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Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: A colorful history of Ukrainians in Baltimore, marked by resilience and entrepreneurship | COMMENTARY

The annual Ukrainian Festival in Baltimore, established in the 1970s, is scheduled to return again in September after a pandemic-imposed hiatus. (Kim Hairston/ Baltimore Sun)

Lee McCardell was the most famous of Baltimore Sun correspondents who covered World War II in Europe. In the months before the war, sensing that the U.S. would one day enter it, McCardell prepared for his eventual assignment by covering Army maneuvers and training. He also observed Ukrainian folk dancers in an East Baltimore church hall.

It was 1938, a year before Germany invaded Poland to start the war, when McCardell wrote a bright, detailed story for The Evening Sun about not only the colorful dance troupe but the larger Ukrainian community. His story was part of a series on “Old World groups who make their home here.” It might also have been part of the reporter’s prewar orientation.

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Recent conversations with Ukrainian Americans about Russia’s terror attacks on their homeland made me curious about the history of Ukrainians in Baltimore. In my dig for facts, I was surprised to find McCardell, a Sun legend best remembered for his dispatches from combat zones.

But he was also a versatile reporter who displayed a fine hand with a feature story. For the one referenced here, McCardell immersed himself in Eastern European history and the story of Ukrainian immigrants, documenting their lives in Baltimore — where they worked, prayed, went to school, gathered to socialize and keep their traditions.

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Here’s some of what I gathered from McCardell’s story and other sources:

Starting in the late 19th Century, many immigrants from Ukraine, both Jews and Christians, settled in cities and rural towns in the Northeast. Some went right to work in factories in New York and New Jersey, some in the coal mines of Pennsylvania. Most of those who landed in Baltimore came from Eastern Galicia in what is now western Ukraine.

“Their settlement here begins in the neighborhood of Bond Street,” McCardell reported, “extending southeastward, contiguous with the Polish section, into Canton. There are smaller colonies in Dundalk, Curtis Bay and Locust Point.”

McCardell reported about 800 Ukrainian families living in Baltimore at the time. (Many more came as refugees immediately after the war, fleeing the Soviets, and many more Ukrainian Jews arrived in the Baltimore area in the 1970s.)

Of note, given what we know about Ukrainians as they try to fight off the Russian invasion, is this passage from McCardell’s story: “Don’t make the mistake of calling a Galician Ukrainian a Russian. He’s not a Russian. He’s a Ukrainian.”

McCardell discovered three Ukrainian churches, a Ukrainian National Home in Canton, a Ukrainian Dramatic Circle and Ukrainian American Citizens Club that helped immigrants with naturalization. He learned that children were taught English as well as the language of their homeland.

He met Ukrainians who had established retail businesses, one who ran a tailor shop, another who owned a tavern, some who washed windows for a living. (Other accounts note that Ukrainian immigrants found work in factories that produced steel and glass.)

I learned a good bit of this story in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when the women of St. Michael The Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church — the old one, on South Wolfe Street — were making and selling pierogies each week to raise money for the new St. Michael’s, the one on Eastern Avenue that serves as a hub for many Ukrainians here. (Another Catholic Ukrainian parish, St. Peter and Paul in Curtis Bay, will soon celebrate its 110th anniversary.)

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Other documentary sources tell of Ukrainians settling in Fells Point, Highlandtown and an area near Patterson Park that became known as “Little Ukraine.” There have been Ukrainian American clubs for kids and sports teams. For decades, descendants of immigrants played an annual Thanksgiving football game in Patterson Park, part of a day of remembrance and gratitude that their parents and grandparents had escaped famine and religious persecution in the Soviet Union.

In the 1950s, Ukrainians who left Europe after World War II established the Self Reliance Association of American Ukrainians, a credit union for people of Ukrainian descent. It’s now known as the Self Reliance Baltimore Federal Credit Union, located near Patterson Park.

In the mid-1970s, a book published by the Ukrainian Education Association of Maryland estimated that there were about 20,000 people of Ukrainian descent throughout the state. While many still lived near Patterson Park, others bought homes in Hamilton, on the northeast side of the city, and still others moved into Baltimore County, particularly Parkville and Perry Hall. More immigrants and their descendants moved to rural areas, on the Eastern Shore and in Cecil County, to continue the farming established by their families in Ukraine.

Among Baltimoreans who came from Ukraine are two who rose to prominence.

Philip Goodman, a City Council president who became mayor in 1962, was born into a Jewish family during World War I in what is now the province of Volyn, northwestern Ukraine. His family endured great hardship before getting to America.

Joseph Meyerhoff was born in 1899 in the province of Poltava, central Ukraine. His family arrived in Baltimore about seven years later. Meyerhoff became a wealthy business owner and philanthropist. Baltimore’s symphony hall is named after him.

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Given this impressive history of resilience and entrepreneurship, we should hope that any of the Ukraine refugees who land in the U.S. might find homes in Maryland.

One last note: After a pandemic-imposed hiatus, the annual Ukrainian Festival is scheduled to return this year — on the weekend of Sept. 10-11 on the grounds of St. Michael’s in what is still known as Baltimore’s Ukrainian Village.


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