At VFH, our commitment is to tell the many stories that make up the fabric of Virginia, past and present: to create the most complete composite portrait of a large, diverse, and varied Commonwealth. Immigration to what is now Virginia began in 1607 with the arrival of the Jamestown colonists and has continued ever since.
Czech and Slovak immigrants to the United States started settling in large numbers in Virginia in the decades after the Civil War. Many settled around Prince George County, but there were significant populations in Dinwiddie, Chesterfield, Hanover, Greensville, Henrico, and New Kent counties, as well as the cities of Petersburg and Emporia.
Once they arrived in Virginia, they began shaping the new era of farming, supplying labor where there had been a shortage in rural counties. They created communities in the places they settled, continuing many of their old traditions. Perhaps the best known of these communities is New Bohemia, though others in the area included Begonia, Disputanta, and the Prince George Courthouse area.
After World War II, with the move toward a more manufacturing-centered economy, many Czech and Slovak descendants began moving from rural areas into cities.
The oldest traditions that these communities had brought from the Old World to the New are disappearing, as the oldest generation begins to slip away. As a native of Prince George County, and coming from Czech-American family, Bruce Vlk realized this and decided to do something about it.
“It has been a culmination of events over many years that led to this. As a child of Czech-Americans, I was always aware of my heritage, but…the idea to conduct oral history interviews with the community’s elders only came to me in recent years,” Vlk said. He emphasizes the imperative nature of this research, to capture and document this disappearing heritage before it is too late.
VFH has awarded grant funds to support the collection of additional oral histories as well as planning for a Czech and Slovak Heritage Festival, to be held this October in Prince George County. The Virginia Czech/Slovak Heritage Society and the Prince George County Regional Heritage Center are also partners in this work, which includes fieldwork, collecting materials for display, conducting interviews, and digitizing photos and documents for future research.
By highlighting the rich traditions in music and food, we hope to inspire more people to become involved. – Bruce Vlk
Interview subjects have been identified with the help of the Virginia Czech/Slovak Heritage Society, with particular emphasis on those families involved in musical traditions. Interviewers are primarily focusing on the elder members of the community, who provide a crucial link between the generations. The oral history interviews delve further into Czech and Slovak cultural traditions and record the experiences of these older generations to preserve their stories and traditions.
Approximately 50 people have been interviewed, ranging in age from 76 to 93 years old. This is the age group that went through the postwar process of assimilation themselves; they are among the last people who are able to understand—and speak—their native language. From cooking to polka dances to church picnics, recording the memories of these interview subjects will allow their experiences to be remembered by future generations, and, hopefully, spur a revival of interest in these old customs.
From the interviews, Bruce Vlk and the researchers were able to access once again several forgotten pieces of the community’s past. For instance, the community used to have strong connections to the Czech and Slovak communities in Baltimore, and many people would travel between the two communities for various events. Perhaps most importantly, though, this project has energized both the elders in the community and the younger members of these families.
While the main body of the research is the oral history interviews, this project has also encouraged families to preserve their old photographs, documents and stories. The Prince George County Regional Heritage Center hopes to include many of these materials in its permanent archive in 2014. Before that happens, however, those interested can view materials in-person through a celebration of Czech and Slovak culture in October.
The Virginia Czech and Slovak Folklife Festival will be held Saturday, October 19, and will include cooking demonstrations, traditional food, and polka music and dancing. Photos and materials gathered during the research will be on display, and children will be able to participate in heritage activities. Bruce Vlk and his team believe that events like these will generate more interest in the culture. He adds, “By highlighting the rich traditions in music and food, we hope to inspire more people to become involved.”