Honoring the Mother Tongue: The Struggle to Establish and Maintain Czech Language Instruction from 1903-1919
The Orgins of the Czech Language Program
The Komenský Club
Before there was a Slavic Department which eventually became the Czech Language Program their was the Komensky Club. The history of the two are inseparable. The club was instrumental in the fight for Czech language instruction. Without the dedicated membership of the early club, the racial biases of the University administration would have prevailed. This section is a history of the Komensky club at the University of Nebraska as told by images from the Cornhusker annuals of 1907-1920. Included are the texts that accompanied some of the club descriptions which further flesh out the club and its accomplishments.
The Komenský club was established to promote and study all things Czech. The founding members were Professor Bohumil Šimek of the State University of Iowa and a University of Nebraska student, F.J. Pípal (Rosicky, 422). The club first met in November 1903. In January of 1903 twelve students established the Komenský Educational Clubs (Rosicky, 422). The connection of an Iowa professor to a University of Nebraska based club is not readily available in the glowing histories of the club’s genesis. However the link between these two geographic points comes from the establishment of another Czech educational organization. In 1902 the Society for the Promotion of Higher Education or Matice Vyššího Vzdělání came in to being with Šimek and W. F. Severa as the founding members (Čapek, 261). It is further noted that the Komenský Educational Clubs were “An auxiliary of the Society for the Promotion of Higher Education…” (Čapek, 262). This would suggest that the Iowa group felt the University of Nebraska was a prime candidate for advancing the cause of education for Czechs at the college level.
The Komenský club name is in honor of the great seventeenth century Czech educator and philosopher Jan Amos (Comenius) Komenský (Kučera, 61). The club eventualy spread to other communities in Nebraska and around the nation. In all there were twenty-nine Komenský clubs with chapters in Iowa, Minnesota, Illinois, Texas, Kansas, and New York (Rosicky, 429). The halcyon days would not last for the Comenius club. During World War I the club suspended all activity in an era that disparaged foreign language and identity (Kučera, 62). The Club did not disappear completely. It remained listed in the University Bulletins through out the war and well into the early 1920s (University of Nebraska Bulletin,1919: 44, 1920: 44, 1922: 48, 1923:46, 1924: 51). As of 2009 the club is active at the University of Nebraska Lincoln.
Not long after forming the Komenský club the group set its sights on convincing the University administration to allow the establishment of Czech language classes. In June of 1904 the group mobilized and wrote a letter to the Chancellor and Board of Regents requesting Czech language classes be introduced at the University. In the letter thirteen people pledged to take Bohemian classes if the University offered them (Pipal, 1-2). Around the same time Bohumil Šimek of the State University of Iowa also sent a letter asking the regents to honor the student’s request (Šimek, 1-4). This effort was not effective of in influencing the Board of Regents to establish a Bohemian Language program at the University. The regents maintained there was not enough interest in the program to warrant its place in the University.
The cause was taken up anew in the winter of 1907. John Rosický and Václav Bureš of Omaha along with Nebraska legislative house of representative Frank Rejcha, set out for the February 15 1907 meeting of the Board of Regents (Rosicky, 423). This time Chancellor Benjamin Andrews gave the group hope. If Rejcha along with other politically connected Czechs lubricated the wheels of the legislature and provided safe passage for a mill levy benefiting the University, there would be more than enough money for the Bohemian program (Šašková-Pierce, 2). This was no small task for the Czechs who were desperate for higher education opportunities in their beloved language. In order to make the mill levy pass, deals had to be made behind closed doors.
One thing stood in the Czech-Americans way, the very railroads that brought them and their ancestors to the plains. One of the big political issues of the day on both the Federal and State level was reform of laws governing and taxing the railroads. Nebraska was no exception with several bills pertaining to the railroads in the legislature during the 1907 session. The Terminal Taxation Bill became the focal point for Czechs (Rosicky, 423). The bill, which allowed taxation of railroad properties, was not popular with Republicans in the state (Lincoln Daily Star, 5).
In order to assure the passage of the mill levy, votes for railroad taxation had to be exchanged with other members of the legislature (Rosicky, 423). This was a problem for Rejcha who was a newly elected Republican representing Lancaster county (Kučera, 92). Backroom deals netted the desired results when the mil tax bill passed. However the University attempted to back out of its agreement to establish Bohemian language instruction. When the mil levy reached the desk of Nebraska Governor Sheldon he reduced the 80,000 from the legislation. Despite Chancellor Avery’s promise to the Bohemians and the successful passage of the mil levy they midwifed through the legislature, Avery withdrew from his agreement with them (Rosicky, 424). The reduction of funds may have been the issue but racism may have been at work. The group did not back down and eventually Avery honored his promise. In the fall of 1907 Bohemian was finally formally taught at the University of Nebraska (Rosicky, 424). Thanks to these determined Czechs the University it home to the modern Czech Language Department today.