Interview with Professor James S. Pula of Purdue University -
Historian, Professor, Author, and Polonia Activist
by Aleksandra Ziółkowska-Boehm1
Aleksandra Ziółkowska-Boehm: You grew up in a small village, New York Mills, in central New York State where 75percent people were of Polish heritage. Both your father’s parents came to America from Poland. Your father born in America but spoke Polish. On your mother side you are French origin. Since you mother did not speak Polish and your father did not understand French, the language was used home was English. Do you have a little knowledge of French and Polish?
James S. Pula: Since so many people in our village knew Polish, it was never offered as a language until after I had already graduated from high school, and it was not offered at any of the colleges I attended. In graduate school I studied French to pass a reading test for research purposes since that was a requirement of my PhD in history. However, I have rarely used it since then so I have lost most of my facility with it.
Ziółkowska-Boehm: You are the author of many books, specializing in ethnic and immigration studies and 19th-century American history. Your first book titled “The French in America” (1975) was published in series on American ethnic group. What is the unique about French Americans?
Prof. Pula: There were small communities of French in Philadelphia (PA), Charleston (SC), and of course New Orleans (LA) since colonial times. French influence in Louisiana remains strong even today. Unlike all of the other states, its basic legal code derives from the French Code Napoleon. My mother’s ancestors came down from Québec to work in the logging camps in the Adirondack Mountains in New York. Quite a few people of French ancestry were prominent in the Revolutionary War and early American history, but I think the most unique feature of the French is how quickly they appear to have assimilated into American society regardless of when they arrived.
Prof. Pula with PAHA President, Anna Mazurkiewicz, 2015.
Ziółkowska-Boehm: You write that you remember from childhood years there were differences between Poles coming from “Austria” and “Russia” during the time of the partitions when Poland lost its independence. At that time Polish immigrants coming to America were registered as from Austria, Germany, or Russia. You write that you also remember that in your village the Poles were divided between those attending the Roman Catholic Church and those who attended the Polish National Catholic Church (Kosciol Narodowy). How much were those differences visible in everyday lives?
Prof. Pula: There were differences of association. Since many of the organizations in town were either based in the parishes, or loosely affiliated with them, membership in these was dictated by whether one was Roman Catholic or National Catholic. The groups even had different cemeteries. The two did not mix, except in the Polish National Alliance and in the local textile union which were open to people regardless of religious affiliation. So as adults social activities were often a dividing factor. For children it was much the same. Most Polish children, like my father, went to the Roman Catholic parochial school until they graduated and then had to attend the public school beginning in eighth grade. National Catholic children could not attend the Roman Catholic school so some attended National Catholic schools in nearby Utica while others went directly into the public schools at an early age. Naturally these divisions meant that children were often not able to take part in each other’s social activities. Once in high school, these divisions largely ended when it came to attending school-related activities, but persisted for anything sponsored by the parishes.
Ziółkowska-Boehm: As a student you were fascinated with the subject of the American Revolution. You graduated from SUNY –Albany, and your interest build up. Your second book was dedicated to General Włodzimierz Bonawentura Krzyżanowski who took part in the Civil War. He was eulogized by president Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 at Arlington. His life was so interesting I believe he deserves a movie. Tell us more about the hero of your book For Liberty and Justice: The Life and Times of Wladimir Krzyzanowski.
Prof. Pula: He was indeed a very fascinating figure. He came from a poor gentry family and was involved in the planning for the Mierosławski uprising in 1846. The Prussians placed him on trial but he escaped before being captured and came to the US. He apparently worked as an engineer for a while, then married an American woman named Caroline Burnett and opened a pottery business in Washington, DC. When the Civil War broke out he volunteered in the local militia as a private and quickly rose to captain. After receiving permission to recruit his own regiment, he was promoted to colonel of the 58th New York, which later adopted the nickname “Polish Legion.” Krzyżanowski fought in many of the largest battles of the war at Cross Keys, Second Bull Run, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga. In all of these he gained praise from his commanders, eventually earning promotion to brigadier general.
Following the war he was a successful agent for the US Treasury Department where he was responsible for tracking down smugglers in Louisiana and later the Washington Territory, Alaska, and Panama. When he moved to San Francisco he met Helena Modjeska when she came to America and was instrumental in scheduling her debut in California. He also knew Henryk Sienkiewicz who frequented the tavern Krzyżanowski owned. It was there that Sienkiewicz observed some of the personality traits of the patrons that he later used in his writings.
Quite a career for someone forced to leave his homeland for a new country whose language he did not even know. In 1937 his remains were reburied in Arlington National Cemetery.
Prof. Pula at the gates to the University of Warsaw, Poland.
