A Transatlantic Misunderstanding

The racism and xenophobia that confronted Greek immigrants in America in the early twentieth century is well known in Greece mainly thanks to several documentaries carried by Greek television stations. But this on its own can lead to a misunderstanding of those times because there were also serious efforts to counter racism and xenophobia. Many histories of the Greeks in America mention the support the early Greek immigrants in Chicago received at Hull House, a social services center, established by social worker and pro-immigration activist Jane Addams. Another social worker at Hull House, Jane Addams, published a trenchant refutation of the alleged propensity to crime among the Chicago Greeks in the prestigious American Journal of Sociology in 1909.

Even a cursory look at American newspapers in that era will confirm that Americans had a positive fascination with Greek Orthodoxy and especially its Easter rites. And during WWI the heroism of Greek immigrants fighting in the ranks of the U.S. army was frequently praised.

By putting anti-Greek immigrant sentiments in their proper historical context, we provide a more balanced picture of America’s treatment of Greek immigrants. Otherwise, we end up with a distorted image, one that that can by exaggerated and exploited by anyone negatively predisposed towards the United States.

Greek TV’s sporadic, at best, interest in the Greeks in the United States suddenly grew at the end of the 1990s. Early twentieth century racism and xenophobia across the Atlantic was seen in Greece as a topic that could counter an escalation of racist attitudes towards Albanian immigrants. After the collapse of communism thousands of Albanians crossed the border into Greece in search of employment. A decade later, the Greek census of 2001 recorded the presence of 443,550 Albanian citizens in Greece. Unofficial estimates put their number closer to 600,000 considering temporary and seasonal migrants and undocumented individuals. This influx into Greece was met with suspicion and hostility and a great deal of discrimination.

Some well-meaning observers thought that highlighting the discrimination Greeks faced when they arrived in America could help the Greek public understand if not sympathize with the newly-arrived Albanians. The best example was in 1998, when ‘Vromo-Ellines’ (Dirty Greeks), a documentary on anti-Greek sentiments in America, was screened in the village of Palaio Keramidi in northern Greece. This happened right after the village mayor took discrimination too far and arbitrarily imposed a 7 PM curfew on the Albanian immigrants living in the village, purportedly to curb crime. The idea was to help the villagers draw parallels between the Albanians in Greece and the Greeks in America.

I remembered that occasion while I was watching myself talk on camera about those racist attitudes the early Greek arrivals encountered in a documentary about Greek immigrants in America. It was shown on Greece’s Cosmote history channel earlier this month. The documentary was made by an Athens-based production company ‘Michani tou Chronou’ (Engine of Time) that specializes on films on Modern Greek history. I was in good company as an interviewee, among the others who appeared were fellow historians, prominent Greek-Americans, and leaders of AHEPA’s chapters in Greece.

Titled ‘Ta Vasana tes Xenitias’ (The hardships of life abroad), this was a very well-crafted, one-hour program on the experiences of the Greeks in the United States from the early 1900s to the 1920s. It focused primarily on the racism and xenophobia the Greeks encountered, and dwelt on an anti-Greek pogrom that occurred in Omaha, Nebraska. It also briskly highlighted the return of many to the homeland in order to fight in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, the life of labor activist Louis Tikas and his death in Colorado in 1914, the divisions among Venizelists and Royalists, the establishment of the newspaper Ethnikos Kyrix in 1915, the ways the Greeks either returned to their village to find a bride or sent for one to come and join them, and the efforts to counter discrimination with the establishment of AHEPA in 1922.

All these topics are well-known and have been amply covered both in print and in media, but nonetheless the skillful producers of ‘Michani tou Chronou’ were able to present them in a lively and interesting way. This and many other of their documentary films series deserve to be subtitled in English and shown in the United States, for the benefit of Greek-Americans and others interested in Modern Greek history. I mentioned this when I visited their studio, and they would be most willing if funding could be secured.

Yet for all its virtues, this particular documentary could not escape the Greek conventional wisdom that emphasizes racism and discrimination without acknowledging the efforts of activists such as Jane Addams and Grace Abbott. Ironically, attitudes towards Albanian immigrants have improved significantly, largely because of their remarkable work ethic. But those one-sided attitudes about early twentieth America remain unchanged, a transatlantic misunderstanding that needs remedy.



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