For Women’s History Month I am revisiting some of my favorite research projects I’ve undertaken and focusing on women of all walks of life, not just “great” or notable women –though I love that many are highlighting the wonderful, trailblazing, inspiring women of the past this month.
Today’s post is about Anna, Julian and Paranka Debaylo, 3 regular people whose lives represent major trends in immigration in the early 20th century. This research began as an assignment to write a biography of individuals buried in the St. Helena Cemetery in Pender County, North Carolina as part of the Volga to Cape Fear Project which resulted in an exhibit entitled Push and Pull: Eastern European and Russian Migration to the Cape Fear Region.
I chose three related individuals, Anna, Julian, and Paranka Debaylo. Anna was a widow when she immigrated. Her passage was paid by her stepson, Julian. Paranka came to the U.S. to marry Julian and care for his children from his first marriage. Their interlocking stories led me to research the importance of family for immigrants, especially for women, as well as women’s experiences in immigration. I found that there were restrictions at Ellis Island that prevented women from traveling alone unless sponsored by someone already in the United States due to the fear of them becoming public charges. Also, family and community facilitated the transition to life in the United States, helping men to find jobs and older women, like Anna Debaylo, to adjust to U.S. life.
Finding Anna, Julian, and Paranka on census records, Ellis Island ship manifests, birth indexes, city directories, and transit receipts brought them to life in a way, recreating their journey to the United States and their life once they arrived. Why do people leave their homelands, travel on crowded ships, and pay good money to go to a foreign place? For a better life? Is that what they found? How were women’s experiences of immigration different from those of men?
Beginning with the End: Biography from a Gravestone
The St. Helena Cemetery, established for use by the Saints Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church, includes graves of community members regardless of church affiliation. St. Helena, a community in Pender County, North Carolina was founded as a farm colony by Wilmington businessman Hugh MacRae. One of six such colonies established between 1905 and 1912 by MacRae’s Carolina Trucking Development Company, St. Helena attracted immigrants of various ethnicities, especially Italian and later, Russian and Ukrainian (or Ruthenian). Immigrants initially came directly from Europe; however, the majority moved to St. Helena from other locations in the United States, learning of the opportunities there from members of the immigrant community or promoters. Advertised as an area fit for farming, St. Helena promotional material boasted the availability of land and a fast and easy way to own a home. The reality of St. Helena did not always live up to the assured conditions; the promised homes were not of the advertised quality and the land was not immediately ready for farming. Despite the difficulties, a community of immigrants grew there and remains a part of St. Helena today.
The St. Helena Cemetery testifies to the lives of the initial immigrants and their descendants. The headstones, relationships, and lives of three individuals, Anna, Julian, and Paranka Debaylo, all demonstrate the various gendered experiences of immigration and the importance of family connections in enabling immigration and adjustment to life in the United States. Many female immigrants fell into two categories: young women, traveling to reunite with a husband or to meet and marry a man, and older women, usually widows or divorced women, immigrating to join their adult children. Paranka and Anna are examples of these two phenomena. Also, as we will see through the exploration of Anna, Julian, and Paranka’s lives, family connections were important for both men and women, but were more essential for women’s successful immigration.
The gravestones of Anna, Julian, and Paranka Debaylo introduce visitors to the significance of family in the lives of immigrants as well as to the positions of women in the community. Anna Debaylo (January 21, 1867 – February 11, 1960) lived to be 93 years old. Her headstone reinforces the importance of family and her role in her own family. Her headstone is simple, with few words and limited adornment. Made of granite, it is engraved with her name, birth and death dates, a Russian Orthodox cross, a simple design of grapevines across the top and the inscriptions “Our Dear Mother” and a Ukrainian phrase which translates to “Eternal Memory.” Together with the cross, both the grapevine design and the inscription’s reference to eternity are likely religious references to Christ’s sacrifice and eternal afterlife. It is clear from the inscription and the flowers present at the grave that Anna was a loved member of her family as well as the community. The headstone also attests to the religious faith of Anna and possibly that of her children who likely commissioned this headstone in honor of their mother.
The headstone of Julian Debaylo (May 6, 1886 – January 31, 1934) also invokes family. His gravestone is very similar in size and design to Anna’s headstone. The granite headstone is engraved with his name, birth and death dates, the inscription “Our Father” and a simple design of leaves. However, it does not include the Russian Orthodox cross as Anna’s does. The inscription here signals Julian’s position as a loved and respected member of the Debaylo family. The lack of religious imagery may signal less involvement in the church of either Julian or his children who, again, appear to have commissioned the headstone.
