LOWELL — On the fireplace mantel in the Mayor’s Reception Room at City Hall sits a bust of Pericles, given by the Greek community of Lowell, with the inscription, “Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.”
The courage to defend it is the courage, when freedom is lost, to keep that flame alive, even in the throes of suffocating oppression and totalitarian subjugation, the sole purpose of which is to extinguish it.
Even if the years turn to decades, and the decades to centuries.
And that’s what the Greek people did for almost 400 years.
Through their courage and perseverance, their great love for their lineage and hope for their progeny, that flame, though a low-burning ember, was kept aglow in their hearts, in their minds and in their spirits from generation to generation.
And, finally, in March 1821, it ignited into a blaze that would overcome their Ottoman overlords and the “Tourkokratia,” (Turkish rule), which started in 1453 with the sacking of Constantinople, the Holy City of Orthodox Christianity, then spread through most of Greece.
It created one of the saddest ironies in the history of humanity by relegating the same people who brought to the world democracy and its ideals of freedom to a subservient, second-class existence in their own homeland.
Greeks were not allowed to bear arms. They were restricted in the riding of horses. They could only dress in certain ways. Their testimony in court could not be accepted over the testimony of an Ottoman. And teaching the Greek language was seriously deterred.
These were only a few of the injustices that the Greek people would endure, but there were two Ottoman practices that were most resented by the Greeks.
The “devshirme,” known as the child levy, by which Greek children were taken from their family. The boys would serve in the sultan’s armed force or in his palace. The girls would be sent to harems. And the other was the “jizya,” which was a tax the Greeks were forced to pay in order to practice their Orthodox Christian religion.
Over those dark centuries, the Greek bishops and priests dedicated themselves to the task of keeping the Greek faith and language alive, preserving the Greek identity and keeping the flame of freedom fanned.
On March 17, 1821, a few thousand men from Mani, in the southernmost section of the Peloponnese and from where many of the early immigrants to Lowell came, gathered in the small town of Aeropoli under a white flag with a centered blue cross. Emblazoned on that flag were the words, “Victory or Death,” on top and the ancient Spartan battle motto, “With a shield or on a shield,” on the bottom.
That day, at that place, they declared war against the Ottomans. They marched north and, four days later, liberated the Ottoman stronghold of Kalamata.
Four days after that, on March 25, 1821, in Patras, also in the Peloponnese, the flag was raised over the monastery of Agia Lavra to shouts of “Freedom or death.” And with the blessings of Bishop Germanos, Greek Independence was officially declared.
Now, it had to be won.
Militarily, they would be outnumbered, out-armed and out-financed, but they would not be outfought, out-sacrificed or outlasted.
There would be battles and skirmishes on land and sea, like Tripolitsa, Dervenakia, Petra and Gerontas, where they would win the day, and others, like Alamana and Maniaki, where their hopes and chances would be dashed.
But that flame, which burned inside them, kept them fighting.
The Greek courage and cause brought support from America, the first country to publicly herald the justification of their struggle in its highest halls.
Many Americans, especially those schooled in the classics of Ancient Greece, felt a strong connection to Greece, as much of the foundational principles of the American Revolution and governmental framework evolved from the writings and examples of the ancients. This modern Greek struggle had many similarities to the American cause of 1776.
Due to the Monroe Doctrine’s restrictions on American involvement in European affairs, the American government was blocked from any direct aid. However, that did not stop private American citizens, the Philhellenes (friends of the Greeks), who sent money and arms, with some even joining the Greeks in battle.
The countries of Great Britain, France and Russia would later enter the fray, first diplomatically, then militarily, swinging the advantage to the Greek side.
In the end, after seven long years, overcoming massacres and hardship, death and devastation, they would see freedom at last.
And 100 years later, in 1921, on the streets of Lowell, Massachusetts — a city that did not even exist, when their fight for freedom began — their courage and sacrifice for freedom would be remembered and honored by thousands of Greeks and non-Greeks.
The Lowell Sun would give the following accounts of this celebration of freedom:
“The buildings in the local Greek colony, are ablaze with color in anticipation of the centennial of Greek Independence … and there is hardly a store or dwelling place in the upper Market Street and Jefferson Street section that is not adorned with the flags of this country and Greece … and in even in the downtown … for every Greek flag there is an American flag. …
“At the close of church services the two brass bands (the Portuguese bands from Lowell and Lawrence) made their appearance and rendered concerts in various parts of the district right up to the time of the formation of the parade. At 1 p.m., the various societies, then school children then men who were not connected with any organization assembled at the church … shortly after 1:30, the “forward march” command was given. …
“Platoons of Lowell police led, then Army and Navy vets, then the school children and with the Portuguese band from Lawrence, followed by members of the community and a score of decorated automobiles, they were very attractive, one of them a large touring car, contained school children representing ‘Liberty,’ one boy being attired in the Greek national costume, while the girls were neatly dressed in costumes representing Columbia, Uncle Sam and a Red Cross nurse.
