1917: A Discrimination Tale

 

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All of my ancestors that decided to come and start a new life in the United States during the early 1900’s came from Poland.  Yet, I have a German last name.  This is the story of how my great-grandfather created an alias to attain better job opportunities and avoid the overt discrimination that dominated American life during his time as a steelworker.

THE ARRIVAL OF “FRANK”

Between 1892 and 1909, my ancestors passed through Ellis Island on their way to the South Side of Pittsburgh.  With Polish diacritics in their surnames, they settled in the same pocket of town, married and started families.  My great-grandfather Frank Golebiewski arrived sometime in 1904 or 1905, and I’ve never heard of somebody calling him anything other than Frank.  Coming from Poland, there was no way his birth name was Frank.  My family was never sure if it was indeed Francizek.  Even before he settled into his new life across the Atlantic Ocean, Frank was creating a new identity for himself.

Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, Frank went to work in one of the many steel mills on the South Side.  In 1904, there were at least six that sat along the Monongahela River in the city limits and many more just outside of the city.  Frank worked for two mills: Oliver Iron and Steel Company and another owned by Alexander Byers.  The mills sat three city blocks apart and produced piping, nuts, bolts, rivets and many other specialty parts used in construction projects.  Working in these mills required a higher level of intelligence than most of the South Side factories.  Many machine operators had to have a basic understanding of math to create dies (metal forms), molds, production tools and other site specific items used in the manufacturing process.  Frank started out at Byers and basically held the same position for about a dozen years.  He was a ground level production worker with no authority.

Over the years Frank noticed that all of the higher level positions in the steel mills were controlled by mostly English or German men.  When job openings would be posted for such titles as, “Crew Foreman Wanted”, somewhere under the heading would read, “No Poles Need Apply”.  Other select ethnic groups would also be shunned in these advertisements, but the Poles were always included on these posters around the South Side.  Frank knew he was qualified for a supervisory role, but he also knew his last name was hindering his ability to earn more money for his growing family.

All of the Catholic Polish families attended church at Saint Adalbert parish and were members of the Polish Falcons of America, which is a fraternal society that has had its national headquarters in Pittsburgh since the 1910’s.  For years, “Falcons” (As my grandparents called it) had two buildings in the heart of the South Side.  Many of Frank’s Polish co-workers were also friends to him.  They drank, smoked and played the card game euchre with each other at Falcons or at their houses when they weren’t working at the mills.  Over time it became apparent to his friends that Frank wanted to move on from Byers, but he didn’t know how.  Even in 1917, “glass ceilings” existed at the workplace.

A CARD GAME, A NEW NAME

One Saturday night during the usual euchre game between the guys, a close friend and co-worker of Frank’s–a person that I have never learned the identity of, came up with a plan for Frank to get a promotion:  Frank had to get a foreman’s job at a different mill but with the German last name of Kress.  Employers didn’t check for proper identification until they were forced to by law in the 1930’s, so Frank simply could use the surname Kress as an alias.  Of all the surnames Frank could use, why was he instructed to use Kress?

I don’t know if it’s a generational trait or if my family was very uninterested in their family history, but I never got a straight answer as to why Kress was the consensus pick to obtain a job promotion.  Over the years I pieced together some facts about Frank, the name Kress and what the name meant to “Millionaire’s Row” on the other side of town in Pittsburgh’s North Side:

Kress wasn’t as common as other German names in Pittsburgh.  If Frank chose “Miller” or one of the many spellings of “Schmidt”, eventually one of the higher supervisors who did have the last name of Miller or Schmidt would have found him to be a phony.  In traditional German, Kress is spelled Kreß, with the eszett (ß) representing the “sharp S” and replacing the “ss” at the end of the name.  So if Frank was to be German, his friend sure picked a hardcore, badass southern German name for him to use.

Frank knew how to speak the German form of broken English.  Over the course of twelve years at Byers, Frank heard his German supervisors speak to the English heirarchy in English when the production process was discussed on the floor of the mill.  Frank had to have some experience with German culture when he grew up in Poland as well. Poland and Germany shared a border then (Poland was a territory of the Russian Empire) and they still do in 2017, so being exposed to German culture as a boy gave Frank confidence that he could portray being German in the “theatre” of steel mills.

