Visualizing the Merrimack Valley Greeks

December 3, 2017

The Greeks in Merrimack Valley, by E. Philip Brown, is the latest Greek-American volume to appear in the Images of America series (Charleston: Arcadia Publishing, 2017). To date, some thirteen titles devoted exclusively to Greek-American communities around the country have appeared with individual Greeks included in an as yet undetermined number of other such local community volumes.

For those unfamiliar with this series, its focus is on presenting local community history through period photographs. Captions accompanying each image not only identify the who, what, when, and where of each individual image but given the skills and underlying intentions of the authors/compilers additional insights into the community gradually accumulate.

The Greeks in Merrimack Valley is a regional survey of the Greek-American experience. The Merrimack Valley is a bi-state region along the Merrimack River as it flows from New Hampshire down through Massachusetts and into the Atlantic. Major cities in the Merrimack Valley include Concord, Manchester and Nashua in New Hampshire as well as Lowell, Lawrence and Haverhill in Massachusetts. Accordingly this visual historical study offers 189 images that provides a broad-based review of Greeks and Greek communities found scattered across the Merrimack Valley region. As with all Arcadia Publishing Images of America volumes as one caption after the other is read these individual captions soon take on deeper resonance as the Reader encounters successive images. Individual tales of persons, places and special occasions soon begin to expand one’s understanding into the community’s broader history.

This volume opens with a Foreword by Elaine Kevgas, Grand President and Governor of the Daughters of Penelope District 8, followed by an Acknowledgments page and then an Introduction. After these opening sections are eight thematic chapters: 1) The Greek Family Bond; 2) Preserving Faith; 3) Employment, Business and Industry; 4) Commitment to Public Service; 5) Dedication to Community; 6) Celebrating Greek Culture and Tradition; 7) Defending Home and Homeland and 8) Athletic Accomplishments.

Kevgas’ foreword is especially interesting as it is the kind of personal family/collective account one regularly hears within Greek-America. When speaking of one’s self, the extended family and at times the Greek-American community one belongs to varies considerably from the general American community. While quite aware of how the general society sharply distinguishes into individual, family, friends and general subculture community to which the individual speaker is a member (again as far the dominant American culture makes these distinctions) Greek-American recollections are collective in nature and so we must also conclude in individual personal experience.

Struggle and success, or the general overcoming of adversity with grace, across generations and individuals is ever the core of these recollections: “The Greek community has flourished in the Merrimack Valley since immigrants started arriving en masse in the late 1800s. My family has been able to thrive in the Land of Opportunity and we live our lives to the fullest as proud Americans and Greeks. I hope the Greeks of the Merrimack Valley helps elder Greek Americans reflect on their progress, and inspires future generations to appreciate their heritage.”

With the Introduction we immediately discover this volume’s kernel viewpoint of the Greek-American community as it now exists: “the lives of Greeks revolve around the family, church and community. Marriage outside of one’s faith eventually became more common, as it did with other ethnic groups. English, not Greek was the primary language at home. College, work opportunities, and retirement led many to leave the area and their families. New immigrants arrived and quickly integrated into the established community.”

The Greek Family Bond includes all the various four to five generations of Greeks found throughout this valley. Descriptions of individual photographs are offered via biographical and historical accounts. Next the chapter on Preserving Faith showcases images and captions on individual parishes through images and discussions of priests, picnics, weddings. Far from the only images to signify the sustained efforts of the Merrimack Greeks to maintain and experience their faith we are offered additional images and captions on Easter observances as well as various church based organizations such as individual church boards, Philoptochos Society chapters, and various GOYA chapters.

Next we find a chapter on Employment, Business and Industry, again across several generations. At one point we hear that “Despite the long hours, hard work, and low pay, the Greek immigrants took pride in earning their keep, for it gave them dignity and worth. For that opportunity to work, they would appreciate America all of their lives (p. 46).” I have heard this same assertion from Greeks across the country. Clearly Greek-Americans have absorbed the dominant immigration narrative. This perspective sees all new arrivals to the United States as owing everything they have to the manner in which American society is structured. This perspective is what is called false consciousness.

Carl Sandburg’s view of the working class (inclusive of newly arrived immigrants) is more in keeping with reality—“they build the city each day.” As the old Greek saying observes, “one-hand washes the other, and both wash the face.” No one gave any individual in the Greek-American community anything for free. In fact, it can well be argued that, the American society we all share today is the direct result of the daily collective efforts of the common workers.

Especially interesting in any series of questions regarding accomplishment versus achievement in the face of adversity is the next chapter, Commitment to Public Service. Among these images we see and learn of a host of local Merrimack Valley Greek-American public servants – from the offices of mayors and city council members to state level senators to the House of Representatives, including local law enforcement officers of the region.

With the Dedication to Community chapter we see and discover the achievements of an array of fraternal organizations. The perennial efforts of these organizations to support Greeks abroad, the local Greek-American communities, as well as aiding the wider society is carefully and clearly delineated. In the next chapter, Celebrating Greek Culture and Tradition, we see a gathering of musical and dance observances that each in their own way accentuate and so reinforce local Greek-American identity.

In Chapter 7, “Defending Home and Homeland” we learn of those individuals spanning Greek immigrant veterans of World War I to the war in Afghanistan including those among their number–who made the ultimate sacrifice. This volume’s final chapter focuses on Athletic Accomplishments. Once again a cross-generational array of women and men sees discussion featuring individuals with regional and wider reputations.

All in all this volume is far from revisionist history but rather by following where the data leads the author guides us in a process of understanding how the local Greek-Americans not only explain their own actions but how they present, through their daily actions, those self-perceptions to the society around them.

Abandoned as Greek-America is, by its scholar class, we must follow an older point of view. As the Lakota Sioux say, “we will be known forever, by the tracks we leave behind.” It is no exaggeration to say that local Greek-American communities, in the end, will be known by the world at large as well as future generations by histories such as this one.


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