Recently a commenter named Joe, a self-described "white supremacist," decided to pay MGO a visit. His comments are found here. Joe, identifed himself as someone of Italian extraction living in California, who is fed up with blacks, Jews and Mexicans, although not necessarily in that order. Now who am I to disabuse Joe of his hard earned beliefs? Yet, I found it rather ironic, to say the least, that Joe had no clue that at one time Greek and Italian immigrants were not considered "white" by the native American population and were themselves the targets of the same kind of racism now aimed at others.
Helen Papanikolas, one of the great chroniclers and ethno-historians of the Greek-American experience has written extensively about the difficulties encountered by early Greek immigrants to Utah where she grew up. In her essay, "The Exiled Greeks" ( a must read for its insights on the early Greek-American experience) she says the following:
Greeks without countrymen already employed in Utah worked their way across the country laying rails over the prairies, building roads, digging sewers, disposing of offal in slaughterhouses, and clearing land of sagebrush. They rode freights, munching bread and dried beans, trying to learn a few words of the new language from small, gilt-edged, Greek-English dictionaries bought in New York and Chicago. They climbed onto wrong freight cars, their food giving out, always alert for railroad detectives their countrymen had warned them against. They hid from town officials who would charge them a three-dollar head tax and jail them if they could not pay it. They were stunned by the hate of Americans. "The scum of Europe," "depraved, brutal foreigners" they were called in print, taunted and jeered when they asked for work. In coffeehouses along the way, they heard of attacks on Greeks: the burning of Omaha's Greek Town and the routing of a gang of Greeks clearing sagebrush south of Boise, Idaho, by masked men on horses, whips and guns in their hands
Greeks steadily arrived, found temporary sanctuary in Greek Town, and were sent to the Carbon County mines, Murray-Midvale smelters, Bingham Canyon mines, Magna mill, Garfield smelter, north of Ogden for railroad-gang work on the Oregon Short Line (later Union Pacific), and the Denver and Rio Grande in Utah and Colorado. Those from nine to fourteen years of age became water boys.
The greatest number of men were sent to railroad section and steel gangs where pay was as low as twenty dollars a month and where they were isolated for months until winter when they were laid off. Besides extensive branch-line building, narrow gauge tracks were being replaced by wider, standard track that would allow freight to proceed from one line to another without having to be unloaded and reloaded. Laying track and keeping it in repair was a major industry and a wholly immigrant occupation. Census taking was haphazard and Greeks known to have been in Utah working on railroad gangs are not found in Polk's city directory.
The men lived in tents and in railroad cars and worked under Japanese foremen, later replacing many of them. Although the Greeks were reviled as "undesirable aliens" and not "white," the more distinctive appearance of the Japanese caused their ruthless displacement. The early association of Greeks and Japanese lasted during their prolonged bachelorhoods. They wrestled, vied with each other in feats of strength, and were favorite card-playing companions.
Between jobs on section gangs the men returned to Greek Town. Although they were fulfilling family obligations decreed by Greek tradition, for the first time in their lives they had steady work and could spend a portion of their savings in coffeehouses, restaurants, saloons, candy stores, and bakeries. In crowded, pungent-smelling importing stores, they bought octopi, Turkish tobacco, olive oil, goat cheese, liqueurs, figs, and dates. They gathered in coffeehouses for their most satisfying recreation, discussions based on the stands taken by Greek-language newspapers. These invariably turned into brawls over Greek politics: the men were either royalists upholding King Constantine or partisans of Premier Eleftherios Venizelos.
During World War I, the Greeks were castigated in newspapers for refusing to enlist immediately. Still expecting to return to their country, they were wary that the war would again give powerful nations the opportunity to further cut up portions of Greece under the guise of being her protectors. This Greek nationalism was a puzzle to Americans: why this concern for the land they had left? Not only were the Greeks "unassimilable," but they were "whelps who think nothing of getting American dollars under the American flag but who would not turn a hand over to save that flag from being dragged in the dirt by the Kaiser's dirty cutthroats."
As hysteria against Germany mounted, Greeks began enlisting, but animosity swelled. Two lynchings of Greeks were thwarted at this time, one of a Greek who had killed the brother of fighter Jack Dempsey, the other of a Helper Greek who had allegedly contributed to the delinquency of a minor--a ride in his new car bad precipitated the mob action. In both incidents, Greeks armed themselves and arrived in time to prevent the lynchings.
