Numerous Ohioans are descended from Lithuanian ancestors. Today, Lithuanian 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, Lithuania, 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 ten thousand Lithuanian immigrants resided in Ohio. By 1920, their numbers had risen to over twenty thousand people. Most of these Lithuanians settled along Lake Erie, especially in Cleveland, where they found low-paying jobs in factories or worked as day laborers. Many Lithuanians in Cleveland also opened taverns. More successful immigrants established businesses that supplied their fellow migrants with traditional Lithuanian products. In 1930, approximately twelve thousand Lithuanians lived in Cleveland alone. In Cleveland, the Lithuanian immigrants tended to settle in their own communities, preferring to live among people who shared similar cultural beliefs and spoke the same language as they did.
Lithuanian immigrants congregated together partly out of camaraderie but also out of fear. 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 most Lithuanian immigrants arrived in the United States prior to World War I, two additional large waves of Lithuanian migrants eventually reached this country. The first one occurred in the years immediately following World War II. World War II destroyed numerous homes and businesses in Lithuania, and many residents of this country sought a better life in the United States. Four thousand of these immigrants made their way to Cleveland following World War II. The most prominent Lithuanian to come to Ohio was Antanas Smetona, the last president of the Republic of Lithuania. Ohio's Lithuanian residents actively assisted these new arrivals in beginning new lives. The new immigrants tended to settle in the already established Lithuanian communities in the state.
During the 1950s, an additional influx of Lithuanians came to the United States, as some Lithuanians sought to escape communism. These immigrants also settled in the previously established Lithuanian communities. While this last wave of immigration was smaller than the previous two, it still helped swell Ohio's Lithuanian population. By the mid 1980s, Cleveland boasted a Lithuanian population of sixteen thousand people.
Over the succeeding decades, Ohio's traditional Lithuanian communities began to lose their cohesiveness. As other Ohioans became more tolerant of the Lithuanians, many Lithuanian communities began to disintegrate. Many Lithuanians moved into other communities, while non Lithuanians began to infiltrate the traditionally Lithuanian neighborhoods. This does not mean that Ohio's Lithuanian population has lost its ties to its traditional cultural beliefs. Lithuanian Ohioans continue to participate in various social and cultural groups that serve to promote Lithuanian beliefs and customs.
- Van Tassel, David D., and John J. Grabowski, eds. The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.