Education: Heritage Discovery Center

Johnstown Area Heritage Association
Primary Source: Oral History Interviews

Growing up in an Ethnic Community

Two couples stand on a pier looking out to sea, luggage and bundles nearby

Ms. Banda remembers growing up in a Slavic community

When you come to the Johnstown Heritage Discovery Center you will see videotaped oral histories of Johnstown residents talking about their immigrant parents and grandparents. The Generations Theater is only able to show brief portions from those interviews. Below are other excerpts from the interview transcripts.


Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptYes. They [the Slavs] were "hunkies", and they [other townspeople] didn't like these "hunkies" coming in. And the people who were here were the Irish and the English and the Slovaks or any of the Slavs were looked down upon.

And grandma would say that they would laugh at her babushka, and they would throw stones at them whenever they would walk to church. It wasn't a fun situation for them. And even when my father became supervisor we would tease daddy that "Oh, if you've worked for Bethlehem [Steel Company] for 30 years, sure they're going to make you a boss."

And one Christmas he came home with this large list of people that he was to send Christmas cards to, who were all supervisors. And he said, "You find one name on there that's a Slav, and then you'll understand what I've accomplished." And he was absolutely right, because they were all English, Irish, they were not Slavs....

"There was a caste system."

Not only did grandma and my mother treat people differently, but we were treated differently. If you were Slav, you are at the bottom of the ladder, and in America, even today, we have a ladder. And you see that with the new immigrants coming in, well, we were from the new immigrants, which would only be a step above--I don't know if I should say this, a step above the blacks.

And among my parents, though, and my grandparents, you married your own kind. And your own kind meant you married a Catholic Slovak. And the Polish married a Catholic Pole. An Irishman married a Catholic Irishman; they didn't intermarry.

And when my father, who was Slovak, married a Russian, my grandmother was not happy. And my mother would tell us that. My grandmother would never say anything against my mother, because that would have been against her character, but my mother would say that when they got married, my parents were married at the Byzantine Catholic Church, which was Russian.

And my father did not go to communion in that church, because it would have upset his mother. He went to communion in the Roman Catholic Church, and then they got together afterwards, which I kind of thought was funny. But he played to his mother, rather than to his wife.

Prejudice at school

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptWhen I was a teenager, there was still that prejudice against the Slavs. The Slavs lived below the stone bridge in the West End of Johnstown.

When people moved up, they moved up to not only to the suburbs, but to the more affluent sections of the city. And if you stayed below the stone bridge, it was because you were still too ethnic, too Slavic. And I didn't really realize that there was that kind of prejudice against the Slavs until about 25 years after I was out of high school.

And I went to a Catholic high school, and we were having our reunion, and I invited some of the people to my home, and one of the guys his last name was Griffith. He said that his mother was divorced. They lived in a third floor like attic apartment, not in the West End of town though, and he said when he would come home and said he had a date with somebody. His mother's first question was, "Is it from the West End?" If she was from the West End, mother was very unhappy. And I thought, "Wow! I was too stupid to even realize that that was happening back then.

We lived in the West End, you know, and our lives though were--we were being educated, you know? We went to the Slovak Catholic Church. If you were Polish, you went to the Polish Catholic Church, and they all had schools attached to them. So you got that kind of education. And I brought with me report cards that I received in school. And I thought as I looked at them yesterday, I thought "This is really interesting." Because we were always told that we were Americans. We were never told that we were Slovak.

And I noticed that up until fourth grade the report card was written in Slovak. But then after in fifth grade it became all English, and I thought like--that would have been the end of World War II? When you really were American, because you fought next to a Pole. You fought next to a Jew. You fought next to a whomever.

And so they were really going to assimilate us. And I think that the church had a lot to do with the assimilation. From that elementary school, we went to a Catholic high school in a different part of town, where all of the schools merged, and it didn't really matter that much. And I'm saying I didn't really realize that that prejudice was out there that much in high school as I did in grade school.

Breaking community traditions

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptThe Slavs were anybody who came from Eastern Europe, the Eastern Europeans. The Serbians, the Hungarians, not the Germans, because they were Germanic, but it was like the Russians, the Slavs, the Slovaks, the Poles, the--I'm even going to say Hungarians. Anybody who was considered a "hunky." Who had that dialect. And we were not permitted to speak Slovak.

My grandmother spoke really proper English. I mean she learned to speak English. She read English, she wrote English. It was not promoted in my family. Now a lot of people say, "Oh, yes. We went to the--" Well, we did not go to the Slovak Band Hall. We did not do those things until my father retired, and then he joined the Slovak Band Hall. But if he had been really active in that back then, he wouldn't have been able to be promoted.

I think this education thing--women who were Slavs were expected to clean house. You could be a secretary. But go to college? No. When I started teaching, you had people that  were--the Connollys and the Tailors and the Fitzpatricks and those people, but me, I mean a Slav, that was unusual. Especially, gee, back in 1951, girls just did not go to college, and they did not become teachers. And it was--the attitude was "Who do you think you are that you could do that?" And that was within the community; you weren't supposed to step out of that community.

It was frowned upon, really.

"Moving out--moving up"

Grammaphone icon - denotes an audio recording transcriptMoving out of the West End was frowned upon. There were sections of the West End that were considered better than other sections. If you lived in Minersville, where I lived, that was kind of lowdown. Cambria City was lowdown. So what you did, you moved from Minersville in Cambria City to Morrellville and to the Oakhurst section of the West End, so that was moving up.

My parents moved to Westmont. When they moved to Westmont, they moved out completely. And that was--but, wait, my father though stayed at the Slovak Catholic Church. I mean his roots were still there in the church of--his grandparents built and his parents. I am a member of that church, and I didn't go back until my mother was buried there two years ago. And I thought "Wow! There's something to being here."

If you were a member of a sorority or a fraternity in college, you're told who you're to run with. You're told you have a brother fraternity, if you're in a sorority, and that's who you date. Well that's how it was within the Slavic community.

You weren't supposed to move out. You weren't supposed to move up. You were supposed to stay together, because in that togetherness was your strength. And when you moved out, you were deserting them, and they resented that. And I guess I can understand the resentment, but I think that it kept a lot of people down, who had a lot of ability. They had a lot of ability, but the jealousy--when I went to college, I quit after my third year, and I got married, and I had twins.

I went to New Jersey. Moved completely away. One of my friends said that her father said, "Well what the hell do you think she would have." Because I had twins and I had been to college. And I moved out, so "What the hell"--you know, it was like "How dare she do that?" I'm not explaining it well. I know what I mean, and I'm not explaining it well.

Whenever I came home, my parents would say, "The neighbors are going to talk about you." "What are you doing that's different from them? Why are you being the way you are?" Because they didn't want to be alienated. They wanted us to succeed, but they didn't want us to alienate them outside their community. They wanted to succeed, but they didn't want to be different from their friends and neighbors.

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