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General News

“Vile filthy Greeks” – The 1909 Anti-Greek Riots in Omaha (Part 1)

Part 1: Looking for a Home(land)

In 2021 Hellenism celebrated the completion of 200 years since the revolution that liberated the Greek nation and founded the Greek state. In 2022, Hellenism celebrates the 100th anniversary of the Asia Minor catastrophe and the persecution of the Greeks of Asia Minor. In these 100 years, when Hellenism won one homeland and lost another, the double course of its mobility from immigration to refugee is outlined.

On the one hand, it is a success story, as the second Hellenic revolution was largely based on the glory and power of the Greeks who had gained professional, economic, and political power away from their enslaved homeland. In the other is the pure tragedy of the refugees, into which one of the brightest parts of Hellenism turned into – unwanted in the eyes of their own compatriots.

The historical and critical space between the two includes the migratory flows of Greeks to the modern states of Europe, Africa, Oceania, and, of course, America. The Greek Diaspora in the United States is perhaps the most brilliant example of the recent history of Greek immigration. In the fertile ground of its society, Greeks often climbed to the top of the corporate, scientific, and economic establishment. While they may have ended up there, first-, but mainly second- and later generation Greek-Americans, their journey began with the challenges and difficulties faced by almost any other national group that sought its better future in the land of opportunity.

Greek occupants of this rooming house were driven out by fire during the South Omaha anti-Greek riot. Photo: Public domain

Although some – relatively few – exceptions can be found, as a rule, early Greek immigration to America is not characterized by its present-day qualitative features. Greeks do not reach American shores as promising students, relatives of a more or less successful relative, or as skilled workers who immediately undertake work that highlights their potential. They spend weeks on a difficult journey, and those who survive it face hostile laws and social prejudices in order to claim not only their great, but perhaps their last chance. Some have made the journey on the advice of a relative who emigrated previously, others on the advice of some middle-man in Greece, who offered cheap labor to the American market. They arrive poor, isolated, and become trapped in a system that reproduces the introversion and delinquency for which it blames them, as is almost always the case with immigrants. In this context, the various success stories overshadow and silence the stories of suffering, and the many problems surrounding immigration. The magnitude of these problems, however, is the ultimate measure of the immigrants’ success. With this in mind, in a series of four articles we will approach the anti-Greek riots in Omaha in 1909, which led to the persecution of the Greek community of the time.

The riots erupted when a Greek immigrant killed a police officer who had arrested him on the then-widespread charge of vagrancy. The Greek was arrested while standing next to a young American woman, Lillian Breese, who was teaching him English, although the police described their relationship as inappropriate. Masourides carried a gun and shot twice at the police officer – undoubtedly, an act that rightly led to his conviction and deportation. There is no room there for other interpretations. At the same time, however, the accusation on which he was arrested was often used to incriminate immigrants, while the riots that broke out found in this event presented an occasion to express chronic dissatisfaction with the presence of the Greeks, who to a large extent reached the area to replace striking workers in the slaughterhouses and meat packers of Omaha, where this industry flourished.

For some Americans (and for earlier immigrants from other countries, including the police officer) the continued presence and relative prosperity of the Greeks in the city remained a threat to their professional, economic, and social security and order. Therefore, the assassination of police officer Edward Lowry by John Masourides became an opportunity to express, in criminal fashion, Americans’ anxiety for the Greeks’ presence. At a meeting of prominent members of the local community, the need was discussed to get rid of the meager Greeks, who in their eyes were indifferent to the rules of order, and who remained committed solely to their own, closed society, which until then had been organized also with various stores, where Americans also shopped.

The Omaha World Herald described the murder as a confrontation between a hero and a Greek, writing that the killer was “a Greek, one who in his own native land was never accorded the privilege of lifting up his head and looking outward or upward, murdered Officer Lowery. The Greek was welcomed by the laws of the free land. He was bid to live, to prosper and be a man. His life was filled with the brightness of freedom and his pockets filled with the easy gold. He was made to feel that he was a human being. He grew fat in arrogance and pushed aside the native sons or used them as mere rungs of his ladder of success. And then, when a gentle hand sought to restrain him for a moment from wrong doing, his thought was only to kill, to kill craftily.”

Police officer Edward Lowery was fatally shot in the leg in 1909 leading to the Greek Town riot in South Omaha. Photo: Omaha World Herald, February 21, 1909

With similar sentiments, prominent members of society convened at the town hall a meeting of residents to discuss the ‘Greek issue’ and the threat posed by the Greeks to the very life and prosperity of Southern Omaha. Masourides was arrested around midnight on Friday, February 19, 1909, when he killed Lowry. The meeting was organized for Sunday, two days later. An unsuccessful attempt to lynch Masourides had preceded, but the riots that followed the meeting had a broader goal. The call for the mass meeting described declared that “the so-called quarters of the Greeks are infected by a vile bunch of filthy Greeks who have attacked our women, insulted pedestrians upon the street, openly maintained gambling dens and many other forms of viciousness.” The Omaha meeting was followed by hours of nationalist violence, which resulted in the injury of dozens of Greeks, the destruction of dozens of buildings, and financial losses of more than $10,000 (a substantial amount at the time), as originally estimated. The next day, hundreds of Greeks abandoned their lives and hopes such as they were beginning to materialize in the area. The issue concerned the Omaha government, as well as the U.S. federal government, while the Greek government also looked into the riots and those responsible.

