The Romani, commonly referred to as Gypsies, have a longstanding tradition of immigration and migration, in which the economic draw of the United States and the Southeast has always been very strong. Romanies trace their heritage to ninth-century India. Western migration from this point of origin has helped to develop a culture that is truly unique. While many Romani still speak a language that is closely related to Sanskrit, each different ethnic group of Romani has incorporated loan words from other languages. Romani culture has been subdivided through this continued migration to the West. For example, two major Romani ethnic groups are present in the United States: the Romanichals of the British Isles and the Vlax of southeastern Europe. Small differences in language and social customs exist between the two groups, and the reasons and means by which they immigrated to the southeastern part of the United States differ as well.
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.
Many Vlax and Romanichals do not discuss their cultural identity with outsiders. There is a dual reason for this apprehension. The first is a social code of conduct within Romani society that deters social interaction with non-Romani (referred to by Vlax as gadje and Romanichals as gorjers). Romani societal rules are rife with ideas of cleanliness and uncleanliness. Gadje and gorjers are automatically considered unclean since they do not understand the code of cleanliness and uncleanliness, and for this reason anything other than business relations is deterred. The other reason is the legal and social system of the gadje themselves. Many outsiders view Romani with apprehension, and the legal system of many states reinforces this stigma. At one point, towns across America had laws to force out Romani, tax them heavily, or jail them, though the last of these, a New Jersey law, was stricken in 1998.
The Romani in the last forty years have begun to establish a universal ethnic identity that is open to the communities around them. The National Gypsy Evangelical Conference, which is an organization of Protestant Romani from all over the United States, held a meeting in Arkansas in 1977. This conference broke away from the normal social stigma of associating with other Romani groups and outsiders.
For additional information:
Greenfield, Howard. Gypsies. New York: Crown Publishers, 1977.
Hancock, Ian F. “Gypsies.” In Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups. Edited by Stephen Thernstrom, Ann Orlov, and Oscar Handlin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.
———. “Romanies.” In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Vol. 6: Ethnicity. Edited by Celeste Ray. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.
Williams, Donald. “The Traveling People.” Arkansas Times, August 1987, 96–100, 102–103.
John C. Freshour
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated: 03/16/2009