By Harry Mark Petrakis,
For the four decades we have lived in our Indiana home, a large vintage photograph hangs on our living room wall showing about twenty young men posing for the camera, mountains looming behind them. They wear what must have been their best suits, with silver and gold watch fobs dangling from their vests. In contrast, they wear boots stained with dust. Each man holds a bottle of beer in one hand and a gun in the other.
Many of the men are strikingly handsome. All sport rakish mustaches, some bushy and others thin, often with the tips curled. None of the men shown are smiling; their expressions are stern and proud.
These men were immigrants who came to the United States from Greece in the early 1900s to work in the coal mines in Utah and Colorado. They left behind wives, mothers, and sisters many would never see again. Most had their journey paid for by a padrone, a labor boss who, in exchange for their passage and a job in the mines, retained a percentage of their paychecks. Many men remained indentured to the padrone for years.
In the early 1900s, coal mines were dangerous environments. Cave-ins and gas explosions causing injury and death were common. After years working in the mines, men also became afflicted with black lung disease.
A tragic aftermath to the photograph is that within a year after the photo, approximately half the men shown died in the Castle Gate mine disaster in Utah in 1924 when more than 250 miners were killed.
My father, a Greek Orthodox priest from the island of Crete immigrated to America in 1916, as a parish priest in the mining town of Price, UT. His parishioners were young Greek miners similar to those in the photograph.
The Price miners, all from our family’s island of Crete, had built a church but had no priest. They wrote the Bishop in Crete asking he assign them a priest. Homesick for their own families, they pleaded for a priest with a family.
The Bishop’s appeals to priests proved futile. Many priests were reluctant to endanger their families in a long ocean voyage only to settle in the barren west of the United States.
Adding to the danger, after two years, Europe was still at war. German U-boats, foraging in the Atlantic, had proven indiscriminate as to whether the ships they attacked were passenger or military vessels.
My father and mother were married in Crete in 1908. By 1916, when the miners were petitioning the Bishop, my parents had birthed four children. The Bishop, become desperate, finally asked my father.
My father and mother’s fears were similar to those of the other priests. But they also felt sympathetic for the plight of the Cretan miners in Utah.
Many years later, I heard my mother telling visitors that my father, anguishing over a decision, finally accepted the assignment because he felt America would provide greater educational opportunities for the children.
My family traveled to America in second class, which provided a small cabin for the six of them. They spent the journey in fear of an attack by German submarines, enduring ocean storms and treating the children’s seasickness.
When my family landed at Ellis Island, a miner’s representative met them to escort them by train to Salt Lake City in Utah. From there, they would travel by auto to Price, about forty miles away.
After three days of travel, their train arrived in Salt Lake City. My parents were unaware that several hundred miners had gathered to greet them. As their train pulled into the terminal, the miners began firing their guns, creating such thunder that my mother, fearing a war in progress, became terrified for the children.
After being reassured the shooting was a greeting, my mother and sisters, dressed in white lace dresses, descended from the train. The miners, seeing a Cretan mother and children for the first time since leaving their homeland, fell silent. Some knelt to pray in gratitude to God, while others bent to kiss the hem of my mother’s dress as she passed.
My family spent a stressful two years in Price. The Utah Mormons and Christians resented the newcomers speaking a strange tongue. Dark-complexioned, the Greeks were thought to be African and they were victims of the prejudice and indignities suffered by Blacks. Signs reading “NO NIGGERS AND GREEKS” and “WE ARE 100% AMERICAN” were displayed in shop windows.
Racial and religious prejudice in the United States wasn’t new. As early as 1894, a group from Harvard University founded the Immigration Restriction League proposing a United States populated by British, German and Scandinavian stock and rejecting inferior races such as Greeks, Italians and Chinese.
Newspapers in adjoining states ran false stories about immigrant thieving, drunkenness and their disrespect of Mormon and Christian women. Editorials and cartoons railed against “the shiftless, ignorant and drunken Greeks. Italians and Chinese.” One cruel cartoon displayed a pied piper, representing America’s lax immigration laws, leading a horde of rats onto America’s shores.
In various states, resentments became riots against immigrants. The New York Times reported that in Omaha, NE a mob of about 3000 men attacked the Greek neighborhoods, looting Greek homes and businesses, and beating Greek men, women and children. The Omaha Daily News, justifying the assaults, wrote, “They live herded together and by living so cheaply, Greeks are a menace to the American working man.”
The greatest threat to the immigrants came from the masked hooligans of the Ku Klux Klan who kidnapped men and bull-whipped them under their flaming crosses for offences such as looking disrespectfully at a white woman.
The Greeks were hot-tempered and when they were taunted they responded angrily. A fight between a Greek and a Mormon often escalated into a riot with a score of Greeks and Mormons battling.My father had to appeal to Mormon judges for the release of Greeks arrested for brawling.
From Price, two years later, my family moved to a small Greek community in Savannah, GA. From Savannah, my father accepted reassignment to a parish in St. Louis, Missouri where, in 1923, ten years after my mother’s last child, I was born. When I was six months old, my family’s final move was to a church on Chicago’s south side. A year after my birth, the last of my siblings was born, a girl my parents named Irene.
The neighborhood in Chicago where our family lived was an immigrant community, a polyglot of nationalities from Southern Europe. In addition to Greeks and Italians, there were Jewish families emigrated from Russia, Poland, and Germany. Though the communities mostly remained separate, the varied nationalities lived amicably together. Mother’s exchanged outgrown clothing, while we children did not ask where our playmates came from. I had close Jewish friends and was invited into their homes to Seders and to share the lighting of the holiday candles. I think these mixed neighborhoods were the true melting pot that helped nationalities learn to live together.
What helped the accommodation to other cultures, resulted because the immigrants, regardless of origin, required all their energies to learn English, while adjusting to living among peoples of other languages and other cultures.
One prejudice we did carry into the immigrant neighborhoods was the hostility between the races. Blacks fleeing the poverty and bigotry of the South moved into the immigrant neighborhoods, straining housing and competing for lower paying jobs. But that resentment adjusted over time, as well.
Slowly, English replaced Greek as the language we spoke at our table. But my mother’s Greek dolmades as well as the honey-saturated pastries such as baklava remained unchanged. That balancing of language and food was true for other nationalities.
These memories of my family’s effort to adjust with other cultures return now as I read daily about building thousands of miles of fence, while banning Muslim emigration from particular countries.
Yet the dream of this country as a refuge persists. As recently as a decade ago, visiting my parent’s village in Crete, the old men in the coffee house lauded our good fortune living there, while the young men spoke fervently of immigrating to the United States.
For most of the world, ‘America’ remains a word spoken with reverence and longing by the young and by the old.