General News

‘Vile filthy Greeks’ – The 1909 Anti-Greek Riots in Omaha (Part 4)

The Several Streams of Hellenism that Flow to America

Read Part 1 Here

Read Part 2 Here

Read Part 3 Here

As the Hellenic Homeland and the Diaspora this year and last year mark important historical anniversaries that impacted both, it is important take a look and the journey many undertook to America, a place where they were not always welcome.

With this in mind, in a series of four articles we are addressing 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 over 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 talked 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. He addressed issues like the perceived and felt ethnic identity of the Greek immigrants and their place in the labor market that drove both their immigration and the responses of their American neighbors.

In Part 3 we spoke with Peter Moskos, who, with his father, the renowned sociologist Charles Moskos, wrote Greek Americans: Struggle and Success. He spoke to about the elements that determined Greek immigrants’ integration in American society.

In the fourth and final part of this series, we speak to Iakovos Michailidis. Specializing in migration, teaches Modern and Contemporary History at the Aristotelian University of Thessaloniki, and heads the Research Center of the Society for Macedonian Studies. He analyzes the nature of displacement, and the origins of Greek immigration to the United States.

The National Herald: Apart from the criminal act of Officer Lowery’s murder, which rightly invited Masurides’ conviction, the violent anti-Greek riots in Omaha appear to be motivated by a broader effort to discredit the Greek element as intrusive and dangerous.

Iakovos Michailidis: It does not happen only to the Greeks. It is a well-known, repetitive behavior, which adopts an ‘us versus them’ approach to things. The ‘us’ are the good ones, the moral ones, the ones in need of protection; the ‘them’, different in every period of time, and are not only socially inferior, they are, above all, morally inferior. They may also be uncivilized. Such is the recurring pattern of immigration and displacement-related behaviors.

TNH: How distinct are those terms?

IM: Let’s start with this: no one leaves their home without reason. Most cases pertain to displacement. In the UN’s broad definition of the refugee, even what we consider as immigrants are a form of economic refugees. They are people who seek a better fortune precisely because their lives are threatened – not by their physical extermination, but by their inability to earn a living. It is good to keep this in mind because the history of mankind is also the history of refugees and migrants. History helps us understand such behaviors and to make out the repeated patterns as groups adapt to each era. The same happened with the Greeks and other emigrants in the United States, mainly from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards. That is when Greece was dealing with the raisin production crisis, which impoverished large groups of the population in the Peloponnese and Central Greece, from where they migrated en masse to the new world. At the beginning of the twentieth century we observe a similar migration, equally voluminous, from the geographical region area of Macedonia, which was then Ottoman land; there is a great economic crisis in the Ottoman Empire and because of the economic crisis many people migrate to the new world. At this time, it is typical, globally, to see large families – migration patterns usually see the men migrate, usually two male members from each such large family. They don’t set out to permanently relocate. They leave for 10-20 years in order to make some money, and send back some money.

TNH: What is striking is that in the context of historical time, the events in Omaha occur shortly after the time frame of your extensive research on how orphans of the Greek revolution were adopted by rich American philhellenes, an act that paints a very specific picture about how at least one – educated, socio-economically elevated – class felt about Greeks. But that changes when Greek immigrants are no longer the victims of a noble struggle, but emerge as adult rivals of the established American working class.

IM: Clearly! In the first case, what happens during the Greek revolution is primarily – and even later on – involves a very limited number of 30-40 cases. As numbers go, it is non-existent. It represents the American intellect of the time – the Protestant intellect, either through missions or through the philhellenic committees. Also, it mainly represents the Protestant liberal families of the time, mainly on the east coast: Massachusetts, New York State, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC. Nothing more.

TNH: So the adopting families are located on the east coast.

IM: Exactly. But when this thing becomes more massive, taking on social characteristics, towards the end of the 19th century, it is no longer a matter for the American intellectual class, but of American society and especially of the middle and lower classes. That is when things change. Moreover, the United States of the time have nothing to do with today’s United States. They themselves faced many economic and social problems. And at the late 19th/early 20th century the World War further worsened the economic conditions, not only in Greece but in many countries, leading to an increase in immigration to the USA. It is no coincidence that this mass migration will bring, in 1924, an immigration-restricting law, which for the first time so systematically imposes quotas related to the number of arrivals and the percentages of arrivals from each country.

TNH: Was there any institutional monitoring, however limited, of immigration from Greece to the United States before that? I believe the first such record is an extensive report by Henry Fairchild in the early 20th century.

IM: At the end of the 19th century, the United States themselves were in a phase of economic growth. It is the period of industrial revolution and they need cheap labor, mainly in the mines. Immigrants work primarily in the construction of railroads and in the large factories that will support this rise of the American economy in the 20th century. At that time, Greeks in America were estimated at about 15,000. The size increased immediately during the period of the Balkan wars and after the end of WWI. And it’s not just the number of Greek immigrants that is growing, a similar growth can be observed in relation to Italians, Irish, and other immigrant ethnic communities. The increase in the number of immigrants, in connection with ideological… [rumblings] is strong all over the world during the interwar period, and leads to the emergence of such a law, as a response to the insecurity that is now rising worldwide. Let’s not forget that, immediately after WWI, the USA returns to an isolationist mentality.

