Though small in number compared to other immigrant groups, Greeks and Greek Americans in Arkansas have had a notable impact upon the state. From their beginnings as laborers, Greeks in Arkansas quickly became entrepreneurs and business owners, and many of the children and grandchildren of these original immigrants went on to business, academic, and medical careers. Many Greeks who come to Arkansas today are in the medical or research fields. Emblematic of the acceptance of Greeks by the state has been the popularity of the Greek Food Festival, one of the most well-attended culinary fetes in the state.
Immigrants from Greece began arriving in Arkansas in the late nineteenth century. Most were single young males who left their homeland for the United States full of hope for a more prosperous life. Greece was very poor at the time, and some parts of northern Greece had not yet won their freedom from the Turkish Ottoman yoke. It was a dangerous and difficult three-week voyage, and many left with little more than the clothes on their backs and a few coins. The first priority of those who were married was to earn enough money to send for their wives and children. Most immigrants became permanent residents, but others saved their money and returned to Greece.
Most families settled in Little Rock (Pulaski County). The earliest immigrants to Little Rock came mostly from villages and small towns of the Peloponnesus (southern Greece), particularly from Olympia and Sparta, and usually headed to places where they knew someone who could help them get established. The first to reach Little Rock was Anastasios Stathakis, who arrived in 1892 from Sparta. In 1902, Pete Peters was the first child born of Greek immigrants in Little Rock.
Pelopida and Eugenia Kumpuris frequently housed new immigrants at their Little Rock home. The newly arrived usually worked for a time for those who came earlier while picking up enough English to get by. Few had an opportunity for formal schooling, although some were well educated in Greece before immigrating. Many did hard labor, such as building railroad tracks, and as was common with immigrants who spoke little or no English, sometimes the employer refused to pay once the job was done. Such discrimination and abuse provided Greeks an incentive to go into business for themselves, as well as educate their children. The Greeks were soon running fruit and vegetable markets, hot dog stands, candy shops, grocery stores, cleaners, or shoeshine parlors. Most gravitated toward food service.
By 1905, there were enough Greeks in Little Rock to organize the Homer Society, the purpose of which was both cultural and religious. In 1913, members arranged to bring a permanent priest, Father Kallinikos Kanellas, and services were held in an upstairs meeting hall over a high-end grocery near 9th and Main streets for the next eight years. Research by Reverend Father George Scoulas in the 1960s indicated that Kanellas probably was the first Orthodox priest of Greek ancestry to come to the United States.
During the oil boom in the 1920s, William Photioo, a graduate of the Little Rock School of Pharmacy, and his wife, Johanna Theoharis Photioo, moved to Union County, where they opened a pharmacy and soda fountain. The Ku Klux Klan was active in the area, but a plan to burn the pharmacy was thwarted by the couple’s friends, who spoke in their defense. Photioo later became head of the local Kiwanis Club and master of ceremonies at its annual shows.
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 to be introduced to eligible women. 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 (Jefferson County), 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 (Miller County), and Little Rock departed from Union Station 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.
During the Great Depression in the 1930s, several families had great financial troubles, losing property and investments; 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 immigrant families went hungry, as their principal occupations were most often associated with food. Some local banks or investors worked with small business owners and allowed them leeway in paying their rent so that they did not lose their businesses entirely.
During World War II, virtually every eligible Greek male—about a dozen—from the Little Rock area served in the U.S. armed services. At least fourteen from other towns served, as well. These were the children of the first immigrants. During the war, it was difficult for Greek Americans to do anything for the citizens of Greece because of the German occupation, but for years after the war, Greeks in Arkansas shipped supplies to Greece and helped financially with the recovery there. After World War II, the GI Bill made it possible for Greek-American veterans to obtain a college degree.
