Before 1880, a small number of Greek immigrants lived in New England. However, between 1880 and 1925, over 400,000 Greeks emigrated to the U.S. In the 1890s Greece was beset with economic problems. Reports of prosperity in the U.S. led to a wave of Greek immigrants passing through Ellis Island, for work in New England mill cities. In Lowell, Greek immigrants crowded into a neighborhood known as the Triangle Acre. Across the region, Greek neighborhoods grew supported by small business start-ups.
Greek Immigration to America: “It is the economy, stupid”
Steven Rogers, UMass Lowell
According to the 2010 census the United States is home to the largest overseas Greek population. From a small number of Greek immigrants before 1890 (dwarfed in numbers by Irish, German and Chinese immigrants) to largest number Greeks outside of Greece begs the question as to why did they come? What convinced these immigrants to leave?
In his 1958 book, A Nation of Immigrants, Sen. John Kennedy wrote that “the forces that moved our forebears to their great decision-the decision to leave their homes and begin an adventure filled with incalculable uncertainty, risk and hardship-must have been of overpowering proportions.”1. He believed that to “know America” it was necessary to understand this uniquely “American social revolution.”
What dangers and desires were powerful enough to convince millions of people to cut their ties and roots for their homelands, with all of the personal history attached, brave an Atlantic crossing fraught with danger (the Titanic disaster of 1912 would be fresh in many minds) and come to the New World? Did America, and Lowell, Massachusetts, really promise a better life away from the poverty, oppression, and starvation they were leaving?
Before 1880 there were only a smattering of Greek immigrants in America. Between 1880-1924, over 400,000 Greeks immigrated to the United States. When these immigrants arrived in Lowell, what did they find in this city of “pure New England stock” founded in 1826, and since inhabited by the “barbarian invasion known as the Irish,” French Canadians, and a smattering of Polish, Portuguese and Jewish immigrants.2 In his somewhat dated but delightfully entertaining book Greeks in America, Thomas Burgess in 1913 describes the 8,000 Greeks living in Lowell as being proven the “steadier workman” over the other immigrant group in the city, as the Greeks were “free from drink and were good for work all the week, and the overseers naturally favored them because of that.” 3 (One may assume that Burgess is comparing quite favorably the Greek over his Irish and French-Canadian counterparts!) Burgess makes it quite clear the internal reasons as to why people left Greece in the first place. He blames “exaggerated reports sent home from the land of marvels” and by the “unscrupulous” steamship agents. He writes that never was there “religious or government oppression” in the Kingdom of Greece, and ruled them out as being factors forcing immigration. The Greeks were different from the Irish (famine) and the later immigrants from Russia (revolution) Germany (the Kaiser and defeat). The Greeks are “above all else Orthodox and patriots.” Simply put, “the cause was economic.”
Greece remained an impoverished country throughout the 19th century. The country lacked raw materials, infrastructure, and capital. While some Greek business owners and exporters grew and maintained their wealth, little of this wealth found its way to the Greek poor. Greece remained in debt to foreign governments. By the late 19th century Greece was virtually bankrupt. Poverty was rife, and there was little education in the rural areas. As Burgess wrote, “in the late ‘90s more and more reported cases or prosperity in America made the poor Greek farmer open his eyes.”
Political tensions within Greece and resistance to the decaying Ottoman Empire (which Greece already had independence from decades previously) resulted in political turmoil, social unrest, and economic inequality.
Opportunities for bettering oneself and family were limited. By the 1890s, as prices had plummeted for Greek export crops (such as currants), many people looked elsewhere. As described in Forrant and Strobel’s Ethnicity in Lowell, just three years shy of the turn of the 20th century “about ten percent of the Greek population lived abroad” with earlier immigrants writing home that “America is the land of wealth and opportunity.”
The Greek drama continued as the century turned the page. By the early 20th century there was violence with the Balkan Wars (1912), the assassination of King George I (1913), the outbreak of The Great War (1914), the Greek-Turkey War (1919-22) and the Greek Genocide resulted in the creation of over a million Greek refugees. Meanwhile, the heated rivalry between King Constantine I (son of George I) and Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos complicated the immigrants’ loyalties at home. The First World War itself resulted in the dramatic increase of refugees throughout Europe, including Greece. It was a war that the King, his wife being the sister of the German emperor, wanted Greece to remain neutral, where Venizelos wanted the nation involved with (on the side of the allies). After the war, Greece regained much of the territory it had lost to the Ottoman Empire. The war with Turkey led to Greece suffering a crushing defeat in 1922. In 1923, under the Treaty of Lausanne, in massive migration, more than 1.25 million Greeks moved from Turkey to Greece, and more than 400,000 Turks in Greece moved to Turkey.
