By Mike LaBella
HAVERHILL, Mass. (The Haverhill Gazette)—Each wave of immigrants to America has had its struggles and has faced numerous challenges on the way to making this country their home.
From the Irish to the Italians to the Armenians to Greeks and other ethnic groups who arrived on these shores, each has a story to tell.
In an effort to tell their stories of family life, community, faith, successes in business and industry, academics, sports, and service to their country, Haverhill High School social studies teacher Phil Brown has brought together yet another collection of images and informative captions highlighting local heritage.
Last year he released his first Images of America book by Arcadia Publishing, titled Armenians of the Merrimack Valley, which he co-wrote with Tom Vartabedian, a long-time Haverhill Gazette photographer, reporter, and columnist.
Vartabedian, who died last year following a courageous battle with cancer, had visited many Haverhill High School history classes over the years to talk about the Armenian Genocide, an event that inspired the creation of the book the two men had worked on for months.
No sooner had the ink dried on that historical look into the lives of local Armenians who settled in this area did Brown get to work on his latest effort, which he titled Greeks of the Merrimack Valley.
“My wife is Greek, I’m an active member of AHEPA Acropolis Chapter 39, a Greek fraternal organization, and while doing research on the book about Armenians I found information about Greek people who settled in this area,” he said. “I thought it was appropriate to do this kind of book, with an eye toward raising money for local Greek organizations since Tom (Vartabedian) had been raising money for local Armenian organizations through profits from the sale of that book.”
Brown credits Bradford College history professor Patricia Trainer O’Malley with researching and writing the city’s first ethnic books, about the Italians and the Irish in Haverhill, for Arcadia’s popular Images of America series.
“I used them a lot when I taught History of Haverhill at Haverhill High,” Brown said about these image-rich books. “What Tom and I did differently was to add material on current generations of Armenians. That way, we hoped Armenian youth would be proud of their heritage and try to keep it alive and relevant.
“I learned a lot about the Armenian community because Tom was so well known in it because of his articles in Armenian newspapers,” Brown added.
In describing his book, which has a planned release date of Aug. 14, Brown talks about how the Merrimack Valley became home to Greeks after the great immigration to the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries.
“After its independence from the Ottoman Empire, in 1832, Greece had inadequate resources for its citizens, which led to much hardship. Many of these refugees came to the Merrimack Valley in search of a better living.”
He said many of those newcomers to America settled in Haverhill, Lawrence, and Lowell, Mass., as well as in Concord, Manchester, and Nashua, N.H., where they secured jobs in factories and mills.
“Those who were unable to gain employment in the manufacturing industries went into the service sector; others became self-sufficient, building restaurants, shoe shops, and grocery stores,” he said. “Although they suffered discrimination because of their distinct language and culture, they were not deterred; instead, they remained focused, went about their activities in peace, and contributed immensely to the socioeconomic development of their newfound home.”
Brown, who teaches world history and local history at Haverhill High, says he could not have written his new book without the experience of having worked with Vartabedian on their book about local Armenians.
“I learned the importance of ethnicity and appreciating one’s heritage,” Brown said. “Tom wanted Haverhill to promote its rich ethnic history and peoples. He wanted Haverhill to have ethnic/folk festivals like the very successful one in Lowell. He made me think about my own ethnic background, which is Irish and Italian.”
Along the way Brown learned how difficult it was to get the critical decent-quality photographs and information from people that were needed to create an informative historical book that is rich in imagery.
“Most were eager to help, although some had difficulty finding photos or scanning them properly,” he said.
Connecting a face to name wasn’t always the easiest thing to do.
“As long as I have a name and a rough idea of the dates of their birth and death, I can research obituaries,” Brown said. “I also found experts who will do genealogical research for a very small sum of money.
“By doing online research I can find obituaries, census reports, marriage, birth, and military records, and sometimes we can find the ship the immigrants arrived on,” he added. “While researching the book on Armenians, I came across photographs and information about Greeks who settled in this area. I was thinking I should someday do a book about them.”
Brown’s first book signing will be Aug. 17, at Buttonwoods Museum, at 7 p.m.
Elaine Kevgas of Methuen wrote the foreword to Greeks of the Merrimack Valley and provided several photos of her and her family and the Lawrence/Andover church.
Here are a few excerpts:
“I am a proud American! I am even prouder to be an American of Hellenic descent whose roots go back to Asia Minor, specifically Byzantium/Constantinople. Unfortunately, my grandparents and great-grandparents suffered the same persecutions today’s Christians are suffering. They escaped during the night to survive after my maternal grandmother was beheaded. They finally made it to America, ‘The Land of Opportunity’ that they had heard so much about.”
“The Greek community has flourished in the Merrimack Valley since immigrants started arriving en masse in the late 1800s. My family has been able to thrive in ‘The Land of Opportunity’ and live our lives to the fullest as proud Americans and Greeks. I hope that Greeks of the Merrimack Valley helps elder Greek-Americans reflect on their progress and inspires future generations to appreciate their heritage.”