The Thieves of Community History

In my travels across Greek America I have found in virtually every community someone or some small group attempting to preserve local history. These are always persons who involve themselves in such efforts out of love for their ancestors and those who long ago constituted their home communities. Few of these collectives have a national or even international point of view, although some do, and each is supported by hard working volunteers. This attention to the past is an organic aspect of contemporary Greek America, at large, and as such deserves serious academic study – which it is not receiving.

Yet even at this moment in time Greeks are actively working against each other in this period of historical preservation. Offered here are recollections based on my visits to a variety of Greek-American communities which, typical of academic writings, especially ethnographic records, the communities and individuals are presented anonymously. For Greeks, anywhere on the planet, the idea that there are longstanding grievances or continual fighting between individuals and factions within any Greek community is just everyday reality and not a breaking news story. The goal here is to offer what may be the only ever passing description of such actions. As a group, these persons are nothing less than thieves of Greek-American history – no matter how they see themselves and their actions. Fortunately, not every community can claim such a contrary individual. Here are but two.

In one community I interviewed a prosperous and very well-educated man who was quick to share copies of historical photographs with me – albeit in the form of colored photocopies. Nevertheless, this man and his brother were both well-spoken individuals who had spent their entire lives within that particular community. Their parents were not founding members of the local parish, a point they themselves brought up. In their father’s case, as everyone in the community acknowledged, while he may have missed by a decade or two the establishment of the community, he was extremely active during his lifetime in any and all doings of the local Greeks. Both brothers were strong supporters of the local church and the elder brother was a self-proclaimed historian of the community. In fact, one of the brothers expressed his intent to one day write a history of the local Greek community.

As is my custom, I began to visit as many of the elder Greeks within the community interviewing them as I was able. As anyone who has done this sort of thing knows as one learns more about the local community the questions one poses change. When I returned to the two brothers to ask them a new series of questions, their attitude had completely changed. As far as they were concerned, there was no history worth documenting before the arrival of their father. When I asked the brother who intended to write a local history how he could do so and intentionally discard the first few decades of the community’s history, he simply ignored me. Thinking no more of it, I went on with my work.

In time, that very same Greek community issued its own centennial history volume filled with photographs and essays. The individual who I spoke with who asserted he wanted to write a history of the community would not contribute an essay to this volume. Once the various authors and committees completed the volume, they had a considerable number of documents, newspaper stories for over 100 years, oral history tapes, as well as a huge collection of photographs in the forms of originals, copies, and scans. Photocopies of the photographs were made and individuals within each were identified, and something of the original occasion was written onto the photocopies. The decision was made to deposit all this historic material into the local public library’s genealogy collection. This seemed like the perfect ending to their efforts to preserve Greek parish history for future generations.

Over the course of the next few years, all the community records concerning the local Greeks disappeared. No one knows by whom. But various members within the community had a pretty good idea. Whatever the case may be, the loss of this collection was a terrible blow to Greek-American history.

In another community, one of the local Greek-Americans was a professional cameraman and photographer. One of his community’s seniormost individuals, he has collected Greek-owned photographs (as well as making photographs of documents) for decades. In addition, given his professional training as a cameraman, he has filmed

community events since he was a teenager. A preservation group formed within this individual’s community sometime in the 1960s and has made efforts to establish a local Greek-American museum.

Obviously, one of the first people they approached was this local photographer. But, surprisingly, he would not share any the photos. When I asked why, I was told he had not achieved the kind of professional standing he felt he deserved. How this belief related to the historic photographs was never explained to me. To be fair, he has allowed a few of his local Greek photographs to be displayed but always with his name stamped across the front of the image. I was told he had no intent of ever sharing his collection with the wider community.

All across the nation, the local Greek Church has an area in the cultural center or parish hall where the community gathers after Sunday service for coffee and conversation. Some of these areas are not used for any other purpose or rarely so. In one such especially large community room, the locals have placed a wide array of framed photographs, letters from the Archdiocese, and banners from the old Greek fraternal lodges, along with photographs of the local Greeks with notable Americans from their city. Given that the parish is now well over a hundred years old, these framed documents (along with a sports trophy case) basically cover every available square inch of this room’s wall space. I have seen a number of Greek parishes that have such framed mementos.

I had been visiting one particular parish off and on for nearly ten years. One day while having coffee in their community room, I noticed one of the framed photographs was missing. I asked what had happened. The missing photograph showed Archbishop Athenagoras with some local parishioners in the late 1930s. Apparently, one of the individuals seen in that photograph had two daughters. One of the daughters had made a copy and gave it to the church. The other daughter, when she saw the photograph just took it off the wall. When I asked why, I was told because no one had asked her permission for it to be displayed and so she took it off the wall.

Tragically, dozens of other such tales could be offered describing the actions of similar time bandits around the nation.