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General News

“Vile Filthy Greeks” – The 1909 Anti-Greek Riots in Omaha (Part 2)

Just Looking for a Job, but Becoming a Target

Read Part 1 Here

After celebrating the Bicentennial of the beginning of the Greek Revolution, which liberated a large portion of the Greek nation and founded the Greek state, in 2022 Hellenism has an opportunity to start to examine and acknowledge the aftermath, including the 100th dark anniversary of the Asia Minor catastrophe and the persecution of the Greeks of Asia Minor, as well as the fate of Hellenic Diaspora.

The historical and critical space between the two anniversaries 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 – where they were not always welcome. In fact, Greeks were often targets of hatred.

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.

As was detailed in Part I, the riots erupted when a Greek immigrant, John Masourides, killed a police officer, Edward Lowry, who had arrested him on the then-widespread charge of vagrancy.

The assassination of police officer Edward Lowry by John Masourides became an opportunity to express, in criminal fashion, Americans’ anxiety for the Greeks’ presence.

In Part I James Bitzes, a retired U.S. Air Force Colonel, spoke about his personal research in journalistic and other archives, offering Hellenism a timeline of these important events.

In Part II 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.

History Professor Nelson Lichtenstein.

The National Herald: These incidents can be examined from a number of perspectives and levels.

Nelson Lichtenstein: One of the big issues that came about in historical studies in the last 30 years or so has to do with whiteness, and it began with David Roediger’s book called The Wages of Whiteness, about the making of whiteness. The point of this historical discussion, focused initially on the Irish, was, of course, to examine what ‘becoming white’ meant in the 1820s and 30s, and it was meant to deconstruct the idea of whiteness. That was the point of it: A radical project to deconstruct the whole meaning of whiteness by showing its plasticity. Another book was Ignatiev’s How The Irish Became White. You could just as easily make that ‘how the Greeks became white,’ or the Italians, or the Jews, or whoever. So, one of the themes clearly playing out in this incident is how the Greeks and many other immigrants, especially southern and eastern Europeans, were thought to be.

The National Herald: Are there any specific Greek features that play into this discussion?

Nelson Lichtenstein: Greeks were Orthodox. They weren’t even Roman Catholic – not to mention Protestant – and there was a sort of sense that they weren’t entirely white, which is kind of a metaphor for being Americanized. That’s a big theme that American historians have had. And it’s been countered by others, saying ‘wait a minute! These immigrant groups, Greeks, Irish, whoever they were – that’s not the same thing in this history of racism and slavery as being African American.’ So, there’s a debate going on here. But I’m just saying that this anti-Greek riot enters into this debate. This riot struck me as being very similar to the Tulsa events, with some of the same dynamics… the mob, the rioters were not just American workers in that meat packing plant, pissed off about their jobs being taken. They were not competing directly with the Greeks for those industrial jobs. They were clearly middle-class pillars of the Omaha society. The meeting was held in the City Hall, it was not like they came out of a saloon, you know?

TNH: As all immigrants do, these Greeks were people trying to escape their conditions.

NL: It’s interesting that, clearly, the meat packing plants were importing these Greek immigrants through what they called padrones, labor brokers – who were Greek themselves, typically. Maybe they ran a saloon, or maybe they ran a boarding house. Maybe some of them were in New York or some of them were in Baltimore or other places where people came across, and they would have connections with employers. Then they would get a fee, or take a cut, and they would send people there. Once the Greeks were established in south Omaha, chain migration would do the rest. The Greeks who were there would write letters back to their relatives and say “they’re hiring here at this packing house,” or “this industry’s booming, so come on over.”

TNH: And it seems the tension always starts with labor.

NL: Well, yeah. These are all workers. What’s interesting and complicated here, though I don’t know enough about it, is that the conflict didn’t begin in the plant – it didn’t begin in a contest over jobs in the plant itself. There was this policeman, and this guy who shot him. The rioters, it seemed to me, were middle class; they were established figures. But the fact that these Greeks are mostly workers in the plant can’t be ignored.

What was particularly telling about all this is that the meeting called on the packing industries to stop employing Greeks, which was effectively depriving them of their livelihood and taking away the reason for their being there. And it became racial because it said that Greeks are filthy and disease-ridden and shouldn’t be handling food.

So, this is just after Upton Sinclair publishes The Jungle, the famous muckraking denunciation of the meatpacking industry in Chicago. Of course, there’s a lot of agitation in the Pure Food and Drug Act, which is passed in 1906, so you have these orators picking up on this line of argument to rationalize this attack on the Greeks. Now, the other thing is Nebraska was a center of populism. There is a kind of anti-corporate spirit there, even among the middle class. One of the arguments against the trusts, against the big corporations, is that they are eroding and debasing the workers, and they’re doing it by importing immigrants, thus lowering labor standards. So, the attack on the corporation is the same thing as the attack on Greek workers in this instance.

TNH: Where are the unions in all of this? Were there established unions at that point?

NL: Probably not. If anything, some of the unions were simply quite racist themselves. They would say “we’re for white workers.” I don’t think the unions were there. They will be ten years later, along a huge strike wave beginning in Chicago packinghouses.

TNH: I’m wondering about the unions because I’m curious as to whether immigrant labor helped their formation or made it more difficult. I would assume that a diverse body of labor would make the necessity for solidarity even more evident.

NL: That would be true in the CIO period in the 1930s. But earlier it was definitely a mixed bag. Some of the unions were explicitly anti-Black and even anti-immigrant, because they wanted to reserve the jobs for native-born Americans. On the other hand, there were some radical unions, the Industrial Workers of the World, and some others, as well. The coal mining union was also more radical, and later on meatpacking would be in 1917, during the great meatpacking organizing drive of that period. They were saying “we have all these different workers; we must have solidarity.” But that was not a given in in 1907, that’s for sure. There probably were unions in Omaha in this period, but they might have been more like things like motormen, or teamsters, or some restaurant workers – or maybe they could be some skilled workers in the packinghouse. They would typically be anti-immigrant.

TNH: It does look, however, that initially Greeks were in fact brought in to work during a strike.

NL: Undoubtedly, then, that’s the source of the huge tension. This happened in lots of places. Have you heard of the famous private detectives, the Pinkertons? One of the things that private police forces were created to do is to protect the scab labor when it was imported by these companies. If the packinghouses had brought in Greeks to break a strike, that explains a great deal of the tension. Not that it’s the only thing, but it certainly explains a lot. And the Greeks wouldn’t know about that; all of a sudden someone says “hey, there’s a job in Omaha.” And it turns out the job is created because there’s a strike going on.

TNH: There are many intersections, but which was the greatest unifying element driving unionizing? Was it race, was it religion? Was it something else?

NL: That’s a good question. Typically, race and religion cut across and divided workers in this period, and certainly the climax is the great 1919 strike wave in the United States, which was defeated partly because of divisions among native-born workers, Protestants versus Roman Catholics and versus Orthodox. It was a much more important division then than today. The packinghouse industry was the big booming industry of this period. By the way, meatpacking entails a lot of unskilled work, but there’s also some very skilled work, which would be typically held by the by native-born Americans – the butchers, the ones who do certain cuts, are skilled labor. So you would have these ethnic divisions within the packinghouses, where you’d have, for example, lots of women doing certain kinds of things – sausage making or something – and, then, kind of unskilled immigrant labor, just slitting the throat of the hogs, which is a horrible job because the blood pours out. And then there is a certain kind of skilled labor, doing certain cuts, for example, which have to be done just right. The packing house is rife with ethnic tension.

 

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