“Parade from Lewis Street to Market street, to Dutton, to Thorndike, to Middlesex, to Central, to Merrimack, to Cabot, to Market, to Suffolk, to Jefferson and back to the church … conversation with any member of the community results in an enthusiastic description of Greece’s fight for independence.
“Thousands of flags borne by more than 2,000 marchers made a colorful spectacle of a parade …The red, white and blue of the American flag and the blue and white of the Greek national colors were in the hands of just about every participant which followed a thanksgiving service at the Holy Trinity Church … Crowds lined the route of the procession …”
It was a great day for the Greek “colony” of Lowell, a community of new immigrants, poor in wealth but rich in spirit, uneducated yet wise, striving for a better life for their children and their children’s children.
And as they would continuously do over the next 100 years, they would gather together after the parade, whether it was at Associates Hall, as in 1921, or the Smith Baker Center or later the Hellenic Cultural Center, to remember and honor what was given for freedom.
The young students from the school would always be prominent, the boys in the uniform of the Evzones and the girls in village dress. The adults would proudly display a splash of blue. Shouts of “Zito Hellas” — “Long live Greece” — would spontaneously break forth with great fervency and be heard for blocks away.
And, most importantly, they would remember.
They would remember with esteem their modern Greek heroes, like Petros Mavromichaelis, Gen. Yannis Makriyannis, Giorgios “Papaflessas” Flessas, Constantine Kanaris and Gen. Theodoros Kolokotronis, the leader of the revolution.
Kolokotronis’ words — “God has signed our liberty and we will not take his signature back” — captured the divine intervention and steadfast commitment that held dominion in the Greek mind and spirit and were never forgotten
They would remember with admiration the great heroines like Manto Mavrogenous, a woman of wealth and action who used both to gain support at home and abroad for the Greek cause, being commissioned a lieutenant general, and Laskarina Bouboulina, a female commander of a small fleet of merchant ships, who raised the Greek flag over them and engaged the Ottoman fleet with great success.
They would remember with emotion all who were martyred for the cause of freedom, especially leaders like Georgios Karaiskakis at the Battle of Phaleron and Athanasios Diakos at Alamana.
Diakos, with just 48 men, a few miles from Thermopylae, where Leonidas and his 300 Spartans gained unending fame, held back 1,500 Ottoman troops for hours before finally being captured.
He was offered his life and an officer’s commission if he would take an oath to the sultan and Islam. His answer, which is held dear by all Greeks to this day, was, “I was born a Greek, I shall die a Greek,” and with that, he was impaled unto death.
They would proudly remember and sing the hymn, the “Thourios,” composed by Rigas Feraios, a Thessalian and member of the secret Filiki Eteria (Society of Friends), the architects of the Greek Revolution, especially the last three lines of the opening stanza:
“Should we live in caves in darkness, shall slavery drive us away?
Shall we say farewell to our family and our beloved land?
No! better an hour of freedom than forty years a slave.”
They would mournfully remember and perform the Dance of Zalongo, in honor of the women who, with their children, years before the Revolution, jumped to their deaths from a mountaintop in Epirus, rather than be captured and subjugated by the Ottomans.
They would remember with great sadness all the innocent women, children and elderly who were killed during those seven long years, like at Chios, where Ottoman mercenaries landed on the island and began a campaign of terror that, within just a few days, would leave 25,000 Greeks massacred, 30,000 thrown into slavery, 90 churches burned to the ground, and 40 villages utterly and completely destroyed.
They would remember with appreciation the Philhellenes, private citizens who came from America, Britain, France, Russia and other parts of the world to fight along side the Greeks. People like Lord Byron, the famous English poet, Samuel Gridley Howe, the doctor from Boston, New York’s George Jarvis, the renowned fighter, and Vermont’s Jonathan Peckham Miller, the first American to join the Greeks.
They would warmly remember the American encouragement from congressmen like Henry Clay, Samuel Houston and Daniel Webster, whose words on the floor of the United States House of Representatives would reverberate across America and rally many to the Greek cause: “I have in mind the modern not the ancient, the alive and not the dead Greece … today’s Greece, fighting against unprecedented difficulties … a Greece fighting for its existence and for the common privilege of human existence.”
They would gratefully remember the efforts of Russia, France and Great Britain that helped them win the war and secure peace.
They would remember and, in so remembering, they honored, and, in so honoring, they gave thanks. And, in giving thanks, they kept that light of freedom well-oiled for future generations to draw upon in their time of need.
Now, another 100 years have passed, but here, in the city of Lowell, the Acropolis of America, we still say “Zito Hellas,” today, March 21, 2021, for we, too, still remember.
Steven C. Panagiotakos is a former member of the Lowell School Committee, state House of Representatives and state Senate. The Sun is grateful for his contributions to the newspaper and its readers.