Ziółkowska-Boehm: After graduation you taught for two years in South Carolina at a mostly black college. Later you moved to the University of Maryland and you were sent overseas to participate in their programs in Japan, Korea, Germany, and Italy. You experienced a lot of multi-ethnic human diversity with different origin people. Please tell more about it.
Prof. Pula: Teaching overseas was a life-changing experience in so many ways. Living in other cultures, especially in places like Japan and Korea with very different historical and cultural traditions, makes one much more aware of what immigrants face when they arrive in a new country. For someone teaching immigration history, this was an invaluable experience.
One also learns that there are “good” and “bad” people everywhere and that just because something is different does not mean it is less valuable. I think no matter where we come from we all tend unconsciously to judge things by the norms and values of the society in which we grew up. Living in all of these different countries gives one a different perspective. Cultures and ways of doing things may be different, but there is not necessarily any hierarchy — what is accepted and works within a given society is just as valid as what works and is accepted in another society.
And the human variety is amazing. All of the different foods, music, religions, art, and so much else. Spending time in these different cultures was the best education I could ever have hoped to obtain, and a lot more interesting than sitting in a classroom.
Ziółkowska-Boehm: You stated in Polish American Studies (Autumn, 2017) that your early life experiences led you to: “professional lines of research and teaching” that also “have taught you the most valuable of all lessons, that people in all groups are much more alike than they are different…. People, both the ‘good’ and the ‘bad,’ are largely the same everywhere.” What can you add to this beautiful statement?
Prof. Pula: Only that it is unfortunate that individual people cannot be viewed and accepted for what they are — individuals. We always want to place labels on people, to put them into groups, when in fact everyone is unique with individual strengths and weaknesses and should be seen as an individual. If we judged each other by, as Martin Luther King said, the “content of their character,” instead of trying to place them in groups or categories the world would be a better place.
Prof. Pula at PAHA's 75th Annual Meeting in Washington D.C. January 2018
Ziółkowska-Boehm: Publishing papers, articles, books chapters - you presented your own experience on comparative work - on Germans, Italians, Hispanics, Asian, and others group. It is very interesting and mind-opening reading about diversities and perceptions of different ethnic group in the USA. If asked, I believe, all of the groups would have their - more or less - “songs of complains.”
Prof. Pula: That is an interesting observation. Every group that has come in large numbers to the US has left its own country for specific reasons, and often these reasons are essentially the same for many groups — political or religious persecution, lack of economic opportunity, famine or other natural disaster, and so on. When they arrive in the United States, if there are large numbers they draw attention and sometimes a negative reaction from people already there. The Irish and German immigrants faced a backlash against them in between 1830 and 1860; Poles, Italians, and Jews were often discriminated against in 1880-1920; Asians met opposition in 1880-1900; and more recently Mexican and other Hispanic immigrants have faced the same problems. One of the things one learns is that for each large wave of people, the experience is much the same. If the group is large enough to be perceived as a threat by those already in the US (that is, a competition), especially if there is an economic recession, the group is perceived as a “problem.” In the second and third generations they begin to assimilate and some other group takes their place as the unfamiliar newcomers.
A good example is a pair of editorials I ran across while doing research a couple of decades ago. In the 1830s a newspaper in St. Louis complained in an editorial that the city was being overrun with Irish immigrants who were uneducated, had different customs, and were on top of all that Catholic! Twenty years later the exact same newspaper ran a similar editorial bemoaning the fact that so many German immigrants were arriving and they has strange customs like having picnics on Sunday where they drank beer, spoke in a different language, and kept too much to themselves. The editorial ended with the sentence “Where have all the noble Irish gone?” All of a sudden the Irish were now “noble.” What happened to elevate them? A combination of assimilation and familiarity. So fear of the newcomer was transferred to a newer group, the Germans. It is a process that continually changes only in the names of the groups that are involved.
Cover of the Polish American Encyclopedia edited by Prof. Pula
Ziółkowska-Boehm: You were giving courses at the university in ethnic and immigration studies, also about U.S. immigrations policy. I value your interest in the Polish presence in America – before the Great Migration. Quite a few of your books are dedicated to Polish American ethnic subjects, like United We Stand: The Role of Organized Labor in a Polish American Community, 1910-1916 (1990). In your book Ethnic Utica (1994) you present the mosaic of American society. Twelve essays are dedicated to Welsh, Irish, Polish, German, Italian, Syrian/Lebanese, Jewish, African-American, Ukrainian, Oneida Indian, Bosnians. Do you write about immigrants from South America?
Prof. Pula: The book on Polish labor strikes was particularly enjoyable to write since it focused on the town in which I grew up. It is an amazing story of a group of Polish factory workers who organized in the face of opposition from a major textile company and overcame all adversity to win their strikes. They later took these organizational skills into the political arena to literally take over the village government by electing a mayor and a majority of the village board.
