NEW YORK – The New York Daily News recently recounted the history of the infamous Greek Town riot of 1909 which took place in South Omaha and led to nearly the entire Greek population fleeing from the city at that time. The article, Justice Story: Fearmongering and racism drove Greek immigrants from Nebraska by David Krajicek, cites the 1964 master’s thesis by the late historian John G. Bitzes from the University of Nebraska, Omaha, titled “The anti-Greek riot of 1909: South Omaha.”
The National Herald also reported on the historic riot in an article about more recent discrimination against a teenager in the Omaha Greek community whose prom date cancelled on her because he thought that the Greek Orthodox are not Christian.
As noted in that article, Greek immigrants unaware of the labor issues at the time arrived as strikebreakers in the meatpacking industry and the railroads, so the local sentiment in 1909 Omaha was not in their favor. A Greek immigrant, John Masourides, and a young woman, Lillian Breese, teaching him English were arrested in February of 1909 for what the police officer, Edward Lowery, called “an inappropriate relationship.”
“Masourides — and other Greek men — kept company with a 17-year-old girl, Lillian Breese, who was said to be their English tutor,” the Daily News reported, adding that “some accounts hinted at prostitution, although a judge cited no ‘element of guilt or wrongdoing on the part of Miss Breese.’”
As they were being taken into custody, the Greek pulled a gun and fatally shot Lowery in the leg. Masourides, also wounded in the exchange of gunfire with Lowery, was soon caught, and held in the South Omaha jail. According to the February 22, 1909 New York Times, two state legislators and an attorney gathered 900 men, rousing the assembled crowd with anti-Greek speeches after which a mob of 3,000 was raised to lynch the jailed Greek. He just barely escaped with his life and was moved to another jail, but the mob rioted in the Greek quarter of South Omaha. A Greek boy was killed and several other people attacked, including Italian and Romanian immigrants who were mistaken for Greeks. Greek businesses were looted and homes destroyed.
According to the Times, the Demos confectionery shop was targeted and “Mrs. Mary Demos and her aged father, who were in the store, narrowly escaped death at the hands of the mob.”
Masourides was sentenced to death for shooting the police officer, but the sentence was overturned on appeal. The Nebraska Supreme Court found he had not received a fair trial. The second trial found him guilty of second-degree murder and he was sentenced to 14 years. After five and a half years he was released and deported. The Greek vice counsel to the United States asked for an explanation from the federal government for the expulsion of the Greeks from Omaha and why the authorities had failed to protect the Greeks of the city, but no explanation was ever given, according to Lawrence Harold Larsen and Barbara J. Cottrell in The Gate City: A History of Omaha. The Greek community never quite recovered from the riot, but some did return to Omaha to build the vibrant community that continues today.