In addition to the imagery and inscriptions on the headstones, the placement of them also alludes to relationships and connections between the deceased. Paranka Debaylo (September 26, 1899 – November 29, 1960), Julian’s second wife, is buried beside Julian. Her gravestone is identical to his save the name and dates and the term mother in place of father. Her gravestone was clearly designed to accompany that of her husband’s and both stones were most likely chosen by Julian and Paranka’s children. Together with Julian’s grave, Paranka’s headstone reinforces the position of parents in the family and the connections established through marriage. The three headstones described above sparked further questions of family connections, the experience of female immigrants, and the role of family in the lives of immigrants to St. Helena as well as in the lives of immigrants to the United States more generally.
Family Ties in Immigration
The lives of Anna, Julian, and Paranka demonstrate the scenarios that women commonly faced in immigration, that of moving to be with their children or that of moving for marriage, as well as the necessity of family connections in order to enter and adjust to the United States.
Anna Debaylo (commonly spelled Dybajlo on documents) was born in 1867 in Cholojow in what was Galicia in the Austrian province of Poland and is modern Ukraine. She was the third wife of Hrehory (Gregory) Dybajlo. Gregory already had four children from his two previous marriages. His first wife was Anna Lotocka who had three children: Michael, Emilian or Julian, and Dmytro. His second wife was Teklia who had one daughter, Anastazia (Nascha). Anna Shainoha became Anna Debaylo and Gregory’s third wife. They had four children: Paulina, Ilko (Elias), Sophia, and Peter. According to her granddaughter, Anna had wanted to be a nun but was convinced by family that marrying the widowed Gregory and caring for his children would be a better way for her to serve. Gregory passed away in 1914. Anna remained a widow for the rest of her life.
Anna immigrated to the United States in 1923, at the age of 56, with her son Peter (Piotr) on board the George Washington which departed from Bremen, Germany. The ship manifest listed Julian Debaylo as her son (he was her stepson), and as the party who paid for her and Peter’s travel. At that time it was necessary for female immigrants, especially if traveling alone, to be sponsored by a male already in the United States who agreed to be responsible for the woman. This policy was based on ideas that women were more likely to become public charges if not cared for by a male relative or husband. Likely, Julian not only paid for Anna’s ticket, but also served as her legal sponsor. Between her arrival in New York City in 1923 and when she moved to St. Helena in 1928 Anna may have lived with Julian or another one of her children already in the United States. Once she settled in St. Helena she was a member of the household of Eli Debaylo, her biological son. The household at the time of the 1930 census also included Eli’s wife and two daughters.  Anna lived in St. Helena until her death in 1960.
Anna’s life after immigration is an example of the experience of many other widowed, divorced, or separated women who immigrated in order to be with their adult children who had already established a life in the United States. Anna being an aging widow likely made her economically vulnerable and immigration an appealing option. Anna seems to have been part of an increasing number of widowed women who immigrated after 1915 in order to rejoin children. Prior to that time, few older women immigrated. When they did, older women, as well as older men who immigrated, depended on their children and ethnic and religious communities in order to adjust to life in the United States.
Julian Debaylo, whose birthdate is disputed between May 6, 1886, the date on his headstone, and July 1, 1886, the date on his first marriage certificate, immigrated to New York in 1908, becoming a naturalized citizen in 1913. Julian likely came to the United States in search of a better economic situation. In Galicia, economic conditions deteriorated after 1848 when the government ended serfdom. The peasants remained on the land, but partible inheritance was enforced rather than primogeniture. Landholdings became smaller over time, eventually leading to the inability to support a family on one parcel. Adding to the reasons for immigration were high taxes, potato blight, and epidemics. Julian may have had additional reasons for immigrating, but economics were likely a great factor.