Ethnic Utica was a book I edited so the chapters were written by several different authors. The topics were selected by looking at the census for the area and selecting the largest of the groups in the county. Since then Hispanic immigration has increased and the same people that published my book just published one on the Hispanic community as well. Aside from Ethnic Utica, I have written articles on Hispanics for encyclopedias and recently published an article titled “Is the New Immigration Really New? A Comparison of 1910 and 2010” in which I compare the demographic and assimilation of Poles and Italians in the US in 1910 with Mexicans in 2010. It was published in Agnieszka Małek and Dorota Praszałowicz, eds., The United States Immigration Policy and Immigrants’ Responses: Past and Present (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2017). Actually, the data suggest that Mexican immigrants are progressing toward assimilation faster today than were Poles and Italians a century ago.
Ziółkowska-Boehm: You earned both a M.A. and Ph.D. from Purdue University with a major in American history. As part of your interest you wrote a book dedicated to Kosciuszko: Thaddeus Kościuszko: The Purest Son of Liberty (1998). Is Kosciuszko your favorite Polish origin hero? What is the subject you are working on now?
Prof. Pula: Yes, I have admired Kościuszko for some time, actually since I first became aware of him in high school. He really made important contributions to the American Revolution at Saratoga where his engineering skills helped to win a battle that brought the French and Spanish into the war on the side of the rebellious colonials. He went on to build the first fortification at West Point where the US Military Academic is today, to serve with distinction in the Carolinas, and then to return to Poland to lead an unsuccessful revolution to free his own nation. More importantly, as I learned more about him I have been exceptionally impressed by his humanity. In America he befriended the poor, slaves, and indigenous peoples. In Poland he emancipated the peasants on his own land and during the Kościuszko Uprising he proposed citizenship rights for peasants, Jews, and others. His continual support for the less fortunate classes of people is truly commendable. Thomas Jefferson once wrote that the Pole was the “purest son of liberty” he ever met, and of that liberty that went to everyone, not just the rich and powerful.
Right now I am finishing a two-volume publication on the American Civil War that focuses on German immigrants and, to a lesser extent, other immigrants from central and Eastern Europe who fought in the Civil War. I am also editing a 75th anniversary history of the Polish American Historical Association which should be finished next month.
PAHA's Anniversary History at the 75th Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C.
Ziółkowska-Boehm: You wrote numerous essays, lectures, papers, and book reviews on Polish subjects. Quite a few of your books are dedicated to Polish American subjects. Together with historian Professor M.B. Biskupski you have published essays and documents titled Polish Democratic Thought from the Renaissance to the Great Emigration: Essays and Documents (1990). Please, tell us about that volume.
Prof. Pula: In that book we brought together a group of prominent historians to write essays on the development of democratic thought in Poland during various eras and supplemented this with the publication of English translations of important documents to make them available to English-speaking scholars. We followed it up with a second volume that begins where the first one left off and continues on through the eventual regaining of Polish independence from Soviet influence. The title of the second volume is The Origins of Modern Polish Democracy (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2010).
Ziółkowska-Boehm: You are also very active in the Polish American intellectual community. You were president of The Polish American Historical Association (PAHA), editor of Polish American Studies for 33 years, associate editor of The Polish Review, and an active member of the Board of The Polish Institute of Arts and Sciences in America (PIASA). Among others awards you received the Amicus Poloniae Award, the Mieczysław Haiman Award, and the Krzyż Oficerski Orderu Zasługi Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej [Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland]. You are a great treasure for Polish culture and history. What do you think can be done for better understanding of the Polish Americans?
Prof. Pula: There is, fortunately, a great wealth of scholarship in both English and Polish on a broad range of Polish American topics. Today, more comparative studies are appearing which is also positive. I think the main problem is integrating these scholarly studies into the mainstream of academic publishing. Both Polish American Studies and The Polish Review are now members of JSTOR, a full-text academic database that makes them available to scholars at more than 6,000 libraries, archives, and other organizations around the world. This is a tremendous advance in placing these materials before scholars writing textbooks, comparative studies, and other publications that will reach a very broad audience. It would be very helpful if some of the Polish journals such as Studia Migracyjne-Przegląd Polonijny could also be made available this way because they contain some excellent studies that would benefit from a wider audience.
Another thing we can do, as academics, is to focus more of our attention on the general public. We often spend all of our time talking to each other in very stimulating conferences, but the results of these are shared in written form in academic journals and seldom if ever reach the general public. This is good for us as individual academics as we build a portfolio for tenure and promotion, but it has no influence on public perceptions. We need to spend more time giving public lectures, working with local community education projects and teachers, and reaching out to deliver our message about the history and culture of Poles and Polish Americans to newspapers, community groups, and other public forums.
NOTE: This interview was conducted in English in November 2017 and published in Polish translation in the journal Odra, April 2018.