The following post is the first chapter of Thomas Burgess book, From Greeks in America; An account of their coming, progress, customs, living, and aspirations, published 1913 by Sherman, French & company in Boston.
Thirty years ago there were scarcely any Greeks in these United States. At the present time they number over a quarter of a million, scattered throughout the length and breadth of our country, an important, intelligent, and little appreciated part of our population. Let us begin our tale of these scions of Ancient and Mediaeval Hellas, and citizens, former or present, of the brave little modern Kingdom, by relating when and why they came.
Before this period of Greek immigration proper to America the Greek emigrant had sought as the haven of his wanderlust Roumania, Bulgaria, Russia, England, and elsewhere over the nearer parts of the world. It was the islander who started the first flow of emigration, and later the peasant of the mountain districts of the mainland. As yet, however, America was out of the range of his thinking, save only as a sort of fabled Atlantis, far out beyond the straits of Gibraltar. No peasant ever thought of it as a place where lie could go and live and earn money. It was not till about thirty years ago we know not what started the first that the stream of emigrants proper began to flow westward from Hellas to our shores. Three distinct periods there have been: the first ten years, beginning forty years ago, they came by tens; the next ten years, by hundreds; and the last twenty, by ever increasing thousands. The table of statistics shows graphically what has occurred.
Up to 1891 the causes of emigration require little explanation. It was the usual way in which any migratory people tend toward a promising country. The few that came before the 80 s wrote home to their relatives and friends of the fine openings in America, and the relatives and friends came in gradually growing numbers.
In 1891, as the statistics show, a great change begins. The cause which started this sudden increase of emigration, and still affects it in a less degree, was the industrial depression, or rather stagnation, brought about in part from the lack of diversified industry and from the ever shifting changes in the government, and brought to a crisis at the time by the failure of the all important currant industry. With hard times at home, the Greek came “because he could get more money in America”; and when once started he kept on coming. From that time on to its present magnitude the matter has been exploited by the exaggerated reports sent home of the land of marvels, and by the steamship agents who soon became ubiquitous and unscrupulous. It were well to remark that from the kingdom of Greece neither religious oppression nor government oppression wherever factors forcing emigration for freedom’s sake, as has been the case in some other lands. This is simply because Greeks are above all else Orthodox and patriots, and such oppressions are unknown in the Kingdom. Nor have social inequality or class hatred ever been motives for emigration to the democratic Greek; nor has overpopulation. The cause was economic.
Let us add another reason, and that a truly noble one, for the poverty of the country, an expenditure amounting to many millions. I mean the never neglected obligation of the little Kingdom to aid her enslaved and persecuted children in Crete, the Islands, Macedonia, Epiros, Thrace, etc. The massacres, revolutions, and consequent care of thousands of exiles, and the Greek schools and philanthropic institutions supported in enslaved Greece to cope with all these Free Greece has been obliged to borrow much money.
Thus it came about that some twenty years ago, eagerly catching at the reports of their few fellow-countrymen already in America, the poverty- stricken peasants left home for this new land of promise. The Transvaal was tried for a while, but with little success. The drop in currants struck the mountain districts of the Peloponnesus the hardest, and it was there that this induced stage of emigration began. Soon glowing reports from these first came back and then the rumor spread out and out. After some time the fever jumped to central Greece; and of late years it has spread up into the districts of Enslaved Hellas: Epiros, Thessaly, Macedonia, Thrace, the Islands, and on over the Aegean to Smyrna and the surrounding Greek inhabitants of Turkey in Asia. Look again at the table of statistics and see this growth to its present amazing proportions. “Once started, this movement, like the familiar chain letter, could not be checked, but grew by its own multiplication. Each Greek in America became the nucleus of a rapidly increas ing group of his kin and neighbors.”
In the 90s came a notable fall in exchange. $100 sent home from America became 900 francs, which was to the peasant a small fortune. The recent rise in exchange could not check the tide of emigration. $100 is now worth only 500 francs.
