Greek Immigration – Reception, Racism and The Path To Whiteness (9-3-2017)

The Daily Missoulian, Feb 22, 1909

In his essay The Greeks In AmericaDan Georgakas describes the struggle of Greek immigrants in finding safety and acceptance in America and  how their descendants today often lack an understanding  of that struggle:

“Few Greek Americans of the post-war generations are aware that the pioneer Greek immigrants were among America’s most despised minorities, considered to be unruly and unpatriotic quasi- Europeans who frequently resorted to violent means to settle personal—and political—disputes.

While aware that Greek immigrants served as strikebreakers, Greek Americans are usually not aware that, subsequently, those same workers were often leaders in American trade union struggles. Greek Americans who identified automatically with white America during the civil rights turmoil of the 1960s did not know that the first wave of Greeks had often fought, gun-in-hand, against the Ku Klux Klan and state militias in order to establish their political rights. A group of Greeks in the 1920s even went so far as to burn an American flag as a gesture of political outrage.’

“Dirty Greek”

Clip from "No Rats, No Greeks, All American"   a documentary by Stelios Kouloglou, from "Reportage Without Borders". If the video does not appear above, click on this link to watch. On some phones, the video will only play from the beginning. Go to 5 minutes 34 seconds for the clip.
Kansas Leavenworth Post Nov 29, 1907
Kansas Leavenworth Post Nov 29, 1907

On racial prejudice against Greek immigrants

A racial factor spurred the organizational fervor of the Greeks. As far as most Americans were concerned, the Greeks were the scum of Europe. Consequently, Greeks were often barred from labor camps for “whites” and were forced to bivouac with racial minorities. Frequent neighbors in mining camps were the Japanese, a group with whom Greeks also shared dangerous dynamiting assignments. The two groups became quite cordial with one another, an affinity enhanced by their joint fondness for gambling and wrestling.

…… The racial antagonism toward Greeks was omnipresent. Among the most well-documented incidents were the burning of the Greek section in South Omaha, Nebraska, in 1909, 21 and the expulsion by boat of Greek lumber workers from Gray’s Harbor, Washington in 1912. More common were city ordinances which discriminated against Greeks, blacks, and Mexicans. In Pocatella, Idaho, for example, Greeks were restricted to segregated seating in theaters and could not live in most neighborhoods. Greeks early in the century had already begun to make inroads into the California restaurant industry; the reaction of many native-born Americans was expressed in a sign displayed in one restaurant window: “Pure American. No Rats. No Greeks.”‘

Greeks inadvertently fed anti-Greek passions with their un- willingness to learn English or accept Americanization. For most, the time spent in America was to be a brief interlude during which they accumulated cash for prosperity in Greece. In the Utah of 1910 there were only ten females among 4,072 Greek inhabitants. Americans justly asserted that the nomadic Greeks were much more interested in unredeemed Greece than in the United States. Some 20,000 Greeks from the United States went back to fight in the Balkan Wars, and at least 40,000 fought in the First World War and the subsequent campaign in Asia Minor. Americans were upset when Greeks refused to volunteer for the American army until promises were made about the future of Greek areas still under foreign rule. Nor could Americans fathom Greek music, or the habits of males so traditional that they often arrived with foustanelas, headbands, and sashes in their bags.”    Source: The Greeks In America, Dan Georgakas.

America as the “unrestricted dumping ground”. This cartoon depicts Greeks and other Eastern Europeans as rats.


Greeks quickly moved from strikebreakers to activists:

The first wave of Greek immigrants to Chicago had been greatly influenced by Jane Addams and her Hull House staff; as a result, Greeks felt free to make political demands on local and state governments, and they passed into the trade union movement as a matter of course.  Source: The Greeks In America, Dan Georgakas.

In his essay “Undesirable” Muslims of Today Were Yesteryear’s Greeks: “Pure American. No Rats, No Greeks”  Gregory Pappas  explains how Greeks were seen as an inferior race:

As early as 1894 a group of men from Harvard University founded the Immigration Restriction League (IRL), proponents of a United States that should be populated with “British, German and Scandinavian stock” and not by “inferior races.” Their biggest targets were Greeks and Italians and the group had a powerful influence with the general public and leaders in the U.S. government in their efforts to keep “undesirables” out of America.

“You Come Back, We Shoot You”

Clip from "No Rats, No Greeks, All American"   a documentary by Stelios Kouloglou, from "Reportage Without Borders" If the video does not appear above, click on this link to watch. On some phones the video will be stuck at the beginning. Go to 12 minutes 27 seconds to hear the clip.

