Students and Alumna Created Exhibit with University Prof. Robert Forrant
By Katharine Webster
Greek immigrants have had an outsized impact on the history of Lowell and the region.
A century ago, Lowell hosted the largest community of Greek immigrants outside of New York and Chicago. It was the first stop in the United States for many people emigrating from Greece and became the home of many of the earliest Greek American institutions.
This country’s first Greek Orthodox church, the Hellenic Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity, was built in the neighborhood once known as “the Greek Acre” and is now a National Historic Landmark. Lowell also hosted the first Greek consulate and the first Greek Orthodox school.
So even though the descendants of those original immigrants have dispersed to other city neighborhoods, the suburbs and beyond, hundreds of them returned to Lowell to celebrate the opening of “Acropolis of America,” an exhibit on the history of Greek immigration created by History Prof. Robert Forrant, several history students and art and design graduate Kelly Freitas ’16.
“I think this is a very praiseworthy work and something you should all be proud of,” Greece’s consul general in Boston, Stratos Efthymiou, told a standing-room-only crowd in Moloney Hall. “Greeks have achieved the American dream in Lowell, a special place in the American mosaic.”
Efthymiou spoke about notable Greek Americans from Lowell, including former Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, whose father migrated to Lowell; the late U.S. Sen. Paul Tsongas and his widow, former U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas; Lowell Mayor William Samaras; and the late George Tsapatsaris ’77, longtime superintendent of Lowell’s schools.
Efthymiou also praised the continuing relationship between Greece and Greek Americans from Lowell, noting that retired pharmaceutical executive and philanthropist George Behrakis, a Lowell native, was honored on a Greek stamp this year for his contributions to the country’s antismoking campaign.
“It’s up to us to keep telling the stories, because when we remember history, we restore it,” he said.
“Acropolis of America: The Greek Community of Lowell 1874-2020” was created in collaboration with Lowell’s Hellenic Culture and Heritage Society and with support from the Hellenic Studies Program at the university.
The traveling exhibit consists of nine banners, each one focusing on a period or aspect of Greek American history in Lowell, illustrated through immigration documents and letters, stories and photos that portray the journey from the shores of Greece, through Ellis Island, and on to the tenements in Lowell.
“Acropolis of America,” on display on the second floor of University Crossing, is dedicated to the late Psychology Prof. Charles Nikitopoulos, who emigrated from Greece as a child after World War II, graduated from Lowell High School and went on to co-found the university’s Community Social Psychology master’s program.
Nikitopoulos and local historian Nicholas Karas contributed many of the photos and documents for the exhibit and for a more extensive history of Greek immigration that Forrant is compiling with help from honors history major Sophie Combs ’21. Combs has also collected some oral histories from the city’s oldest residents.
Forrant and Combs took turns speaking at the opening, showing slides of historic photos, documents and paintings and outlining what they’d uncovered, including that almost all of the earliest Greek immigrants to Lowell were men looking for work.
“One boy asked his father, ‘Why did you come to America?’” Combs said. “He answered, ‘I was always hungry.’”
They also learned that there were once 70 coffeehouses in Lowell, 28 of them Greek. The coffeehouses were men-only clubs, while women were active through the churches – at the community’s peak, there were four Greek Orthodox parishes – and other societies, Combs said.
Everyone went on Sunday picnics dressed in their finest clothes, or on outings to the beach or to Boston sponsored by businessmen including the Demoulas brothers, founders of what is today the Market Basket chain of supermarkets.
Men and women both worked in the mills, living in tenements with no heat or electricity. They raised their children to value family, hard work, the Greek language, education and “sitting down and looking people in the eyes,” Combs said.
“Community was the strength of the Greeks in Lowell, then as it is now,” she said.
After the formal program, as people filed out to see the exhibit and share Greek food, including sumptuous Greek pastries made by members of the Hellenic Culture and Heritage Society, Combs said that Forrant gave her a lot of freedom – and responsibility – to decide what would go into the exhibit.
“This was the first time I was in charge of what goes on the panels, from the punctuation to the history,” she said.
Andreas George, a junior from Lexington double-majoring in education and world languages and cultures (Spanish and Italian), was excited about the exhibit and the presentation. He grew up speaking Greek because his parents and grandparents are Greek.
“I came because this is the first Greek event or experience I’ve heard of since I’ve been a student here,” he said. “I knew that Lowell had a big Greek presence, but I didn’t know that the first Greek consulate was in Lowell. That was cool!”