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International Institute of
207 East Tallmadge Avenue
Akron Ohio 44310-3298
Friday December 13th, 2013
History of the International Institute
Founded in 1916
It was late 1916. Much of the world was involved in "the war to end all wars." Nearly a million soldiers had died in the Battle of Verdun in eastern France, and the first Battle of the Somme was proving to be a costly Allied offensive on the western front.
Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity, William Butler Yeats won the Nobel Prize for literature, and Grigory Rasputin, the mystic who had come to control the Russian Czar and his family, were killed in St. Petersburg.
In the United States, the Boy Scouts of America were chartered by Congress and Americans flocked to see the silent movie, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. President Woodrow Wilson, who was trying to keep the United States out of World War I, was reelected in November 1916. The Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company became America's top tire manufacturer and Akron was called the Rubber Capital of the World. Goodyear's president, F.A. Seiberling, had been building homes costing around $3,500 for employees in what would become known as Goodyear Heights.
Harvey Firestone, likewise, began building employee homes in what would be called Firestone Park. These leaders were responding to the housing crunch caused by the boom in the rubber business.
Akron was, indeed, booming. For a time it was the fastest-growing city in the country, its population exploding from 69,000 in 1910 to 208,000 in 1920. People came for the jobs in the rubber factories from many places, including Europe. Of those 208,000, almost one-third were non-natives and their children. Some native-born Americans became worried about the influx of "foreigners," and classes in Americanization sprang up in schools and churches to help the newcomers assimilate and prepare them for U.S. citizenship.
In 1910,a movement had begun in New York City to protect female immigrants who were arriving in the United States unaccompanied. Many did not speak English and had no one to escort them to their destinations throughout the country, thus becoming easy prey for unscrupulous people. The Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA) there founded an organization whose employees met newcomers at Ellis Island and helped them reunite with their families. Gradually, other services were added, such as legal immigration assistance, English classes, help with finding employment and housing, and social activities. This International Institute concept was soon copied in other U.S. cities with large immigrant populations.
As early as 1904, the YWCA staff in Akron had been teaching English to foreign-born women working in Akron's factories. In 1916, members of the Immigration Committee of the YWCA realized that more needed to be done to help the foreign-born women and girls. The YWCA's chair, Mrs. C.H. Case, invited the head of the YWCA's International Institute in New York, social reformer Edith Terry Bremer, to Akron to help organize a local chapter.
On November 24, 1916, the Akron YWCA board of trustees appropriated money for a new branch of the organization. The International Center officially opened on Feb. 1, 1917, at 821 S. Main Street. Many of the early employees were immigrants themselves whose bilingual social work skills were invaluable to the clients.
After the United States entered the war on April 2, 1917, the multilingual International Center employees found themselves helping non-English-speaking men who had been drafted to fill out forms in English. They also helped relay messages to soldiers across the sea. After the war ended, the center expanded its services so that by 1925, people of 28 nationalities were coming there for help. Through the years, Akron's International Institute has continued to serve the needs of the foreign born in the Akron area as political, economic, and social conditions changed.
The International Institute of Akron has come a long way in the 90 years since its founding as The International Center, a branch of the Akron YWCA. In many ways, its history reflects the social and political history of the United States and Akron.
The population explosion in Akron in the early 1900s, fueled by the booming rubber business, increased demand for the center's immigration and social services. World War I and its aftermath brought new demands for those working with the foreign born. The 1920s saw a new influx of immigrants, who were helped by International Center staffers with immigration matters, interpreting, English lessons, and job counseling.
By 1926 the center was overcrowded, so the branch moved to 370 South Main Street, with some activities still farmed out to schools and churches. This was only a temporary measure and in 1931 the staff moved again, this time to the sixth floor of the new 10-story YWCA building on High Street. A separate new building had been planned, but the Depression caused financial problems for the YWCA, like everyone else, and the money ran out for a separate building for an international center. Times were hard. Many rubber workers were laid off during the Depression, and the International Center suffered budget cuts as did most agencies and businesses.
In the 1930s, 55 such centers in the United States, no longer serving just foreign-born women, severed their ties with their sponsoring YWCA. Akron was one of them, leaving the YWCA and joining a new national organization, the National Institute of Immigration Welfare, in 1933. It became the American Council for Nationalities Service in 1958. The center began to receive funding from the Better Akron Foundation, the forerunner of the United Way, its first funding separate from the YWCA.
The National Institute's objectives, then as now, were to foster a sense of cultural identity and pride in their ethnic heritage among newcomers; to help them learn American ways while retaining their language and customs; to encourage inter-ethnic cooperation and understanding; and to help Americans understand immigrants' customs and recognize their contributions to American life.