Greeks faced resistance on many levels, both economic and social, leading up to a horrific attack on the Greek community in Omaha, Nebraska in 1909:

Chicago Greeks arriving during this wave started selling food from pushcarts and lunch wagons in the busy city streets. The Greeks were met with fierce resistance and discrimination— even at an official level. Under the administration of Mayor Carter H. Harrison II, bowing to pressure from “native” Americans, the city passed an ordinance targeted 100% against the Greek food merchants, prohibiting the sale of food on the streets and effectively shutting down thousands of small Greek-immigrant-run businesses.

In South Omaha, Nebraska in February 1909— three thousand Greek families fled their homes in that city’s Greektown neighborhood after an organized community-wide effort to burn down Greek homes and businesses engulfed the city.


A Greek man was arrested and involved in a deadly altercation with a “white” police officer. His charge— being in the company of a “white” woman who was teaching him English. The destruction that followed— tens of millions of dollars in damage to property— and an entire ethnic community banished— disappeared, fleeing for their lives overnight— has gone down as one of the ugliest racist and discriminatory incidents in all of American history.

The New York Times carried an article about the riot stating that 3,000 “American” men looted Greek homes and businesses, beat Greek men, women and children, and burnt down every building in the area. The entire population of Greeks in South Omaha were warned to leave the city within one day, or risk the ongoing wrath of the mob. Within a few days, all the Greeks living in South Omaha fled the city, moving to Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Salt Lake City.

Source:  “Undesirable” Muslims of Today Were Yesteryear’s Greeks: “Pure American. No Rats, No Greeks”  by Gregory Pappas

It did not help that the crowd was inflamed by speeches made by elected officials and the former city attorney. In fact, the role they played in egging on the riot was noted in various newspaper reports at the time.

Omaha Daily Bee, Mon Feb 22, 1909
Omaha Daily Bee, Mon Feb 22, 1909
TimesMachine February 22 1909
February 22 1909 NY Times
Omaha Daily Bee, Feb 26, 1909


Those Greeks who fled the riots into nearby towns, found themselves rounded up once again,  their weapons confiscated and detained overnight.

Nebraska State Journal Feb 23, 1909

The harassment did not end there. Townspeople went to the meat packing yards where Greeks were employed and demanded that they be fired. The business suggested that rather than firing the Greeks, they should send them to work on the railroads in areas where there were not enough “white” people to form a lynch mob. And they rationalized, the job transfer would not harm the business bottom line as most Greeks were “not the equal of other men” or workers.

Omaha Daily Bee, Feb 24, 1909
Nebraska State Journal, Feb 23, 1909

Even their railroad jobs were not safe.

Nebraska State Journal, Wed Feb 24, 1909

Not everyone in Omaha sided with the mob. As one newspaper byline pointed out:

Omaha Daily Bee March 1, 1909

“Pure Americans, No Rats” 

In the west, numerous restaurants owned by native born Americans posted signs in their windows that said ‘Operated by an American” or “Pure American. No Rats, No Greeks.”

In places such as Idaho, Greeks could not live in certain neighborhoods and were restricted from using public parks…..

Source:  “Undesirable” Muslims of Today Were Yesteryear’s Greeks: “Pure American. No Rats, No Greeks”  by Gregory Pappas

 The Ludlow Mining Massacre

“They Wanted To Be Treated As Fellow Human Beings”

Palikari - Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, directed by Nikos Ventouras and produced by Lamprini Thoma. If the video does not appear above, click on this link to watch.


 The Ludlow Mining Massacre

In his book Greek Americans Struggle and Success”,  Peter C. Moskos, outlines how the Ludlow Colorado Mining Massacre was just one example of the contributions and sacrifices of Greek Americans to the American labor struggle. Imagine having to strike to force a corporation to allow you to pick your own doctor or the right to live and work where you choose. And then to be murdered for demanding for those rights.

Greek Americans Struggle and Success Peter C. Moskos Google Books18-1
Greek Americans Struggle and Success Peter C. Moskos Google Books18b


Greek Americans Struggle and Success Peter C. Moskos Google Books19

Greek Americans Struggle and Success Peter C. Moskos Google Books19b

Tikas was not the only casualty. Even more horrifically, 2 women and 11 children were asphyxiated and burned to death when the National Guard set fire to the miner’s tents. Source: Wikipedia

After a strike leader was killed while attempting to negotiate a truce, the strikers feared the attack would intensify. To stay safe from gunfire, women and children took cover in pits dug beneath the tents. At dusk, guardsmen moved down from the hills and set the tent colony on fire with torches, shooting at the families as they fled into the hills. The true carnage, however, was not discovered until the next day, when a telephone linesman discovered a pit under one of the tents filled with the burned remains of 11 children and 2 women.

