Geographically speaking, there are two ways of viewing Vietnamese Americans in Lincoln, Nebraska. One is to group them among Vietnamese in the Midwest. It is a vast region that includes large communities such as Chicago and the Twin Cities, and smaller ones such as Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Grand Rapids, MI.
The other way is to view them as a community of the Great Plains: an equally large region that includes sizable communities of Vietnamese in Lincoln, Wichita, Oklahoma City, and especially Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington. Smaller ones include Kansas City, Wichita Falls, and, if we were to extend the Great Plains into eastern Colorado, even Denver.
Anecdotally, I think that this north-south axis along the Great Plains is historically far more significant to Vietnamese in Lincoln than their experience with the squarer Midwest as a whole. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, I knew of only two Vietnamese that moved from Minnesota to Lincoln: a married couple who went there to open a nail salon. I never met or even heard of any Vietnamese that moved from Lincoln to Minnesota. (Iowa, however, might be a different story due to proximity.)
The importance of Vietnamese in the Great Plains could be discerned from a recent linguistic map drawn on the basis of the U.S. census. It shows that Vietnamese is the third-most spoken language (after English and Spanish) in the following states: Washington, Texas, Oklahoma, and Nebraska. We obviously need more information. But given this interesting tidbit, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if there were a lot of interactions and movements between Vietnamese in Lincoln and those in Wichita, OKC, and Dallas metro during first two or three decades after the Fall of Saigon.
In any event, Vietnamese make up about half of the estimated 10,000 Asian Americans in Lincoln today (out of a population of approximately 277,000). Though small, the Vietnamese presence has been well known to the area thanks to businesses that served not only Vietnamese Americans but the larger population. The Vietnamese community has even contributed a couple of members to the city’s police department, including Officer Tu Tran profiled in this article. This community also produced a significant first in the annals of Vietnamese American history. Back in 1975, a group of refugee Protestants founded the first Vietnamese church (of any Christian denomination) in the U.S. In short, the Vietnamese community in Lincoln was small – and still is when compared to many others. Yet it is hardly insignificant to our understanding of the Vietnamese American experience.
Two years ago I had a chance to read the dissertation of Kurt Kinbacher, a native Lincolnite who received his doctorate in history from University of Nebraska in his hometown. Now an associate professor of history at Chadron State College, part of the Nebraska State College System, Kinbacher has published his dissertation in book form, as part of the series “Plains Histories” for the Texas Tech University Press. Called Urban Villages and Local Identities: Germans from Russia, Omaha Indians, and Vietnamese in Lincoln, Nebraska (2015), it examines three very different groups that constructed their ethnic identity in Lincoln during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Click here for a write-up from Chadron State on book and author, and here for the Amazon link to the book.
I wish to thank Prof. Kinbacher for taking the time during the first two weeks of the new academic year to respond to my questions about his book. I’ve read the book and learned a good deal about Vietnamese as well as the place of Lincoln in American immigration history. I could also affirm that it opens up a much underestimated area of research: the local history of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants in the American heartland. The book’s sections on the Vietnamese strike me as the tip of an iceberg. And as suggested by Kinbacher’s response to the last question, there is plenty more to discover about this history from academic historians and serious amateurs alike. Until then, I invite you to check out his new book.
Hoang: Before getting to the Vietnamese specifically, I have a few questions about the book overall. The subtitle of the book is “Germans from Russia, Omaha Indians, and Vietnamese in Lincoln, Nebraska.” (The first group is also known as the “Volga Germans.”) What are your reasons for focusing on these particular groups?
Kinbacher: There are a couple reasons. When I initially started thinking about the topic it was Volga Germans and Omahas because those are my two research languages. Additionally, they are large populations (in relative terms). Perhaps 25 to 30 percent of the modern Lincoln population descends from German-Russian stock. There are about 7,000 enrolled Omahas. They seem evenly divided among places: their reservation, Omaha, Sioux City, and Lincoln. They are Lincoln’s largest Indian population.
Vietnamese were added to bring the discussion current, as they began arriving in 1975. While Lincoln is a haven for immigrants, the Vietnamese population is large (at least 5,000), and they are among the first in this current wave of growth.
While I did attempt to learn some Vietnamese, there is no formal mechanism to do so. When I went down to the Asian Community Center for assistance, I ended up helping with the English classes.
