There are an estimated one million people of Romani descent living in the United States today, though anthropologists and sociologists have often labeled them “the hidden Americans.” As a 2020 report from Harvard University observes, Romani Americans are members of “a largely invisible community which, when focused on, is often described by simplistic and racist stereotypes.”
Nevertheless, from time to time, certain Romani Americans have sought greater visibility to advocate on behalf of their communities. One such individual was Steve Kaslov (ca. 1888–1949), who, not surprisingly, was both emblematic and controversial. Kaslov sought to improve the civic status and rights of Romani people in the United States, attracting the attention of both President Franklin D. Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Yet, even while corresponding with members of the First Family, Kaslov was under criminal investigation. The prosecution of Kaslov, together with his sympathetic treatment by the Roosevelts, seems to exemplify the conflicting tendencies of exclusion and inclusion among Romani Americans.
First, some definitions. Romani is the preferred term for referring to a diverse group of people who may call themselves Kalderash, Lovara, Michwaya, Rom or Roma, Romanichal, Sinti, Vlax, and more. Most descend from peoples who migrated from India to Europe in the eleventh century. According to scholar Ian Hancock, they “have been in the Americas since 1498, when Columbus brought some on his third voyage to the West Indies.” As the Harvard report explains, “Romani Americans are heterogeneous: they speak different Romani dialects, have different religions, identities, and customs, and migrated to the US at different times and for different reasons. Thus, broad generalizations distort the rich history and diverse cultural identity of Romani Americans.” Some sources still use “Gypsy” as an umbrella term to describe these diverse cultures—as Kaslov himself did during his lifetime—but many people today regard the “G-word” as pejorative.
Kaslov told one source that he was born in rural Georgia around 1895, but more reliable research published in 1995 by Sheila Salo in the Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society indicates that “Kaslov was born in Russia in 1888” and emigrated with his Russian Roma family in 1901—first to New Brunswick, Canada, and subsequently to the United States. He lived in northeastern Pennsylvania, coastal South Carolina, the Texas-Mexico border, and Baltimore, Maryland, before settling in the area of New Jersey and New York City in 1919.
Further research by Rena Cotten Gropper shows that, in 1931, Kaslov organized members of the Kalderash community (known for coppersmithing) into what he called the Red Dress Association, and that he obtained Works Progress Administration (WPA) relief funds during the Great Depression in the late 1930s. He also began to refer to himself as “King of All New York Gypsies,” even though there is no such position.
During this time, Kaslov sent a heartfelt typewritten letter—five pages, double-spaced—to President and Mrs. Roosevelt, dated June 18, 1937. Covering many topics, the letter begins by calling attention to “the suffering that my people are enduring in this terrible crisis and depression.” Kaslov described specific examples of this suffering and suggested several possible solutions, including the disbursement of land where he and others might settle to practice coppersmithing, metal spinning, and other forms of manual labor. Appealing directly to the President and First Lady, he wrote, “BUT WITH YOUR MOST CHARITABLE, AND WORTHY HEARTS, I plead your help, and aid in this terrible time, and hour of my people; So that thru you they may be able to become, and be at all times hereafter, honest, hardworking, AMERICAN CITIZENS” [capitalization in the original, which like all subsequent correspondence is now at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, New York].
Needless to say, the volume of letters from the general public to President and Mrs. Roosevelt throughout the 1930s was enormous. Ira Smith, the White House’s Chief of Mail, recalled that the letters “came in so fast, we couldn’t count them, but within a week I had some 450,000 letters stacked all over the office.” Nevertheless, Eleanor Roosevelt responded roughly one month later, dated July 23, 1937, to say that she had “read with sympathetic interest your letter of June eighteenth, setting forth the needs of your people and asking assistance in resettling them and enabling them to become self-supporting.” She lamented, “There is, unfortunately, no federal program in operation at the present time through which your people may receive the assistance they need.”