The 1920s saw Greece engulfed in more political turmoil with an abdication, creation of a Republic, a brief dictatorship. Though there was no “oppression” of Greeks by their government, this instability and economic chaos leading right up until the Second World War was plenty of reason for Greeks to emigrate from their homeland and seek a better life in America. There must have been an extraordinary “pull” to lead a family to “say farewell to a community where it has lived for centuries, to abandon old ties and familiar landmarks, and to sail across dark seas to a strange land.”
Choosing America. “Send me your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”
Ellis Island. The final stop before the dream began in America. For George Tselos, head of the Ellis Island library and archive, it was where his father Dimitri was among the 500,000 Greeks who arrived on Ellis Island by the mid to late 1920’s. After the four-week journey from Greece, his father met the inspectors of the Immigration and Public Health “who were looking at the decks of passengers of the first two classes. The rest of the passenger were transported by boat to Ellis Island where they were examined by the ‘six seconds doctors.’ People believed that a doctor could determine a lot about the health of travelers (from anemia to varicose veins) just by looking at them.”
By 1892 this first great wave of Greek immigrants was passing through the new Ellis Island, mostly men and looking for work, and finding it in cities and the mills and factories of Haverhill, Lynn, Boston, Fitchburg and finally into Lowell. By 1924, more than 400,000 Greeks had arrived in the United States, with many intending to return to Greece with their earnings. 9 These immigrants sought to better their economic opportunities in America and away from the internal strife of both Greece and Europe as a whole. One of those immigrants was 11-year-old Bessie Spylios, originally from Athens. When she left Athens in 1909 to travel with her family to Ellis Island, they had hoped to make a new life. As she remembered, “everyone in the family decided they wanted to come to the United States…everybody was saying it was the land to make money, to have freedom, to do whatever you want ever you please-all those things I guess”.10 Once Bessie was settled with her family in Fitchburg, MA, as she remembered living in a Greek neighborhood, but having to work. “I didn’t go to school…. myself and my sister had to go work in the cotton mills there. Six in the morning until six at night. A long walk, too. A half an hour walk from my house to go to work. Day and night. And we had no rubbers like they have now, no boots, nothing. Just shoes.”
This immigration was often a benefit to the home country. Provided a place for more impoverished Greeks to go, send back money, and remained involved with the nation’s interests. Bessie’s father had immigrated earlier and sent money back for other family members to join. These immigrants maintained a close relationship “with the fatherland.”
1924 saw the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924, which limited the annual number of immigrants who could be admitted from any country to 2% of the number of people from that country who were already living in the United States as of the 1890 census. This limited Greek immigration to about 1,000 persons annually up until the end of World War Two. The world war and the Greek Civil War devastated Greece, and once again the United States welcomed Greek immigrants. From 1947-1967, 5,000 Greek immigrants arrived a year. The passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965 relaxed all quotas seeing more than 10,000 arriving annually until the late 1970s.
When the new immigrants arrived in Lowell, they took entry-level jobs wherever they could find them, mostly in textiles and shoemaking. Some started businesses, and by 1905, there were over 200 bootblacks (a person who polishes boots and shoes) and 10 Greek-owned restaurants, as well as dealers of wood and coal for fuel, bakers, and tailors.12 As the 20th century wore on the Greek neighborhood in the Acre would dissipate, but some of these businesses survive; from the Lowell Sun, “It’s not what it was when my grandfather opened the bakery,” said Alethia Papanastassiou, the fourth generation of her family to own Olympos Bakery, which is 100 years old. However, she added of the culture, “I think the Greeks have kept it alive.”
In 1920 Lowell had the third largest Greek community in the United States. In time, many chose to work for themselves and were entrepreneurs, providing goods and services to the Greek and non-Greek communities. Some 90% of these early immigrants were single men, who wanted to make money to send home. These “remittances” were not isolated to Greek immigrants. Indeed, the Dillingham Commission estimated that $5 million was sent to Greece from the US in 1907 alone. This does not include money brought home by returning immigrants. While many remained, other Greek immigrants returned. In the early quarter of the 20th century, the reasons for remigration included patriotism, fulfillment of financial objectives, unhappiness with living conditions, a feel of discrimination, and a desire to return to one’s family.” 14 For patriotic reasons, many of these young Greek men returned home to fight in the first of the Balkan Wars of 1912. And again, when Greece entered The Great War in 1916.