Early automobile owners on Pittsburgh’s North Side relied on the Kress name to keep their cars moving.  The North Side and South Side of Pittsburgh are less than four miles apart, but to the people of 1917 Pittsburgh, they were very far from each other since automobiles were only owned by the upper class.  Many of Pittsburgh’s wealthiest families resided in what was deemed, “Millionaire’s Row”, a few blocks of very large mansions on the North Side that were primarily built along Ridge Avenue and North Lincoln Avenue (Many of them still stand today).  When the automobiles of the wealthy needed work done on them, servants were dispatched to handle the problems. The rich rarely interacted with the working-class, especially immigrant workers. For car tires, a man (Or a few men) with the last name of Kress provided good, affordable tires to the people of the North Side.  Their reputation grew and they eventually got their own garage in the 1920’s. Pittsburgh’s elite might have not interacted directly with their tire repair and service shop, but the name Kress represented hard work and provided a good product on the other side of town.

DEEMED QUALIFIED (EVEN THOUGH HE LIED)

A few months after Frank’s promotion plan was outlined, he secured a foreman job at Oilver Iron & Steel as Frank Kress.  He kept this job until the mid-1930’s, when employees were required to provide legal documentation for work due to the Social Security Act of 1935.  Poles in 1930’s Pittsburgh did not suffer from the same level of discrimination as their ethnic group did twenty years prior, so Frank found suitable work as Frank Golebiewski until he retired after World War II.

I theorize Frank’s friend knew about the Kress family and their budding business on the North Side.  He also knew that the owners and higher managers would never strike up casual conversations with Frank.  Frank’s secret would be safe, and his plant supervisors could see that he was capable of supervising workers while delivering quality products.

Frank must have been well-respected by his friends and fellow co-workers, because I’m sure there were plenty of people that worked under him that could have “ratted him out”.  I guess all of the Poles that worked for him didn’t mind working for their “German” boss.

THE ALIAS AND MY FAMILY TREE

My grandfather (Pap), Frank’s son, was the only one in the family to legally change his last name to Kress in 1953.  I think Pap might have pissed his dad off when he made Kress his real name, because Pap never really gave me a good reason why he did it.  Personally, I love that Pap changed the name because it preserved this story about his dad and what he had to do to succeed in America.

Many other families around the world have similar stories to mine.  I even have a few more examples within my own family.  Solarczyk is another name throughout my family tree.  My grandfather who had this name had step-brothers who legally changed their name to Solar.  They also changed their last name to attain better job opportunities.

DIFFERENT ERA, DIFFERENT COUNTRIES, SAME STEREOTYPES

In 1917, immigrants that resided in the south neighborhoods of Pittsburgh came from many different countries in eastern Europe.  In 2017, the same south neighborhoods I grew up in still have an immigrant population, but from entirely different parts of the world.  Today, former citizens of Nepal, Bhutan, Mexico, Laos and Somalia seek the same opportunities that my great-grandfather Frank did.  The discrimination might not be as overt, but long-time residents seem to have a hard time accepting foreigners into their communities.  Long-time residents who have apparently forgotten the fact that their ancestors were the target of the very same abuse that they shell out on our 21st century newcomers.

The United States of America is known as a melting pot.  It was in 1917 and it is in 2017.  Hopefully in 2117, there will be another third-generation American sharing a tale about how their great-grandfather arrived in New York in 2004 or 2005 and found a way to succeed in an foreign country in search of a better life.  A third-generation American that is not a victim of discrimination, but remembers the stories from his family of when they endured it on a daily basis.

***

Thanks great-grandpap Frank.  The story of your drive to succeed, your emphasis on family and your courage to take risks to benefit your sons and daughters in the future is not lost in time.  I’ll make sure my son knows your story too.

Your great-grandson,

Larry Kress

(Image found via Google, traced to an advertisement found in “The Daily Free Press”, June 19, 1910.  Carbondale, Illinois had a newspaper under this name in 1910 and they have a rich history in coal mining.)

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