Numerous Ohioans are descended from Latvian ancestors. Today, Latvian Ohioans continue to enhance Ohio's cultural and social landscape.
During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, millions of immigrants migrated to the United States of America, hoping to live the American Dream. Before the American Civil War, most immigrants arrived in the United States from Great Britain, Germany, and Ireland. By the 1880s, the home countries of immigrants began to change. Many of the new immigrants to arrive in the United States came from Eastern European countries, like Poland, Hungary, Latvia, and Czechoslovakia, rather than from Western European countries, like Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany.
In 1860, 328,249 immigrants lived in Ohio. These people accounted for fourteen percent of the state's population. By 1900, the number of immigrants in Ohio rose to 458,734, but the percentage of the population that was foreign-born declined to eleven percent. Most of these immigrants in 1900 came from Germany, Great Britain, and Ireland, yet a growing number of Eastern Europeans were also migrating to the state.
In 1900, fewer than one thousand Latvian immigrants resided in Ohio. By 1930, their numbers had risen to approximately five thousand people. Most of these Latvians settled along Lake Erie, especially in Cleveland, where they found low-paying jobs in factories, steel mills, or on railroads. In 1930, approximately one thousand Latvians lived in Cleveland. Unlike other immigrant groups in Cleveland, the Latvian immigrants tended not to settle in their own communities. This was primarily due to their small numbers. Many of the first Latvian migrants also came to Ohio hoping for improved economic opportunities. With little money, many Latvians could not afford housing in a common neighborhood. As a result of the small number of Latvians and the fact that they did not settle in distinct communities, many other Cleveland residents proved to be more tolerant of Latvians than other ethnic groups. Also helping spur Latvian acceptance was the fact that most Latvians were Protestant. Cleveland Latvians established both a Lutheran Church and a Baptist Church. Historically, white Americans have been much more tolerant towards Protestants than Catholics.
While Cleveland residents and other Ohioans were more tolerant of Latvians, these immigrants still faced discrimination because they were not native-born Americans. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many native-born Americans feared outsiders. Some of these people objected to the immigrants' religious and cultural beliefs, while others believed that the foreigners would corrupt the morals of United States citizens. These people also contended that the quality of life within the United States would decline, as there were not enough jobs to employ the millions of people migrating to America. Many native-born Americans hoped either to limit immigration or to force foreigners to convert to American customs and beliefs. The leaders of this movement were the Progressives of the late 1800s and the early 1900s. To accomplish their goals, the Progressives implemented numerous reforms, including settlement houses, which taught foreigners American practices. The Progressives also called for laws that would either limit or ban the cultural practices of recently arrived immigrants. It would take several generations before the immigrants became truly accepted by the vast majority of white Ohioans.
While some Latvian immigrants arrived in the United States prior to World War I, most Latvians did not arrive in the United States until after World War II. World War II destroyed numerous homes and businesses in Latvia, and many residents of this country sought a better life in the United States. At this same time, an additional influx of Latvians came to the United States, as they sought to escape communism. Approximately 2,500 of these immigrants made their way to Cleveland following World War II. Ohio's Latvian residents actively assisted these new arrivals in beginning new lives.
Over the succeeding decades, Ohio's Latvian population continued to thrive. Numerous Latvian Ohioans created social institutions, such as dance troupes and theater groups, to promote traditional Latvian beliefs and customs. While Latvians came to Ohio in much smaller numbers than other immigrants, Latvian migrants still diversified the state socially and culturally.
- Van Tassel, David D., and John J. Grabowski, eds. The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.