They came here looking for a country where they could be free again. Persecuted, they fled their native Latvia in fear. After five years in displaced persons camps in Germany, they arrived in New Orleans in May, 1949, with a new type of terror–fear of their reception, penniless, in a new land.
Skilled workers, of a cultural people, they came as farmers, 600 of them, because only as farmers could they get to America. Most were sponsored by Mississippi Delta planters, a section far different topographically and climatically than their own, more like Minnesota country. A few, a very few, adapted themselves to this new life. The others began seeking the level of their native arts and crafts.
Harvey W. Howze of Sledge, Mississippi, was one of those sponsoring a large group of these displaced persons for his plantation. He was quick to sense these cultured people, who were not meant to be share-croppers, were discontented mainly because of their forced idleness between cotton crops. “It is not good to be idle,” as one Latvian expressed it.
Mr. Howze discovered that one, 63 year Adolfs Jacobson, was a master wood craftsman. His own large woodworking plant in Latvia had been seized by the Russians and he was forced to continue operations without compensation. Others were expert wood workers.
The Latvia Furniture Manufacturing Co. was launched in October, 1949, in the back of Mr. Howze’s town store to provide work between crops. Public reception of their first furniture was enthusiastic. The Memphis Commercial Appeal [26 February 1952] carried a full page illustrated story on the enterprise and the gifted Latvians.
Demand quickly exceeded supply. A 40-acre tract was purchased at the edge of town and a factory erected. Other publications carried stories of the Latvians and their skilled work. Requests mounted for school and office furniture and the custom-made items were dropped.
War with Korea started and government orders began pouring in for desks and chairs and tables. A second plant had to be built to double the capacity to care for both civilian and government orders. A new temporary finishing plant was quickly erected until another addition to the factory can be built. Personnel doubled, then tripled. The Latvians were thrown into key posts to zealously guard their handicraft.
Recognition of the Latvians and their work also expanded. They were stretching into a broader horizon. Already nationally recognized, they were still to get international recognition.
Mr. Jacobson and Charles Povisils, chief links in the plant, were called to New Orleans, their port of entry, to be greeted by Mayor deLesseps Morrison, honored on television and radio, and appear at the International Trade Mart with items of their craftsmanship. The Voice of America recorded their story to be beamed behind the Iron Curtain, mainly Latvia.
These Latvian D. P.’s have found the haven for which they were seeking, where a man can come and go as he pleases, free of the terrors of police reprisals and governmental confiscation of property. They have their community and their own church [Senatobia Lutheran Latvian Church], with 300 members and a large choir. Their children go to public schools. They took a holiday to give blood for American soldiers in Korea. All are seeking American citizenship. Their share-cropper days are behind them.1
1The Latvia Furniture Manufacturing Co., Sledge, Mississippi, Harvey W. Howze, Jr., Article written by Roland Smith
Works Progress Administration for Mississippi, Source Material for Mississippi History, Quitman County, Vol. LX, Compiled by State-Wide Historical Research Project, Susie V. Powell, State Supervisor, Illustrated 1936-1938
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