Romani people in the US have been subjected to underrepresentation and antiziganism for centuries. This post will be a short look at Romani populations in the Ozarks and how exactly they got here. Through the ancestor research I’ve been doing over the past couple of years I’ve managed to get many answers about my own Romanichal ancestors. From what I can tell they came to America in what’s considered the “first wave” of Romanichals from England who were exiled in the 17th and 18th century. They were in the later part of the exile, arriving in North Carolina in 1720. The family stayed in North Carolina for a couple generations before moving to Georgia and finally to Arkansas.
So, in an effort to honor their memory I’d like to take some time to talk about where these Romani groups came from and to dispel a lot of the stereotypes about Romani people here in this part of the country.
The Encyclopedia of Arkansas has a pretty good entry on the Romani immigrations:
“The immigration of Romanies to Arkansas came in two waves. The first wave was composed of Romanichals, who trace their lineage to England and Ireland. These Romani started their immigration under forced conditions. In 1664, Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, banished a large number of Romanichals to the Virginia plantations as forced labor. These were the earliest Romanies to immigrate to the United States. As their forced labor requirements were met, or opportunity to escape presented itself, these Romanichals moved out into the Southeast. To escape plantation life, many of the Romanichals went back to a traditionally nomadic way of life. Communities of Romanichals can still be found in Arkansas, especially in the north-central and northwestern parts of the state. These Romanichals are mostly settled, owning homes and land. There are no estimates on the number of Gypsies in the state of Arkansas. The U.S. Census does not include a selection for Gypsies, and few people openly admit to a Gypsy heritage due to stereotypes. Romanichals in Arkansas are often involved in horse ranching, asphalting, construction, and small blacksmithing operations. While most Romanichals are settled residents, some still adhere to seasonal migration patterns, following seasonal fruit crops and selling used vehicles throughout the Southeast but returning to Arkansas in the winter. This is very common in the White Hall Gypsy community, and used vehicle sales are common in the northern parts of the state.
“The second wave of Romani immigration to the South happened en masse during the 1850s through the 1880s. These Romani, collectively referred to as the Vlax, immigrated to the United States to escape political and social strife in the Balkans. The Vlax still follow a largely traditional migratory lifestyle. These migratory patterns bring the Vlax through Arkansas on their way to the western United States and back into the Southeast. The major Vlax settlements are in the northeastern United States and western states. The Vlax are also involved with used vehicle sales and small-scale construction such as black-topping, roofing, and home improvement.”
I have two critiques, first is the use of “gypsy” which is considered a racial slur but is, unfortunately, still common in literature on the Romani.
Second is the reference to Romani held occupations. Early on in migration through the South, yes, most Romani held jobs like ” horse ranching, asphalting, construction, and small blacksmithing operations” but today many of the Romani people I’ve been in communication with have office jobs, are teachers, professors, business owners, etc. So in that respect the article is very outdated and still conforms to the stereotype of the Romani as laborers. It’s not a new stereotype by any respect. It’s followed Romani people around the world.
While there may not be a large Romani presence here in the Ozarks, it’s important that we not forget them, the struggles that brought them here, and the struggles they had to endure here just trying to make a life for themselves and their families. Kekkana bishano toti. I will never forget you.