Although the “Ludlow Massacre” outraged many Americans, the tragedy did little to help the beleaguered Colorado miners and their families. Additional federal troops crushed the coal-miners’ strike, and the miners failed to achieve recognition of their union or any significant improvement in their wages and working conditions. Sixty-six men, women, and children died during the strike, but not a single militiaman or private detective was charged with any crime.”  Source: April 20, This Day In History.

A History of Abuse and Victimization In The US

In his 2012 thesis “AHEPA vs. the KKK Greek-Americans on the Path to Whiteness”  Steven Gerontakis writes:

“….. the heritage of Greek-Americans is littered with stark episodes of abuse and victimization. In 1909, a lynch mob of some 3000 citizens rampaged through “Greek Town” in Omaha, Nebraska – prompting the entire Greek community of over 1000 to flee the city en masse.

Greek men were flogged in Florida and Oklahoma for dating ‘white’ women, stabbed in Utah for ‘stealing’ American jobs, and abducted by Klansmen to witness “lynching parties” in the South, where they were beaten and sent off with a warning to get out of town.

In 1918, thousands of Toronto citizens went “hunting Greeks” as they destroyed every downtown Greek business, and by 1922 the Greek-language press routinely featured reports on Klan threats and anti-Greek violence.

In a special feature to the Ethnikos Keryx, influential Greek-American historian Seraphim Canoutas described how: “Particularly in the South, Greeks are ordered by the Ku Klux Klan to abandon various cities. A number have been brutalized, while others have their businesses boycotted.”

Attacked by the Klu Klux Klan

“For Some Reason The Greeks Really SEEMED TO Irritate The Klan”

Clip from "No Rats, No Greeks, All American"   a documentary by Stelios Kouloglou, from "Reportage Without Borders". If the video does not appear, click on this link to watch. On some phones the video playback will be stuck at the beginning. Go to 2 minutes 56 seconds to hear the clip.

Gregory Pappas  writes:

Official movements by citizen groups and the government were bolstered by openly racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, which specifically targeted Greeks, amongst the numerous other “undesirable” groups, including African Americans, Jews and Catholics.

In 2017, Dena Kouremetis, the daughter of one of the Greeks targeted by the KKK posted her memories after the white supremacists attack in Charlottesville, VA:

My grandfather was one of the immigrants mentioned in this [essay] — one whose front yard in Muncie, Indiana, once had a cross burned on it by men in white hoods. Our family has not let this story die. My popou owned a local shoeshine stand and when he looked down at the feet of the hooded KKK haters in his front yard, he recognized them all by their shoes, calling them by name. He then proceeded to inform them that their children played together.

He was never threatened again, but even after this era, racism continued to flourish in this little Midwestern town. Perhaps not as outwardly, but it was there just the same.

We moved there from California when I was 9 years old. By high school age, I would hear some of my classmates talking as they walked by the family dry cleaner ridiculing my uncle, who had olive skin and kinky, dark hair, calling him “Bosco” — at the time the name of a chocolate mixture you poured into milk.

I was asked by a teacher about my family and realized by the smirk on her face as she asked it that the reason I did not get chosen for the high school chorus had nothing to do with my ability to sing.

Scratchy-voiced old women would walk up to the department store layaway window where I I was employed part time and ask where the “little girl” was. I looked at them, perplexed. I was the youngest employee in that department. Then I realized they were referring to the 50+ year old light-skinned black woman I worked with.

And my father, who owned a piano business and employed a piano tuner would sometimes be told to find someone else to tune their piano because they did not want a black man in their home.

She was not alone. Elaine Semetis Primavera also commented in the same essay:

In the 1930’s my mother pretended to be French, as she was fluent in the language, because Greeks were discriminated against. In the 1950’s, my teacher said to me, in front of the class, “Greek? What’s that? What kind of food do you eat??” In my little voice I said “hamburgers” because my father was also a proud veteran of WW2, and wanted his children to live the American dream while also honoring our heritage. To this day, I can remember her look of distaste at me.