The Italians did not fare much better even though they had arrived earlier. Philip F. Notorianni relates the plight of the early immigrants:
Nativism in Utah began with an ignorance of Italian culture and was compounded by Italian participation in the 1903 strike and stereotyped images presented in numerous press reports, both nationally and locally. A typical example was a newspaper article entitled: "Whisky, Knives, and Bad Blood." As early as 1893, the Building Trades Congress reported at their meeting of June 10 that the Culmer Jennings Paving Company of Salt Lake City was employing "dagoes" and passed a motion to communicate to the city council, asking them to remedy the "dago" situation by insisting that the company abide by their contract to employ "white men." The above factors were combined with a Mormon genealogical doctrine that classed peoples as either of the House of Israel (Mormons believed they were from the lineage of Ephraim) or Gentiles. England, Germany, Norway, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, and Belgium were said to be the countries containing "a considerable number of the blood of Israel amongst their people which must be gathered." Although some Protestant Italians did convert to Mormonism and emigrate to Utah, southern Europeans were classified as Gentiles.
Newspaper reports and editorials of the early quarter of the century are replete with anti-Italian, antiforeign sentiments. In Lucile Richens's "Social History of Sunnyside," she states: "I was raised with a whole hearted contempt for Greeks, Italians, and other southern Europeans who lived there...Intermarriage with foreigners was considered almost as bad as death. If they had become Americanized it was not so bad." Thus, children instilled with hatreds and prejudices for "foreigners" grew to perpetuate further the notion of the inferiority of southern and eastern European immigrants.
A 1914-15 thesis, entitled "On the Housing Problem in Salt Lake City," was submitted and approved by the Sociology Department of the University of Utah. The study began as an investigation of housing on Salt Lake's west side but ended as an undocumented degradation of southern and eastern Europeans, primarily Italians and Greeks: "The Greeks and Italians are perhaps the most careless and shiftless people found...Comfort to them is unknown unless it is in the form of a smoke by the fire or a drink. Not only is this true of the hundreds of men who rent a house for themselves...but of the families as well...The standard of living among them [Italians] is lower than of any other nationality. The author also noted:Of all people that do not have sufficient recreation, the Italians are by far the worst off. They seem to have no initiative or resources of their own...They lack a fighting and persevering spirit that might lead them to a better life.
Anti-foreign sentiment reached a peak in the 1920s. In regard to the 1922 strike in Carbon County, one newspaper article asked, "Is Carbon County a Part of the State of Utah or is It a South European Dependency?" It continued: "Hundreds of Red-Blooded American Men with Families want to Know why they Have to Submit to the Blatant Lawlessness Effrontry of South European Domination." These attitudes led to the formation of the Ku Klux Klan in Utah. Klan activity, at a peak in 1924 and 1925, manifested itself in parades, demonstrations, and threats. A fiery cross was burned at Helper in September 1924, with hooded Klansmen seen in the vicinity of the Mormon church. In 1925 articles of incorporation of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were filed in Salt Lake City by W. M. Cortner, Harry B. Sawyer, and L. W. Taverner. The doctrines of the Utah Klan were similar to those of other branches, "...to uphold Americanism, advance Protestant Christianity, and eternally maintain white supremacy."
The Ku Klux Klan of Utah created tension, anger, and fear. Many immigrants lived in a state of uncertainty. They became concerned at the possibility of Klan lynchings and violence, such as existed in the neighboring state of Colorado. In response to these tensions, nationalities banded together for mutual aid. Individuals were unsure of what the Klan was trying to achieve; their impulse was to steer clear. When asked who the Klan members were, one immigrant replied, "Well if he tell you this is a Ku Klan you say goodbye, you never talk to him any more. That is it."
Those of us who are the beneficiaries of the early struggles of our immigrant ancestors should not forget their trials and tribulations, nor should we minimize their sacrifices on our behalf. More importantly, we should not fall victim to the fear mongering OR political correctness currently in vogue in some circles. America has always been a nation of immigrants and derives its strength from its ability to welcome new arrivals as long as they follow the laws of our country. Race baiting, pitting one group against the other, is only a recipe for disaster. As always, those of us who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
Read an inspiring Helen Papanikolas interview here.