The Greek community in Fort Smith (Sebastian County) consisted of about thirty families in the 1930s and 1940s. Fort Smith was a lively town during World War II because of its proximity to Fort Chaffee. Most of the Greeks were in the restaurant business. 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. Later, a priest served Hot Springs (Garland County) and Fort Smith for a time, living in quarters at the small chapel bought after World War II with funds from families that had continued their association with the Greek Orthodox Church. Because George Katsavis was the most generous donor, he was allowed to name the church; he named it for his patron saint, St. George. Greek language classes were held regularly, but only a few students attended. In the 1990s, the church became inactive; the building is now on Fort Smith’s historic register. The Russian Orthodox Archdiocese—of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)—is now serving the Orthodox who remain in the area.
The first Greek immigrants in Pine Bluff probably were Andrew Makris, who arrived in the United States in about 1906, and James Stevenson, who partnered with Makris in the unsuccessful Sweetland Confectionary. They left Pine Bluff for some time but returned to found the OK Ice Cream and Candy Company in 1912. Six male Paschal relatives also immigrated there in 1911. When Makris returned to Greece to fight in the Balkan Wars, he married, then returned to Arkansas with his bride and his 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 thirty-five people making Purity Maid 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’s sons, Pete and George, were each named Outstanding Young Man of the Year by the Junior Chamber of Commerce, and each served as president of the Junior Chamber. Pappas’s son, Pat, served in the state House of Representatives, and his nephew, Vasily (Bill) Priakos, became conductor of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra and, later, of a symphony orchestra in Florida. George Zack’s son, also named George, became conductor of the Lexington, Kentucky, philharmonic.
Pine Bluff did not have an Orthodox church, so most families attended the Episcopal church. They would travel to Little Rock’s Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church for special holidays. Those who did not have automobiles arrived by bus. As the interstate was developed, more attended Annunciation. Pine Bluff had about sixteen Greek families, most of which were involved with restaurant or grocery businesses, liquor stores, or OK Ice Cream and Candy.
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.
There were about thirty families early on in Hot Springs. At the time of the building of the new church, there were eighteen families. In 2006, there were even fewer Greeks in Hot Springs. Again, as in Little Rock, most of the first and second generation were well educated, becoming physicians, businessmen, and professionals, and contributing to the civic and social life of Hot Springs.
The Greek Orthodox of Hot Springs attended church in Little Rock as often as they could, but in 1954, a movement began to establish their own church, spearheaded by the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA). By 1959, the first Greek Orthodox church to be built in Arkansas specifically for an Orthodox congregation was completed and named Zoodochos Peghee (the Life-Giving Water), though it is called St. Mary’s. John Asimos was a principal donor and established the Asimos Greek Orthodox Endowment Fund to support the church in the future. Gabriel Hall was named for George Gabriel, another principal donor. Both Asimos and Gabriel were immigrants.
About ten Greek immigrant families settled in Texarkana. Most were in restaurant businesses. A priest from Shreveport, Louisiana, arrived once a month to celebrate the liturgy; during the summer, someone from the Shreveport Greek Orthodox Church arrived to teach children the Greek language.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many Greek students—mostly males—began to seek college educations in Arkansas, as access to higher education in Greece was limited. About half returned to Greece. A few female immigrants also came as students or arrived after marrying U.S. servicemen stationed in Greece. Later, in the 1990s and afterward, many in medical and research specialties settled in Little Rock at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), where their talents and skills were in demand. A number of people in the medical field are members of Annunciation, and many are Greek immigrants or descendants. Greek students continue coming to Arkansas for higher education; some become U.S. citizens.
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 annual Greek Food Festival was organized in 1984. Held on the church grounds, it has become a popular event that benefits the church and many local charities. The Greek Folklore Society was organized in 1989 to promote Greek folk dancing and to perform at the festival.
For additional information:
Elfter, James G. “History of Zoodochos Peghee.” The Record 7 (1966): 88–90.
“History links Greek family, church.” The Sentinel-Record. February 9, 2003, p. 2G.
Hronas, James and Helen. “A History of the Annunciation Greek Orthodox Community of Little Rock, Arkansas.” Pulaski County Historical Review 39 (Fall 1991): 61–71.
McCully, Audrey Wenger. “The Pappas Brothers Confectionary: Home of the Incomparable Three-Way.” The Record 28 (1987): 22–39.
Helen R. Hronas
Little Rock, Arkansas
Last Updated: 10/15/2009