Ethnic Wealth: A Foray into Schuylkill County Traditions
By Carrie Nobel Kline
Ethnic heritage is at the root of every aspect of Schuylkill County life and affects everything people here do. We meet Schuylkill Countians at every turn who will talk about their ethnicity before offering their names. A mention of ethnicity unlocks the past. The County’s history makes the Old West’s read like a Sunday school picnic. It is a compelling story in which the Molly Maguires is but one of many chapters, yet, a story which remains largely untold. Repression of labor in the coal industry of earlier years, anti-German sentiment through two world wars, the standardization of American education over the 20th century and fifty years of numbing, network TV have been discouraging to the growth of ethnic identity. High school texts don’t reference it very often. The Catholic Church is de-emphasizing ethnicity in many of its local parishes. Yet ethnic heritage is at the root of who we are and at the source of our vitality. We are a wash of cultures, ideas and world views.
Wishing to generate imaginative initiatives in Schuylkill County in hopes of jump starting increased self-awareness and a new found appreciation of local community life, the Schuylkill River National & State Heritage Area found the resources to conduct an Ethnic Heritage Study here. Our team of public folklorists and researchers worked on a six-month contract to carry out this social inquiry. We set up a house in the county and went right to work with our advisory committee to build a database of “leads” who could begin to bring the Study into focus. Each of these leads directed us to others and still others until we had woven an informational web of local residents with various connections to one or more ethnicities in the county. In the end we produced sixty broadcast-quality recordings of interviews with more than seventy residents from both sides of Broad Mountain, as well as choirs, church services and community celebrations. We also took hundreds of digital photographs and organized them into a power point production to share with local communities.
The findings are stunning. There’s more of Old Europe in Schuylkill County than in many parts of Europe itself. New Americans of the past three decades have brought rich flavors and cultures from Latin America, the Caribbean, and the Asian and African continents. The list goes on and on. The richness of its ethnic heritage rivals Schuylkill’s considerable natural wealth, despite the paradox of a blighted economy and shrinking population. The Study daily reveals complexities and creativity that defy assumptions or stereotypes. It is clearly the most diverse situation we have ever had the pleasure to study.
What is not yet clear is: what do local residents want to do about these largely unrecognized qualities and untold stories? Do we want to reassess and reinvent the past in ways that will contribute to the quality of our present lives? Can study and celebration of ethnic diversity help us get better acquainted with those around us and make new connections with our children? Can we get them involved in community building?
The questions go on and on. How do you pay for these things? Doesn’t county-wide redevelopment cost millions? Actually, coming together around social inquiry and community celebrations can be an inexpensive early step in profoundly important redevelopment, the discovery and rediscovery of neighborhoods, boroughs, and townships. The Foxfire educational movement of the 1970s and 1980s provided compelling models and examples of what happens when a classroom begins to study its surrounding community. The Ethnic Heritage Study lists a number of Schuylkill County connections to community studies and local artists and musicians whose work resonates with ethnicity and vitality. Beyond this report is a 400-record ethnic heritage database we have begun, representing some of the county’s cultural wealth. We’ve also listed the kinds of local events (see Appendix) that attract returnees now living in distant places, who still long for what this county exudes. If we could bottle it, we’d all be rich.