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Grassroots Efforts to Preserve Hellenism
by Steve Frangos

Reprint from The National Herald

Round Lakes, Illinois.— The Greeks in the United States have reached a new era of self-understanding. Without consent from Washington, the Phanar, or anyone at the University, Greek Americans around the nation are making every attempt to systematically preserve their history and heritage in North America. What can only be called a New Preservation Movement has overtaken Greek America. As never before, Greek Americans are establishing museums, historical societies, archives, and libraries. Already, various organizations have amassed a wide array of historical photographs, documents, and artifacts. Beyond the hard task of preservation, many of these groups have also issued books, documentary films, and catalogues based on their collections, exhibitions, lecture series, and ongoing research.

Clearly this is one of those moments in history where a spontaneous social movement is emanating from deep within the Greek community. Once again, Greek Americans are collectively seeking to solve a community-based problem. All of these organizations have essentially the very same goal: To collect, preserve and share with Greeks and non-Greek alike the Greek American historical experience—as understood and interpreted on a community level.

Now, it is certainly true that since the late 1890s, Greek immigrants have made sustained efforts to establish cultural centers. Beginning in the 1880s, with activities held at Hull House in Chicago, Greeks in North America have sought to preserve and present their culture to non-Greeks. Today, many fraternal organizations and churches around the country have long established cultural centers. What is decidedly new is the extension of all these earlier efforts into full-fledged institutions created specifically to preserve documents and to simultaneously serve as cultural centers. This new interpretation of what is needed has gained momentum over the last 20 to 25 years. For those who may think I am exaggerating, here is an list these organizations (others may in fact exist): From east to west we can readily note: The Greek Museum, the Center For Greek American Heritage (New York City), The Epirotic Museum (Astoria, New York), The Hellenic Cultural Society (Morris County, New Jersey), The Lowell Hellenic Association (Boston), The Hellenic Preservation Society of Northeastern Ohio, The Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center (Chicago), Greek American Archives Collection (University of Missouri at St. Louis), Hellenic Cultural Association (Salt Lake City), Arizona Greek Cultural Heritage Project (Phoenix), Northern California Greek American Archive (San Francisco State University), Hellenic Heritage Museum (San Jose, California), Greek Heritage Society of Southern California, Ascension Historical Committee (Oakland, California), Saint Basil Heritage Society (Stockton, California) and the Delphi Hellenic University Club (Portland, Oregon). And let me repeat myself, given the unprecedented surge of interest and action in preserving Hellenism in America it may well be the case that I have not cited some noteworthy organization.

Common Concerns

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The logical questions to ask at this point are why has the community elected to undertake such a project, why at this moment in time, and why virtually everywhere at once?

First, it is immediately clear that these organizations began as (and largely remain) local level institutions. The common explanation is that local organizers were afraid of loosing important historical documents and started their organization in a direct effort to counter this trend. Now at the very same time a number of these organizations also claim to be national in scope. Certainly there is nothing inherently wrong with this kind of dual approach. But such motivations are often sparked not so much by local interests as by Greek psychology. Greek notions of hierarchy and self-aggrandizement often require grandiose plans. What is truly spectacular about the vast majority of these organizations is their lack of egoism and clear dedication to local history.

Next, by all indicators, it seems that the majority of these organizations were initiated by the children of the 1880 to 1924 wave of Greek immigrants. These individuals are, in fact, not only no longer children, but the most senior generation of our community. By all reports it was the recognition by this demographic group that Greek society in America—as they remember it—had essentially disappeared, proved so unsettling their efforts to recover and preserve what they could led (often unintentionally) to the establishment of these new organizations.

The commonly shared recollections, arguments, and methods for preserving one's own community documents can be seen in Mary K. Mousalimas' pivotal paper, "Preservation of our Community Histories: Past, Present, and Future," Workshop Report in Procedures for the Preservation of Parish Histories, 36th Biennial Clergy Laity Congress of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (July 2002). For full text see www.pahh.com/symposia/workshops2002/mous.html.

It should be quickly noted that the Greeks who arrived in the United States after World War II are often deeply involved in these organizations, as well. Brushing all details and regional differences aside let me quickly say that it is reasonable to state that this post-1945 demographic group tends to more actively involve themselves in fraternal organizations or cultural preservation societies whose orientation is markedly Greek in interest rather than Greek American.

Finally, the nationwide response to this issue of preserving the past appears to be the local-level expression of the broader idea of maintaining Hellenism in North America.

Common Response

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Another distinguishing feature to the New Preservation Movement is the recognition of a common cause. This new realization sees expression in two ways. First, a number of these preservation organizations have gathered together on the Preservation of American Hellenic History Web site, e.g., www.pahh.com. The last time I visited the PAHH Web site, six organizations and two projects were listed. More may be there when you visit. Obviously the assertion that assisting new organizations through education via the PAHH Web site is demonstrated by this gathering of organizations and updated reports on ongoing projects.

