Following is a piece written exclusively for The Pappas Post by Alexander Kitroeff, eminent professor, author and historian of the Greek American experience. The article is preceded by a foreword by Gregory C. Pappas.
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I’ve never felt the urge, or need, to write an introduction or a foreword to a piece I was planning to publish on The Pappas Post. But this time, I felt it necessary. It was the time when the political conversation in our country was fixated on immigration, when Donald Trump was waging war on immigration with various incendiary comments, attempted executive orders and policy changes– even sending troops to “protect” our southern borders.
Being a life-long student of history, particularly my own history as a son of a refugee father from Greece and an immigrant mother, a lot of the rhetoric and public discourse sounded familiar to many of the newspaper stories and reports I had read from the early 1900s, when people like my grandfather, Michael Papadomanolakis, emigrated from Crete and settled in the mining towns around Price, Utah with many of his fellow Cretan immigrants.
The nativist attacks by Trump began stoking anger and resentment in this country against immigrants and also brought out repeated voices— especially from my own community of Greek Americans— that “Greeks were different” and “we came here legally.”
It was a common attempt to white-wash our own history and pat ourselves on our back, aiming to differentiate us from the “animals” who were attempting to “invade” our country.
The problem was, this wasn’t true. And Alexander Kitroeff’s excellently-cited story will share a different reality— not because I want to paint our community in a negative light. On the contrary— I want to shine a light of example on the resilience and perseverance of our ancestors who— despite all of the odds (and laws) stacked against them— they found a way here and succeeded in building one of the strongest ethnic communities in the nation.
My community in Pittsburgh was full of ship-jumpers. Members of my own family came here in this manner and many people I know today share the same heritage.
When I first moved to Chicago in the 1990s, a man who would become a mentor to me proudly shared his ship-jumping story with me. “The laws were unjust,” Chris Tomaras once told me, as he shared the story of how he and a friend arrived at a southern U.S. port and never returning to the ship, instead making their way to Chicago.
He was referring to strict, anti-Greek immigration laws which were passed in the 1920s to “to preserve the ideal of U.S. homogeneity,” according to official U.S. records. These laws restricted entry into the United States by immigrants who were not considered “white” enough to become Americans and targeted namely Greeks, Italians, Jews from various countries and Eastern European Slavs.
They effectively closed the doors on new Greek arrivals from 1925 to the 1960s when the laws were changed.
Despite this, Greeks (and others) found ways to come to America. Ship-jumping (as you will read in Alexander’s story) was the Greek method of choice and at one point in the 1940s reached “alarming” proportions, prompting the Greek government to act to prevent the massive outflow of able-bodied male citizens from the country.
By the way, Chris Tomaras, as well as his friend, whom I will not name here, went on to become two of the nation’s most successful and respected businessmen. Chris also built a philanthropic giant called the PanHellenic Scholarship Foundation which has awarded scholarships to dozens of Greek American students since its founding.
My point in all of this— and my point in both this preface, as well as the story by Alexander Kitroeff that will follow is that we don’t need false narratives to prove a point. We don’t need to paint a picture that isn’t true in order to try and prove that we are “better” or “different” from the people trying to come to the United States today.
Of course, all of Greek America doesn’t stem from ship-jumpers. I’d never make such a generalization. But I’d also never make a generalization that “we all came here legally” which became the narrative for a while from many (most) Greek Americans.
People say “times have changed.” But have they? Is hunger any different today than it was a century ago? Is war any different today than it was then? Is the thirst for opportunity different from my uncle who jumped ship in the 1970s and a Mexican father who walks thousands of miles to “jump” across a border wall?
I’m proud of my family. I’m proud of my community. I’m proud of Chris Tomaras and the lessons he taught me. I’m proud of each and every one of these men who had the audacity to cross an ocean to fulfill their own dreams of becoming Americans. I’m proud of their resilience, their fortitude— and yes, their willingness to break a law that they believed to be unjust.