Hoang: “The most important units of space for Lincoln’s new arrivals,” states the introduction of the book, “were the urban villages they constructed or organized” (p. 13). What does “urban villages” mean in this context? How different or similar are they to ethnic neighborhoods in large metropolitan areas during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? I guess I’m thinking of Irish neighborhoods in Boston and Chicago, Jewish and Italian ones in New York City, Polish and Czech ones in Pittsburgh, German ones in Cincinnati and St. Louis during the era of industrialization… Was the situation comparable at all to the Volga Germans and others in this case?
Kinbacher: I generally argue urban villages are institutionally complete communities. I have read about the communities that you reference, but have not visited those places — at least in that context. Louisville, Kentucky, in the 1850s and Minneapolis in the 1880s are certainly comparable to the Volga German urban village in Lincoln. In Louisville, Germans lived on one end of downtown and Irish on the other. The city was new or at least their neighborhoods were, so they built them from the ground up. In Minneapolis, there was a Slovak neighborhood on the river flats just across from the University of Minnesota. In these places, virtually the entire population was homogeneous in ethnicity, there were churches and a variety of businesses founded by the immigrant groups to support the neighborhood.
Omahas and Vietnamese moved into cities that were already built. I argue their urban villages feature a large number of people living close to each other be choice. These later groups do not make up the majority in any single neighborhood, but their presence is notable. Houses of worship, businesses, and community centers are established in the vicinity of the residential populations.
Hoang: How would you characterize the experience of the Omaha Indians, whose situation was clearly unique… What brought them to Lincoln and what characterized their urban village?
Kinbacher: The distance between the sending culture and Lincoln is only about 100 miles, but placing them in a conversation with migrants from Europe and Asia still works. The push factors on the reservation were poverty, lack of employment, and substandard educational opportunities. There were few jobs outside of tribal government in the post-World War II era, and farm labor in the surrounding area dried up with the introduction of new machinery. The pull factors were employment opportunities – construction for men and domestic work for women, and access to better educations for the children.
Spatially, their urban village was the most diffuse, and it lacked some institutional supports. Omahas were a renting population, and few were able to buy homes until the 1990s when programs emerged to expand home ownership. They also did not generally own and operate businesses. The Lincoln Indian Center emerged as the community focal point in the 1960s – although its location was not permanent until 1980. Omahas tended to rent domiciles in the vicinity of the Indian Center, and, as a result, lived in reasonable proximity to each other. Still, their spatial habits are the most diffuse of the three groups.
Hoang: Turning to the Vietnamese, may I begin with some personal experience… Half of my family came to the U.S. as “boat people” refugees, and we came to Rochester, Minnesota during the early 1980s. Rochester was a dominantly white city, and it welcomed a very small number of Vietnamese refugees in 1975. By the early 1980s, it became a center for receiving refugees from Southeast Asia, especially Cambodians but also many Hmong and Vietnamese. Then fifteen years later came Somali refugees. It was a fascinating change over a period of twenty years.
On the basis of this background, I wasn’t entirely surprised when reading from the first chapter of your book that in the late twentieth century, Lincoln was “one of the top twenty cities for refugees from Asia, Africa, and Europe,” including Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, what factors led to the relocation of many refugees from Asia, Africa, and Europe to Lincoln?
Kinbacher: Rochester and Lincoln share some similarities. Unemployment is generally low and although there is an anchor population that is educated and quite affluent – health care professionals in Rochester and University and government workers in Lincoln – the cost of living is reasonable. Settlement and space of the refugee and immigrant populations would make an interesting study. There are large populations of Hmong in St. Paul, for instance, and fewer Vietnamese or Cambodians. In Lincoln, the Hmong are largely absent. So there are a couple forces at work, the openness of the community to newcomers, and the preferences of immigrants to live among their own peoples.
It might be a stretch to trumpet Lincoln’s tolerance too much, but I am a native son and I like Lincoln for a lot of reasons. Still, the small African American population has faced noticeable discrimination over the years. There has been good research on the Urban League that helps document this. De facto housing segregation was the norm as well. Neighborhood covenants existed for a long time. My parents bought their home in 1963 or so, and were offered the opportunity to sign a covenant – which they refused, but those things fell out of use slowly.