Thus began a correspondence that lasted some five years. With guidance from the privately funded Foreign Language Information Service in New York, Mrs. Roosevelt in August 1939 visited Kaslov’s metalworking shop on the Bowery to observe the ways in which he and his associates could restore copper, iron, and tin. She wrote about the experience in her popular nationally syndicated column, “My Day.” As she describes the scene, “The big man, Steve Kaslov, stood opposite me in his shirt sleeves. There was dignity in his bearing for he was the head of his particular gypsy tribe. . . . The depression has put many of them on relief.”
On September 23, 1940, Kaslov again wrote to the President and First Lady, asking for help in various matters, including how to obtain birth certificates for the men in his community who would need to register for the military draft. Ironically, it was exactly the issue of the draft that led to Kaslov’s arrest in April 1942 for falsely telling the U.S. Selective Service that he had officiated the wedding of one of the bachelors in his community. On June 2, 1942, the New York Herald Tribune reported that Kaslov was sentenced to one year and one day for “having aided a member of his tribe in an attempt to evade military service.”
Correspondence within the White House shows that the President and First Lady were aware of Kaslov’s arrest. In a memo dated June 20, 1942, “For the President,” Mrs. Roosevelt wrote four words to her husband: “What do I do?” A few days later, President Roosevelt sent a memorandum to Attorney General Francis Biddle, which began, “This fellow Steve Kaslov I have known for many years. In a good many ways he is one of the best leaders the gypsies have ever had, though of course he is not accepted by all the gypsies, though he is recognized by a very large number. He has encouraged the gypsies to send their children to school and he has not been nearly as unsocial in outlook as many so-called ‘Kings’ of the gypsies who preceded him.”
Three weeks later, Biddle replied, “The violation does not appear to be a very flagrant one, although as a matter of law the conviction was probably warranted. He was sentenced for a year and a day, beginning June 1st, and he will be eligible for parole October 1st. Steps have been taken to have his case promptly considered by the Parole Board.”
There is no record indicating exactly how long Kaslov remained in federal prison, or when he returned to his home in New York. According to one historian of Romani politics in 2006, “A number of other traditional Gypsy leaders tried to take over Kaslov’s ‘kingship’ afterwards but none of them followed in his footsteps in terms of his more modern and progressive ideas and activities.”
Perhaps due to the rivalries after his release, Kaslov at some point afterward moved to Philadelphia. He died at age sixty-one of an undisclosed illness at his home on February 16, 1949. In just over a hundred words, the report in the New York Times of Kaslov’s passing effectively summarized the struggles of Romani people in the United States for greater recognition, respect, and equal rights. On the one hand, the newspaper reported that Kaslov, as a “reputed leader of some 10,000 Russian Gypsies in [the United States] . . . was hailed by his followers as a progressive in advocating that they learn to read and write”—all of which speaks to Kaslov’s civic and educational efforts on behalf of his community. On the other hand, the newspaper could not resist one last detail in its concluding sentence, which perhaps undercuts Kaslov’s efforts by reinforcing the stereotypes about Romani fortune-telling: “The body, clad in a long red robe, is reposing in a first-floor room of the Kaslov home, which, according to a sign out front, is ordinarily given over to palmistry.”
Nevertheless, the case of Steve Kaslov poignantly illustrates the mutual respect between Romanies and the Roosevelts. Kaslov once told one of his supporters, “Mr. Roosevelt is deep. He mentioned things no outsider knows about my people.” Conversely, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in the midst of economic depression and war found the time to personally acknowledge and appreciate those whom the First Lady called “a minority group I feel we should try to help.” Kaslov’s words to Eleanor Roosevelt that “copper lives forever” may also remind us of the durable cultural heritage of Romani Americans even as they remain relatively invisible in the United States.
James Deutsch is a curator at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. His more extended chapter on Steve Kaslov will appear in the forthcoming volume, Roma Portraits in History, published by Brill | Schöningh. Former interns Brianna Hatton and Levi Bochantin provided research assistance for this article.