On the day that my column about the history of Greeks in Arkansas ran in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, I received a text from my old friend Sam Stathakis in Hot Springs.
“From all the Greeks, thanks for the shout out,” he wrote. “Opa!”
The history of Greeks in Arkansas is fascinating, and James and Helen Hronas did yeoman’s work in pulling it together through the years.
“Because so few single women were among the first immigrants, men would return to Greece or to a larger U.S. city where they had relatives so they could be introduced to eligible women,” Helen Hronas writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Partly because of the scarcity of eligible Greek-American females, about half of the marriages took place with local women who were not Greek. With the first generation, much more intermarriage with non-Greeks occurred, though non-Greek spouses often became active members of the Greek Orthodox Church.
“The Balkan Wars that preceded World War I inspired many immigrants to return to Greece to help free it from the Ottoman Turks. Among those who saw action there were Theo Stathakis and Harry Hronas of Little Rock and Andrew Makris of Pine Bluff, all of whom returned safely to the United States. Newspaper clippings from the Arkansas Gazette and the Pine Bluff Daily around 1911 described how dozens of patriotic young men from Pine Bluff, Texarkana and Little Rock departed from Union Station in Little Rock for New York to offer their services to ‘overthrow barbarism’ in their native land.
“The contingent of Greek immigrants in Arkansas grew quickly through the 1920s until laws were passed to limit immigration. By then, the Greek population was quite large in Little Rock, probably more than 200. Afterward, it slowed considerably, but those who stayed in Little Rock remained united by their Orthodox faith, common culture and native language.”
Based on the Hronas’ research, here’s a breakdown on Greek immigration to several Arkansas towns:
Little Rock — Most early Greek families who came to Arkansas settled in Little Rock. The first Greek immigrant known to have arrived in Little Rock was Anastasios Stathakis in 1892. New immigrants often would stay at the home of Pelopida and Eugenia Kumpuris. The Homer Society was formed in Little Rock in 1905 to bring Greeks together, and what’s now Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church began meeting in 1913.
Helen Hronas writes: “Annunciation in Little Rock bought its first building in 1919 from Winfield Methodist Church at 15th and Center streets. The congregation outgrew this facility and in the 1970s bought land to build a new church on Napa Valley Drive. It was completed in 1983. The first Greek Food Festival was organized in 1984. Held on the church grounds, it has become a popular event that benefits the church and local charities. The Greek Folklore Society was organized in 1989 to promote Greek folk dancing and to perform at the festival.”
El Dorado — During the oil boom of the 1920s, William Photioo and his wife, Johanna Theoharis Photioo, moved to Union County to open a pharmacy and soda fountain. A plan by the Ku Klux Klan, which was active in south Arkansas at the time, to burn down their business was thwarted by friends of the couple. These friends spoke up on their behalf, and the KKK changed its plans.
Fort Smith — By the 1940s, there were about 40 Greek families in Fort Smith. Many of them were in the restaurant business. St. George Greek Orthodox Church was established after World War II, but it became inactive in the 1990s.
Hronas writes about Fort Smith: “The cafes were so busy that they had to close for several hours a day to catch up with washing huge stacks of dishes, cleaning the premises and cooking more food. The Nick Avlos family entertained Greek-American servicemen stationed at Fort Chaffee. In Fort Smith, all but about five families were composed of Greek husbands and non-Greek wives. They did not have a full-time priest or church services, but occasionally a priest would arrive from Little Rock for a sacrament, funeral or liturgy.”
Pine Bluff — Andrew Makris came to the United States in 1906 and helped begin the OK Ice Cream & Candy Co. in Pine Bluff in 1912.
Hronas writes: “When Makris returned to Greece to fight in the Balkan Wars, he married and then returned to Arkansas with his bride and sponsored relatives, George and Peter Zack and Gus Pappas, who became partners at OK. Pappas first sold ice cream as a street vendor and later became proficient in candy making, which became a part of OK. In 1930, the OK founders had a grand opening of their new, modern plant on Main Street, which employed 35 people making ice cream. An upstairs room was devoted to candy making. George Zack headed the milk and Angel Food ice cream department. As the company prospered, they invested in a liquor distributorship. Andrew Makris’ sons, Pete and George, were each named Outstanding Young Men of the Year by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and each served as president of the Junior Chamber.”
Because Pine Bluff did not have a Greek Orthodox church, most Greek families there attended the Episcopal church and then traveled to Little Rock for holidays at Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church.
Hot Springs — Greeks have a long history in the Spa City, having become doctors and leading business owners. In 1954, a movement headed by the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association began with the goal of establishing a Greek Orthodox church in Hot Springs. In 1959, the first building ever constructed in Arkansas specificially for an Orthodox congregation was completed, and the parish of Zoodochos Peghee (commonly known as St. Mary’s) opened with a dedication ceremony on Jan. 30, 1960.
Hronas writes: “The Greeks and their families who settled in Hot Springs in the early 1900s were entrepreneurs and worked long hours to support their families. One enduring company was the Pappas Brothers Confectionary. Peter Pappas arrived in Hot Springs in about 1903 and his brothers — John, Angelo and William — later joined him in business. During the Depression, Pappas Brothers, the Deluxe Café (owned by George Gabriel) and other Greek eateries served countless needy people, including students at nearby schools who had no lunch money.”
Texarkana — About 10 Greek families settled in Texarkana. Most of them were in the restaurant business. A priest would come once a month from Shreveport, La., to celebrate the liturgy. People from the Greek Orthodox church in Shreveport also would come during the summer to teach the Greek language to children.
The Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese established a mission in Little Rock known as Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in the 1990s. Another mission was established in Fayetteville. Out of the Fayetteville mission grew St. Nicholas Orthodox Christian Church in Springdale. Noted architect Marlon Blackwell designed a facility for St. Nicholas in 2010.
“During the Great Depression in the 1930s, several families had great financial troubles, losing property and investments,” Helen Hronas writes. “Others lost most of their bank savings. Some families were evicted from their homes and lived in their businesses or elsewhere. Few, if any, Greek families went hungry since their principal occupations were most ofen associated with food. Some local banks and investors worked with small business owners and allowed them leeway in paying their rent so that they did not lose their businesses entirely.”
Many of the male children of the first Greek immigrants to Arkansas served in World War II. Hronas notes that for years after the war, Arkansas Greeks “shipped supplies to Greece and helped financially with the recovery there.”