During A Weekend Of Racial Unrest, Greek-Americans Recall Their Own Struggles With Racism

Photo credit: Marilena Dimotsantou / Greek Reporter

As America is once again torn apart by issues of race, Greek-Americans recall the countless discriminations they and their ancestors suffered years ago in the United States.

Those were years of great suffering, as newly arriving Greeks found doors shut to them in employment and housing.

As an example of what daily life held for many Greeks in America, an article written by By Andrew S. Gounardes and Maria Avgitidis Pyrgiotakis quoted from a 1916 help wanted ad in the Omaha Daily Bee.

“Wanted – A first class shoemaker to do repair work. Must be steady and sober and able to operate Champion stitcher; good wages to the right man and steady employment the year round. No Greeks need apply. Address A. Kyser, Kearney, Neb.”

Also in those years, Greeks were easily identified by their clothing and accents, which made them targets for hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan.

Indeed, the Ku Klux Klan claimed Greek immigrants were a threat to the United States. The Klan’s hate-filled speeches were followed up by attacks on Greek businesses, burned crosses on Greek lawns, and even murders of Greek immigrants.

March 26, 1965 cover of LIFE Magazine featuring Archbishop Iakovos marching with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama. File photo.

Not surprisingly, history also records the “Greek Town Riot” which occurred in South Omaha, Nebraska on February 21, 1909.

In February 1909, a male Greek immigrant man was arrested for being in the company of a young white woman, his English teacher, in South Omaha. In those years, Greeks were not considered as being white-skinned.

The Greek later killed the arresting policeman. After a mass meeting, in which a crowd of 900 men were whipped into a frenzy by two Nebraska state representatives, some 1000 to 3000 rioters spread throughout the Greek community.

According to a New York Times article written following the riot, the mob looted homes and businesses, beat Greek men, women and children, and burned down every building in the area. One Greek boy was reportedly killed.

The town’s Greek population was forced to flee, eventually resettling in Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Salt Lake City.

In response to the ongoing discrimination and violence, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) was founded, which sought to Americanize Greek immigrants in America.

In later years, Greek-Americans forged links with black Americans, as they supported the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

The best-known instance of support was when Archbishop Iakovos, Archbishop of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, marched with black leader Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama in 1965.

Indeed, the March 26, 1965 cover of LIFE Magazine featured a picture of Archbishop Iakovos with King.

In an interview later in his life, Archbishop Iakovos recalled his reasoning for using his influence to assist American blacks.

“I wasn’t born in the United States, to live and enjoy democracy. I came to the United States from Turkey, where I was a third category citizen. So when Martin Luther King Jr. had his walk to the courthouse of Selma, Alabama, I decided to join him because, I said, this is my turn to take revenge against all those who oppress people….I know that civil rights continues to be the most throny issue in our nation, but I will stand for both civil and human rights as long as I live. I feel it’s the Christian duty and the duty of a man who was born as a slave.”

Recalling the generations of Greek immigrants to America, Andrew S. Gounardes wrote, “Yet still they came, enduring injustice after injustice, all in the hopes of living a better life here. They didn’t come just for themselves, but for their children and their children’s children. They didn’t come here because they were highly educated, worked great jobs or spoke good English.”

And admonishing Greek-Americans to display openness and sympathy for others who suffer, Gounardes said of bigotry, “Those are not the values of our community that allowed us to become so successful within a generation’s time. Instead, we must remember the struggles of those who came before us, and open our doors and open our hearts to all those whose stories mirror our own, and we say: Come. You are welcome here. You can make America even greater.”