Though details may differ, the key points of Triantafillos Balabanos’s journey to Birmingham were like those experienced by other Greek immigrants to the city in the early 1900s. Balabanos began his journey in Tsitalia, a small village in Greece’s mountainous southern peninsula, then continued across the Aegean Sea to Piraeus, Greece’s main port, near Athens. There, Balabanos boarded a newly commissioned Greek passenger steamship, the Athinai, bound for New York Harbor. Crossing the Atlantic took about 13 days and likely included stops in other European ports. The Athinai reached New York on Sept. 27, 1909. Immigration officials processed Balabanos’s entry into the United States at Ellis Island. Recent law required the Athinai’s captain, Guiris Coulouras, to testify that Balabanos and his fellow passengers had been examined by the ship’s doctor and would not carry tuberculosis into their new country. Balabanos himself had to indicate whether he could read, if practiced polygamy and, in wake of outbreaks of imported political discord, subscribed to anarchy.
Balabanos indicated his destination as Birmingham, specifically, the Reliance Hotel at the corner of Fifth Avenue North and 26th Street. The Reliance, a smartly positioned venture owned by T.N. Balabanos and James Shakelares, operated across the street from Terminal Station. Work at the Reliance and possibly at other footholds in the family empire would fund Balabanos’ five trips back to Greece and pay the dowry of each of his five daughters.
Balabanos came to America on the crest of a wave of immigration into America from southern and eastern Europe. Between 1901 and 1910, 160,000 thousand Greeks immigrated into the United States, a tenfold increase over the previous decade. It was inevitable that some would find their way to Alabama’s booming new industrial town. When Balabanos arrived, Birmingham’s iron and steel industry had found its footing after the fits and starts of the late 1800s, and its Greek community, 1,300 strong, was two years into enjoying its new church.
Balbanos’ story — and the stories of thousands of other Greek men, women and children — are portrayed in a new multimedia exhibit titled “Beyond Barbecue and Baklava: The Impact of Greek Immigrants on Birmingham’s Culture and Cuisine.” The exhibit, which opens at Vulcan Park and Museum on Thursday, May 5, has been tagged as part of the statewide “Year of Alabama Food” campaign and will be on display through Aug. 3. The opening reception, 5:30-7:30 p.m., will include Greek fare provided by Nabeel’s Café and Market.
Approximately 500 of the city’s Greeks lived in Ensley, working at Tennessee Coal and Iron alongside native-born whites and blacks, and an assortment of Italian, Romanian, Macedonian, Bulgarian, Welsh and Irish workers. Immigrant labor was in high demand. Investors had laid the infrastructure for Birmingham’s rise as an industrial powerhouse, but persistent labor shortages slowed progress. Exacerbating Birmingham’s undermanned workforce was how the city produced iron and steel. In Birmingham, men, not machines, did much of the heavy lifting. Immigrant laborers, some believed, were best equipped to perform the back-breaking jobs necessary to exacting profit out of investment. State government stepped in by providing agents, to live abroad to help steer the tide of immigrants workers to Birmingham and the rest of the state.
It was arguably as welcome a reception as the workers would ever receive. The wave that swept immigrants into Birmingham was met by another powerful force, nativism. Though its intellectual roots were in New England, popular expressions of nativism erupted everywhere there were large immigrant populations. The idea that foreign racial matter was mud in the milk of American values might assume verbal form, in epithets or schoolyard taunts, or ignite in cruciform on the front lawn of an immigrant family.
Former Birmingham mayor George Ward got an earful of the notion in his 1917 bid for Birmingham City Council president. His opponent, East Lake physician Nathaniel Barrett, campaigned on the promise of removing a Catholic police chief from office. Barrett beat Ward in a landslide. Often mistaken for Italians, Greeks were collateral damage in outbreaks of anti-Catholic fervor, as the epithet du jour for Greeks, “dago,” attests. A complaint in 1902 against Greek fruit stand operators, criticized for hustling business away from native-born grocers was, to its credit, more geographically informed: “It is a case of choosing between John Smith, Bill Jones and Harry Williams, and Demosthenes, Thucydides, and Aristotle,” the complainant lobbed, to applause from those at the City Council meeting.
As Americans grew more fearful of being engulfed by a foreign tide, the United States Immigration Commission, chaired by Vermont Senator William P. Dillingham, formed in 1906 to study the issue. The Dillingham Commission included three Theodore Roosevelt appointees, three Representatives and five Senators, including the country’s most eloquent nativist voice, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. The Dillingham Commission studied the Birmingham District thoroughly and methodically, though the report grinds an axe, to be sure. According to the Dillingham report, Greeks working in operations like Tennessee Coal and Iron “are employed there only until the time when they feel able to enter into some small business or street trade as their fellow immigrants have done.” Detractors viewed leaving a factory or mining job to start a street business as an unfulfilled promise. New Englander Henry Pratt Fairchild expressed the thinking in blunt terms: the job of Greeks and other immigrants “is to do the hard and menial work of the country which is beneath the dignity of a native American.”