The Preservation of Hellenic History Web site is a superb clearinghouse of information not simply on organizations and projects now in progress but also for the latest documentary videos, planned memorials, archived Hellenic radio programs, and publications that consider the Greek American experience. Please note that these individual organizations such as, say, [...] the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center in Chicago (www.hellenicmuseum.org) have their own Web sites that anyone can visit.

Another factor may well have influenced the gathering of the various organizations on this Web site is that with the sole exceptions of the Berrien County, Michigan project and Chicago's own Hellenic Museum all the organizations listed are west of the Mississippi. T his regional divide is unintentional and certainly any Hellenic museum, historical society or other preservation organization can join this ad hoc collective. Volunteers at the Preservation of Hellenic History Web site will even help local Hellenic groups that have no experience with computers enter the information about their organization onto the Web site. Having said that regionalism is the one constant theme seen in the majority of these organizations.

How this national pattern of historic preservation has escaped collective notice is mystifying. Certainly the Greek American Press has for many years reported on a wide variety of cultural activities, museum exhibitions, archival publications, and historical organizations. Yet the common goal of all these disparate groups has somehow escaped public recognition. Once the local-level desire to preserve the history of being Greek in America is seen for what it is, then, the shared concerns by institutions all across the country are unmistakable. It is embarrassing really. It‚s not like these organizations have not been plain in their mission statements and appeals.

It is important to make a clear distinction here. When we talk about Greek American museums we are not speaking of imported Greek historic, ethnic, or cultural exhibitions. The New Preservation Movement is solidly devoted to preserving materials concerning the Greek experience in the United States. This in no way is meant to demean any other organizations or cultural programs.

In fact many of the organizations listed above have actively sought out and hosted events and exhibitions that showcase the historical, cultural and ethnographic dimensions of Greek society. But in their everyday efforts as local-based institutions these same groups focus on collecting materials related strictly to the Greek American historical experience.

All in all this is a complex story. Greeks being Greeks there are a number of exceptions to this broad process with the histories of various organizations extending back in time. Stimulated by the 1960s, several Greek American museum exhibitions and even archival collections were mounted or saw establishment. Most of these efforts came out of the local parishes.

Eastern Orthodox Archives, Museums, Institutes

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It also needs to be quickly said that the history of any individual Greek Orthodox Church is not the same as the history of the Greeks in the hamlet, town or city where that parish is located. More is involved. Keeping this distinction in mind it is still the case that the overwhelming majority of these organizations focuses on and fuses their community history with their individual parish.

Having said all that it is still the case that the 50th, 70th, and 100th anniversary books issued by Greek Orthodox parishes around the country remain a vast and recognized historical record of Hellenes in North America. Among the earliest of the church based efforts seems to be the Annunciation Cathedral in Baltimore which formally dedicated its Orthodox Center, which houses the parish's library and archives, on September 22, 1984. The Department of Archives, which had always existed in some form at the Archdiocese, has over the past 20 years seen attention to its collections as never before. Another Archdiocesan institution that saw massive support by local Greeks was the St. Photios National Shrine in St. Augustine, Florida.

Three new additions to this broader trend of Orthodox based preservation efforts are the Heartland Orthodox Christian Museum (Topeka, Kansas), the Byzantine Center at the University of Connecticut (Storrs) and the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute (Berkeley, California). The Heartland Orthodox Christian Museum is an especially interesting organization [Topeka, Kansas]. The Museum is dedicated of exploring the Orthodox traditions of a wide range of ethnic groups including those from Africa, Greece, and the Middle East, Native Amerindians, Russia, Serbia and others. Their current exhibition, "Not of This World: Journeys into the Monastic Life," opened on Nov 8, 2003, and takes visitors inside life at monasteries in Greece (Mt. Athos), Serbia (including Kosovo), Russia (St. Serpaphim-Diveevo) and Syria (Saidnaya and Ma'aloula) through April 4, 2004. As they "journey" from one monastery to another, visitors experience a serene and enchanting way of life that has changed little over the centuries.

Direct Action

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The intra-communal educational aspects to this Preservation Movement are strong. Aside from the www.pahh.com Web site, we need only cite the issue of "The Greek Orthodox Theological Review," edited by Protopresbyter George Dion Dragas, which is devoted strictly to the theme of parish-level historical preservation (c.f. vol. 45, no. 1-4 (2000)). After the preface by James Skedros we see the Introduction, by Mary Kumarelas Mousalimas, (pp. 354-362). Then to set off the volume's articles we find "A Case Study in Greek American Orthodoxy, the Proceedings of the Symposium, the Preservation of our History Past, Present, and Future," written by Mary K. Mousalimas and the Ascension Historical Committee.

