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History > General History > The Greek Peddlers of New York City. Part One.

History > General History

submitted by Steve Frangos on 12.10.2006

The Greek Peddlers of New York City. Part One.

Steve Frangos, c. 2006

Contact, Steve Frangos

Rough laborers and street peddlers are the two most enduring stereotypic images we have of Greeks who arrived in North America during the 1880s. Without turning too close an eye to the Greek colony’s composition during this initial period these images are for the most part correct. Linked to these two general areas of employment were the extremely sever conditions under which Greeks labored and their subsequent emotional, intellectual and collective political responses to their daily work in Ameriki.

Labor agents, politicians, businessmen, and journalists of the late 1880s and early 1900s had no difficulty whatsoever tracing the Greek immigrant involvement in strikes and other progressive causes as a direct consequence of earlier attacks targeted specifically against Greek workers.

The Greek immigrant’s active participation in the labor movement in the mills of New England, along the Gulf of Mexico fishing lanes, and on the railroads, mines and smelters of the West can all be understood as the direct outgrowth of the sustained attacks they received at the hands of the native born Americans. Writers such as the late Helen Papanikolas, Dan Georgakas, Zeese Papanikolas and others have written extensively of Greek immigrant participation (and often their leadership roles) in the American labor movement.

These attacks were not limited to the workplace. Many family histories recall Ku Klux Klan threats and unprovoked attacks on public streets, places of work and even burning crosses on the Greek immigrant’s front lawns. While the 1909 anti Greek riot in south Omaha Nebraska is perhaps the most well known other acts of mob violence directed specifically against Greek immigrants can be easily documented in otherwise peaceful locals such as Roanoke, Virginia; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Mountain View, Idaho; Rushville, Illinois, and elsewhere.

It is critical that we review this early history of violence against Greek immigrants since this is now a forgotten chapter in our collective struggle to succeed in North America. In point of fact the situation is far worst than simply a loss of collective memory. As I have traveled the country to my amazement I have found that many Greek Americans of all ages believe and accept without question whatever the local historical accounts may be of their community.

I was stunned to hear that in Colorado many persons of Greek descent believed that Louis Tikas started the Ludlow Massacre. Eye-witnesses in sworn depositions at the time reported that while Tikas was in the custody of the state militia he was in fact shot in the back three times after a rifle barrel had been broken over his head. His body was left on the ground for at least two days. Other examples could be provided from across the country. Why, does this historical amnesia exist?

All I can imagine is that--as is common with Greek social structure in general---Greeks far too easily and automatically find fault with other Greeks and so project this lamentable view back into the past.

The other aspect to this vast body of negative new stories is even more chilling. Since no one is challenging these accounts they remain the undisputed data. Certainly scholars in the past such as Theodore Saloutos and others have challenged and analyzed the plight of the early Greek immigrant workers. Regrettably Dr. Saloutos’ book, The Greeks in the United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964) went out of print before many of the people now reading this article were born.

This again is why the gap between the academic community and the Greek community is so significant. With more Greeks and persons of Greek descent occupying teaching positions in high schools, junior colleges and major universities across the country than at any point in our collective history who is writing about our history and culture in a systematic and regular fashion?

The reason no name springs to your mind is because no one is doing it.

The Documented News

If my claim that the Greek immigrants were regularly attacked all across the United States then it should be relatively easy to document. It is. I will be quoting primarily from the New York Times. Employing this often lengthy citation of newspaper articles is critical not simply for validating the claim that the events I describe took place.

It is far more important that Greek Americans read these accounts with modern sensibilities. For this investigative series into the past to succeed Greeks living today must see the full social conditions not as simply new arrivals but as entitled citizens. As you read these accounts you judge for yourself exactly who was guilty and who innocent.

Far too often, especially in journalistic accounts from Greece, we hear many a tall-tale about early life among the Greeks then living in North America. Since its very foundation the National Herald has actively sought to serve as a bridge between Hellenism in America and the nation state of Greece. This investigative series is simply another example of this continuing duty.

In equal measure persons of Greek descent in the United States tend to overlook or even hide what they believe to be negative stories about Greeks. All this must end.

Many of the news stories I will be offering in this series may be difficult for some readers to accept. It is one thing to hear that a family member or a fellow patrioti had “problems” when they came to America it is another to actually read these articles. Many are hateful accounts written by unabashed racists. Other news reports clearly document Greeks as undeniable criminals. Still other published features reveal nothing less than the very best America has to offer in terms of justice, equality for all, and simple fair play.

I will offer news stories ranging from 1883 until 1910. The presence of Greeks as peddlers along the streets of New York City does not end in the 1900s. Anyone walking through Astoria or up the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art knows that. Still a roughly thirty year period will illustrate all our points clearly.

Here are the first accounts.

The Persecuted Greeks

On August 13, 1883, New Yorkers went to work reading about what had happened to a Greek peddler, the night before. Under the heading, “Three Young Rowdies,” we learn that “George Karzios, a Greek keeps a small cigar-stand and a place for the sale of hot-corn beside Cassebeer’s drug store, No. 191 Bowery. Last evening three young ruffians made a raid on his cigar-stand for the purpose of obtaining free cigars, and when he objected they maliciously upset his hot corn stand throwing the ears of corn into the gutter. Karzios protested against their conduct, and the three rowdies thereupon assaulted him and beat him severely on the head and face. The Greek took refuge in the drug store; whither his assailants followed him and renewed the assault. During the mêlée the globes on one of the chandeliers in the drug store were smashed. The Greek’s assailants escaped before the police arrived.”

These attacks had only begun. In the story “A Persecuted Greek,” “[W]ith a smothered imprecation from Sophocles or Xenophon, George Thompson, a persecuted Greek peddler, made a mad rush at a throng of street arabs who were making life a burden to him in Beekman-street yesterday afternoon. Thomas Thompson, a little newsboy, failed to get out of the way in time to avoid the furious Greek, and he received a blow that laid his head open. Then the boys closed in on the swarthy peddler, and Policeman John Lyna arrived in time to save him from the vengeance of the hoodlums. His stock in trade had, however, been looted. He seemed pleased to be locked in a cell of the Oak-street station house. The boy’s wounds were dressed and he was sent home (New York Times December 13, 1889).”

On February 19, 1900, one of these assaults turned lethal. “John Bacis, twenty-five years old, a Greek cigarette maker living at 73 Roosevelt Street, was assaulted by a crowd of young men yesterday afternoon and is likely to die of his injuries. Bacis was taken to Hudson Street Hospital with a fractured skull.

The young men were snowballing when Bacis left his apartments to go for a can of beer. On his return home he was snowballed by them, and afterward they took the beer from him, drank it, and threw the can away. Bacis interposed few objections to his rough treatment. Going into the house and obtaining another can, he again started toward a neighboring saloon. The young men, who had been snowballing every pedestrian that passed, again picked him out as a mark. This time he objected and tried to defend himself. John Brady, twenty-two years old, better known in the neighborhood as “Lefty,” hit Bacis over the head with a shovel, felling him to the sidewalk and fracturing his skull. The crowd then ran away.”

To build our future as a Hellenic community here in North America we have to accurately and fully understand our collective past. Not a Disneyland-fantasy version of our past when everyone loved us and we loved everyone else but the real and true everyday events. If we do not learn this real history we are doomed to be manipulated by any intellectual charlatan.

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