Even before the great exodus of Armenians driven out of their homeland by the Ottoman Turks during the genocide of 1915, in which one and a half million Armenians perished, a small number of Armenians were finding their way to Racine, attracted by the growing industry here which did not require skill or command of the English language. These Armenians were hard-working men who dreamed of working and saving their money in order to return to their homeland and live more comfortable lives there.
The few Armenian young men who came to Racine before the 1915 genocide were from the province of Kharpert. After the genocide, however, the majority who arrived were from the village of Tomarza, Geseria. They both shared a common language, religion and values. Many men had gone back to bring their wives and children or married survivors of the genocide. Many also had brides brought over for them by friends and relatives. Thus the Armenian community here grew, and the family became the core of the community.
The Armenian Work Force
The Armenian work force clustered around the growing industries of J.I. Case Company, Belle City Malleable Iron Company and Walker Manufacturing Company. Case’s main office was on State Street.
Those Armenians who chose not to work in factories established their own businesses on State Street were the Armaganian/Dadian and the Bornanian Grocery Stores. Also serving the Racine Armenians were two other Armenian grocers located on State Street near Douglas Avenue. These stores, aside from the usual staples, carried on their shelves bulghur, basturma, halva, olives and other foods familiar to Armenians.
Other shops, including shoe repair shops, barber shops and dry cleaners, were located on State Street and operated by Armenians. Gulbank Gulbankian was the first Armenian attorney to practice law in the new Armenian community. His office was located a short walking distance on Main Street off State Street. He was joined a short time later by his sister, Vartak. They were a great help to Armenians who needed legal assistance but were handicapped by their language limitations to seek help from an outsider.
Church & School
Although Armenian immigrants worked hard and became part of the community, they also worked hard to maintain their cultural identity. The first thing they did after they found employment was to buy a house to raise their families. Caring for their families and providing a home for them was their primary concern. Most of their homes were grouped on streets branching off State Street, such as Superior, Huron, LaSalle, Liberty. Geneva and West Streets.
Church played a vital part in their lives. They had been driven from their homeland because they would not abandon Christianity and embrace Islam. Now they were determined their children would grow up in the same religion and with the same values for which their people had suffered and died.
In the 1930s it became necessary for a second Armenian church. J.I. Case Company donated the Wergeland Hall on State Street and the building was moved to LaSalle Street just off State Street. After much renovation, the St. Hagop Armenian Apostolic Church was created. It was consecrated on October 16, 1938. Today this building is still a landmark, but no longer houses this church. In 1976, a new St. Hagop’s was built at 4100 Newman Road; the former church is now the Apostolic Assembly Church. Four years earlier, a new St. Mesrob Church had been constructed at 4605 Erie Street after it had outgrown its State Street building.
Education was always an important part in the Armenian culture. Most of the first generation Armenian children born in Racine attended Garfield Elementary School at 920 Milwaukee Avenue (now Martin Luther King Dr.), Washington Junior High and Horlick High School. The few who lived south of State Street attended Washington Park High School. The Armenian students were eager to learn and knew if they misbehaved, their punishment at home would be more severe than that at school. After school on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, these children attended Armenian classes where they were taught to read and write in the Armenian language. The first Armenian school classes were held above the Chinese laundry on State Street near LaSalle Street. Many of the firstborns spoke only Armenian when they enrolled at Garfield School, but became bilingual by the time they reached first grade.
It was not all work and no play. The social life of the Armenian community centered mainly around the church activities. The men relaxed and played cards, Tavlou (similar to Backgammon) or discussed world and local problems over a cup of Armenian coffee in their clubhouse. One of the first clubhouses was located in the rented rooms above the Chinese laundry where Armenian classes were once held. Another popular gathering place for the men was the coffee house on Douglas and State Streets and the Marzbed Clubhouse on LaSalle Street.
The young people were drawn together because they shared a common religion and culture. They organized parties and dances with other Armenian youth of surrounding communities. They grew to love the Armenian music and dance their parents brought with them from the old country. In addition, Armenian youth had their own drum corps, an attraction in the annual parade down State Street. The most popular social event was the annual Madagh. Religious in origin, a Requiem Mass precedes the blessing of the food. Madagh is cooked lamb stew over cooked bulghur pilaf, with all of the food being prepared in large boiler pans at the picnic site. Armenians from neighboring communities shared in this sacrificial meal, with dancing following.
State Street Redefined
State Street has changed along with the times, but the State Street which was part of the lives of the first generation of Armenians growing up in Racine is gone forever. It is a great street with many memories that the early Armenian immigrants and their children shared as they went on to become valuable productive citizens in this great country. Wherever they go, wherever they are, a part of their past lives on State Street lives with them.
Note: This article was based on text for an exhibit at Racine Heritage Museum that ran from 2004-2008. Celebrated Armenian-American author David Kherdian has published several memoirs and collections of poetry reflecting on his early life in Racine. The most recent of these, Root River Return, as well as many of Kherdian’s other works, are available at Racine Heritage Museum.