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The Need to Study Greek America

It sounds oxymoronic to say a historic event happened at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting held last week in Philadelphia. It was historic because it was an all time first: one of panels of presenters at the conference was entirely devoted to Greek American history. It was the Association’s 136th annual meeting, which is the most prestigious academic conference for historians in the United States. The existence of a panel on Greek America was a wonderful ‘first’ because the academic study of the Greek-American experience is a tiny field compared to the fields of study of other major European ethnic groups in America.

There is a touch of irony here in that Greek-American studies is such a small field, all the while when the powerful and wealthy Greek-American community is so quick to lament the contraction of Classical studies in American Colleges and University and is so generous in funding its alma maters, enabling them to build, among other things, state of the art science laboratories.
Not that there is anything wrong by being alarmed by the decline of Classics or supporting life-saving sciences. But it would be nice if more dimes could be spared to enable the creation of faculty positions focused on Greek-American studies in the United States. Those that exist currently can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Greek-American studies embrace a range of approches and examinations of the Greek experience in the United States, anthropological, historical, sociological. Topics include the study of institutions such as the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, AHEPA, other major the Greek-American organizations, the ethnic press, Greek music, the role of women, to mention only a few.

The Greek-American history panel at the recent American Historical Association panel included four presentations that showcased the research that is being done on our community’s history. The panel’s organizer, Fevronia Soumakis of Queens College, presented on the topic of Greek-American women, education, and philanthropy in the 1930s and 1940s. It was based on the papers of Katy Vlavianos, a member of the Ladies Philoptochos of Holy Trinity Cathedral in New York City. They are part of the Basil Vlavianos Collection housed at the Tsakopoulos Hellenic Collection at the California State University at Sacramento. Vlavianos was a prominent Greek-American and the owner of the Ethnikos Kyrix newspaper in the 1940s, and his wife Katy was active in several national organizations.

Another panelist, Constantine Hatzidimitriou of the City University of New York, and a longstanding contributor to the National Herald, spoke about Maria S. Oikonomidou, a journalist who in the first half of the twentieth century worked for many public causes, including the improvement of the working conditions of Greek-American miners. Those two presentations by Hatzidimitriou and Soumakis help remind us that women also played leadership roles in Greek- American affairs in the twentieth century. The third panelist was Yiorgo Topalidis, who presented an aspect of his recently completed doctoral dissertation and his ongoing research on the identity of the Greeks who came to America from the Ottoman Empire prior to and immediately after the Asia Minor Disaster of 1922. This is another side of the Greek-American experience about which we know about very little. His framework was the way those Greeks asserted their whiteness in the xenophobic environment of early twentieth century America. The identity of Greek-Americans in that era also framed my own presentation, which was on AHEPA’s first steps in Atlanta, the city where the Ku Klux Klan was reconstituted in 1915.

The existence of professors at colleges and universities that teach courses on those, and other topics would do a great deal to disseminate the Greek-American experience to American students of all ethnic backgrounds. It would make the contributions of past generations of Greek-Americans to their homeland, their community, and to American society writ large known more thoroughly. And it would help embed Greek America and all it has done in the minds of all Americans. Let’s not forget that what goes on in the classroom does not stay in the classroom – it finds ways to become public knowledge.

One theory I have heard about why Greek-Americans are reluctant to support Greek-American studies is that they do not see the value of examining the lives of their immigrant ancestors in much detail. It is sufficient to recount that they came to America poor and through their hard work, their faith, and family values they did well. But this assertion is a hollow cliché even though it is invoked time and time again in Greek-American speeches. Greek America’s story, is more real, complex – full of light as well as shadows, as is that of all American groups. How nice it would be if it could be explored, taught, and learned much more deeply.


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