Last August my family and I packed our bags and left Chicago, the anchor of the American Midwest, for South Carolina, the heart of the American South. The ‘South’ conjures up images and stereotypes both within America and outside, and as your virtual American correspondent, I thought my insights on our new region and its Greek communities might be of interest.
It is not too much of a stretch to say that ‘The South’ is a nation within a nation. The region did attempt to break away from the American Union, and nearly succeeded. South Carolina was the first state to secede from the United States, and ten other states followed suit in an unsuccessful attempt to gain independence. The region lacked (until recently) the ethnic and cultural diversity of the Northern or Pacific states, with immigrants from every corner of Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa. ‘The South’ was basically white and black, the former largely Anglo-Celtic with French and German enclaves, and the latter descendants of African slaves. Both whites and blacks were largely Protestant, and proud of their Southern identity, but lived in parallel, unequal societies. While the North was at the cutting edge of the industrial and corporate revolutions, the South was largely agricultural and poor, though whenever the United States faced an enemy Southerners were first to volunteer.
It was hardly a surprise that the wave of European immigrants that included our own Greek community migrated largely to the North. Here were the jobs, and despite the tremendous prejudice that all immigrants, particularly non-Protestant Southern and Eastern Europeans, faced, in the north the Greeks were part of a mosaic of European immigrants of Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, and Orthodox background, an environment more diverse than a largely monocultural South.
And yet . . .
The South did attract immigrants, including Greeks. Lots of Greeks, actually. If we are historically-minded, the first Greek enclave in the New World was the settlement of New Smyrna, a colony in today’s Florida where a number of Greeks and Spaniards eked out a precarious living in the 1760s, before the colony collapsed and moved to nearby St. Augustine. The first Greek Orthodox Church and community in America was established in 1864 in New Orleans, Louisiana, the South’s largest port and a Francophone, Catholic enclave in the South.
French-speaking New Orleans was a bit of an outlier, a merchant colony more typical of the Greek merchant communities in Central Europe rather than the larger immigrant communities that would become the norm with the Greek mass migration that began in the 1890s. Factory, mining and railroad jobs were few and far between in the South, so the Greeks first went North. Slowly, however, Greeks did migrate into the South, usually in more entrepreneurial roles, or radiating from key Southern ports, such as Charleston, South Carolina, Savannah, Georgia, Mobile, Alabama, Houston, Texas, and of course New Orleans, all of which have long-established Greek communities.
Perhaps the most Greek place in the United States is the coastal town of Tarpon Springs, Florida, which had an influx of Greek sponge divers, initially from Hydra and Aegina, and then from the Dodecanese islands, in the years before the Balkan Wars. The town still has a very large Greek Community, bolstered by tens of thousands of Chicago and New York Greeks, part of a northern wave of migration that has transformed much of coastal Florida into something no longer quite culturally southern.
America in its earlier years had many utopian or religious based communes, and the South was the site of the only Greek Orthodox experiment in American communalism, the Malbis Plantation, near the port of Mobile. Founded in 1906 by Jason Malbis, a Greek Orthodox monk from Chicago, the community had a thriving set of farms and businesses before slowly dismantling in the 1950s. Many residents of nearby Greek communities are descendants of Malbis settlers.
Greeks did move inland from the coasts, establishing communities throughout the interior South. AHEPA, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, was founded in 1922 in Atlanta, Georgia, at the height of nativist prejudice against Southern Europeans, whether in the North or the South. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), originally founded in the post-Civil War South, had targeted Greeks in their list of undesirables, and AHEPA’s efforts in combatting prejudice, safeguarding heritage and fostering American patriotism played a key role in the success and the self-confidence of the Greek American community, in the South and elsewhere in America.
‘UNCLE NICK’ THE GRAND OLD MAN OF THE GREEK COMMUNITY OF GREENVILLE
We now live in Upstate South Carolina, in the college town of Clemson, where I study and teach. About 30 miles away is the city of Greenville, a former cotton mill town now one of the fastest growing cities in America. Greenville is the home of our Greek Orthodox parish, St. George, a community founded about a century ago by Greek immigrants, entrepreneurs and mill workers. As in most American communities, there is a large Peloponnesian contingent, primarily from Lakonia, but there is also a strong Evritanian community, a legacy of chain migration that continued until recently.
One of the first people I met was ‘Uncle Nick’ Theodore, who I call the grand old man of the Greek Community of Greenville. In his own immediate family, this would be disputed, as the 90-year-old ‘Uncle Nick’ is the kid brother of three older sisters, aged 101, 100, and 98. I met Nick after church one day, when he was deep in conversation with my 14-year-old son, making sure that the transplanted Chicago boy felt at home down South.
The youngest son of immigrants from Lakonia, Nick credits the example of his older siblings, and the American public school system, with his integration into American life and his realisation of the American Dream. At the same time, his Greek heritage was fostered by the presence of an active church and the strong influence of AHEPA, particularly the Sons of Pericles, which raised a generation proud of country and heritage. He credits the Sons of Pericles for his introduction into politics; he rose to be Supreme President of the national order in 1953.
Then of course, there were the dances, he recalls with a twinkle in the eye, and at one of these, he met Emily, his wife of 63 years. In the early 1960s, he entered the South Carolina state legislature, at a time when South Carolina’s lower house was all white, all male, and all (Southern) Democrat. When I asked him if his Greek heritage provoked any prejudices or raised eyebrows, the characteristically cheerful and optimistic Nick said, “some, at the beginning, but people are people”. His sonorous voice recalling a Southern orator of past, with a hint of Demosthenes, combined with a folksy “down-home” authenticity, which goes down well here where the coastal plain meets the Appalachians, endeared him to his constituents.
He gave back to his community. Citing the role that education played in his life, throughout his political career, which included two terms as Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina, from 1986 to 1995, Nick worked tirelessly to improve education and business prospects for the state. His administration succeeded in bringing BMW’s North American headquarters and production to the state. When I mentioned it to him, he smiled quietly and reminded me, “we were just doing our job for the people of South Carolina”. Whereas most white South Carolinians became Republican, Nick remains a Democrat.
He has lived the American Dream yet he cautions all, particularly his own Greek-American community, “not to forget where we came from” in a literal and figurative sense. He remembers the Greek community he grew up in, hardworking people trying to create their own American Dream, and now remarks with pride about his community, now more diverse, with many mixed marriages, and how a recent parishioner fainted in church, and was attended by several doctors on the spot. “I tell you, Buddy, she got better care in church than she would have at the ER (Emergency Center of a Hospital)!”
On Election Day, November – of this year, I was over at Nick’s house with my children, picking up a few photos for this story. After inquiring about school and sports, Nick talked about change to these future voters: “times change, and we want them to change, but we want it done in a civil manner”. Wise words, from a man embodying the best of American, Greek, and Orthodox traditions.