The work & the labor
Besides leaving factory jobs and siphoning business from the native born, Greeks — former farmers and shepherds, dirt poor, practicing a religion that may or may not have been grasped by the native born Protestant mind as Christian — must have been odd sights to plain folks of the day. And this demographic quirk certainly did not escape notice: 95 percent of Greek immigrants in Birmingham were men. The disparity was consistent with the history of settlement in America, beginning with the settlement of Jamestown in 1607, and might easily have been explained had the Greek community the voice to respond at the time: Men came to earn money to bring over their families and to pay dowries so that female relatives could marry. And though the imbalance eventually corrected itself as Greek men were joined by families and American-born descendants, critics of immigration saw something nefarious in the imbalance, that it was evidence of a plan to hoard earnings, drain money out of the U.S. economy and into Greece’s, to divest from rather than invest in the American system.
Birmingham’s Greek immigrants would eventually find their voice and arc another narrative, through the founding of Hellenic societies like the Lord Byron Society and the American Hellenic Education Progressive Association, and the building of their spiritual home, Holy Trinity Church in 1907. It was the proliferation of Greek-owned businesses that funded this institutional growth. Greeks left Birmingham’s mines and mills because there was more and better money to be made assessing markets and matching them with novel products or methods of delivery.
Low overhead ventures provided the quickest path from wage earner to proprietor, and the possibilities for this sort of enterprise were wide-ranging: cigars, candy, hot dogs, produce, flowers, sandwiches. Greek-owned bootblack stands, opened with a few tools and some elbow grease, became a common sight along Birmingham sidewalks. Replicating a successful street vending businesses elsewhere proved a brilliantly successful strategy, a meme gone viral, as it were.
Bananas & Beyond
The amazing tradition of Greek-owned restaurants in Birmingham is easily understood in such terms. Dining out in early 20th century Birmingham was described by one observer as “well nigh intolerable,” so early Greek immigrants seized on this. Birmingham’s lack of a concentrated Greek neighborhood meant that Greek restaurateurs had to cater to American, specifically, Southern tastes. Rural migrants, adjusting to a life of sidewalks, streetcars and factory schedules, needed food in quick, accessible form. Greek entrepreneurs responded by opening sandwich carts, meat-and-threes and barbecue joints near industrial areas and working class neighborhoods, and by providing sidewalk access to a Greek version of the most urban of foods, hot dogs. Prosperity also brought a market for white tablecloth dining. Restaurants like the Bright Star, modeled after Galatoire’s in New Orleans and opened in 1907, responded to this market segment by offering Gulf seafood, chicken, Greek salads and lamb prepared with oregano and olive oil, alongside southern-style vegetables, slabs of lemon ice box and peanut butter pies and the sort of bread basket where a Parker House roll and a stick of corn pone peacefully coexist.
And there were breakout products that no one but a real visionary could have seen coming. Alex Kontos found his niche providing Birmingham with bananas, a snack that had just begun making its way into New Orleans and Mobile. Kontos first encountered the tropical fruit while visiting Pensacola. Convinced that the banana’s novel blend of taste and ergonomics would score a big hit in the Magic City, Kontos ordered a shipment and distributed them to would-be customers, thus creating and cornering a market in one masterful stroke and garnering the nickname “the millionaire banana king.”
The Greek community found wealth through such ventures, and with wealth, assimilation. Greek families concentrated in Norwood and other comfortable Birmingham neighborhoods, to live alongside primordial Southern stock as well as the descendants of Italian, Lebanese and Jewish immigrants. Children and grandchildren of immigrants sought opportunities for advancement not along sidewalks or in shops or eateries but through education. That the legacy of Triantafillos Balabanos and his countrymen would include Greek-American doctors, lawyers, educators and engineers seems, in retrospect, inevitable.
While Birmingham generally reveres the city’s Greek segment for its exquisite contribution to Southern foodways, some fear that this association prevents a broader story from emerging. Vulcan Park and Museum explores the Greek story writ large with its latest exhibition “Beyond Barbecue and Baklava: The Impact of Greek Immigrants on Birmingham’s Culture and Cuisine.” Running April 6 through August 3, 2012, Beyond Barbecue and Baklava presents a comprehensive picture of Birmingham’s Greek community through images and artifacts loaned by members of that community, and through oral histories gathered in collaboration with the UAB Ethnographic Film program.
The Director of Education at Vulcan Park & Museum, Phillip Ratliff is curator of “Beyond Barbecue & Baklava. The exhibit opens Friday, April 6 at Vulcan Park and Museum’s Linn-Henley Gallery. Go to www.visitvulcan.com for more information.