The Passing of a Generation: the Demographics of Greek America


Published in The National Herald, May 6-12, 2017 Issue
Authored by Steve Frangos
TNH Staff Writer


We are excited to announce that The National Herald has given Hellenic Genealogy Geek the right to reprint articles that may be of interest to our group. 



Without word or whisper, the passing of an entire generation is nearly complete. The children of the 1880 to 1920 generation of Greek immigrants to the United States are almost gone from our midst. Not too far behind them are their cousins/extended family from Greece who they had sponsored immediately after World War II. This was the Greek-America, I knew and in which I grew up. Now, this world is on the very brink of disappearing forever. Any real historian would already have generated a series of articles on this moment in our collective experience. But, this simply has not taken place.

All this came to me because of the sheer number of funerals I have been attending in the last year or so.  The Greek-Americans I know are those whose families are buried in the Elmwood Cemetery and Mausoleum in River Grove, IL, a suburb of Chicago. While no history has yet seen print on this particular cemetery it is, given the composition of the vast majority of graves, a cemetery with an extremely heavy presence of Eastern Orthodox graves. A small but well-appointed Greek Orthodox chapel is found within Elmwood, the Transfiguration of Our Savior. War memorials and graves beginning with the American Civil War are found throughout this cemetery. Two relatively recent war memorials dedicated to Orthodox Christians are also now found in Elmwood one for Armenians the other Greek veterans.

The children of the 1880 to 1920 waves of immigrants was/is a generation of individuals who were known, for a time within academic writings, as the marginal men. A theoretical concern of the late 1940s and early 1950s the question was asked whether these individuals, with an immigrant past (and so metaphorically) a foot in both their parent’s world and the everyday reality of America, could succeed in daily life. This was not a question unknown to the average Greek in Chicago. I heard many a lecture, growing up within the community, where the speaker inevitably brought up their own initial doubts about this same question. Given that I was listening to successful individuals the end of the talk always focused on how being Greek actually enabled one to succeed in American life. Whether this claim is/was/remains true or not is for future generations to decide.

These  marginal men (as well as the Greek-American women of that same generation who the 1950s academics ignored) not only received the religious, cultural and social institutions founded by their parent’s but expanded upon them. The mighty cathedrals we have today were largely conceived and built by this generation. The Hellenic Festivals which unquestionably raised the monies needed to build church buildings, well past one would have suspected given our demographic numbers, were only possible by the unselfish, tireless work and fundamental generosity of the men and women of this generation.

Today, these events as well as the rest of Greek America is now under the care and daily attention of the generation known as the baby boomers. According to the U.S. Census this generation is composed of the demographic group born during the post-World War II era between (approximately) the years 1946 and 1964. Consequently this includes individuals who are now, themselves, between 53 and 71 years of age.

So what happened? Why didn’t we receive a series of reports, articles, coverage of some kind about this generation’s gradual passing of responsibilities to the baby boomers? All I can assume is that the very gradual nature of this process has kept it largely unnoticed. Now this is not to say news reports, conversations within the Greek communities around the nation, and/or even local American sources have not reported on specific individuals and unique situations where one generation was succeeded by another. It’s just that connecting all these separate reports into a broader pattern has somehow escaped wider discussion.

Given that we have more Greek-Americans and native-born Greeks at literally every level of the American educational system than at any other time in history, one would think we would be in a golden age of written accounts, gathered documents and all the rest. Complimenting this situation is that according to the U.S. Census report of the 1980s Greeks, when counted among their own numbers, were among the foremost in education and economic status. If the Census is to be believed, then the generation now in daily control of our community received not only an education as a means to earn a daily living but was also provided a humanistic education by which they could see meaning in their everyday lives. So, given these two separate but obviously complimentary areas of modern American life one would think, the Greek-born academics would have forged a bond of common purpose with a very receptive generation.

With the passing of this very specific generation we lose eyewitnesses to the past. We lose not only their recollections but years of hard won skills. How many Hellenic Festivals, today, depend on only a handful of skilled individuals (females as well as males) to provide essential skills? Let’s be frank, one of the areas where Greek-Americans and converts to Orthodoxy experience considerable difficulty together is over these festivals. Converts very often do not possess the skills to prepare and serve food.

As this Greatest Generation passes another form of loss occurs. All of us have photograph albums where, now that the older loved ones are gone, many individuals and events within these pages can no longer be identified. Photographs are exchanges between specific individuals. Not just memories, but an individual’s own sense of self can be  invoked by these images. What have you managed to preserve of your life and that of your ancestors (and valued others) to pass on to the future? Even if when you think of your future you again only think of your immediate family. What have you done so they will recognize everyone in your family photographs albums, if nothing else?

But have no fear historical revisionism is near at hand for the Greeks in the United States. Nearly a dozen academic book-length studies exist on Greeks in the United States. Unfortunately in these accounts we don’t measure up to the expectations of these Greek-born or only-Greeks-born-in-Greece-are-really-Greeks point of view. And as George Orwell has already noted, he who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.

Still, cultural dopes don’t exist. Those claiming to be Greek in North America are as Greek as the next guy. Greeks from Greece are not more Greek than anyone else. Greeks in Greece think of themselves as the cultural-core of Greek society. They are not more or better at being Greek than Diaspora populations. Since Classical times, the historical experience of being Greek reports persons claiming to be Greek have been scattered across half the Mediterranean, across north Africa, the Balkans, Anatolia, and even parts of the Middle East. Present-day Greeks in what today are the boundaries of the Greek political national state do not possess some kind of cultural superiority to us.

In the end each individual, each generation is known by their accomplishments. The legacy of the Greek-American baby-boomers has yet to be determined. But whatever is to take place Greek-America is now, undeniably, within their care.