Next five articles on specific issues by some of Greek-America's hardest working individuals involved in preservation: "Cultural Context of Preserving Community Archives," by Speros Veronis Jr.; "Archival Research of Community History," by Paul. G. Manolis; "Documentation and Meaning," by James Steve Counelis; "History of the Hellenic Cultural Association and the Hellenic Cultural Museum of Utah," by one of that museum's founders, Constantine J. Skedros (pp. 392-398); and then "Fundamentals of Conducting an Oral History," by Gabrielle Morris.

Then two personal accounts of the personal meanings and wider issues involved in collecting cultural history with "Reflections," by Betty Psaltis Duncan and "Travels in the Land of Greekness," by Helen Papanikolas.

None of these organizations are asking anyone permission to collect data or mount exhibitions. The Lowell Hellenic Association's newest exhibit, "Lowell, Massachusetts. Acropolis of America III: Passing the Torch 1940 –1974," is open now until January 28, 2004, at the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center. This exhibition concludes a trilogy of such public exhibits that collectively covers 100 years of Hellenic American settlement in the Lowell, Massachusetts area (c.f. www.ecommunity.uml.edu/hellenicheritage/).

Other organization have sought to promote or film their own historical documentaries. Two examples would be "Utah's Greek Americans," produced through the joint efforts of the Hellenic Cultural Association and the Public Broadcasting Station, KUED [note 1]. The other video is "The Greeks of Southern California Through the Century: The Pioneers, 1900 - 1942," developed under The Greek Heritage Society of Southern California, 2002. This film has received the Award of Excellence from the Film Advisory Board, Inc. [note 2].

Common Problems

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While these preservation organizations are the result of dedicated local volunteers and by all accounts every organization is moving forward, not everyone in the community fully understands these efforts. Greeks always quick to find error in other Greeks sometimes brush the historical work conducted by the dedicated few as unnecessary or unprofessional. In some instances when a long neglected photograph or document is located the individual who owns this piece of history will suddenly (given the interest in the item) refuse to have the artifact donated, copied, or even seen. Greek Americans must rise to the new situation. All of these preservation efforts need our support. And support need not simply be a monetary donation. Although all these groups could well use the monetary donations for their work, any effort that helps promote or preserve the history of our collective experience in North America needs whatever form of support the individual can provide.

Yet not every one of these organizations has met with unqualified success. Katherine R. Boulukos and Anastasia Nicholas, co-founders of The Greek Museum, the Center for Greek American Heritage (New York City) has experienced considerable hardship. [note 3]. Even getting the Greeks in the greater New York area to realize they have common goals in preserving their collective history sometimes seems impossible. "I sent a letter, in Greek and English, to the 50 parishes in this area," said Ms. Boulukos. In essence the letter, addressed to the parish priests and the presidents of the communities, formally announced the museum was up and running, and that its representatives were available to visit their respective parishes to talk about the museum's work and its importance to the community. But the response was disappointing. "Do you know all we got was three responses?" said Boulukos.

This basic lack of vision is not restricted to parishes.

According to Ms. Nicholas, they had sent a proposal to the Alexander S. Onassis Foundation, asking them to allow the Greek Museum exhibition space in their building on Fifth Avenue in New York City (www.onassisusa.org). The foundation has a reception area downstairs they use for rotating exhibits. Surprisingly, they received a formal letter in response asserting that such an exhibition "doesn't fit into their plan for the Diaspora."

But even when faced with such resistance, people such as Mary K. Mousalimas share the vision of tireless workers such as Boulukos and Nicholas. In speaking about the hard work of preserving, Mousalimas stresses that "it is to be commended, it's terribly important, because ... it is making The Work that we are doing throughout the country known, making us known to each other, but most important, that it might wake people up." But we must be masters in our own house. These preservation projects must focus directly on preservation of the Greek experience, history, and cultural creativity in North America.

Hauling classical vases or folk costumes from Athens to our home communities for public display is antithetical to the spirit that infuses each of these community-based efforts.

Preserving and reclaiming our heritage does not mean succumbing to Athenian dictates as to what it means to be Greek.

These local community-based organizations have their own sources of devotion and pride. Nothing could ever stop that kind of dedication.

Notes added by PAHH

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For the documentary film Utah's Greek Americans, see the Hellenic Cultural Association web-page at http://www.pahh.com/hca/film.html
— [Return to the text, note 1]
For the documentary film The Greeks of Southern California Through the Century: The Pioneers, 1900 - 1942, see the Greek Heritage Society of Southern California web-page at http://www.pahh.com/ghs/film.html
— [Return to the text, note 2]
See the PAHH web-page at http://www.pahh.com/gmny/index.html about the The Greek Museum, New York City.
— [Return to the text, note 3]

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