The Story of Greek Migration to America
By Historian Alexander Kitroeff
I. IMMIGRANTS 1880–1920
Greeks began to settle in America at the end of the 19th century and the influx of migrants continued up until the 1920s. Around 400,000 Greeks migrated to America at that time, primarily from the Peloponnese and the rest of southern Greece.
Three quarters of the immigrants settled permanently in America, in large urban centers such as Chicago, New York and tens of smaller cities scattered across the country reaching as far as California. They engaged in various forms of employment such as street vendors and shop owners. Many were restaurateurs while others worked in more manual jobs such as cotton mills, coalmines, or on the railways.
Once they settled in, the immigrants began developing a social life initially based around Greek coffee shops. Soon schools and churches were set up followed by the first Greek newspapers. Close relations were maintained with Greece especially connected to the national and political issues at home.
II. BECOMING AMERICANS 1920–1960
The 1920s marked the start of a new age for Hellenism in America. The American government curtailed immigration policy and quotas, commencing an extensive campaign to ‘Americanize’ the immigrants and assimilate the millions of immigrants who had arrived in the previous two decades, particularly those from Eastern and Southeastern Europe.
In general terms, the Greeks reacted positively to assimilation. For example, the primary objective of the AHEPA organization was to assist Greeks integrate better into American society. There were other similar organizations that worked to achieve a balance between Americanization and preserving Greek identity such as GAPA and the Archdiocese, which acquired considerable prestige from the 1930s onwards following the enthronement of Archbishop Athinagoras. Around the same time various other organizations also helped Greek overcome the financial crisis of 1929.
When the Greek-Italian War started in 1940, Greek-Americans mobilized in support of Greece, and Greeks were viewed in a particularly positive light by American popular opinion.
The 1950s saw the coming of age of the second generation of Greek-Americans, and with it social improvement for them and further integration of the Greek Diaspora into American society.
III. THE REVIVAL OF ETHNICITY 1960–1980
The beginning of the 1960s saw the so-called “revival of ethnicity,” which entailed the widespread dissemination and acknowledgement of the cultural roots and traditions of each ethnic community, including the Greek-Americans. At the same time, the climate of radicalism and reflection in America at that time helped the new generation of Greeks abroad, and in particular women, break free of traditional, patriarchal family structures within the Greek-American family.
The turn towards Hellenism became all the stronger with the arrival of new immigrants after World War II while the reputation acquired by Greeks in America strengthened the sense of pride in their Greek roots. Among the best-known Greeks from that time were Elia Kazan, the soprano Maria Callas, the conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos and the doctor George Papanikolaou. Immigration flows increased in the period from 1960 to 1974 leading to the establishment of ‘Greek town’ in the Astoria area of New York.
The two-sided development of the Greek presence in America -assimilation coupled with a retention of Greek identity- found its perfect form of expression in the demonstrations over the Cyprus question after 1974. All the Diaspora organizations participated, including the Church led by Archbishop Iakovos, who had made the Archdiocese even more powerful after assuming the throne in 1959, never hesitating to express progressive views, such as his public support for the Civil Rights Movement in the Southern States.
A key element in the success of these demonstrations and the imposition of sanctions on Turkey by the USA in the period 1975–1978 was the role of the Greek-American members of Congress such as Representative John Brademas and Senator Paul Sarbanes.
The 1980s can be characterized as the start of a return to historical memory, a review of the path taken by Greeks in America. It was during that decade that many publications were released and the archive of photographer Leon Pantoti was rediscovered. This was yet another opportunity for Greek-Americans to honor their unique heritage.