The American and Greek-American press has visited these events previously. The National Herald has also published on the riots and the violent eviction, in essence, of the Greek community. In these articles, we approach some aspects of the events, in their specific and broader context. First up is an interview with James Bitzes, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, to whose father we owe the original historical record of events. John G. Bitzes, whose family settled in Omaha a few years after the riots, was a historian and educator. Through personal research and after a collection of journalistic and other archives, he wrote, initially as his master’s thesis, the history of the riots, offering Hellenism a timeline of these important events. Next, we talk to distinguished History Professor Nelson Lichtenstein, who heads the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The Omaha World Herald’s description of the Greek, in the general sense, who “was bid… to be a man” by immigrating to America, is part of the broader, at the time, American perception of immigrants from Eastern and Northern Europe, at least, as undesirable and socially inferior. As the false construction of ‘whiteness’ was used to ‘classify’ various races, this classification affected their labor and other prospects.

In a very brief discussion, Nell Painter, Professor Emerita of History at Princeton University and a former president of the Organization of American Historians, once described to me how Greeks and other peoples “were considered as white. They were just inferior kinds of white people, inferior races of white people. They were white; they were just not the best kind of white.” Professor Liechtenstein discusses this ‘whiteness scale’ and its importance in the context of labor, as it was precisely the Greeks’ employment prospects that led immigrants to America, and to the problems they encountered there. Moving on to the broader context of immigration, two more interviews focus on Greek migration to America. Sociologist Peter Moskos, a Senior Fellow of the Yale Urban Ethnography Project and a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, is the author of ‘Greek Americans: Struggle and Success,’ and tells us about the development of Greek-American communities in the United States. Finally, distinguished professor of Modern and Contemporary History at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, Iakovos Michailidis, a Fulbright Fellow whose research focuses on Greek refugees, sets the historical framework for Greek immigration to America.

JAMES G. BITZES, COL. (RET.) USAF

Historical knowledge of the anti-Greek Omaha riots begins with the family history of George Bitzes, who dedicated his life to historical research, putting together the most comprehensive account of those events. His son, James Bitzes, spoke to The National Herald about his own family’s migration to the United States, and about his father’s effort to highlight the difficulties faced by early Omaha Greek-Americans.

The National Herald: How did your father arrive at a career in teaching history?

James G. Bitzes: When he was in elementary school in south Omaha, he spoke very little English. When he first started school, he had a teacher who really saw his potential and took the time to help him with his studies. He was inspired in no small measure by that teacher to try to do the same thing. He was a very strong believer in public education and in the importance of history to the development of citizens and our citizenry.

TNH: Was there a strong Greek community in Omaha when he was growing up?

JB: There was a decent-sized community. They had a church, St. John’s Greek Orthodox church, in south Omaha; in the 1950s it moved to its present-day location. The Greeks you read about in the anti-Greek riot had come to Omaha, and a lot of them were working in the meatpacking industry at that time. They came around again after the events. And that’s where a lot of Greeks worked in the 1920s and 30s. It’s where my grandfather worked all through the depression. His entire working career was spent cutting meat in south Omaha, which at one time was one of the meatpacking capitals of the world. And, apparently, there’s been some kind of a resurgence, although the Greek community never fully rebounded from the exodus that occurred after the riot.

TNH: When did your family arrive to the United States and Omaha?

My grandfather, George Bitzes, was originally from Alatsata in Turkey, right across from the Greek island of Chios, where his future wife, my grandmother, was from. I believe he immigrated through Boston in the 1920s. I remember my dad saying they thought he was conceived on the boat on the way over. He was born in Omaha in 1926, a little over 15 years after the riots. Greeks are persistent like that. Around then there were two different immigration acts that restricted immigration from the southern and eastern parts of Europe, favoring immigration from northern European countries – Germany, Norway, and so on. So, their immigrating was no small feat. My mom’s father was from Vytina, and he immigrated to the United States around 1904. The Bitzes side of the family is and always has been in Omaha, but my mother’s side settled in Texas. She was born in El Paso. When my parents met, they moved to Omaha. That’s where dad had a job in those days.

TNH: You mentioned that there was some pushback from the Greek-American community when your father did his research on the anti-Greek riots.

JB: From some, not all; that would be an exaggeration. But I distinctly remember there were some in the community who did not want that past dredged up. There were definitely people that had words with him. Remember, these were different times. They were all just kind of happy to be Americans, and be accepted as Americans, so some folks pushed back against the idea of reminding everybody that there was a time when people didn’t like Greeks. My dad’s response was “no, that’s the reason why we need to tell the story. We have to teach the ugly stuff.” He was a man of real faith, a devout Greek Orthodox Christian, and he knew there was good and evil in the world. And he believed that, if you did not teach the ugly, then evil could persist.

TNH: How was it that your grandfather chose Omaha?

JB: Boy, I don’t remember. I think it was an opportunity to get a job basically. Of course, he had to have been sponsored by someone to come to the United States. You had to be able to demonstrate that you could be employed. So that’s what he did. It was a hard life. During the depression he worked day in and day out, sick or not, in order not to lose his job. He knew that if he missed a day’s work, he would lose his job, and his family would starve. At one point he ended up with pneumonia. But there was always food on the table. Maybe they didn’t have the finest clothes. But they had clothes, the house was clean, and they all pitched in together.

 

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