In a 1981 interview, when Aristides Coravas was asked “Do you know why your relatives left Greece?”, he replied, “There were a number of reasons, economic reasons mostly. They came for a better life here, a better living.” And, like most immigrants, both parents needed to work. Aristides’ was no exception. The interview continues, Q: “Did your mother ever work outside the home?” Aristides: “Yes, she worked at the Merrimack Mills for two or three years.” Q: How did her working affect the children in the home and your father? And what did your father think about her working?” Aristides: “Well, at that time he didn’t really care for idea, but for economic reasons she was forced to go to work and somehow we managed.” Q: “Was that during the depression?” Aristides: “That was in 1933.”
Religion is particularly crucial to Greek immigrants, and in 1906 the city became home to the first church in America explicitly built for Greek worship. Also, the Hellenic American Academy was also founded in 1906 and is the oldest Greek American Orthodox day school in the United States. Building upon the notion that Greek immigrants were “steadier workman,” Charles Antonopoulos, another Greek immigrant, founded the dry-cleaning business that would become Anton’s in 1913. By 1917, Greek immigrants Athanasios (“Arthur”) and Efrosini Demoulas opened DeMoulas Market, a grocery store in the Acre neighborhood of Lowell, Massachusetts that specialized in fresh lamb. This store employed a great many Greek immigrants. This first wave of immigrants coincided with Lowell’s history as a thriving mill city, with immigrants of all backgrounds drawn to the abundance of millwork. “At one point in the 1920s, there was said to be 94 different places where a resident could buy a cup of Greek coffee”, said Vasilios “Bill” Kafkas, the president of the Federation of Hellenic American Societies of New England.
Here at UMass Lowell, many children of Greek immigrants (and Greek immigrants themselves) have work for many years. A colleague, Maria Panagakis’ parents both immigrated from Greece. They were kind enough to answer a few interview questions about their immigrant experience. Maria’s father’s name is William Shortsianitis and her mother’s name is Theordora Shortsianits. Here is the text of that interview:
Q. About when you came to this country?
A. I came to this Country from Greece in 1967
Q. How old were you?
A. I was 26 years old when I came to America.
Q. Did you come with anyone?
A. I came to this country with my wife, Theodora one year after we got married.
Q. Do you remember why your family left Greece?
A. I came to this country for a better life, more opportunities and financial security.
Q. Did he know someone in Lowell?
A. My wife had a brother that settled in Lowell also.
Q. Did you originally mean to work and go back to Greece?
A. Yes, my original plan was to work for about 5 years, save money and return back to my village in Greece with my family.
Q. Was it a farm that you lived on in Greece? Your own or someone else’s?
A. I grew up in a village in Greece named Pyli. My family owned a farm and a small vineyard
Q. Did you get to go to school?
A. Yes, I completed high school and two years at junior college.
Q. Where did you live in Lowell when you first came?
A. My first apartment was on Broadway Street above Olympos Bakery.
Q. What was the neighborhood like?
A. The neighborhood I lived in was basically all Greek immigrants like myself. The Greek Church was down the street as well the Greek School around the corner. Our Greek Dentist was located on Market Street. There was also a local Greek Coffee Shop that the men would gather at night and hang out. Our neighbors became our family since we all left our families back in Greece for a better life in the US.
Q. Where did you first go to work?
A. My first and only job was working for Demoulas Supermarket which is now known as Market Basket. I worked for Demoulas for 40+ years then I retired. My wife worked in the factories in Lowell and held various positions as a seamstress, shoe molder, etc.
Q. Where did they go to Church?
A. We became members at the Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on Lewis Street in Lowell.
Q. Did you become a citizen here?
A. Yes, I became a citizen of the US but my wife did not.
Greeks, like other immigrants to America, came to these shores to escape something from their homes and seek a better life for themselves and their families. They have contributed immensely to the development of American culture and to the development of the greater Lowell area. Today we all benefit from Greek immigration and Lowell is a much richer city for it.