In 1916, at the age of 29, Julian married Anna Mikariya Spivak, or Annie as she is identified on the 1920 census, and they had two children, Nick and Helen, born around 1917 and 1918 respectively. At the taking of the 1920 census the Debaylo household was living in the borough of Manhattan in New York City. Also included are the birthplaces of each member of the family. Annie and Julian were both born in Galicia while both of their children were born in New Jersey. The census also gives insight on how Julian and Annie perceived themselves ethnically; a notation appears to replace Russian with “Ruth” (perhaps an abbreviation of Ruthenian) as their mother language and might indicate their ethnic affiliation. The ethnicity of immigrants from Eastern Europe was often unclear. Immigrants entering the United States were sometimes misidentified by officials. Also, the region of Eastern Europe underwent many geo-political changes during its history. Ruthenian was used by those individuals from Galicia or Carpatho-Ukraine, differentiating them from other Ukrainians as well as from Russians. Finally, the census listed Julian’s occupation as a tailor in a clothing factory. No occupation was listed for Annie who most likely stayed home to take care of the children.
Annie Debaylo passed away sometime between 1920 and 1923. Julian wrote home to his family for a second wife to care for his children after the death of their mother. Paranka, or Frances, Shainoha, a relative of Julian’s stepmother, was sent to be his wife. According to family stories, Paranka did not wish to marry Julian after she saw him due to his “hunchback.” Julian broke his back in a childhood accident in which he fell from a woodpile on a wagon. Paranka ultimately chose to marry him; the other option being to return home. Julian and Paranka had two children, Anna, born in 1923, and Julian Frances Debaylo, born eight months after his father’s death in 1934. Julian and Paranka lived in New Jersey for several years following their marriage. Julian seems to have moved sometime between December 6, 1923, the date of his stepmother’s arrival in New York City, at which time Julian’s address was listed as 515 E 16th St, New York, NY, and the release of the 1924 city directory in Passaic, New Jersey in which Julian is listed as a tailor at 136 Columbia Avenue. Julian continued to be listed in the city directories of Passaic, including the Clifton area, through 1930. The address of his tailor shop changed at least once. Paranka (as Frances) was listed as his spouse in the 1929 directory. Julian, Paranka, and their children moved to St. Helena between 1930 and January 1934, when Julian died at the age of 47 from pneumonia in Burgaw, North Carolina. Paranka gave birth to Julian Francis Debaylo in September, 1934.
Paranka went on to marry Walker Augustine and her, Julian Francis, and Freddie Augustine are listed as members of the Augustine household in the 1940 census. Still living in Pender County, Paranka was listed as a farmer while her new husband Walker was listed as a farm manager. After 1940, Paranka had another son, Walker Don Augustine. All four of her children dedicated a page in the St. Helena History to her memory. Paranka’s motivations for immigrating were likely a combination of economic and personal and possibly included pressure from her family. It was common at the time for Eastern European women to prefer an Americanized husband and many would take the chance of moving to marry a stranger; however, it was also common for parents and other family members to make decisions about immigration for young women as well as to arrange marriages. It is unclear whether Paranka and Julian knew each other before marrying, but she was related to Julian’s stepmother and it was her family who likely made the arrangements for the marriage and Paranka’s passage to the United States.
Once in the United States, the reasons that Anna, Julian, and Paranka moved to St. Helena specifically are not completely known. Julian’s position as a tailor was one of the best in the garment manufacturing industry, but was still low paid. Also, having likely been landless peasants back home, most immigrants saw in the United States the opportunity to own land. It is likely that Julian, as well as his brothers, moved to St. Helena in order to own land and try to prosper as farmers. Other motives likely included the desire to be with family already in St. Helena. For Anna who came to live with her son Elias, it is more evident that family was a major factor. As far as Paranka, it is difficult to determine from the sources if she had much of a choice in moving to St. Helena; however she moved there with her husband and remained there after his death.
From the lives of these three members of the Debaylo family, the importance of family connections in aiding immigration and settlement in the United States is evident. For women especially, these connections legally and economically enabled immigration and assimilation. Julian’s sponsorship of Anna and marriage to Paranka facilitated both women’s entry into the United States, where they likely hoped to encounter better economic circumstances. Women’s experience of immigration often followed the same paths: immigrating for marriage, to follow a husband, or to be with children or other relatives. However, while especially important for women, family connections were important for men as well. Julian Debaylo not only sponsored his step-mother’s immigration, but also at least two of his half-brothers, Peter, who immigrated with Anna, and Elias Debaylo. Julian filed the necessary paperwork to bring Elias and his sister Sophia to the United States while another brother, Michael Debaylo paid for the tickets. Michael was also instrumental in finding work for Elias. The benefits of having relatives already in the United States eased the transition.