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Black History Month and the Greeks

Archbishop Iakovos with Dr. Martin Luther King
Archbishop Iakovos marching with Dr. Martin Luther King

It’s February, Black History Month, and after reading an op-ed by Washington-based lawyer and political activist Andreas Akaras (“When Philotimo Stood with African-Americans), in the English edition of the National Herald, I thought it was only fitting to add a few touches to a great job.

Without offering eulogies, because as many were the Greeks who supported civil rights in America, equally many didn’t and some even opposed them, Andreas goes ahead to describe Greek American individuals that had the courage – during very difficult times not only for African Americans – to stand out and unite their voices with those of the oppressed. In many cases not only they united their voices, but led the effort as did Anthony J. Constant, a civil rights advocate and restaurant owner in Baltimore, who was a catalyst in desegregating eateries in his city. The most visible case of all was Archbishop Iakovos marching along Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama, a scene immortalized on the cover of Time Magazine.

(In a kind of reciprocating way, Yvette Jarvis, an African-American artist from Brooklyn, New York, was the first colored candidate to be elected to the Athens’ City Council, in the ‘90s.)

There were other Greeks – some of them still live in our midst – that proved themselves as Hellenes and courageous human beings during one of the toughest periods in the American History. Aleck Gulas, father of the former AHEPA Supreme President Ike Gulas, was the first, in Birmingham, Alabama, of all places, to open his jazz supper club (Key Club) to African-American musicians! (Talking about courage …)

AHEPA (American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association), the biggest Greek American organization, was founded in Atlanta, Georgia, early in the 20th century, with the aim to help Greeks assimilate and advance in the US but more urgently to organize them against the Ku Klux Klan criminal activities that were targeting them as well. In old black and white photos you can still see the “No Dogs, No Greeks” signs on the doors of many establishments in the south.

Even earlier, in the late 1800’s, Lefkadios Hearn, born in my home island of Lefkada, came to the US and worked as a journalist in Cincinnati and caused a social uproar by marrying to an African American woman Alethea (Mattie) Foley! Well, the marriage didn’t work out at the end and he later moved to Japan where he changed his name to Koizumi Yakumo and became the country’s national poet (now, that’s a story!), but in his way and thanks to his revolutionary spirit he actively challenged a society that could not tolerate interracial unions. Marrying an African American then wasn’t just socially unacceptable, but also illegal!

In the ‘50s a Cephallonian by the last name of Bekatoros, helped the young Charles Rangel to find his way in life and pursue his dreams and later become a long serving congressman from the great state of New York. Mr. Rangel always pays tribute to his most unusual mentor (when he speaks to the Greeks, at least).

These and many more examples of individual courage that still serve as examples to all of us, shouldn’t be used in order to just “glorify” our community and make us feel good about our collective contribution to civil rights, but rather inspire us to become more sensitive and equally active when it comes to modern day challenges. A society is always a work in progress and nothing can be taken for granted, we must be vigilant of our freedoms and of our dignity as human beings. The best way to accomplish that is by making sure that all our fellow citizens enjoy the same rights and quality of citizenship as we do. Unfortunately, in the US this isn’t the case yet …

And not just in the US. In our eternal motherland Greece, due to the economic crisis and the collapse of an unsustainable life-style, subsidized by loans and state corruption, we have witnessed the last three years the emergence of ultra right (and ultra left) groups that preach hatred, intolerance, violence, fascism, and all the nightmarish versions of hell from which the country suffered immeasurably during the Nazi occupation from 1941 to 1944.

Another tragic irony is that some of those groups are openly embracing KKK and its practices! Maybe it’s time to start celebrating Black History Month in Greece as well, in schools at least, in order to realize that not long ago our people too were …black (as were the Irish, the Italians and many more)!

Demetrios Rhompotis is a journalist based in New York and publisher of NEO magazine (

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