Ship Jumpers: An Unspoken Chapter of Greek Immigration to the United States
by Alexander Kitroeff
After jumping ship in the port of New York in 1941, Elias Vlantanopoulos worked a few odd jobs in Greek-owned establishments around the city and right after Pearl Harbor he enlisted in the US Army. The SS Michael Livanos had lost a crew member — actually several more crew members — as well as its captain, who also jumped ship. But the American military had gained a member of the Army Corps of Engineers who fought so bravely in multiple deadly battles on the islands of the Pacific that he earned a Purple Heart.
It almost did not work out that way. Before shipping out with the Army, Elias was sitting at the Greek-owned Byzantine Cafe in New York whose customers included many Greek seamen. Precisely for that reason it was frequently targeted by immigration agents and as luck would have it they raided that particular shop that day and arrested him.
Had he not rushed through the kitchen and out the back door because he thought his enlistment papers would protect him. But the immigration agents thought otherwise and dragged him off to Ellis Island pending deportation. Luckily, a fellow Greek notified the Army military police and someone came and negotiated his release. Vlantanopoulos returned to the barracks and soon he was off to the Pacific front.
Vlantanopoulos’ arrival in the United States and the achievements that followed is the story of thousands of Greeks.
In 1942 the New York Times reported that, out of the 8,000 seamen who were in the United States illegally, about 3,000 were Greek.
There are numerous accounts that the illegal Greek has made his way into American popular media. In an episode in the PBS American Playhouse series, set in 1915, there is a fictional Greek named Andreas Lambrakos who jumps ship in New York and makes his way westward across America. While in British author Jeffrey Archer’s 1977 fictional account of a plot on the life of John F. Kennedy, “Shall We Tell the President,” it’s an illegal Greek immigrant who overhears of the plot.
Ethnic Pride Versus Ethnic Shame
There are many other American ethnic groups whose histories involve instances of coming into the United States by evading immigration authorities at the border. There are several academic studies and articles on the Jews, about whom the information is more readily available because of the murderous discrimination from which they were fleeing.
Greek Americans are more reticent to talk about such instances. And yet, what the Greeks faced may not quite measure up to the evils of anti-semitism, but if we consider the Asia Minor Disaster and the war-torn 1940s, we can begin to understand some of the motives of our compatriots.
Not only do Greek Americans prefer not to talk about Greeks jumping ships, recently many public figures in the community falsely claimed that “we all came here legally.” It is a phrase we see being tacked on to the standard narrative of the Greek experience in the United States which speaks about an uphill battle of struggle in which the law-abiding, family-oriented and hard-working Greek who values religion and education duly achieves the American Dream of upward social mobility.
If this claim is supposed to distinguish the Greek American past from the present reality of Mexican and Central American immigration, we should think again. And if denying this chapter of Greek America’s past has to do with an anxiety about the status and respectability of Greek Americans, if we look closer at the phenomenon of Greeks jumping ships then we might be able to feel ethnic pride rather than ethnic shame.
That Greeks have jumped ship throughout the twentieth century is part of the experiences of many families and part of the fabric of Greek American life. One friend described how he remembers as a child that his father, a translator for the immigration service, used to continuously receive phone calls, even late at night, about cases of apprehended Greek seamen who did not know English.
Many others have recounted the story of their fathers, their uncles or their grandfathers who jumped ship in an American port. In Athens last year I visited the shop of Dimitris, a highly recommended floor installer. It turns out he had spent time in the United States. The first time he got there was by jumping ship in Norfolk, Va., the second time he came in undetected through Canada.
Greeks venturing abroad have always had to think on their feet, as do all who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. They can never take anything for granted and sometimes they have to seize opportunities and worry about the consequences later. The archetype of the agile, risk-taking Greek are, of course, the Greek seafarers who have made their mark around the world. To take just one example, Greek captains have been ignoring maritime blockades and embargos since the Napoleonic wars. In 1966 it took a United Nations Security Council Resolution to prevent a Greek ship from undermining the British embargo on Rhodesia.
