Tuesday, July 19, 2022

The Helen Zeese Papanikolas Papers (1954-2009): Entering a Greek/American Archive

July 11, 2022. 
J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah 

I enter prepared. Thanks to information on the web, I am already familiar with the topics for each box. I have reserved boxes 2, 8, and 9, enough, I presume, for a day’s work in the archive. I can still order additional ones on site, if needed. [indeed, I end up also requesting boxes 10 and 11] 

Box 8, folder 8, is a priority, the main purpose for visiting the collection. The description reads, 

“Louis Tikas and the Ludlow [CO] Massacre 
 Documents relating to Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre 1900-1914; 
Scholarship, correspondence, news clipping 1953-2001.”

I have a particular interest in box 2, folder 4, for its eye-witness accounts of Ku Klux Klan anti-immigrant activities, a topic in a talk I will be giving later this year. 

Box 9, folder 12 (Greek-Americans in the Southern States) will also take me to “family narrative of Ku Lux Klan attack on Greek immigrant family in West Virginia, circa 1910.” 


I enter the Special Collections at the University of Utah’s J. Willard Marriott Library, sharply at 10:00 a.m., the opening time. I introduce myself and register, the boxes, neatly stacked, waiting. 

The Helen Zeese Papanikolas papers! The anticipation for opening the archive of a researcher whose published work I know intimately overflows, spills excitement. It spells eagerness, earnestness seizes me, as I am about to see and touch material from more than a century ago. In archives, I have read, researchers are “feeling things,” they “can experience an intensely close, even physical connection to past lives.” Archives lessen distances across time. 

Folder-after-folder I enter the world of Helen Papanikolas’ (1917-2004) work, and the world of the archive enters me. The sense of recognition is overwhelming. Familiar names (Louis Tikas), places (immigrant kafeneia), issues (labor conflict), events (the 1909 anti-Greek riot in south Omaha, the Ludlow Massacre in 1914), authors (E.D. Karampetsos), organizations (GAPA, Daughters of Penelope), transport me to an immigrant––Greek/American––cultural geography I have been navigating for years. 

But the scale of this landscape is ungraspable in its expansiveness, even after a life’s work striving to imagine its multifaceted contours. The power of the archive, its bits and pieces capable of opening up the viewer to the vastness of an era. 

Newspaper clips, brochures, pamphlets, photographs, articles, monographs, conference papers, self-published books, dissertations, oral history transcripts, theatrical plays, musical sheets, even restaurant menus. 

Collected with care (certainly), passion (I imagine), methodical consistency; the dedication (no doubt) of a meticulous scholar. This is a Greek/American world of words and images that form an organic part of my own intellectual biography too. Moved, I feel a visceral sense of belonging to this world. A deep recognition of being part of a larger research community across time. 

The archive, of course, takes me to unexplored landscapes and unfamiliar places. Unknown facts, unexpected documents, unpublished papers, unrecognized truths, unasked questions, unachieved immigrant lives, harshly terminated. Invaluable archival gems. 

The immense labor that precedes published work unfolds, document-after-document. It is there to see in countless documents, notes, remarks. It becomes tangible almost, the toil of a researcher; bridging the past and the present, bringing me closer to Helen’s practices of collecting. I feel the archives’ vastness as it beckons me to reach its nooks and crannies. There is something physical in its power to carry me further, deeper. The papers put a spell on me––an “archive fever”––they fuel the yearning for learning, the desire to devour its materiality. 

I resist this impulse––I only have two days of research available. I turn into practical management. I prioritize, I take notes selectively. I take photos, a lot of them. Certain colleagues come to mind when I come across material relevant to their research. I make a mental note to let them know. 

I register material that I would like to look closer, in a future visit (Helen Zeese Papanikolas Papers, MS 0471): 

• Steven G. Economou’s (1922-2007) Greeknglish: An Illustrated Lexicon, which I marvel, is on the top of my list. (Box 8, folder 1)

• Oh, GAPA’s national anthem! (Box 10)

• An unpublished monograph by Thalia Cheronis Selz (Greek-Americans in the Visual Arts), is a must. (Box 10, folder 2)

• “The Brooklis in Athens, A One Act Hilarious Comedy” by Mimis Dimitriou (James Demetrius) … (Box 11, folder 4)

I look at my watch, 2:30 p.m. already! Moments of exhilarating discoveries compress time, as I traverse across time. The archive feeds the hunger for more. I skip lunch.

