February is Black History Month and paying tribute to this very special group of Americans should not be just an opportunity to sympathize, get inspired, or hone our skills in political correctness, but rather also look for the connection of real people with real stories that could make this time of the year a venue to share experiences.
For Greek Americans, examples abound and offer real life lessons to remind us that humanity becomes a virtue only when it’s applied on the “battlefield.” As tests in school prove our grasp of various subjects, life and its collective challenges are there to prove our valor and dignity as human beings.
This piece is not an attempt to offer a eulogy to Greek American contributions to the Civil Rights struggle, but more of a reminder of our responsibilities today as citizens. Besides, as many were the Greeks who supported Civil Rights in America, a lot did not and some even opposed them. However, many stood out and united their voices with those of the oppressed. In numerous instances, not only did they unite their voices, but they led the effort–as with Anthony J. Constant, a civil rights advocate and restaurant owner in Baltimore, who was a catalyst in desegregating eateries in his city. And of course, the most visible case of all was Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos marching along Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama; a scene immortalized on the cover of Time Magazine. (In a kind of reciprocating way, Yvette Jarvis, an African-American artist from Brooklyn, New York, was the first black candidate to be elected to the Athens’ City Council, in the ‘90s.)
There were other Greeks – some of them still live in our midst – who proved themselves as Hellenes and courageous human beings during one of the toughest periods in American History. Aleck Gulas, father of the former AHEPA Supreme President Ike Gulas, was the first—in Birmingham, Alabama, of all places–to open his jazz supper club (“Key Club”) to African-American musicians!
AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), the biggest Greek American organization, was founded in Atlanta, Georgia, early in the 20th century with the aim to help Greeks assimilate and advance in the US, but more urgently, to organize Greeks against the Ku Klux Klan’s criminal activities that were targeting them as well. In old black and white photos you can still see the “No Dogs, No Greeks” signs on the doors of many establishments in the deep south.
Even earlier, in the late 1800’s, Lefkadios Hearn, born in my home island of Lefkas, came to the US, worked as a journalist in Cincinnati and caused a social uproar by marrying to an African American woman Alethea (Mattie) Foley! The marriage didn’t work out in the end and he later moved to Japan, where he changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo and became the country’s national poet (now, that’s a story!). But in his way, and thanks to his revolutionary spirit, he actively challenged a society that could not tolerate interracial unions. Marrying an African American then wasn’t just socially unacceptable, but also illegal!
In the ‘50s a Cephallonian by the last name of Bekatoros, helped the young Charles Rangel to find his way in life and pursue his dreams and later become a long serving congressman from the great state of New York. Mr. Rangel always pays tribute to his most unusual mentor (when he speaks to the Greeks, at least).
These and many more cases of individual courage still serve as examples to all of us–not to “glorify” our community and make us feel good about our collective contribution to civil rights, but rather inspire us to become more sensitive and equally active when it comes to modern day challenges.
A society is always a work in progress and nothing can be taken for granted: we must be vigilant of our freedoms and of our dignity as human beings. The best way to accomplish this is to make sure that all our fellow citizens enjoy the same rights and quality of citizenship as we do. Unfortunately, in the US this is still not the case …
And not just in the US. In Greece, too, due to the economic crisis and the collapse of an unsustainable life style (subsidized by loans and state corruption), we have witnessed in the last three years the emergence of ultra right (and ultra left) groups that preach hatred, intolerance, violence, fascism, and all the nightmarish versions of hell from which the country suffered immeasurably during the Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944.
Another tragic irony is that some of those groups are openly embracing KKK and its practices! I think it’s time to start celebrating Black History Month in Greece and the Greek American community as well (in schools at least), in order to realize that not long ago here in the US our people too were …black (as were the Irish, the Jews, the Italians and others – “How the Irish Became White” by Noel Ignatiev is a book very much apropos to start with)!