Foremost Czech organisation in NYC still going strong after 116 years

Bohemian National Hall, photo: Ian Willoughby

The Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association is one of the oldest and most important Czech organisations in New York. Founded as a kind of umbrella body for a large number of immigrant associations, today the BBLA is mainly concerned with the running of the Bohemian National Hall on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, which it built in the 1890s.

Bohemian National Hall
Joseph Balaz is the president of the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association. After a meeting of the board, he told me when New York’s foremost Czech organisation had been set up:

“1892 it was founded, as an umbrella organisation for at that time maybe 80, 85 existing organisations, comprising of cultural, sports and maybe business…entities.”

In those days, national groups had to look out for one another, says Ed Chlanda, who represents the American Fund for Czech and Slovak Leadership Studies on the board of the BBLA:

Ed Chlanda
“You have to remember that at the time it was really pure capitalism, which is a really rough thing. There was no safety net, no workers’ compensation, no social security, no Medicare or Medicaid – very little to fall back on if things went against you. So Czech and Slovak immigrants would form these fraternal organisations and other organisations that would be supportive of each other at times.”

But why did 80 or more Czech groups feel the need to come together in a common umbrella association? BBLA president Joseph Balaz:

“It was just a simple act of putting together these organisations under one management. The general purpose was to collect money and build this building, the Bohemian National Hall, in the same fashion that the National Theatre in Prague was built [by public collection].”

The original name was the Benevolent and Educational Society – what were its educational activities?

“This was the centre of a Czech community of maybe over 30,000 people living in the neighbourhood and what it did was teaching pupils English, while at the same time they were maintaining Czech and Slovak through classes and things like that.”

Today what does the BBLA do?

“It still functions as an umbrella organisation but not for 85. The number is much smaller – there are nine active organisations. For instance, there is Sokol, then we have a group that functions as the Czech and Slovak Fund for Refugees – currently it supports students. Then we have a group that promotes Dvorak’s music, we have sports organisations, etc, etc.”

The BBLA also administers the prestigious Bohemian National Hall, which is opening its doors after a major refurbishment later this year. We’ll have more on the National Hall in Thursday’s programme.