The People’s Will: The 20th-Century Newspaper Serving Scranton’s Ukrainian Immigrants
Народна воля, or “The People’s Will” newspaper, printed its first editions in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1910, aiming to serve a community of Ukrainian immigrants who’d found work as laborers in the area’s coal mines and other industries.
The newspaper, by at least one description, was fiercely pro-democracy, anti-fascist and progressive in its politics, views that may have seemed out of step with many immigrants from eastern European countries at the time, with their long histories of monarchical rule. But there’s little doubt those views aligned with a growing labor movement, and later, a commitment to fight for democratic principles and against autocratic rule.
That period of American history was marked by a significant wave of immigrants from southern and eastern European countries. This was a peak period for Italian immigration to the U.S., including Pennsylvania, where coal mines were providing a growing number of jobs for laborer.
Scranton and the surrounding area saw many Italian communities spring up during this period.
Ukrainians, too, were among the eastern Europeans pouring into U.S. ports, and Pennsylvania was their most likely destination upon arrival. Some publications put the number of Ukrainians in the U.S. near 700,000 by the late 1930s. Professor Wasyl Halich, a Ukrainian immigrant who went on to research immigration from his home country and teach history in Minnesota, believed that more than half ended up settling in Pennsylvania. (Walich immigrated to western Pa.)
At the time, rule over Ukraine was divided between the Austria-Hungary monarchy and the Russian monarchy. Most immigrants to the U.S. were from either Galacia or Ruthenia, both areas under Austria-Hungary rule, according to Halich.
“These provinces are noted for their beautiful scenery and for their artistic
population, but a long period of foreign domination had kept the country
in a state of economic depression,” he wrote.
Pennsylvania’s mining companies sent representatives into Ukraine to recruit its downtrodden to come across the Atlantic and work as laborers, Halich wrote. The promised steady work and good wages. An initial wave made the journey — often over relatives’ objections. And although their living and working conditions were usually poor, living in overcrowded small houses and apartments, the letters they sent home encouraged more to seek refuge and a new life in Pennsylvania, per Halich.
“Radical Socialist” perspective
Here’s how The Ukrainian Weekly of Jersey City, New Jersey described The People’s Will in 1939 in a review of Ukrainian periodicals that had sprung up in different areas of America.
Narodna Wola, the official organ of the Ukrainian Workingmen’s Association, of Scranton, Pa… calls itself “radical socialist,” as such, it places social injustices above other factors. Like other good international socialists (in opposition to national socialists), it is of the opinion that oppression and exploitation of one people by another or one class by another would vanish only if all people became good and treated each other as equals. Oppression is a universal evil, and should be universally treated. Unless this evil is eradicated everywhere, there is no hope for the liberation of the Ukrainian people. How people could be made “universally good,” Narodna Wola … does not say.”
The review admitted confusion about what, exactly, Narodna Wola considered socialism, as it clearly stood against the form of national socialism that had spread throughout areas of Europe, including Nazi Germany.
“Above all, it hates Fascists,” The Ukrainian Weekly article noted. (It’s noteworthy that Norodna Wola staked out this position well before WWII.)
The Scranton Ukrainian paper was particularly critical of nationalists, the review suggested, asserting that any nationalist who also condemned fascism or national-socialism [of the Nazi Party variety] was simply wearing “camouflage.”
Ukrainian Weekly went on to note that Narodna Wola’s stand against Fascism was “in line with the stand of the so-called ‘Western Democracies’.”
But the writer of the report in Ukrainian Weekly remained skeptical, believing that Narodna Wola was “seeking to outdo everyone else in denouncing the Fascist countries” separating itself from “neutrals” who may have been skeptical of the publication’s radical orientation.
It goes on to note, however, that “Such a policy might pay big dividends for Narodna Wola if America were plunged into a European war.”
It was only 27 months later that the U.S. was indeed plunged into World War II after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Narodna Wola, in English letters, was associated with the Ukrainian Workingmen’s Association and the Ruthenian National Union, according to Library of Congress records.
It’s progressive orientation may also have been well-suited for the area, given Scranton’s deep ties to the organized labor movement during that period — a statue of United Mine Workers leader John Mitchell still overlooks its courthouse square — and abundance of low-paid, heavily worked laborers in its mines, railyards and mills.
It is not clear for how long The People’s Will published in Scranton. The Library of Congress indicates “1910-????”
At late as the 1990s, Scranton was still home to at least one Ukrainian social club, and is still home to Ukrainian Catholic churches.
Author’s note: Reading Halich’s work and other resources raised questions about my own lineage. My maternal grandmother’s surname is Dranchak, and the family story is that they came from Austria and settled in Scranton. However, Dranchak is a surname most common to Ukraine, and Halich indicated that Ukrainians often identified themselves not as Ukrainian, but as either Austrian or Russian, according to the rule they were under. Likewise, when they arrived in the U.S., depending on the immigration clerks, they often were not assigned Ukraine as their county of origin, but again, Austria, Russia, Slovakia or Poland. Unfortunately, my ancestors shared little about their homeland with their children, which seems quite common.