 “HEADLINE: White Woman Seen With Greek”

Clip from "No Rats, No Greeks, All American"   a documentary by Stelios Kouloglou, from "Reportage Without Borders". If the video does not appear, click on this link to watch.
On some phones the video playback will be stuck at the beginning. Go to 4 minutes 27 seconds to hear the clip.
Description of the girl who was found to be in the company of the Greek man who shot and killed an Omaha policeman which led to the 1909 anti-Greek mob. Lincoln Star, Feb 20, 1909
Description of the girl who was found to be in the company of the Greek man who shot and killed an Omaha policeman. The officers death and the inflammatory speeches by local officials led to the 1909 anti-Greek mob.  Source: Lincoln Star, Feb 20, 1909

Dan Georgakas explains that in 1922 many Greeks met the Ku Klux Klan head on:

Some 3,000 Greeks were involved in a national strike called by the UMW in 1922. During the course of the conflict, a Greek striker was killed, setting off angry demonstrations which culminated in the burning of an American flag. Such anger was linked to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, which had identified all immigrants as inferior and placed Greeks at the top of the not-wanted list.
Greeks met the Ku Klux Klan head on. In one incident, Greeks forcibly disrobed Ku Klux Klan members in a Salt Lake City park and discovered they were prominent citizens. To protect themselves from such “respectables,” Greeks joined with Italians and Slavs to form armed defense committees. During this period in the mid-1920s, at least one black was lynched, and many Greeks believed that Mormons were using the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate labor. If the Ku Klux Klan was so being used, the tactic backfired. Greeks bonded together as never before, and forged strong links  to other ethnic groups. There were no cross burnings or whippings in their ethnic centers and, eventually, the Ku Klux Klan threat waned.
The Founding of AHEPA As Counter  To The KKK

At U.S. election polls, Klansmen passed out cards which crudely and defiantly declared:

When cotton grows on the fig tree
And alfalfa hangs on the rose
When the aliens run the United States
And the Jews grow a straight nose
When the Pope is praised by every one
In the land of Uncle Sam
And a Greek is elected President
THEN–the Ku Klux won’t be worth a damn.

Meanwhile, embattled but visionary Greek immigrant leaders met on July 26, 1922, in Atlanta to form the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, now better known as the Order of Ahepa. Not by coincidence, Atlanta was the home of the national Imperial Headquarters of the Klan.

The most important goal of the Ahepa founders was to quickly and solidly establish better relations with non-Greeks. They agreed to do this by taking the positive high road of reason emphasizing assimilation, cooperation, persuasion and unlike their marked foes, non-violence.

Their main discussion was how to best contain the wave of hostility which had almost drowned them. The ominous specters of twisted Americanism and KKK aggression spurred them to create a patriotic fraternal order espousing undivided loyalty to the United States. American citizenship, proficiency in English, active participation in the civic mainstream, economic stability, social unity and the pursuit of education. The latter was considered vital for its obvious gifts of knowledge and as the essential key to upward mobility.

The Ahepa founders were profoundly disturbed and alarmed by their bitter experiences with Klan prejudice and by reports of worse bigotry elsewhere. Even before the Klan reappeared, there had been senseless attacks on foreign-born Greeks, some fatal. However, the new Klan expertly and abrasively honed intolerance with brutal efficiency to silence and subdue all of its alleged inferiors.

Many Greek-owned confectioneries and restaurants failed financially or were sold at sacrificial prices to non-Greeks because of boycotts instigated by the Klan. Greek establishments doing as much as $500 to $1,000 a day business, especially in the South and Midwest, dropped to as little as $25 a day. The only recourse was to sell or close.

The Klan often bolstered its boycotts by openly threatening or attacking customers entering and leaving.

In his  thesis “AHEPA vs. the KKK Greek-Americans on the Path to Whiteness”  Steven Gerontakis writes:

With [the KKK’s] national reach and a broad readership running into the tens of thousands, the litany of ominous and disturbing reports in the Greek-language press amplified the escalating sense of a community in crisis that eventually led to the founding of AHEPA in Atlanta…….While most of the Klan’s ire was reserved for the far larger population of Irish, Polish, and Italian Catholics, Greeks drew no less contempt or condemnation when they featured in Klan rhetoric. Indeed, Klan publications often referred to “Catholics, Roman and Greek,” or simply swept them all into a general category of “hordes … from the shores of the Mediterranean” that had overrun America.”

The Greeks in America faced tough choices. In the deep South  they were “othered” and found themselves pushed into black spaces.

From 1910 onward, the majority of Atlanta’s Greeks resided in the industrial quarters southwest of Edgewood Avenue, the main dividing line of segregated Atlanta.   The zoning ordinances in effect between 1922 and 1924 classified these commercial blocks as neither white nor colored, with colored residential zones to either side, reinforcing for the Greeks that lived there what Roediger termed a “middleman minority” status (Map 1).   The area featured a mix of immigrant groups, including working class whites, most of the city’s “ghetto of the Sephardic Jews,” and what Fortune magazine termed “the richest Negro street in the world.

