by Rafaela Prifti/
Worcester Albanians have been part of the city’s history for over a century. A photo exhibit that opened on July 23, 2022 at the Worcester Historical Museum put that history on visual display for the first time. At the venue, about two dozen black and white pictures of the early decades of the 20 centuries were neatly placed at the eye-level on the bright-red walls of the Museum’s entrance lobby. Collectively, the photos tell stories of newcomers to a new country looking for new beginnings. Individually, each one has its own narrative and is a part of a larger picture that is starting to come to view here.
Some of the pictures were taken in Worcester and some have traveled all the way from Albania, along with the migrants, most specifically from one region, the Southeast village of Dardha, Korce.
Acquiring and selecting the photographs has been a monthslong task of the event committee composed of Albania’s Ambassador to the US Floreta Faber, Neka Doko of the Fan Noli Library and Archives, Gregory Steffon and Franklin Zdruli of St. Mary’s Church, and William Wallace of the Worcester Historical Museum.
Both hosts Steffon and Zdruli are Worcester natives of Albanian descent. When asked about their ancestors, they quickly point at the pictures of grandparents posing for the camera and they also know the story that goes with the photo. The same is true for Vaske Bruko, visiting from Connecticut. He has stopped in front of a photo that he says was taken by his great grandfather Thimi Raci, a professional photographer in Korce in the 1930s. Bruko’s grandparents, Petraq Pani dhe Elisaveta Raci Pani, appear in the picture alongside nine other newly wedded couples. The grooms, all young Albanian men, were working in America, and had traveled back home to marry local Albanian girls. The 1931 photo memorializes the moment in a number of ways, starting with the carefully choreographed attire of the couples. Wearing Western suits, men stand next to the brides, all dressed in Dardha costumes. Crediting the artist for the iconic picture, Bruko says that his great grandpa opened the first professional photo studio under a standout banner that said: Thimi Raci, Photographer and Tinsmith (Fotograf dhe Teneqexhi).
Stories such as this one with fascinating and remarkable details come to light and are shared among visitors and with the whole audience during the presentation segment of the evening. With her incredible wealth of information, Ardiana Stefani, of Worcester, who came adorned in her traditional Dardha costume, brought to life a few pictures. Commenting on a group shot of the Perparimi (Progress) Club, she explained how those men had to misrepresent their birth year in order to avoid conscription in the Ottoman army.
Few things would illustrate the historical context of the period better than pictures of the Vatra Band and of the founding members of Vatra Worcester Branch. They relate information about the period and the events that influenced the thinking of the era. In a number of photos, Fan Noli, a founder of the Pan-Albanian Federation Vatra and the Albanian Orthodox Church, is seen surrounded by Vatra officials and members of the Worcester Albanian community. To enrich the historic layer, Neka Doko, member of the event committee and Head of the Fan Noli Library, was instrumental in locating and providing these pictures for the event. In reference to the liberation efforts and the organizing of the national movement for Albania’s independence and statehood, the role of the Pan-Albanian Federation of America Vatra was second to none. In conversation with organizers and guests, Besim Malota, Treasurer of Vatra, called attention to the deep roots of the organization in relation to the history of Albanians in Worcester.
Bill Wallace, the Director of Worcester Historical Museum, welcomed the new photo exhibit and, through it, the Albanian community into what he calls “our family album of Worcester”. As Worcester Albanians made their entrance in the halls of the Museum, there are other projects coming in the pipeline. In the ceremonial portion of the evening, the audience got a quick pique at the ongoing Worcester Polytechnic Institute Oral History, being directed by Professors Peter Christopher and Bob Hersh.
The underlying thread and commonality of all the programs is the “significance of story-telling,” says Bill Wallace of the Museum, a privately funded enterprise that has very strong partnerships with the Worcester communities. He encourages all residents to share their stories and bring any item, such as a picture, artifact, that might be lying around at home, and by doing that, become better story-tellers.
The exhibit marks a kickoff event to memorialize the role of Albanians in Worcester, says organizer Greg Steffon. Its opening coincides with several important anniversaries such as the city’s tricentennial and honoring the 100 year of establishing diplomatic relations between the United States and Albania.
Incorporated in the artistic program was a song selection featuring music by Lola Gjoka, a worldly Albanian artist of the 20th century. American vocalist Jen Pearl, Albanian vocalists Loreta Shkurti, Elida Mucollari, and Feride Istogu Gillesberg who is based in Denmark performed a few of Gjoka’s arrangements of Albanian folk songs. Gillesberg and a team of renowned artists have covered Lola’s repertoire in a recently produced recording available in two CDs.
From the photo exhibit to the vocalists, instrumentalists, and the young dancers of St. Mary’s ValleTona, the prime focus of the event is the preservation and promotion of our history, say the organizers. Additionally, the visitors are invited to make their own discoveries, according to Franklin Zdruli, who admits pleasingly: “I learned a handful of new details here.” The exhibit will stay open until the first of September.