AHEPA vs. the KKK: Greek Americans on the Path to Whiteness

Saturday, January 4, 2014
Exhibit Hall B South (Marriott Wardman Park)
Steven Gerontakis, University of North Carolina at Asheville
This poster visually portrays the trajectory of the Greek-American community from its early twentieth-century depiction as an ‘alien’ presence within American society through its emergence into ‘whiteness’ after the Second World War. The imagery opens with Omaha World-Herald photographs in the wake of the Greek Town Riot of February 21, 1909, when a lynch mob forced the local Greek community to flee the city en masse. It closes with the Life magazine cover from March 26, 1965, which announced a “Historic Turning Point in the Negro’s Cause” after Greek Orthodox Archbishop Iakovos became the first “white” religious leader to join with Martin Luther King, Jr. during the March from Selma, Alabama. The core narrative is organized around the pivotal role of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association toward mediating the assimilation of Greek immigrants into the ‘mainstream’ of American society.

On July 26, 1922, in direct response to a “campaign of extermination” orchestrated by the resurgent Klan, Greek-American community leaders founded the Mother Lodge of the Order of AHEPA in Atlanta, home to the Imperial Palace of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. Atlanta anchored the Klan’s nationwide anti-Hellenism offensive of the early 1920s, which featured boycotts of Greek merchants amid incidents of anti-Greek violence from Miami to Spokane. Greek men were flogged for dating “white” women, assaulted for “stealing” American jobs, and abducted by Klansmen to witness “lynching parties” where they were beaten and ordered to get out of town. Greeks were barred from “white men’s jobs” and from “white men’s towns” in many parts of the West while Greek storefronts shut down throughout much of the Southeast as persecuted Greek communities joined the ‘Great Migration’ toward Northern urban centers. From its inception, AHEPA embraced a program of nonviolence, social engagement, political outreach, and the formulation of a ‘quintessential American Hellenism’ in response to Klan nativism and xenophobia. AHEPA’s vision of “pure and undefiled Americanism among the Greeks” ultimately prevailed among Greek immigrant communities throughout the United States and thereby set Greek-Americans on the ‘path to whiteness’ within America’s racial hierarchy.

This poster incorporates materials from the Greek-language press, from Klan propaganda, and from ‘mainstream’ media toward reconstructing the dynamic interaction between the Ku Klux Klan and the Order of AHEPA during their period of hostile coexistence in Atlanta. Examining this little-known episode enhances the history of racialized social stratification, underscores the fluidity of divisive racial boundaries, and broadens the context for contemporary debates regarding immigration and multiculturalism. AHEPA’s skill at navigating the malleability of ethnic identity and its adept reconfiguration of historical memory set Greek-Americans on a ‘path to whiteness’ so successful that few recall they were ever thought otherwise. Recovering this virtually forgotten page of the Greek-American experience situates the mosaic of ‘white ethnics’ more firmly within America’s historical narrative of race. Moreover, it helps rectify the loss of historical memory that inhibits the building of coalitions between those who emerged from the crucible of racial oppression and those who must still contend with it today.

See more of: Poster Session
See more of: AHA Sessions