, Mount Allegro: A Memoir of Italian American Life (1943; reprint, New York: Columbia University Press, 1981), 49-50; and Ronald D. Cohen, 35.

[13] International Institute of Gary Restricted Case Files for  D. A.  (Serbian woman), M. K.(Serbian woman), A.M. (Serbian woman), I. S. (Serbian  man), C. V. (Serbian man),  andM. V. (Serbian girl) in International Institute of Gary Papers.

[14] Milan Filipovic,  “Vicarious Paternity  Among Serbs and Croats,” Southwestern Journal  of Anthropology  14  (1958): 156-67; Joel  M. Halpe Serbian Village: Social and  Cultural Change in a Yugoslav Community (New York: Harper and Row, 1967), 188-9;Elizabeth Ewen, Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the  Lower East Side, 1890-1925 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1985), 211; and Carson, 175.

[15] International Institute of Gary Restricted Case File for K. C. (Serbian woman); and Ruth Rosen, The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America, 1900-1918 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University  Press,  1982), 112-35.

[16] Lodge, 201

[17] International Institute of Gary Restricted Case File for K. S. (Serbian woman); and Halpern, 180-1.

[18] International Institute of Gary Restricted Case File for M. V. (Serbian girl); and Halpern, 188.

19]  George J. Sanchez, “Go After the Women’ Americanization and the Mexican Immigrant Woman, 1915-1929,” in Mothers and Motherhood: Readings in American History, ed. Rima D. Apple and Janet Golden (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1997), 475-94; and Zaborowska, 109.

Peter T. Alter is the Chicago History Museum’s Chief Historian and Director of the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History. In his role as the Chief Historian, he works on exhibitions and online projects and teaches in DePaul University’s public history program. As the Director of the Studs Terkel Center for Oral History, he develops new Museum oral history projects.

Founded in 2005, the center collaborates with community partners to promote oral history as a tool of social justice. Through documenting everyday people’s voices, the center carries forward the legacy of well-known actor, DJ, oral historian, journalist, and writer Studs Terkel. Typically, projects have a youth engagement component, working with middle and high school students as oral historians. Young people have conducted interviews for two recent projects: Forty Blocks: The East Garfield Park Oral History Project (2016) and the North Lawndale Sesquicentennial celebration (2019).

In 2010, he co-curated Facing Freedom in America, a United States history exhibition that focuses on conflicts over freedom. Alter also curated and co-curated many other Museum exhibitions: Lincoln Treasures (2009); Is It Real? (2007); A Compassionate Eye: The Photographs of Declan Haun1961–69 (2004); Outspoken: Chicago’s Free Speech Tradition (2004) at the Newberry Library, Chicago; Harold Washington: The Man and the Movement (2003); Chicago Sports! You Shoulda Been There (2003).

From 1999 to 2002, he coordinated the documentation project Global Communities: Chicago’s Immigrants and Refugees, which explored five of Chicago’s recent immigrant and refugee communities.