Romani History is American History – Ann Ostendorf

Few Americans consider Romani people significant to the nation’s history. Unlike in Europe, where Romani people are officially counted as the “the largest European minority,” the United States lacks structures and stories that would make visible the individuals who claim this heritage. Despite this, historical sources reveal that members of this diverse diasporic community have been present in the Americas since the beginning of colonization. Famously, four “Egiptos” were sent with Christopher Columbus on his third journey to the Caribbean in 1498. From then on, Romani people sailed across the Atlantic as parts of other colonial projects; documented arrivals to Brazil, Virginia, Louisiana, and elsewhere record only small portions of their history. 

One of the most well-documented colonial North American migrations involved dozens of Bohemians (the eighteenth-century word for French Romani) who helped build the colony of Louisiana. They settled throughout the region, from Biloxi to New Orleans, and Natchez to Natchitoches. They served as soldiers and shipbuilders, ran guest houses and ranches, worked for the Catholic Church and taught music lessons. But these seventeenth- and eighteenth-century North American Romani immigrants arrived through circumstances slightly different from others. Most had not chosen the Americas as a land of new opportunity. Rather, they had been forced from their homes and deported to the colonies.

Figure 1. Eighteenth-century French Bohemian dress, mobility and military service signaled a distinctiveness from other communities amongst which they lived. Etching by Jacques Callot. The Marching Gypsies (Les bohémiens en marche), also called The Advance Guard (L’avant-garde). 1621–31. Courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Deportations had always been part of European colonial strategies in the Americas. However, as European laws increasingly delineated those fit enough to stay at home from those destined for far-flung colonies, Romani people specifically became the target of discriminatory legislation. Some laws criminalized aspects of their lifestyle; other laws criminalized living as a Romani person within the borders of the state. These forced colonists populated the early modern Atlantic world. A Romani Atlantic continued through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, although it incorporated new people who arrived through new historical circumstances. A vibrant trans-Atlantic (and even global) Romani community remains meaningful to many people today.

For those who do know about Romani people in American history, the story usually begins with the Kalderash, Machwaya, Lovara, and other peoples who arrived from eastern Europe as part of a new immigrant wave at the end of the nineteenth century. Newspapers printed images of exotic-looking strangers who had landed at Ellis Island and told stories of how “they were not desirable immigrants” because they were “likely to become a public charge.” Despite evidence to the contrary, such stories signaled to many that the “Gypsy” stereotype as criminal and dangerous, already a centuries-old motif, might in fact be true. 

Figure 2. Members of the Ištvanović family, whose history has been constructed by Louis Takács, were photographed by Augustus F. Sherman at Ellis Island in 1904. This photograph has been frequently reproduced to illustrate diverse perspectives about the politics of immigration. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Collections. 

This history and its legacies are still alive in the contemporary world. Though true stories related to Romani peoples in the Americas are almost never recounted, the racist and xenophobic stereotypes consistently are. According to a recent study from Harvard University’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, one of the first systematic attempts to critically examine the lived experience of contemporary American Romani people, the results of this ignorance are “worrying.”      

Nearly all respondents felt that most Americans know little or nothing about the Romani Americans, but nonetheless, by far the majority had experienced anti-Romani sentiments, citing prevailing stereotypes of Romani people as criminals, liars, and thieves. As a consequence, most respondents both valued and hid their Romani identity. Being Roma was widely observed to hurt chances at schooling, housing, and work.

How do we address racism against a people who try to hide their identity to avoid its effects? As historians, one of the easiest ways is to tell (true) stories. Replacing false narratives with true ones will begin to literally re-place Romani people into history. For other diasporic peoples significant to early American history—Jews, West Africans, and Irish come first to mind—vibrant and nuanced scholarship has created space within national narratives that is sensitive to the contingencies of time, place, and peoplehood. Individual members of these groups have been granted situated histories. This is not so for Romani people. 

Table 1. Infographic illustrating details of a recent survey of Romani Americans. FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University, 2018.

A lack of historical scholarship on Romani people in the Americas has flattened them into one-dimensional caricatures banished to a life lived outside history. In this fictional story, all Romani are the same, whether they lived in Brazil or New York, during the seventeenth or twentieth century, or hailed from Spain, England, Russia, or Romania. With history comes humanity. As historians, we have an opportunity, some might say a duty, to uncover—and then tell—true stories of Romani people. If turning fact into fiction is more common than ever before, turning fiction into fact remains the work of the historian desirous of fighting contemporary anti-Romani racism

Ann Ostendorf (she/her/hers), Professor of History at Gonzaga University, and author of Sounds American, is completing a manuscript titled The Romani Atlantic: Making Empire, Race, and Nation. Her publications have appeared in Frühneuzeit-Info, Critical Romani Studies, American Music, The American Historian, Maryland Historical Magazine, and Journal of Gypsy Studies.

Read Ann Ostendorf’s article, “Louisiana Bohemians: Community, Race, and Empire,” in the Fall 2021 issue of Early American Studies.