Ordinary Greek seamen have an equally colorful history as Greek shipowners and captains. It includes standing up to their bosses through robust labor unions, braving the threat of German submarines on the North Atlantic supply convoys during WWII as well as refusing to unload supplies in communist controlled ports in North Vietnam. And seamen jumping ship in American ports and going on to create businesses and families or doing something extraordinary such as Elias Vlantanopoulos did to earn a Purple Heart is part of the great story of Greek struggle and success in America.
Early On, Almost Everyone Came Legally
We must keep in mind that in the era of the first big wave of Greek arrivals in the United States, from the 1890s to the early 1920s, practically everyone was allowed in, unless they were deemed to be physically or mentally ill.
And the “documentation” of all entrants is a relative term, because there were no passports at the time. One merely acquired a document from their local authority and with their fare, their name was entered onto a ship’s manifest (the passenger list) against which they were checked by the immigration authorities. Passports were introduced worldwide, including in Greece, in the mid-1920s.
But even in those times of easy entry there were Greeks trying to slip in unnoticed, possibly because of concerns about their chances of entry through Ellis Island. The Brooklyn’s Time Union newspaper reported on March 7, 1911 that two Greeks, an officer and a ticket agent of a steamship company were arraigned “in connection with the alleged smuggling of aliens in this country by the Greek ships Athina and Themistocles.”
There was one more obstacle to entering, and it was directed at anyone arriving under the auspices of a “padrone,” or a labor agent. This labor agent engaged laborers or whole families to come to this country, rented their services and then paid them a mere pittance. They were virtually his bondsmen for many years until they “repaid” him for getting them to America.
Greeks were involved on both sides of the equation of the “padrone” system. An article that appeared in the New Hampshire Herald on February 7, 1898 noted that “the immigration authorities believe that they have uncovered a scheme by which New York is to be overrun with Greek pushcart vendors and several Greek padrones are to be enriched.”
The most notorious Greek “padrone” was Leonidas Skliris known as the “Czar of the Greeks” because of the significant number of Greeks he brought to Utah to work in the mines. A Greek worker shot one of his agents in 1908 but his reign continued even after Greek miners who went on strike in 1912 demanded and succeeded in getting him removed. A few years later he was shot by another Greek over a dispute about money but he survived and eventually left for Mexico.
Immigration Restrictions and Xenophobia
As is well known, in 1924 the U.S. Congress drastically restricted the entry of persons from Greece through mandated, very small annual quotas, a move that became easier to enforce due to the introduction of passports that year. Those quotas were directed especially against Southeast European immigrants.
They were racially motivated and part of the xenophobia in that era and led a group of Greek Americans to seek to defend their compatriots by forming the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). The restrictions remained in place until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 relaxed the strict quotas. The law came into effect in 1968. There were a few bright spots in between, especially in the 1950s when AHEPA successfully lobbied for the relaxation of the rules in the case of persons displaced because of war and children that had been orphaned.
Greek Seamen Respond
Given that situation between 1924 and 1968, it is not surprising that persons such as Elias Vlantanopoulos jumped ship in search of a better future. Several had the opportunity to serve in WWII, others to lead normal lives that fit the narrative of the hard-working law-abiding Greek who achieved success in America.
A Facebook friend has recounted a story that is typical of many others. His father jumped ship in New York in the early 1950s and joined his uncle in a Greek diner in Midtown Manhattan who had also jumped ship. Within a decade, having taken the precaution of changing his name, he was happily married to a devout Catholic woman (which meant his immigration status was settled). They owned a diner in New Jersey, where they raised their children.
Not all marriages between Greek seamen and American women were as authentic during that era. In December of 1965 the New York Daily News reported that immigration authorities announced “the smashing of a phony wedding syndicate” that had arranged for the marriages of more than 100 Greek seamen to qualify them as “non quota immigrants” for permanent residence in the United States.
