Fevronia K. Soumakis is an independent scholar currently working on a history of Greek American women, education, and philanthropy in the twentieth century. She holds a PhD in History and Education from Teachers College, Columbia University and currently teaches in the Modern Greek Program at Queens College, CUNY. Her research interests include the history of education, immigration and ethnicity, and religion and education. Fevronia is the co-editor with Theodore G. Zervas of Educating Greek Americans: Historical Perspectives and Contemporary Pathways (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020). Her work on education and Greek Americans has appeared in The Greek Revolution and the Greek Diaspora in the United States and Redirecting Ethnic Singularity: Italian Americans and Greek Americans in Conversation. She has held leadership positions in Division F- History and Historiography of the American Educational Research Association and is the Secretary of the Modern Greek Studies Association (2023-2026).
Keywords: History of Education; Religion and Schooling; Gender; Diaspora; Greek America.
I am often asked about the current state and the future prospects of Greek language education in the United States. This question is not new, as Greek Americans have been debating this topic for well over a century. In the past, the narrative surrounding the decline of Greek language teaching has been linked, directly or indirectly, to concerns about cultural erasure. Peter Moskos aptly states, “the rumors of the death of Greek America indeed have been greatly exaggerated” (Moskos and Moskos 2014, xvi), a sentiment with which I concur. In fact, Greek language education has proven to be one of the more enduring aspects of Greek America even though there is a justifiable concern about language loss in some regions.
Contrary to the perception of decline, my research, as it pertains to New
York City, reveals an reconfiguration of Greek language and cultural
education. While it was traditionally associated with the Greek Orthodox
For instance, charter schools, defined as “free public schools open to all students” (New York City Charter School Center) have played a role in this expansion. The Hellenic Classical Charter School, operating in the boroughs of Brooklyn and Staten Island, offers a Greek language and culture themed curriculum. Established in 2005-2006, it stands as an outcome of community activism following the passage of the Charters School Act in 1998.
My current research delves into community educational activism, where I examine how a confluence of events and organizations during the 1970s bolstered Greek language education in New York City. Congress’ passage of several education laws, which include Title VII of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act 1965, the Bilingual Education Act of 1968, and the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974, prompted stakeholders to advocate for Greek immigrant children attending public schools. This involved forming groups like the Hellenic American Neighborhood Action Committee (HANAC) in 1972, which addressed the needs of new Greek immigrants and advocated for educational services.
In 1973, HANAC conducted a study revealing that New York City public schools were not adequately meeting the needs of Greek students. Subsequently, bilingual education programs were initiated in 1974 to address the English language proficiency challenges faced by them. This activism, not solely tied to geopolitical events, demonstrates the commitment of community stakeholders to understanding and influencing educational policies.
Drawing upon a wide array of primary sources including newspaper articles and archival documents from the New York State Education Department and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, my research underscores the active participation of Greek Americans in local political processes and early bilingual education policies in New York City. My goal is to identify who these individuals and groups were, how they organized, what alliances they forged with other ethnic groups, and how they framed the debates they engaged in. This research builds upon earlier studies focused on bilingual education in New York City.
Another project I am working on stems from a generous grant I was awarded
for the Library Research Fellowship utilizing the Dr. Basil J. Vlavianos
papers in the Tsakopoulos Hellenic Collection at Sacramento State
University. I have curated a digital exhibit titled:
Vlavianos and the Ladies Philoptochos Society.
The documents and images
featured in this exhibit begin to tell the story of Greek women’s
philanthropy in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s through the
life and work of Katy Vlavianos and the Ladies Philoptochos Society of Holy
Trinity Church located in New York City.
The purpose of this exhibit is to draw attention to the “larger cultural tapestry of women’s philanthropy,” one which has enabled Greek women to promote education and to leverage their social and intellectual networks in support of their work (Walton 2005, 4). Greek women understood their broader philanthropic efforts as active engagement on behalf of their church, the Greek immigrant community in New York City and the United States, Greek education, and homeland Greece. They were an integral part of a wider network of community organizations all of which shared similar values embodied in faith, philanthropy, and education. The multifaceted efforts of the Philoptochos Society during the years 1930s and 1940s uncover a little-known yet rich history of Greek American women’s agency within the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States.
My personal connection to this research is deeply rooted in my upbringing as a second-generation Greek American. Born to parents who were part of the post-1965 wave of Greek immigrants, I was enrolled in afternoon Greek school as a child. This shared experience was not unique to me; most of my second-generation Greek American friends also attended Greek school, and a number of us continued our exploration of Modern Greek at Rutgers University as undergraduates. The study of Modern Greek at the university level proved to be transformative, opening our horizons and providing us with a fresh perspective on Greece's history, literature, and culture. One of our cherished professors, Dr. Dorothy Gregory, played a pivotal role in nurturing this new way of understanding. We consumed the works of Papadiamantis, Myrivilis, Karkavitsas, Cavafy, Elytis, Seferis, Ritsos, and Gatsos. Our studies also shed light on the darker aspects of Greek history, including the civil war and the dictatorship—subjects not covered in our earlier Greek school education. It is for these reasons Modern Greek Studies programs in institutions of higher education are crucial. Despite pursuing a non-traditional academic path myself, my commitment to my research is unwavering, fueled by a network of exceptional colleagues in Modern Greek and Greek American Studies. This intellectual space has become my unique and exciting home.
February 8, 2024