Greek-American Historical Museum of Washington State

The Forgotten Story of Nativism and the Greeks

SHARE
, / 0

Author: Kate Hagan Gallup

In an age where discrimination was commonplace, Greek Americans organized to achieve the American dream of success and acceptance. These immigrants were the victims of persecution, yet they were also indomitable. Their story unfolds with the Ku Klux Klan in the early 1900s.

Nativism runs rampant.

1923 article on nativism

1923 Newspaper clipping from the museum archive. Exact publication unknown.

The Ku Klux Klan of the 1900s was not the first incarnation of the KKK, nor would it be the last. New York University Professor and Historian Linda Gordon explores the organization’s rise through this period in her book, The Second Coming of the KKK. Gordon describes how the Klan’s 1920s version was based on six founders who contributed to its main tenants: racism, nativism, temperance, fraternalism, Christian evangelism and populism.

By 1920, American nativism was 70 years old, but it took on new life through the Klan. No longer content to focus only on those of African descent, the Klan also worked to denigrate Roman Catholics and Jews in a tangle of logic that’s difficult to unravel. Gordon’s book continues to describe disallowed immigrants to include Orthodox Catholics, sometimes referred to as Greek Catholics. An example of both this viewpoint and those who oppose it can be seen in a newspaper clipping from July 1923.

KKK views Greeks as less than white

While not widely realized outside of the Greek community, the Klan acknowledged its anti-Greek stance. Gordon says the Klan didn’t view the Greek community as “exactly white.” Along with other groups, the organization saw Greek Americans as a threat to the country, as exemplified by Klan Grand Dragon of the Realm of Oregon Fred L. Gifford in 1923.

“The Klan in the Western States has a great mission of Americanism to perform. The rapid growth of the Japanese population and the great influx of foreign laborers, mostly Greeks, is threatening our American institutions, and Klans in Washington, Oregon and Idaho are actively at work to combat these foreign and un-American influences.”

KKK night rally in Chicago c1920 Underwood & Underwood, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In his 2012 senior thesis, AHEPA vs. the KKK Greek-Americans on the Path to Whiteness Steven Gerontakis details the struggles of the Greek immigrants and the assumption of quasi-whiteness. He shares that in 1909, a 3,000-strong lynch mob caused the Greek community of 1,000 to flee Omaha, Nebraska.2 Additionally, he reports that citizens hunted Greeks in Toronto in 1918 and by 1922, headlines featuring Klan threats and violence in their communities were common in Greek language news reports.3

Describing the situation in the South, Gerontakis says, “In the racial hierarchy of 1920s Atlanta, Greeks occupied an intermediate space between the heavily African-American Southside wards and the white Northside neighborhoods.”

In 1922, the racial hostility and economic disparities became a turning point for the Greek community, leading to the founding of the American Hellenic Progressive and Educational Association (AHEPA) in Atlanta. The goal of the organization was to establish better relations with non-Greeks through assimilation, English language proficiency, education, American citizenship, active participation in the civic mainstream and economic stability. Not coincidentally, Atlanta was also home to the national Imperial Headquarters of the Klan.

The heyday of Klan power prompted change.

In 1997, author James S. Scofield describes the pervasiveness of Klan connections in the United States for the Congressional Record as shared in the Pappas Post.

“An estimated three million militant hooded Klansmen stalked across our continent, burning crosses and spawning terror. During its reign of power, the Klan elected sixteen U.S. Senators, eleven Governors and an undetermined large number of Congressmen, both Republican and Democrat. …”

Gordon shares that many people had seen the organization as more of a business membership, and was quickly turned off by price gouging and excessive fees. During that time, as the violence of the more radical members began to escalate, she explains that a punishing blow to the Klan was struck by the backlash of the spectacular case of the Indiana Grand Dragon Stephenson for the murder, kidnapping, and rape of Madge Oberholtzer, which made national news in 1925. Stephenson was found guilty and, while not the final nail in the coffin, the Klan’s glory days were over. The KKK began to fall and by 1927, membership had dropped from millions to around 350,000.

A lasting legacy based on harsh history.

Ahepa picnic St. George, Vancouver

Greek-American Historical Museum archive, donated January 13, 2012 and September 6, 2018.

Early on, almost as if given an instruction sheet, AHEPA helped Greek community leaders organize and run for office. With anti-Greek sentiment in widespread positions of authority, the winning strategy was not to avoid but to become part of that authority in order to effect change for Greek Americans. The group created a strong alliance with purpose and worked together toward success.

AHEPA has gone on to fulfill its mission as it’s still listed today, “For nearly a hundred years, we have promoted the ancient Hellenic ideals of education, philanthropy, civic responsibility, family and individual excellence through community service and volunteerism.” The group has promoted civic leaders, advanced civil rights and met with presidents throughout history.

As part of their work, AHEPA and its members have been historic American advocates through their efforts, such as raising $253 million in war bonds during World War II, as well as providing $612,000 toward the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. Additionally, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded the AHEPA National Housing Corporation $500 million to support its Section 202 housing program to create affordable and dignified senior housing across 21 states. Today AHEPA is still active, keeping its legacy strong.

Additional Sources

Special thanks to Professor Georgios Anagnostou for providing detailed sourcing and insight into this Greek-American History and Dr. Linda Gordon for providing insight into her research on the KKK as well as authoring her informative book.

  1. “Klans in Western States Are Growing,” The Imperial Night-Hawk (May 9, 1923): 2.
  2.  John G. Bitzes, “The Anti-Greek Riot of 1909 – South Omaha,” Nebraska History 51 (1970): 199-224.
  3.  Violent August: The 1918 Anti-Greek Riots in Toronto, Burgeoning Communications, 2009.
  4. 1924 election placard, Ku Klux Klan Collection, Mississippi State University Archives, in Wade, 200.