The Czechs hold a special place among the diverse groups that have contributed to Texas’ multi-ethnic heritage. Theirs is a heritage that is still very much alive. For the present. Czech is still spoken in thousands of farmhouses scattered across the state. Czech can be heard in dozens of churchyards and on the streets of many Texas towns. The Czech language in Texas is clinging tenaciously to life. But with each generation it is losing its hold.
The first large-scale Czech immigration to Texas came in 1856. In that year a group of families from several villages along the Lubina River in the Moravian foothills of the Carpathian Mountains came to Texas. They settled in the two Fayette County communities that later came to be known as Dubina and Hostyn.
As succeeding waves of immigrants came, they settled rural areas where they could farm as their peasant ancestors had been doing for centuries. A network of Czech farming communities sprung up in the fertile lands between Houston and San Antonio, Dallas and Corpus Christi.
Most of the Czech immigrants to Texas came from Moravia. Others came to Texas from the neighboring provinces of Bohemia and Silesia. Up until the First World War Moravia, Bohemia and the southern slice of Silesia were part of the Austrian Empire. Almost all of the Czech immigrants, then, were subjects of the Austrian Emperor.
There are many reasons why the Texas Czechs have held on to their language for so long. The Czechs settled in rural areas, where they were often isolated from the Anglo-American population. The Czech settlers built their own churches; they brought over their own priests and ministers. They established schools of their own. In short, they were a self-sufficient community.
This community was constantly reinforced by new waves of immigrants who spoke only Czech. These immigrants added new souls to the community. They helped maintain a core of European-born Czechs as the older immigrants died out. They also contributed to the re-Bohemianization of first- and second-generation Americans by giving them continuous exposure to Czech in large potent doses.
The Czechs were somewhat different from the Anglo Texans. This helped them keep their separate identity. Most of the Czechs were Roman Catholic. Their Anglo neighbors were Protestant. A lot of Protestant Czechs came over, but they belonged to their own Moravian church. So they too were separate from the Anglo-American community.
There was a “racial” difference as well. Many Americans looked down on the Czechs. They considered them something not quite white. The Czechs for their part had their own prejudices. Many thought the Americans were lazy. Why, American women would not go out into the fields to pick cotton and chop corn. While the “white” Americans discriminated against the Czechs, the Czechs wanted to hold on to their own identity. Many a Czech mama and daddy frowned on mixed marriages with Americans. Many a Czech mama and daddy did not want their children to speak English.
Nevertheless, each generation has grown up speaking more and more English and less and less Czech. The Texas Czechs have gradually been assimilated into American society.
The gradual assimilation into the surrounding Anglo-American community was a natural process. It could have taken several centuries. After all, the Czech language survived three centuries of Hapsburg suppression. And it survived almost a thousand years of German overlordship and then colonization. Several things, however, speeded up Americanization.
Rapid Americanization began with the First World War. In Europe the Czech language came out ahead. The establishment of an independent Czechoslovakia at the war’s close ended the threat of Germanization. But Czech lost out in the United States. Military service turned the sons and grandsons of Czech immigrants into American soldiers.
After the establishment of Czechoslovakia the Czechs had no great need to emigrate. The Czech community in Texas ceased to be replenished by yearly waves of immigrants who would bring up their children speaking Czech. On the contrary, the children of the existing community came to depend more and more on English.
So long as the Czechs stayed in the backwoods, they could depend on the language of the old country. But when they went to town they had the chance to learn English. In more modern times their farms became less self-sufficient. Czechs went to town to buy goods that were becoming an increasingly necessary part of life. Towns offered jobs and better schools. Czech children were integrated into American society.
As the rural communities became less self-sufficient, neighboring towns became more accessible. The proliferation of the automobile and a network of modern roads brought the Czech community and the outside world closer together.
The advent of radio and television brought the English language right into the Czech home. Television became a virtual English course with the most sophisticated audiovisual techniques. Houston, Dallas, Austin, Waco and San Antonio sent English into the home both over the air and on the pages of their newspapers.
The state’s growing cities lured the Czechs out of their provincial environment. Department stores, football games, fairs and livestock shows, medical centers, law firms and universities offered a temporary attraction. Better-paying jobs and the glitter of city life attracted the Czechs on a more permanent basis. Once in the city the Czechs had little chance to speak the old tongue. They had little desire to teach Czech to their children.
With each generation the Czechs have been more completely assimilated into American society. They have progressively lost the need to speak Czech. They have progressively lost the desire to pass the language on to their children. The Czech language is far from dead in Texas, but it is losing ground fast. Czech can still be heard in the farmhouses, churchyards and general stores of many rural communities. It can still be heard on the streets of neighboring towns. But it will not survive many more generations.
“The Demise of Czech in Texas,” Texas Foreign Language Association Bulletin, December 1975, pages 6-7.