A small people in a big city

    The Philadelphia Society of Free Letts carries on the legacy of the immigrants who created it. At 120 years old, it is the world’s oldest continually operating Latvian social organization and still serves as a sanctuary for a thriving Latvian cultural enclave.

    It’s not easy being Latvian. The Latvians have been ruled by German, Swedish and Russian conquerors for all but 40 years since the 13th century.

    They have endured serfdom and Soviet communism. They are a tiny and little-known people. Most of them (about 1.3 million ethnic Latvians) live in the Republic of Latvia, yet for 120 years these people have been a part of life in Philadelphia.

    On February 22, 1892, nine men — almost half named Fritz — founded the Philadelphia Society of Free Letts. It is the world’s oldest continually operating Latvian social organization. Last month 75 of about 150 members gathered at 7th and Spring Garden Streets to celebrate its anniversary.

    The founders of the Society came to America like many other late 19th century immigrants looking for opportunity. “They were the only major wave of Latvian immigrants who were not forced to leave,” said Karlis Berzins in his anniversary address.

    They established the Society after encouragement by Jews from western Latvia, who had already formed the Kurland Jewish Association in Philadelphia. By 1900, 74 members were organizing Latvian activities ranging from choir practice to a women’s church group at 430 Morris St. in South Philly. In 1904, the Society was strong enough to buy 492 North 3rd St. for $3,300 and expand its activities to include classes in English, math and drawing, as well as theater.

    The first Philadelphia Latvians used the Society primarily as an aid organization for immigrants. They published an English-language phrase book and helped pay medical or funeral expenses for members. At least two people were sent to college on the organization’s dime. The Society also served as a place where locals or sailors in port could get a drink and a hot meal and simply be Latvian.

    However, the politics of the homeland were never far away. Martial law following the 1905 Revolution and tsarist reprisals brought a new wave of Latvians to Philadelphia, particularly those involved in left-wing politics. This group moved the Society to its present home at 531 North 7th St., across from the Edgar Allen Poe National Historic Site and around the corner from the German Society of Pennsylvania.

    This generation of Philadelphia Latvians had no love for tsarist autocracy or the largely German nobility whose manor houses their compatriots had burned in the revolution, but they had a socialist vision for their country. Thus, when Latvia declared independence in 1918, while some Philadelphia Latvians lobbied for U.S. recognition of the new republic, others prevented the celebration of its Nov. 18 birthday until 1946 when a new group of anti-communist refugees left Latvia in the wake of Latvia’s Soviet occupation.

    These new immigrants referred to the pre-World War II generation as veclatvieši, or old Latvians, and were often at odds with them politically. However, they both were passionate about Latvian culture and politics.

    The tradition continues today. The Society on 7th Street serves as a polling station for expatriate Latvian citizens. Last month, before they celebrated, Latvians in Philadelphia voted.

    At issue was whether to make Russian, the language of Latvia’s old overlord and largest minority, a constitutionally recognized state language along with Latvian. In the mother country, the results were lopsided with about 75 percent voting against. In Philadelphia, they were even more so: 111 against and only six in favor.

    The voter sentiment expressed that Latvia should be a special sanctuary where Latvian culture can thrive just as it has in Philadelphia for 120 years.

    Janis Chakars is a contributor to NewsWorks’ Roxborough/Manayunk/East Falls neighborhood page.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Help us get to 100% of our membership goal to support the reporters covering our region, the producers bringing you great local programs and the educators who teach all our children.