By Robert Mills
In 1890, there were fewer than 100 Greeks living in the City of Lowell, but just 35 years later, Lowell was home to the third-largest Greek population in America — trailing only New York City and Chicago, according to Wael Kamal, assistant dean of UMass Lowell’s College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.
Most of those first-generation Greeks came here fleeing wars and economic crisis, seeking economic opportunity, according to a new exhibit on display at University Crossing, “Acropolis of America: The Greek Community of Lowell 1874 – 2020.”
“They dreamed of upward mobility, social mobility, and an environment of equal opportunity,” Greek Consul General Stratos Efthymiou said at the exhibit’s unveiling. “The Greeks of Lowell indeed achieved their American dream, gaining their expansive place in the American mosaic not by chance, but through sacrifice, risk taking and hard work.”
Greek businesses in Lowell grew almost as quickly as the community itself, according to the exhibit. In 1900, Greeks owned 19 businesses in Lowell. By 1920, they owned 232 businesses, including 15 barber shops, 28 coffee shops, 26 fruit stores and 33 groceries.
And of course the Demoulas family was among the grocery owners, and would often help provide transportation to beachside community picnics held by the Greek community before their grocery store turned into a behemoth chain.
The size of the community made Lowell the first city in the northeastern U.S. to be home to a Greek consulate, as well as the first orthodox day school and Byzantine Greek edifice.
And the community has only grown in its influence since.
The exhibit includes information on Lowell leaders like the late George Tsapatsaris, who died in 2017 after serving in the Korean War and then serving as one of the longest-serving superintendents in the history of Lowell Public Schools.
Many Greeks also got into politics, foremost among them the late Paul Tsongas, who served as a congressman and senator before running for president in 1992. His wife, Niki Tsongas, later served as a congresswoman as well.
Dr. Paul Panagiotakos, who was elected to the Lowell School Committee in 1943, was among the first Greeks to take public office. And George Eliades become the first Greek mayor in the U.S. when he became mayor of Lowell in 1951, according to the exhibit.
UMass Lowell Distinguished Professor of History Robert Forrant said much of the exhibit comes from collections of stories and photographs provided by Nicholas Karas and the late UMass Lowell Psychology Professor Charles Nikitopoulos. The exhibit is in memory of Nikitopoulos.
His daughter, Christina Nikitopoulous, said that community meant everything to her father.
“He was a community psychologist who saw the value of connecting the community with the city of Lowell,” she said.
Forrant said the Greek community contributed tremendously to the culture of Lowell, even as they made their way by valuing hard work and education. Forrant said both men and women from Greek families would work to make ends meet, even decades ago.
“Many Greek women worked 8 to 10 hours in the Merrimack Mill and then came home and did what they had to do once they got home,” Forrant said.
While the women were working, neighbors and other community members would help get children ready for school.
“The strength of the community was really pretty powerful,” Forrant said.
The exhibit will be on display on the second floor of UMass Lowell’s University Crossing building at Pawtucket and Merrimack Streets through mid-December. Forrant said that after the exhibit comes down, it will be available for exhibit at schools or churches and that anyone interested in hosting it should reach out to the UMass Lowell History Department.