Fees ranged from $1,000 to $1,500 with the “brides” who were mostly Puerto Rican women receiving between $200 and $500 for their part in the scheme. The women never lived with their husbands, most of whom signed divorce papers the same day the marriage was recorded. The way the operation worked was that a Greek American team would seek out the seamen and a Puerto Rican team supplied the women. The three Greeks who were arrested were an unemployed housepainter, a deli counterman and a diner chef who was said to be the ringleader.
A Greek and a Mexican: Parallel lives, 40 years apart
Some Greek-Puerto Rican marriages are more legitimate — though short-lived — and ensured a Greek could get citizenship. This was what John Zannikos, the owner of the 3Guys Restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, told New York Times reporter Anthony Depalma in 2005.
Zannikos spoke quite openly of leaving his island of Chios and arriving in the United States in 1953 in Norfolk, Va. by jumping ship. Three years later he was deported when immigration officials raided the coffee shop in the Bronx where he was working as a short order cook. But soon after, he managed to sneak back into the country and get married and has been here ever since.
Depalma wonders whether Juan Manuel Peralta, who worked as a chef at the restaurant and who entered the United States the same way as his boss 40 years later, will also make it. There are parallels between the Greek and the Mexican experiences, because they all dreamed of a better life, but, he notes, monumental changes in the economy and in attitudes toward immigrants have made it far less likely that Mr. Peralta and his children will experience the same upward mobility as Mr. Zannikos and his family.
In 1956, the year John Zannikos was deported, there were other Greeks who were also scheduled to be sent back to Greece, but some were able to gain an eleventh-hour reprieve. In one case, five Greek seamen were caught without papers in a small town in Iowa on the Mississippi, on the state border with Illinois.
One of them was supposed to get married to a Greek American woman from Illinois the very next weekend. A large number of guests planned to attend. Moved by her wish to prevent the deportation of the groom-to-be, many people from her home town contacted their congressman and the result was that President Eisenhower requested that his case be reconsidered. That happened, but the story had yet another dramatic twist because as the reconsideration dragged on it became known that the man had left town and married somebody else.
Stories of seamen jumping ships, not quite as dramatic as that one, appeared regularly in the columns of newspapers during the quotas era between 1924 and 1965. When five Greek painters were apprehended in Gary, Indiana, in 1952, it transpired that three had left their ship in New York, one in Portland, Oregon and the other in San Francisco.
A few reporters tried to give their stories a humorous twist, more often than not ending up with a very poor taste joke. Among them was one that reported that immigration authorities had picked up Greek seamen just outside Sparta but… unfortunately for them it was not Sparta in Greece but Sparta Township in New Jersey.
Some of the many stories are indeed tinged with humor. In October, 1970, the Livanos Shipping company experimented with sending smaller ocean-going vessels up the Mississippi River, to directly unload at inland ports such as St. Louis, Missouri. The boat, the Minilili, arrived with great fanfare and a delegation of Greek American community leaders met the boat and encouraged the sailors to jump ship. Three did, and two remained in St. Louis and married.
The Cuban Connection
In the wake of the imposition of harsh immigration quotas in 1924, Cuba became an obvious stepping stone from those barred from entry into the United States. An academic study by Lisa Lindquist Dorr, a history professor at the University of Alabama, states that in 1924 more than 60,000 of the 85,000 foreigners visiting Cuba that year originated from countries of Southeastern Europe that had been targeted by the quota restrictions. And the xenophobia that had brought about those quotas also spilled over in the investigations of alleged smugglers. In examining two witnesses of the defense of the Greek captain of a sponge-diving ship accused of smuggling immigrants, the prosecution asked them only whether they were Greek and asked no more questions, the implications being obvious to everyone in the court.