I use the remaining time taking notes, I share some here:

• On Greeknglish and translanguaging: An immigrant refers to a labor strike as “strikey”

[Ο Τίκας ήταν ένας από τους εργάτες] «που έκανε προτεsting» (Letter by Petter Louos [Louloudakis] to the editor of the Cretan magazine, Nov. 2, 1973; Zeese Papanikolas makes a note of these linguistic occurrences in his translation of the letter in English). (MS 0471, Box 8, folder 8)

• Labor exploitation – A Western Federation of Miners (Bingham, County) representative’s letter to the Ambassador of Turkey in Washington, D.C. (May 17, 1912), urging him to take action to end the exploitation of his Cretan subjects from the Greek labor agent Leonidas Skliris:

The letter “calls [the Ambassador’s] attention to a deplorable state of affairs in this state [unintelligible] rein several hundred of Your Majesty’s subjects – Cretian [sic] – are held in semi slavery by one L. G. Skiliris [sic], a Greek [labor] agent residing in Salt Lake City,” calling the ambassador to conduct “a secret investigation” and subsequently take steps “at once” “to put a stop to the terrible state of affairs that exist here.” (MS 0471, Box 8, folder 6) •

• Sociologist’s Charles Moskos self-ascription: “‘My ethnic identity is much more Byzantine- Ottoman-modern Greek and Greek American,” he claims. ‘Spanakopita to me is as important as the Parthenon’” (“Moskos: A Friend of the Grant,” National Herald [?], “before Nov. 7, 2000,” “Incomplete”

Period. Time is up, the office is closing. 

Lost in the worlds of the archive, blurring past and present, I forget my glasses (truly) at my desk. No doubt now, I will be visiting the next day to restore my vision. 



The archive assaults cultural mythologies. In official documents (applications for pensions for instance), newspapers, oral histories, and reminiscences one hears echoes of immigrant voices––spending one’s entire life in coal mining jobs; or boiling in resentment toward ungrateful relatives in the patridha. Immigrants who rarely visited their villages (poverty you see; the need to keep the family business going; strife with relatives, alienation; the Depression; wars), if ever. 

The archive prompts reflection on broader cultural orientations. Its significant holdings on the topic of “customs and traditions” in Utah, in the 1970s, are largely connected with interviews that students in the course “Peoples of Utah” (taught by Helen Papanikolas in 1977 and 1979) conducted with immigrants or their children residing in Utah. 

This directs me to think of the place of immigrant customs and traditions in connection to nascent U.S. multiculturalism. Traditions were the major staple in early ethnic festivals (food and dance) and were displayed (artifacts) in the same spaces in specially configured “village rooms” simulating immigrant origins. They were performed in folk music festivals. They were the subject of articles in scholarly and general interest journals. Later, in the 1980s and beyond, customs and traditions were displayed in museums, and some became entrenched as markers of ethnic identity. In the 1970s, customs and traditions offered a readily available resources for ethnic communities to showcase their particularity, while introducing and explaining the group to the broader public. The archive helps me understand the emphasis on customs and traditions in the Hellenic Cultural Museum of America in Salt Lake City, a place I had visited a couple of days earlier. Local high schools organize field trips to the museum, and the community’s festival visitors enjoy access to it. 

A thread in the archive still follows me, in fact, haunts me. It is Helen Papanikolas’ earnest quest in the early 1970s to collect information about the labor leader Louis Tikas, murdered on April 20, 1914. In her letters to senators, librarians, and the ads she placed in the Cretan American press I hear the urgency of her voice seeking any lead, any trace about this forgotten person’s life. In her efforts, I witness the ethnohistorian’s pressing search for a taboo subject, a silenced subject at the time. Her search yields a precious little, it is more dead ends, one after another. I try to imagine the scale of her frustration. 

In an interview Helen gave to Peter C. Chronis of the Denver Post [no date; circa 1970s], I can hear the resignation in her voice, but also register her call for cultural activism, her call for agency as a result. I find it necessary to cite the following long passage from Chronis’ article, entitled “Holding on to a heritage,” for context: 

"… material on Greek immigrants in the Western History of Collection of the Denver Public Library is scarce. There are some openly bigoted newspaper clippings, from the early 1900s; and a 1969 thesis on the unassimilated coffee-house Greeks [by George James Patterson] filed away from public view (A 1914 Denver post article decrying Tikas’ murder isn’t in the Ludlow file, but a xenophobic diatribe from the Trinidad Chronicle-News is.)

The pickings are slim at the Colorado State Historical Society library.

Helen Z. Papanikolas said she’s found little material about Greek immigrants in other states’ libraries. 'We have to write our own histories,' she said, 'and see that historical societies get our memorabilia.”'"(MS 0471, Box 8, folder 8)

This question presses itself. And now, who will be documenting Utah’s Greek/American voices? In Salt Lake City, Price, and other small towns? Who will be listening Greek/American voices in New Mexico, and Oklahoma? Who will be documenting historical and cultural material, and keep placing them in state and national institutions? Who will be “prompt[ing] [the] many new voices today”? 

Helen’s archive looks us squarely in the eye. 
What do we owe to it? 

Yiorgos Anagnostou
July 14-19, 2022

Acknowledgements: I thank the staff at the J. Willard Marriott Library, University of Utah for their extraordinary assistance and courtesy. 


Helen Zeese Papanikolas papers, MS 0471, Special Collections and Archives. University of Utah, J. Willard Marriott Library. Salt Lake City, Utah. 

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