Greek Families

The U.S. Census can tell someone a lot about the ways in which a person lived in the past. Combine that data with geographical information, and a whole world appears before a researcher. For example, we can learn a lot about Greek immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries using these two primary sources. Greek immigrants began arriving in the United States around 1870. During the 1890-1910 period, young Greek men immigrated to the United States in search for economic opportunity, but also intended to return home after working for a while and saving money. With the outbreak of World War I, Greek immigrants decided to stay with the hope of returning after the war.  Many, however, did not. With the passage of the National Origins Quota Act in 1924, there was a decline in immigration generally, especially Greeks, who, along with other southern and eastern Europeans were the target of federal regulations. There was a second wave of Greek immigration in 1965-1999 as a result of the 1965 Immigration Act, which ended the national- quota system.[1] It is clear that there were different patterns for Greek immigrants based on the years that they arrived in the United States.

Greek Immigration to the United States
Era Approx. Total Approx. Annual Average
Early migration 1873-1899 15,000 500
Great Wave 1890-1917 450,000 25,000
Last Exodus 1918-1924 70,000 10,000
Closed Door 1925-1946 30,000 1,300
Postwar Migration 1947-1965 75,000 4,000
New Wave 1966-1979 160,000 11,000
Declining Migration 1980-1989 25,000 2,500
Source: Charles Moskos, Greek Americans: Struggle and Success, p.156. It should be noted that it is very difficult to determine exact numbers of Greek immigrants because many of them were expatriated Greeks who came to the United States from Turkey.

Although a general understanding of the waves of Greek immigration to the U.S. is important, there are some regional differences.  Greek immigrants who migrated to the South, for example, led very different lives than the ones of those that lived in the North.[3] In the south, Greeks lived in communities based on their economic and “social commercial circles” rather than enclaves.[4] Although Greeks did not live in a large Greek communities, customary values and practices that connected them to their homeland were still very important to Greeks. Greeks who migrated to the U.S. South continued to uphold family structures, which included caring for extended family.

The United States census gives information that can be helpful to understanding the structure of Greek homes. The 1940 United States census asked a variety of questions that would be useful for a researcher. For example, two Greek American families lived in Alexandria, Virginia in Ward Six, a area which was annexed from Alexandria County (now known as Arlington County) in 1930.  They were also neighbors on the same street, and may have even known each other previously since they all emigrated from Turkey or in the U.S.. The two families also migrated from New York and New Jersey to Virginia.

Edward Kapvelian, the head of his household, was born in the U.S. though his wife, her mother and sister, were from Turkey. It is difficult to know whether he was second generation or not, because the census does not ask the birthplace of one’s mother and father as it did in earlier censuses. Kapvelian worked as an patent examiner for the Department of Commerce and was well educated.  Based on the census, he even attended graduate school of some kind.[5]

Although it is possible that these families are part of the Greek ethnic minority in Turkey, it is also possible that they were Armenians.  Without information in the census on the language spoken at home or other ethnic identifiers, it is unclear.

[1] Ann Korologos Bazzarone, A Timeline of Greek Immigration, accessed October 11, 2015

[2] Ibid.

[3] Lazar “Larry” Odzak, “Demetrios Is Now Jimmy: ” Greek Immigrants in the Southern United States, 1895-1965 (Durham, N.C: Monograph Publishers, 2011), 61.

[4] Ibid.

[5] 1940 U.S. Census, Alexandria, Virginia.

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