The economy had recovered by the 1940s, but a new war had developed in Europe and Asia. The International Center was busy with the many people who were fleeing fascist governments and repression abroad. During World War II, the center's staff, ethnic clubs, and clients were active helping victims of war.
Immigration increased during and after the war. Despite a prevalent anti-foreigner sentiment in the U.S., the center worked to help newcomers assimilate while helping them preserve their cultures. The agency swelled with people wanting to learn English.
The center's work after the war focused not just on women but on whole families, with many kinds of services. Thirty years after it opened, with the help of active Akron supporters like K.T. Salem, John Petrou, and Bill Haley, the revitalized agency was organized and dedicated as The International Center. It opened in a house at 755 West Market Street in Akron with 25 nationality clubs and around 1,000 members.
The staff was soon forced to move again, however, as the house was torn down for a parking lot. On June 3, 1948, with outside financial support from the United Community and War Chest, the center moved into a newly purchased house at 688 East Buchtel Avenue.
Postwar political developments again put increased demands on the I.C. staff, especially those serving refugees. The Displaced Persons Act of 1948 allowed 400,000 people from Eastern Europe - most from Poland, Germany, Latvia, and Yugoslavia - to enter the U.S.
In 1953, the Refugee Relief Act permitted entry for another 214,000 refugees, most of whom were fleeing communist persecution. In response to the revolution in Hungary, the Institute served on the Governor's Committee on Hungarian Refugee Relief, which was established in 1956. Akron Mayor Leo Berg created a local Citizen's Committee on Hungarian Relief, on which the International Center's director was appointed to the Steering Committee and Institute trustees acted as participants as well. Many Hungarian refugees arrived in Akron in the mid-1950s.
The center's functions were leaning more toward governmental work and less toward social activities. On April 26, 1958, the agency was reorganized and re-chartered as The International Institute of Akron, Inc. (I.I.). The many nationality groups were dissolved, to plan intra-group activities on their own. When the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service tightened its regulations on who could represent clients in immigration matters, the I.I. received recognition from the U.S. Department of Justice to appear before the Board of Immigration Appeals and any INS office in immigration nationality law proceedings.
With the revolution and overthrow of the Batista government in Cuba in 1958-59, the United States was besieged with asylum seekers from Cuba. In 1963, the I.I. chaired Mayor Edward Erickson's committee for relocation of Cuban refugees to Akron. Immigration counselors at the Institute worked long hours to keep up with changes in immigration laws under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
The Institute's rented quarters at 20 South High Street were proving insufficient for its needs. In 1965, the agency was able to buy the Eastern Motor Carriers Association building, a former church, at 207 East Tallmadge Avenue for $67,000. With repairs and renovations, the agency has remained there ever since. The Institute has continued to respond to events both local and worldwide that affect Akron-area residents, from the turbulent `60s to the present.
Demand for language services has always been great, and in 1970, the I.I. formed its Language Bank. This group of volunteer interpreters and translators provided free services to 80 area agencies and businesses including the police, hospitals, etc. The bank today includes paid freelancers for court, medical, and community interpreting as well as volunteers fluent in a total of 54 languages.
Political unrest and hostilities had meanwhile shifted to Southeast Asia. After the fall of Saigon, Viet Nam, in 1975, the U.S. government allowed 130,000 Vietnamese refugees to enter the States. The first Southeast Asian refugees -- primarily Vietnamese, Lao, and Hmong -- were sponsored by area churches with resettlement services from the I.I.
In 1979 the Institute officially established its Refugee Resettlement program with funding from the federal government to help the refugees establish a new life by becoming self sufficient in their new country. Government funds helped provide initial apartment furnishings, food for a short time, English classes, and job counseling for the newcomers. So many refugees arrived in the Akron area that the regular I.I. staff of seven was tripled to handle the increased work.
1980s and 1990s
Adequate funding has always been a concern. In the early 1980s Institute trustee Patrick Ross, president of BF Goodrich, and his wife, Ann, helped the agency open a gift shop at Goodrich. The funds raised from 1982 to 1995, when the shop closed, supported operations as well as the International Institute Charitable Endowment Trust.
The Institute's client load has continued to increase. In 1990, the United States revamped its legal immigration system and set a record by granting legal permanent residence to 1.5 million people. Today, the arrival of more and more immigrants and refugees translates to increased need for refugee and language services, immigration counseling, English classes, financial literacy, employment assistance and other counseling services. We have much to do, but our future is bright.
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