Saturday, February 22, 2014

How the Murder of a Police Officer led to Greeks Fleeing Omaha.

                               COURTS & COPS CRIMINAL HISTORY

It started with the killing of a police officer 100 years ago. Within hours an ugly and violent bit of history scarred Omaha. The Greeks were all but driven out of town. Those “filthy Greeks,” according to a flyer that made the rounds. As bad as it was, Omaha today knows almost nothing about it.

Headline in the Omaha Bee, February 21, 1909.
John Masourides moved from his native Greece, drifting occasionally to South Omaha where he had family. This was before it had merged with Omaha. The Greeks worked side by side with immigrants fresh from all over Europe. The Irish got there first and didn’t like the newcomers. 

Police kept their eyes on Masourides, a man with a reputation. Some people complained he kept company with a 17-year-old girl. She’d made a little bit of money teaching English to the Greeks. That was reason enough for police officer Ed Lowery to arrest Masourides for vagrancy. It was a Friday, Feb. 20, 1909. 

On the way to the police department there was a struggle and gunshots. One bullet wounded Masourides and another killed Officer Lowery. There were conflicting stories about whether the officer tried to kill his suspect and Masourides fought back, or if the suspect attempted an escape. Either way, South Omaha exploded.

More than a hundred men, ready for a lynching, attacked the horse-drawn ambulance carrying Masourides. Police managed to get their suspect locked in the county jail but the anger did not let up.

The next day a leader in the Irish community told a protesting crowd “it is about time for the citizens to take steps to rid the city of this menace.” He meant the Greeks. 

On Sunday, Feb. 21, an armed mob stormed the neighborhood where most Greek families lived. Shouting “Kill the Greeks” and throwing rocks, they began to set fire to homes, beating people who fled the fires. Stoked by their own hatred, they found new targets: the Poles, Italians, Hungarians…anyone with an olive complexion or suspect accent. The riot lasted more than six hours, only calming by midnight. Dozens were wounded. Homes and businesses worth a quarter of a million dollars were destroyed.(Read The Los Angeles Herald's coverage of the riot here)

Headline from the Ogden, Utah Standard
Newspapers reported at the time that every Greek family fled South Omaha. The meatpacking houses, where many had jobs, suddenly found themselves with a labor shortage. Hundreds packed up what belongings they had left and never returned to Nebraska. The census counted up to 3,000 Greeks in the area before the riot. The next census counted slightly more than 500 in Omaha and South Omaha combined.

The man whose arrest stirred the anti-Greek sentiment was convicted of murder. Twice. John Masourides was sentenced to death by hanging at his first trial. The verdict was thrown out by the Nebraska Supreme Court, which found the evidence insufficient to support a charge of first-degree murder. A year later Masourides was found guilty of second-degree murder. He was released from prison five years later. 

(Background for this story comes from an article in Nebraska History magazine, The Anti-Greek Riot of 1909, newspaper accounts of the day, and a report prepared on the riot for the United States House of Representatives).