TNH: You describe how the reality of immigration, which introduces Greece to broader parts society, replaces and damages the image of Greeks that American intellectuals held. Overall, however, what is the image that Americans have of the Greeks? And how does it change from the time of the revolution until the early 20th century?

IM: The academy’s image is different. In the academy, the Greek example of a liberal revolution for the formation of an ancient nation into a nation-state reminds Americans of their own pursuit of heaven. In addition, Greeks are also Christians, and Protestantism strongly cultivates this image of Greeks in the United States, positioning Christian Greeks against the ‘uncivilized and barbaric’ Ottomans. The revival of classical ideals taking place through the great universities of Harvard, Yale, and Amherst leads in this direction. The Greeks are the descendants of the ancient Greeks and the Americans cannot be indifferent to them. Of course, when they reach the Greek peninsula, they see a completely different picture. It is no coincidence that both Samuel Howe, the greatest American philhellene, and many of the children he took to the United States wore ‘foustanellas’. It was an attempt to identify more culturally with what they saw on the Greek peninsula. This is representative of small, specific groups of people. Most of American society is going through its own problems. It is another world altogether.

TNH: A world that the American academy cannot reach.

IM: Exactly. So when the immigrants arrive, when they come into contact with them, as long as the numbers of immigrants are limited and their migration serves the needs of the American economy, these people are considered inferior and they are discriminated against, but we don’t observe anything extreme. Extremes will emerge as the immigrants’ numbers multiply in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when immigration increases and the U.S. economy achieves a level of growth, and on the other hand there is a strong ideological conservatism. This will lead to the incrimination of the Greeks and to the emergence and adoption of racist perceptions against them, perceptions which will be very strong, reaching open hostility and violence. It is a common occurrence in both the United States and Canada. This will continue until the end of the 1920s, when, on the one hand, some Greeks will return, some more Greeks will arrive, but, also, when Greeks, like other immigrants, will begin to organize, through groups like AHEPA.

TNH: What national characteristics – assuming there are national characteristics – helped the Greeks to be accepted?

IM: That they were white, of course, and that they were Christians. These were the years when the respective Protestant and charitable organizations, which had started their activity during the Greek revolution, were systematized. From WWI onwards, especially, they had been active throughout the Ottoman Empire. American humanitarian organizations transferred many children to the United States. Which is to say, from WWI and the Greco-Turkish war of 1919 onwards, we can observe a population displacement heading not only to liberated Greece, but which, through these networks of American organizations, goes directly to the United States. There, they are educated in Protestant settings, in the widespread context of American philanthropy. They are accepted and raised in the local community. Also, the fact that they are Greeks helps a lot from the moment the United States enters -however minimally – into WWI: The Greeks are now allies. Greece is an allied country. This may not mean much to most Americans – who did not want the United States involved in the war, anyway – but it is the reality. What works to bring Greek immigrants together, helping them from the very first moment of their relocation, is the Greek church. This is a phenomenon of the Greek Diaspora, which can be observed through the centuries. Either through the Ecumenical Patriarchate or through the American Church, the first thing to bring these people together is their effort to hold on to their Greek Orthodox faith. As happened in earlier phases of migration, such as in the 16th and 17th centuries from the Ottoman Empire, Greeks established two things first when they emigrated: their community and their church. That is, a form of political self-government and a form of religious association. These strengthen the specifics of their identity and connect them with the homeland. They followed this exact pattern in the United States and anywhere they went. This brought them together, because that is how the Greek neighborhoods, such as Astoria, were created. From the moment these neighborhoods were created, many of these people were essentially Greeks in a Greece outside Greece. As always, some assimilated better than others. Those who had access to public and higher education easily became members of their local communities. And, of course, while both are Greeks, those who came from Asia Minor were one thing, and those who came from mainland Greece were another. Asia Minor was an urban area. Further, Asia Minor immigrants arrived in the country through the networks of American charity (Near East Relief, for example, or the American Board of Commissioners), where Protestant missionaries led the effort. These networks bring to the United States a more cultured set of people, educated children, who may have studied at the American College in Merzifon, at Anatolia… Many already know English, and, in any case, integrate much more easily.

TNH: On the other hand, what are the characteristics that make integration difficult for Greeks? Language, I imagine, is an important feature.

IM: A key factor. Most are illiterate. So they have an inherent problem to deal with. Moreover, the very factors that help them survive also act as a deterrent to their branching out into the rest of society. Ethnic communities always act to complement themselves, and to deter others.

TNH: At that point, however, we are no longer talking about immigration with the same qualitative characteristics that we see in the case of the Greeks being targeted in Omaha.

IM: It is still a displacement, though. The numbers are large. The immigrant, orphan children who arrive to the United States as a result of the Asia Minor Catastrophe are no small crowd. These children escape, they are saved. They will live mainly in an English-speaking environment; after a while they will begin to seek and communicate with the national communities brought together by liberated Greece. It is not exactly the same thing, but this too is one aspect of the population mobility between Greece and the United States. And it is interesting that the United States is a destination for Greeks, because the conditions are not like those in the present day. It is not an easy journey. It is the journey of a lifetime.



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