Still, immigrant arrival was part of the city’s history. During the Cold War, Latvian dissidents were “paroled” into Lincoln as refugees from communism. It was a small and white population, but they essentially settled in their own urban village anchored around a Lutheran Church. Vietnamese were really the next arrivals. All fifty states were asked to accept part of the RVN exodus, and most in Nebraska were resettled in Lincoln. I was in high school when they arrived. My parents’ Lutheran church sponsored a family. Once they were all settled in, they joined a Catholic parish. I remember they virtually had nothing but some South Vietnamese currency.
Prejudice to the newcomers was pretty obvious in some places. The folks running the American German Russian Heritage Center, though, publicly welcomed them as people looking for a country. They city quickly hired interpreters, and by the 1980s were publishing driver manuals, marriage license information, and some safety signage in multiple languages including Vietnamese. Meat packing and other factories hired a lot of Vietnamese, and were really happy with their work ethic. This appears to still be the general impression.
Although Vietnamese have a larger population, a similar study to mine could be made looking at Mexican, Iraqi, and maybe Iranian groups. There may now be others, but they are newer.
Post-interview note: It’s worth checking out Mary Pipher, The Middle of Everywhere: The World’s Refugees Come to Our Town (2003). A psychologist and a Lincoln resident, she is best known for Reviving Ophelia, a bestseller about American adolescent girls published a couple of years later. This book is consisted of field work and addresses an impressive number of refugee groups to Lincoln in the late 20th century: Afghani, Bosnian, Mexican, Russian, Ukrainian, Tajikistan, Kurdish, Sudanese, Chinese, and, of course, Vietnamese.
Hoang: The book discusses the roles of religion and religious affiliation within each of the three groups. On the Vietnamese, how do you characterize the relationship between religious affiliation and the making of their urban village?
Kinbacher: The Catholic population has been in Lincoln for much longer than the Buddhists – although they are now about equal size. They were the largest part of the refugee and “boat people” populations. The secondary migration to Lincoln in the 1990s and beyond brought Buddhists from Vietnam and Orange County (and elsewhere) looking for economic opportunity. The first Vietnamese businesses appear to have been built be Catholics.
The Wichita urban village – to my understanding – was first settled by Buddhists and now also includes Catholics.
The original Buddhist Temple was in one of the old German-Russian neighborhoods. It has since been moved to a new facility south of town – since 2010. It would be interesting to look for community movement to other, closer neighborhoods.
Hoang: I found it fascinating that Vietnamese refugees to Lincoln established the very first Vietnamese church of any Christian denomination in the U.S. It makes sense, however, that it was a Protestant Church because there were many more Vietnamese Catholics, but they would have been absorbed into the Diocese of Lincoln. What can you tell us about this Protestant refugee community? How did they contribute to the creation of the Vietnamese urban village?
Kinbacher: The Protestant population is small and largely separate – at least spatially – from the much larger Catholic and Buddhist populations. The Protestant denomination –- Missionary and Alliance Church — is quite conservative, or at least its English speaking population is. When the church was in Northeast Lincoln, its members lived in that neighborhood. It was then housed in a larger English-speaking congregation. When the Vietnamese founded an independent congregation in Southwest Lincoln – it appears the congregation regrouped.
At English lessons and around town, it appears the Buddhist and Catholic populations mix pretty freely. I don’t think this is the case with the Protestant group.
Hoang: As for the Catholics, I was struck by a high percentage of refugee children attending Catholic schools in Lincoln. Do you know the reasons that led to this outcome?
Kinbacher: Anecdotally, I can address this. Sacred Heart School is the Catholic elementary school near the large N 27th Street business corridor. There is a public school about 4 blocks away. I attended that public school in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We all grew up together, walked to school together, and played at the same places after school. The Lincoln Dioceses is very conservative, and they really stress parochial rather than public educations. I suspect it is still policy of the Diocese. It might be interesting to look at the student body at this one Catholic high school in town. Its been a while, but between 2002 and 2008, those elementary schools were on my route from my house to my dad’s house. Recess time at the public school was pretty much multi-cultural. At Sacred Heart, most of the kids were Vietnamese.
Hoang: Vietnamese engagement with the housing market in Lincoln struck me as a dominant feature of their construction of their urban village. Can you offer one or more examples, illustrations, or anecdotes about their experience with the housing market between 1975 and 2000?
Kinbacher: Not really. Eventually there are Vietnamese realtors. I would be really curious about this. I wonder if there was noticeable discrimination early on. The unseemly things–-discrimination and gangs for example–are hard to document for a non-Vietnamese speaker. City officials are not open to the discussion either.