"It was 1922. Americans of Hellenic heritage were suffering personal and economic intimidation orchestrated by the Ku Klux Klan. It was time for them to unify and organize, to protect and defend life and livelihood"
-- James S. Scofield
The American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association or the Order of AHEPA was founded July 26, 1922, in Atlanta, Georgia in response to the evils of bigotry and racism that emerged in early 20th century American society.
AHEPA was founded at the height of Ku Klux Klan activities directed against people of Greek heritage in the very city that was the home to the national Imperial Headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan. Klansmen resented the industry and success of their neighbors of Hellenic ancestry.
How AHEPA Came to Be
One hot summer day in 1922, two Greek American businessmen, George Nikolopoulos (Polos) and John Angelopoulos -- both traveling salesmen working out of Atlanta -- met by chance in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Among other things, they talked about the growing wave of hostility that targeted their nationality and religion. It was a time when the Ku Klux Klan -- thriving on militant patriotism -- was enjoying a renaissance of hatred. Meanwhile, in Washington DC, Congress and the Federal Government were discussing ways to stem the tide of "less desirable" immigrants from "certain" countries, which invariably included the Balkan nations.
Both men agreed there was a real need for an organization that would direct and channel the energy of the Greek community in the United States. The remarkable thing is that these two businessmen, determined to contribute to American society and not be devoured by it, didn't just talk -- they acted.
They presented the idea to a group of the Atlanta Greek community. Seventeen men offered their support. This group met and on July 26, 1922, the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association, The Order of AHEPA, became a reality.
The primary goal of the founders of the AHEPA was to establish better relations with non-Greeks. To this end they created a patriotic fraternal order espousing civil rights, loyalty to the United States, American citizenship, proficiency in English, active participation in the civic mainstream, economic stability, social unity and the pursuit of education.
The "Brother Knights" Begin
Telegraph from AHEPA headquarters congratulating establishment of Chapter #285
AHEPA had grown to 49 chapters by the end of 1924; by 1928, there were 192 chapters; and on Thursday August 27th 1931, the 285th AHEPA chapter – The Bergen Knights -- was instituted in Hackensack, NJ at 151 Main Street by these steadfast individuals:
Theodore C. Kiscaras, Pericles Kiscaras, George Cotsakis, Oliver Somerville, Peter Liveris, Takis Nicholaides, Michael Venich, George Petrohilos, Constantine Tzentis, Michael Jianelis, Paul L. Boyatzis, Duke G. Tavernaris, Minas Candaras, Nick C. Adoglou, Angel Naglou, Nick Callesis, Peter W. Karadontis, Elias Maras, William Psaraftis, Nick Vorvis, John Caros, Nicholas Demeris, Christ Sakelariou, Andrew E. Andronis, George E. Andronis, Charles Herman, Paul Mihas, Spiros Rorris, Photis Arvanitis
Jean M. Kossarides -- Supreme Deputy Governor #2 -- conducted the initiation of the new members and instituted the chapter into existence.
Bergen Knights Chapter Certification - Jean M. Kossarides establishment of Chapter #285
In a letter to National Headquarters, Brother Jean explained the logic as to why Hackensack was chosen:
Why the Bergen Knights Chose Hackensack
Bergen Knights First Chapter Officers - 1931
These "Brother Knights" would serve as officers in 1932 as well
Upon completion of the meeting, the Chapter's petition for a charter was finalized and sent to AHEPA National Headquarters in Washington DC.
The first regular meeting was held the following Thursday (September 3, 1931). The chapter would continue to meet twice a month – at first, the 1st and 3rd Wednesdays of the month; then subsequently the 1st and 3rd Thursdays of the month.
By the end of 1931, The Bergen Knights Chapter 285 had grown to a total membership of 46 – 27 initiated members when the chapter was instuted; 17 members that transferred from Alexander Hamilton Chapter 54 (14) and Hudson Chapter 108 (3); and 2 members initiated at the last meeting in December, 1931.
Membership continued to grow in 1932 with the initiations of Nick Psaraftis (January 21, 1932); and Peter Callas, Anthony N. Drugas & John Lekas (April 21, 1932). In addition Paul Bellevan, Peter Nessarhakes, Louis Varotesos and Gus M. Kossarides transferred from the Alexander Hamilton Chapter #54.
The Brother Knights continued to progress in 1932.
Supreme Deputy Governor Jean M. Kossarides transferred into the chapter on January 7th, 1932.
1932 ended on a positive note for AHEPA as Brother Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States who was initiated into the order when governor of New York. Brother Kossarides was an advisor to FDR
"Brother Knights" and the Great Depression
Unfortunately, the Great Depression caught up with the Chapter in 1933 as it did with the rest of the nation. By 1933 – the height of the Great Depression – unemployment had risen from 3% to 25% of the nation’s workforce. Wages of those who still had jobs fell 42%. GDP was cut in half, from $103 to $55 billion.
Even as new members and transfers were joining the chapter, 30 percent of the existing chapter membership departed due to unemployment. The loss in membership also put the chapter in financial distress as the Bergen Knights still owed $540 (~ $9,000 today) in membership per capita for 1932 & 33.
The Bergen Knights were not the only chapter effected. In fact, all chapters in the AHEPA domain were impacted -- some to a lesser extent; others to a greater extent.
Thanks to the efforts at the National, District and local levels, membership appeared to have stabilized by 1935. By the end of 1936, chapter membership grew to 52 members. On May 15th, the chapter commemorated its 5th Anniversary with a testimonial dinner honoring past Chapter Presidents at the Elks Dining Room in Hackensack, NJ
AHEPA 1922-1972 by George Leber
George J. Leber's book "The History of The Order of AHEPA (1922 - 1972)", commemorating AHEPA's Golden Anniversary in 1972, was published by the fraternity as a service to its membership, and in recognition of those early pioneers of AHEPA to whom we owe so much for their dedicated service and devotion to the mission and principles of the fraternity.
The fraternity is indebted to Brother George J. Leber for this "labor of love" and the countless hours of work devoted in writing and preparing the book. [ Read ... ]
Forgotten History: The Klan vs. Americans of Greek Heritage in an Era of Hate and the Birth of the AHEPA
Gregory Pappas (PappasPost.com)
The following story by James S. Scofield was published in numerous newspapers on the 75th anniversary of AHEPA in 1977. The story, republished here, is a sobering reminder of the struggles Greek immigrants to the United States and Canada faced when they arrived in the New World. [ Read ... ]
July 26, 1922: Greek Immigrants Establish AHEPA
Gregory Pappas (PappasPost.com)
On July 26, 1922, the American Hellenic Education Progressive Association (AHEPA) -- the largest and oldest United States-based Greek heritage organization -- came to fruition in Atlanta, Georgia. [ Read ... ]
What's Your AHEPA Story?
Gregory Pappas (PappasPost.com)