In another case that Professor Dorr has uncovered, the unfairness of the quotas became obvious. After living in Detroit for 12 years, Tom Koronas returned to visit Greece in 1922. Upon his arrival, the U.S. consulate in Piraeus assured him that he would have no trouble obtaining a visa for his return. In 1923, however, he was drafted into the Greek army, extending his stay in Greece for 28 months. Despite his efforts to return legally, he was unable to obtain a visa to the United States because Greece had reached its quota. He decided to take his chances with a smuggler based in Cuba.
My own sources have revealed another case in which a Greek could not emigrate in time to avoid the quotas because he was also in the army and had fought in the Asia Minor campaign of 1922. He arrived in the United States via Cuba, he became a respectable member of the Greek community and the local AHEPA chapter in a Midwestern town. The authorities discovered his status when he dutifully registered for the WWII draft. The authorities did nothing during the war but called on him after it ended and allowed him to voluntarily leave and re-enter the country from Canada.
These stories and many other newspaper articles show there was a pattern of Greeks jumping ship in the era of restrictive quotas. And as the Philadelphia Inquirer noted in 1980, many Greeks have the reputation among immigration agents of being difficult to catch because they blend in so well into their Philadelphia or New York ethnic communities. Obviously the total number is much bigger than the number apprehended by the immigration authorities.
After the relaxation of the quotas that took effect in 1968, the phenomenon of Greeks jumping ship declined considerably, especially after 1974 and the collapse of the Greek dictatorship that persecuted seamen who did not support it. That shows that, while not all Greeks “came here legally,” those that did so by jumping ship did so between 1924 and 1968 when many Greeks were barred from entering due to the discriminatory barriers erected in the xenophobic 1920s.
And yet, despite all that, so many of them, like Elias Vlantanopoulos, managed to do well through the hard work and perseverance Greek Americans like to claim as a national trait. In that case, their achievements should be acknowledged more openly because their struggle and success is an integral part of the Greek American experience.
The author would like to thank several persons who spoke of their own or their relatives’ experiences jumping ship, and especially Elias Vlanton of Washington D.C. for the information he generously provided along with photographs of his father, Elias Vlantanopoulos. Mr. Vlanton is writing a memoir of his family history.
Alexander Kitroeff is Professor of History at Haverford College and specializes in the history of the Greek diaspora. His books include “The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt” (American University in Cairo Press, 2019) and “Greek Orthodoxy in America: A Modern History.”
Article sources and miscellaneous information.
The crew lists of the SS Michael Livanios and arrival and departure records into the United States showing the disparate numbers of Greek seamen arriving and departing, including Elias Vlantanopoulos, who jumped ship from this vessel.
The Boston Globe (Boston, Massachusetts) 24 Apr 1929
The Bristol Herald Courier (Bristol, Tennessee) 13 Jan 1930
The Baltimore Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) 10 Jun 1937
The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) 1 Apr 1941
The New York Times (New York, NY) 24 March 1942
The Times Herald (Port Huron, Michigan) 20 Sep 1946
The New York Times (New York, NY) 22 August 1948
Daily News (New York, New York) 11 Aug 1949
The Evening Sun (Baltimore, Maryland) 2 Feb 1951
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) 23 Jun 1951
The Times (Munster, Indiana) 6 May 1952
Quad-City Times (Davenport, Iowa) 28 Jul 1956
The Dispatch (Moline, Illinois) 5 Sep 1956
Delaware County Daily Times (Chester, Pennsylvania) 29 Jan 1959
Redlands Daily Facts (Redlands, California) 1 Dec 1961
The New York Times (New York, NY) 27 May 1962
The New York Times (New York, NY) 5 Jan 1962
Daily News (New York, New York) 19 Dec 1965
The News (Paterson, New Jersey) 19 Jun 1965
The Daily Chronicle (Centralia, Washington) 2 Nov 1966
The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, California) 19 Nov 1968
Daily News (New York, New York) 11 Oct 1971
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