FINNISH AMERICAN HALL IN BALTIMORE (information gathered from various sources)
Finns have migrated to the United States since the mid 19th Century. Finns first arrived in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula after the Civil War, when a copper mining company recruited them from mines in Norway because of their reputation as hard workers. The Upper Peninsula was a major destination for Finns during the peak years of migration in the 19th century and the early decades of the 20th century.
There are Finnish communities in Michigan and Minnesota as well as in other parts of the United States. According to the US Census Bureau’ American Community Survey Link, in 2018 there were 649,761 people reporting Finnish ancestry In 2019, over 750 Finnish students studied in U.S. universities. Annually, about 200,000 Finns visit the United States.
A Finnish-American was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Mr. John Morton of Pennsylvania’s Finnish-American family heritage originates to Rautalampi, Finland. Once in the United States, Finnish immigrants recreated Finnish institutions, including churches, temperance societies, workers’ halls, benefit societies, and cooperatives.
Within those institutions, they organized a broad spectrum of activities for themselves: weekly and festival programs, dances, worship services, theater productions, concerts, sports competitions, and summer festivals.
The years between 1870 and 1930 are sometimes referred as the Great “Migration” of Finns into North America. In the 1870s, there were only 3,000 migrants from Finland, but this figure was rapidly growing. New migrants often sent letters home, describing their life in the New World, and this encouraged more and more people to leave and try their luck in America. Rumors began of the acres of land that could be cleared into vast productive fields and the opportunity to earn “a barrel of American dollars” in mines, factories, and railroads.
The Finnish community in Baltimore was originally centered in the Highlandtown neighborhood. During the 1930s the Finns operated Highlandtown’s Finnish Hall as a community center. The hall was located at Quail Street and Foster Ave (near Ponca Street ) in the Greektown neighborhood of Baltimore. The Hall was also a center for union organizing by the workers of Bethlehem Steel. In its heyday the Finnish Hall was a great gathering place for Finns for newly arrived immigrants. By the year 1940, there was a Finnish community of 400 people living in the neighborhood.
Large numbers of Finnish Americans were involved in labor activism and struggles for workers’ rights. Many of the Finnish immigrants were socialists, which led to Finnish Americans developing a reputation for radicalism. In the early days of the Communist Party USA, Finnish immigrants made up 40% of the Party’s membership. Reflecting this tradition of Finnish American radicalism, the Finnish Hall was a center for leftist activism in Baltimore. The hall welcomed union-organizing activities.
During the 1940s union organizing meetings took place at the Finnish Hall. The Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) moved their headquarters into the second floor of nearby O’Connor’s restaurant and, in 1943, the committee became part of the United Steelworkers of America, a CIO union.
In the 1960s my family moved from Finland to Baltimore and my mother joined the social activities at the hall. It became a gathering place for immigrants and a place to engage in Finnish social and cultural activities. I don’t remember all that much about the hall but my sister found a photo taken around 1960 that shows two of my sisters and I in the hall looking to get something to eat and drink.
I am not sure when the hall closed but the Finnish community still thrives from organizations like the Finlandia Foundation Baltimore.
Today the hall and a building which served as boarding house for Finnish men are gone. It is the site today of Greektown Square Event Center. The entrance is on Quail and Foster Street where the wooden building sat.
Music was a large part of Finnish culture. Music has been a huge part of Finnish culture ranging from folk music to classical music including operas and the symphonic works of Jean Sibelius.
A relatively unknown form of music is the rich music literature of brass music. Small brass bands (usually septets) were popular in the 19th and 20th century playing popular and classical music. Oscar Suojanen (unknown bio) was active in Red Lodge Montana as a conductor of several Finnish Bands. He moved to Berkeley California where he directed the Berkeley Socialist Workers Band. He wrote Comrade’s Club march for that group.
Acculturation and Assimilation
Finnish Americans themselves are a multicultural society. Being a part of the Laestadian, Finland-Swede, or Sami minorities is different than being part of the Finnish American hegemony. Early Finnish Americans had a reputation for being clannish. Reported by sociologists studying Finns in the 1920s and 1930s, this impression was echoed by citizens who lived beside them. Reenforcing this belief was their unusual language, spoken by few others anywhere. Finnish immigrant children, who spoke their native language in the grade schools of America, were marked as different; Finnish was difficult for English speakers to learn to use, a fact that encouraged American employers to organize teams of “Finnish-only” workers. And the “sauna ritual,” an unheard of activity for Anglo-Americans, further promoted a sense that Finns were both exotic and separatist.
Once in the United States, Finnish immigrants recreated Finnish institutions, including churches, temperance societies, workers’ halls, benefit societies, and cooperatives. Within those institutions, they organized a broad spectrum of activities for themselves: weekly and festival programs, dances, worship services, theater productions, concerts, sports competitions, and summer festivals. They created lending libraries, bands, choirs, self-education study groups, and drama groups. Furthermore, they kept in touch with each other through the newspapers that they published—over 120 different papers since the first, Amerikan Suomalainen Lehti, which appeared for 14 issues in 1876.
Finnish immigrants used these recreated Finnish institutions to confront and ease their entrance into American culture. The activities helped them assimilate. For example, Finnish American socialists created their own Socialist Federation that functioned to organize Finns; then, the federation itself joined the Socialist Party of America’s foreign-language section, which then connected them with the struggle for socialist ideas and actions being promoted by “established” Americans. In a similar manner, the Finnish Evangelical Lutheran Church in America wrote their Sunday school readers in Finnish, yet used the reader to teach American citizenship and history, including stories of American role models like Abraham Lincoln, together with Finnish cultural heroes.