In the late 90s more and more reported cases of prosperity in America made the poor Greek farmer open his eyes. “He who was our poor neighbor has now become rich and a great and honored man; let us go too. Distinguished success is certain in America.” But no one in Greece really knew, nor do they know now, the conditions as they actually are in America. All are doomed to bitter disillusionment, when they find here hard, inevitable toil, the like of which they never dreamed of at home. In the father land they never consulted a clock as to what time to get out of bed; there they did not work in bad weather, but only when they pleased; no hoarse factory whistle summoned their immediate obedience; no boss called them to time. It is because in Greece no one is ever obliged to be on time that we find that the Greeks we meet here have as a rule no conception of punctuality. Nor did they expect the wretched tenements in which, in order to pay their debts and support the family left at home in the pure air of the hills of Hellas, crowds of men are obliged to herd. Nor could they foresee the danger, the disease, the ever ready pitfalls of temptation, the exploita tion by vagabond compatriots or unscrupulous Americans. But once here, shame and lack of money prevents the return home and they have to buckle down to hardest work, often amid the dregs of mankind and regarded themselves as such by Americans. Shame, too, prevents their writ ing to the friends at home the truth. So they are prone to enlarge on their situation, and back go highly colored reports of salary, position, and glowing prospects of success. For example, a waiter in a hotel sends a photograph of himself, seated in an automobile, wearing a heavy watch chain and a big, cheap ring. They think he is rich. His two cousins take the next boat for New York. Clippings from the Greek newspapers in America are enclosed to relatives, containing accounts of weddings, baptisms, contributions for some patriotic purpose by a Greek society, and the like. These are read in the villages and do much to incite emigration. That the wedding of a poor peasant should figure in a newspaper and be so brilliant a social event, under such fine auspices such a report of a peasant’s wedding would never have been published in a newspaper in Greece! Then there are translated and sent home items from the American papers themselves of the excellence of Greek confectioners and florists establishments ! And here is the news that Andropoulos, the poor shepherd who was nothing in his native village, has attained the exalted rank of President of the Society of the Arcadians in the world-famed metropolis of Chicago! Is it any wonder that the Greek peasants look on the United States as a land of ease and glory? Even if they are told the truth of the grinding work and hardships, they will not believe it for do they not hear from all sides that it is otherwise? A great deal of these glowing accounts was and is the work of the ubiquitous steamship agent. He looms large as a factor in the exploitation of Greek emigration.
“Given the stimulus and the goal, all that remained to be provided was the means of migration the ma terial means of conveyance and the financial means to defray the expenses. Both of these were promptly forthcoming; steamship agents are never slow to seize opportunities such as existed in Greece at the time in question, and all the principal Mediterranean steam ship lines established agencies in the Piraeus, Patras and other ports, as well as in most of the important interior cities and villages. Emigration agents began to scour the country, exciting the imagination of the peasants as to the glories and opportunities in Amer ica, clearing away the difficulties which seemed to be set the passage, and in many cases advancing the money for the trip. In other cases, if the prospective emigrant could not get together sufficient money at home, it was furnished him by some friend or relative in America. Just how large a part in this movement has been played by emigration agents, legally and illegally, it would be impossible to say. In matters of this kind the Greek is extremely deep and crafty, and it would be the work of months, perhaps of years, for a skilled detective actually to make out a case against the Greek emigration agents. One of the first things that attracts the eye of the traveler land ing in the Piraeus is the amazing number of American flags flying from office buildings all along the water front and the neighboring streets; their significance is somewhat perplexing until he learns that they are steamship offices or emigration agencies for there is no great distinction between the two.”
The money thus furnished is generally secured by mortgages on the property of the emigrant. Almost every important Atlantic steamship com pany has an agency or connection in at least one of the Greek ports.
For the past five or six years facilities have been greatly enhanced by the introduction of two regular Greek steamship lines. Now the emi grant may have complete Greek surroundings on shipboard and so feel at home, whereas before there was much reluctance towards the strange ness of traveling in a foreign boat. Moreover, while it used to take much longer (from twenty to forty days by embarking at the ports of Genoa, Marseilles, Havre, or elsewhere, with all the dread of changing boats), now the voyage can be made in fifteen days.
One other phase of emigration needs to have special mention. After the peasants had been flocking to our shores for a time and sending back their wondrous reports, the better class of Greek citizens began to take notice. “If the poorly qualified peasant,” these argued to themselves, “can become so prosperous in America, how much greater are the prospects for men of education and enlightenment.” And so this new and latest phase has been before us in ever increasing num bers for the past ten years or so. The fallacy in the expectations of this class and how they are really less desirable immigrants to our country than the peasants will be discussed later.
When we turn to enslaved Greece we find that the primary causes of emigration there were quite different from those in the case of the free Kingdom. Of the wholesale emigration of Greeks from the Turkish Empire in the last five or ten years, the main cause, if not the only one, has been the political anomaly of Turkey bringing destitution and danger upon the Christians and especially the Greeks. After the Constitution was declared they fared worse than before. All sorts of persecutions became of daily occurrence, and murder was not infrequent. Among the assassinations that have taken place in the past few years before the Balkan war, were those of two bishops, several priests, and many other prominent Greeks. Compulsory service of the Greek young men in the Turkish army, where neither their religion nor their morality was safeguarded, also drove many to leave the land of oppression and take ship for the “land of the free.”