William Hal Gorby’s study of Wheeling’s Polish community weaves together stories of immigrating, working, and creating a distinctly Polish American community, or Polonia, in the heart of the upper Ohio Valley steel industry. It addresses major topics in the history of the United States in the first half of the twentieth century, while shifting from urban historians’ traditional focus on large cities to a case study in a smaller Appalachian setting.
Wheeling was a center of West Virginia’s labor movement, and Polish immigrants became a crucial element within the city’s active working-class culture. Arriving at what was also the center of the state’s Roman Catholic Diocese, Poles built religious and fraternal institutions to support new arrivals and to seek solace in times of economic strain and family hardship. The city’s history of crime and organized vice also affected new immigrants, who often lived in neighborhoods targeted for selective enforcement of Prohibition.
At once a deeply textured evocation of the city’s ethnic institutions and an engagement with larger questions about belonging, change, and justice, Wheeling’s Polonia is an inspiring account of a diverse working-class culture and the immigrants who built it.