While anti-Greek sentiments preceded the reemergence of the Klan in 1915, they were not confined to the Southern states. On October 3, 1907, three Chicago policemen were charged with robbing and beating  James Kostakos,  a fruit dealer.  In July 1907,  a mob wrecked nine Greek restaurants, some of which were elaborately furnished; three Greek shoe-shining places, and two Syrian shops.  The riot was caused by a dispute about five cents between a Greek employed in the Belmont Greek restaurant on Salem Avenue and an American who went there to buy a sandwich. Nor were these attacks limited to the United States. For example, the 1918 Toronto anti-Greek riot was a three-day long race riot in TorontoOntarioCanada targeting Greek immigrants during August 2–4, 1918.  It was the largest riot in the city’s history and one of the largest anti-Greek riots in the world.    Source: Wikipedia.

The Path To Whiteness

In order to successfully counter racial discrimination, Greeks in America would not only have to assimilate, but they would also have to reshape perceptions about their ethnic status. In other words, they would have to earn their “whiteness”.

Steven Gerontakis writes:

“….the AHEPA founders had, to forge a homogeneous
identity …. [in order to do so] ….. ‘classicism’ or ‘Hellenism,’ was resurrected as a viable basis for Greek identity and assimilation. Frozen in time, the conventional image of the ancient Greek” provided the trope by which Greek immigrants pursued their claim to ‘whiteness’ within American society…………. AHEPA struggled to assimilate into an American context by embracing a Protestant morality, by defining the Greek in America as classically ‘Hellenic,’ by recreating ‘Hellenism’ as ‘Americanism’ and by claiming ‘sameness’ in a rhetoric of ‘brotherhood’ and ‘universality.’…

AHEPA adopted an emblem featuring the Statue of Liberty and the American flag. Four days later, they voted unanimously to open membership to “American born” persons of any ancestry.73 The Order was particularly eager to forge ties with non-Greeks who could provide social legitimacy, conferring honorary memberships and scoring a major publicity coup when Georgia Attorney General George Napier and Atlanta Mayor Walter Sims addressed their celebration of Greek Independence Day on April 11, 1923.  As later framed by The Ahepa magazine, the group’s membership was drawn “from a variety of racial stocks including descendants of Mayflower genealogy, but the majority are of Greek birth or American born of Greek descent.”

AHEPA accepted the principle of the ‘melting pot’ and advocated Americanization and assimilation as means of survival.”

In their eagerness to redefine themselves as “white” against a backdrop of racism, it is then not surprising that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren have forgotten this aspect of Greek American history.

The key milestones along the Greek-American path to ‘whiteness’ were comprised of ultra-Americanism, with the Second World War as a major turning point. AHEPA raised $250 million as the only civic organization designated an official Issuing Agent for U.S. War Bonds, the culmination of the Order’s meticulous courting of political officials, with Presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman among its dues-paying members.

Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the triumph of this Greek-American passage than the Life magazine cover of March 26, 1965, that announced a “Historic Turning Point in the Negro’s Cause” when Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos became the first “white” religious leader to join with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the March from Selma, Alabama.


Clip from "No Rats, No Greeks, All American"   a documentary by Stelios Kouloglou, from "Reportage Without Borders". If the video does not appear above, click on this link to watch.
On some phones the video playback will be stuck at the beginning. Go to 14 minutes 13 seconds to hear the clip.

Our Family History

My great-Uncle Peter E. Kamuchey was a member of AHEPA and served as district governor.   Peter attended The Fourth Supreme Convention of AHEPA in Philadelphia, Pa. in 1926 as the Minn. delegate. He also attended the Eleventh Supreme Convention in Columbus, OH in 1934.

Peter Kamuchey is sitting in the bottom row, second from the left

In Dec 1929, he gave a speech about AHEPA at their annual meeting in Mason City, Iowa. In his speech he explained that AHEPA members encouraged Greek participation in American civic and political affairs.

Click to read the see a full size copy of the article

His nephews Everett John Kamuchey and Peter John Kamuchey would also play basketball for the Milwaukee AHEPA Basketball Team, traveling from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to  Chicago, Illinois and Cicero, Illinois to  play in the United States Hellenic Basketball Tournament.

Pete and Everett Kamuchey, Chicago Tribune April 11, 1955

Additional Reading: