Father Michael Varlamos, June 25th, 2015
Greek American community—Detroit—Michigan
Assumption Greek Orthodox Church—St. Clair Shores—Michigan
Niko’s Party Store—Detroit—Michigan
Civil rights movement
LW: This is the interview of Father Michael Varlamos. Today’s date is June 25, 2015, we are at the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in St. Clair Shores. My name is Lily Wilson. This interview is for the Detroit Historical Society and the Detroit 1967 Oral History Project. Father Mike, can you tell me where and when you were born?
MV: I was born in Highland Park, Michigan on August 14, 1962.
LW: And what street did you live on?
MV: I lived on Cruse, which was right off of Fenkell between Hubbell and Schaefer, if memory serves.
LW: Okay. Who are your parents and what were their occupations?
MV: My parents were Nicolas and Olymbia Varlamos. My father, at the time I was born in the early sixties—I don’t know if he was regularly employed at the time. He was discharged from the army, I believe, in 1959 and as was the custom, he came back here, worked at a gas station in the area and then he went back to Greece, met my mother on June 1, engaged June 8, and married June 15. After a month of what was considered a honeymoon visiting all of their relatives they flew—actually they came by boat, back to Detroit. And my mom thought she was marrying an American who had a lot of money [laughter] and my dad was in between jobs, he was broke, so they ended up living with his parents on Ardmore which was the street right behind the street that I grew up on. So, my mother knew absolutely no English when she came and shortly after she arrived she found she was pregnant. Her first child was a miscarriage.
MV: She always used to tell me the stories of how she was not – the doctors were telling her that she had lost the child and she didn’t understand what they were saying to her. So she always used to tell us this story. Then after a year she had my sister in ’59. So she came in ’58. And then in ’62 or early sixties my dad had purchased a party store and was a store owner on the east side of Detroit on Mack and Lemay and he was told when he opened up the party store by a Greek sage who was very, very involved—his name was Pete Peluras—I can’t believe I still remember—I had buried him, that’s why I remember, I did his funeral. But he told my dad, because the neighborhood was in an African-American community there, and he said, “The first thing you are going to do, you are going to hire a black man to work with you.” And so, my dad did. He was really following his advice word for word. How he should account for the expenditures, and income and we can talk about that a little bit later. But that was his party store, it was a liquor store and also comic books, candies, and milk, eggs, and bread they sold there. My mom, of course, she didn’t work because she really didn’t speak English and after my sister was born three years later I was born in ’62. So for the record I’m 53. Okay?
LW: Okay. And what city in Greece did your parents come from?
MV: My dad was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1933 and his family had flown to Greece in ’39, I believe it was, and they went just to fix the patriarchal home there. The home where his father was from, so they were going to spend the summer and what happened is the Second World started and they were unable to leave. So, essentially right after the Second World War—so my dad grew up in Greece and they were not able to leave until 1948, ‘49 after the Greek civil war that took place right after the Second World War. So, my dad grew up in Greece ten years of his childhood. He left when he was four and he came back when he was fourteen. So, he grew up in Greece, we would say. And then he came—my grandfather had—he and his two brothers came and brought them to Detroit, put them through the schools. My dad was not known for being a very good student, he was more of a hands-on person, but he did end up going to the National Guard and served in the Army. My mother was from a small village in the central part of Greece. And it’s called the Megalo Chorio, which means literally “the big village,” and it’s near a town that is affectionately known as the Switzerland of Greece.
MV: And it’s called Karpenisi.
MV: But they met in Athens.
LW: They met in Athens. So tell me about the neighborhood that you grew up in and what it was like, who your neighbors were, who you played with?
MV: It was a very long time ago but I still have very vivid memories of growing up in Detroit. We were there until 1970.
MV: So, in our neighborhood, right next door to us was my dad’s brother and my two cousins, the third weren’t born yet. They lived right next door to us on one side. Across the street and kitty-corner was my dear friend Timmy and behind us on the other side of the alley was my dear friend Allen. And Timmy, Allen and Mike were always together. I mean, we used to roam the neighborhood. We were five, six years old at the time, we were very young but it was a beautiful—We used to, I remember, making piles of leaves and we used to jump and roll around in the leaves and then it was a custom back then that they used to rake the leaves into the street and set them on fire. That’s how you got rid of the leaves and we’d just like to watch the smoke and jump through the fire. There was an old abandoned car at Allen’s house, who was an African American and we used to spend an entire day just, you know, it was an old ’50 DeSoto or something a real old car. And we used to just like sit the driver seat. The windows were all broken. It was a very dangerous—now that I think of it. [Laughter] I mean it was rusted. [Laughter] We could have scraped ourselves, there was broken glass. We were sitting on top of it, you know there was a big steering wheel I remember, we used to just pretend—it was just a great—I loved my childhood, that I remember then. And then of course, two houses down from us, on the left was an Italian woman, and she—the neighborhood was pretty much—there were not very many African-Americans that I remember, early. There was a lot of immigrants, Greek, Italian. And I would just say Americans. We didn’t identify them with any ethnicity. There was a little old lady at the end of the street—her last name is Lionakis—and I met her daughter not too long ago. And she was from the island of Crete.
MV: And she used to sit in her window and she would just watch us. And I would remember everyday going to school and I would always see her up in that little bungalow, that little window that was up there. She would always wave, this frail old hand. The Italian woman she had a little child who was even younger, it was an infant, even younger than me, but I remember that she and my mother would talk a great deal but neither one of them spoke English. My mother would speak to her in Greek and she would speak in Italian and that made an impression on me that they were able to communicate. She was a young mother she was asking about advice.
LW: Of course.
MV: About what to do with a baby, I’m assuming. And I’m thinking—now this is what my mother told me after the fact—I witnessed this but I didn’t know it was being said and going on.
My mother came to find out that her father was killed in Greece during the Second World War. He went to Greece and then she never saw him again. And at first she was very angry at Greece and at Greek people.
LW: The Italian woman shared this with your mom?
MV: Right. Yes. Until she met my mom. She fell in love with my mom. So they became very good friends until they moved away.
MV: So the neighborhood began to change. I would say in the—well, I really don’t know. I just remember it was rather sudden.
LW: Okay. Do you remember about what age you were then, when it changed?
MV: Five or six I would say. So we’re looking at ’66. I just remember that I—there were more restrictions because when I was young I was able to run down the street. I could go over to Allen’s house which was across the alley and I remember that I wasn’t allowed to go into the alley anymore which was behind our house. They don’t have alleys anymore, do they?
LW: Well, they do. I don’t think any kids would want to play in them.
MV: Right. But it was a very common thing.
LW: Sure. Of course.
MV: That was one way of going over to someone’s house, instead of going all the way around the block.
MV: You would just go through the alley, and maybe a few yards down and then just jump the fence and be at your friend’s house as opposed to going all the way around the block.
LW: So you said Allen was black?
MV: He was black.
LW: What about Timmy?
MV: Timmy was white.
LW: And you were Greek-American?
LW: So do you remember ever thinking around those ages four, five, six when you were playing with them, do you ever remember thinking about any differences?
LW: Or do your parents say anything? Nothing?
MV: No. My mother nor my father. My father worked essentially in a black community. His worker who was a black American, his name was Mike.
MV: We had the same name. He showed me how to play paddle ball. We used to sit on the corner there on Mack and Lemay watch the cars go by. My dad would be yelling at him to come inside and work. [Laughter] But I learned paddle ball and there was just little things.
MV: He was just a wonderful person. I never could remember difference. I would play with Timmy and next door was my dad’s brother and my cousin, named Chris and we would play together. But I was not aware of any difference. That didn’t come until much later. Even in ’67 when the riots were taking place I didn’t know that that was happening. The only thing was that we weren’t allowed out of the house.
MV: I remember a jeep driving up and down our street and on the rare occasion that we went on Fenkell because was a Sam’s Drug Store there, I don’t know if it’s still there, there was a Kroger—not a Kroger an A&P—that we used to shop at. And my dad—I distinctly remember my dad giving my mother five dollars to do the grocery shopping. She would walk me and then put me in the buggy and do her shopping. But I remember seeing large, I don’t know if they were tanks or not but I know they were large military vehicles. There was definitely a military presence and I was really, at that age, into army and things like that.
LW: Of course.
MV: And every stick became something for me to pick up and play army with, with my friends, which I did. But Timmy, my good friend Timmy, he moved out before—that I know—before ’67, right before the riots. My uncles moved out. We were—we and the Lionakis family at the corner were the only ones. And as people were moving out the Italian family that was good friends with my mom, she moved even sooner. We just saw that the neighborhood was changing very quickly and I think I realized it when there were more restrictions put on me. I was not able to go into the alley. I was not able to go to the end of the street. I wasn’t allowed during the riots to play in the front yard, only in the backyard and not near the alley. So, it was all these new restrictions. When I happened upon my friend, Allen—and I don’t remember if I went over to his house or if I saw him in the street and I said, “Come on, you know, let’s play,” and he just kind of shook his head and I couldn’t understand why.
MV: He told me—if I can remember correctly—“My dad said I’m not allowed to play with you.” And it was right around then—the only thing, Lily, I don’t know if that was before, I think that was after ’67, after the riots.
LW: Okay, okay.
LW: Because everything—when there was like a calm after the violence, there was almost like a numbing from what – my dad and I have talked about this—there was like this numbing effect, that kind of appall that hung over the city. I remember that he was not permitted—I told my dad that, “He’s not allowed to play with me.” And that’s when I remembered my dad explaining to me, not so much that, “Well, the black people and the white people in this country have a lot of things to work out.” Something like that. And I never thought—he was more of a light skin black—
LW: Allen was?
MV: Allen was. But we had great—we had a lot of fun together. But if you told me he was black, if you told me he was different, I don’t remember there being a difference.
LW: And you were about five?
MV: Yeah, five, six years old.
LW: Going on six, in ’67, because you had an August birthday you said?
LW: So, that must have been somewhat traumatic for you at that age to hear your best friend basically tell you “Well, I can’t play with you anymore.”
MV: What was traumatic was that Timmy left. And my uncle, well, my cousin Chris was a little too young, he was younger than I was so he wasn’t much fun at that age. And Allen was really the only one I had left but then he wasn’t allowed to play. And then I remember this was in’69, ’68 or ’69 on my way back from school I was assaulted by four black girls. I think it was in the alley.
LW: You were about seven? Six, seven?
LW: And what happened?
MV: Because, I finished second grade, we left—I was assaulted. I don’t even know what started it. All I know is I was walking down the alley and I don’t know if they wanted either a backpack or lunch box that I had and I wouldn’t give it. But I don’t even remember the assault I just remember coming home and I was completely scratched up, my neck especially. My dad was fixing the fence in the backyard and when I walked up and I said “Dad!” I remember just saying “Dad!” And he looked at me “What happened?” And I just remember him throwing the hammer and he said “That’s it,” he said “we’re out of here, we’re leaving.” I remember he couldn’t sell the house that was a difficult time. So my grandparents who lived on the other block, on Ardmore, they, moved into our house and they rented out their house because their house was a brick house, so they could get more money renting that, and they moved into ours. Ours wasn’t a brick house it was essentially wood, it was not a very good home—house—it was a very nice home. Next thing I remember is that we were living in Detroit but then we were registered in Livonia schools. So my dad—or my uncle George he had just come from—so the last two years of second grade I think it was—the last two months or the last month I did it in Livonia schools.
MV: Because it was just – we bought a house we couldn’t afford. So my grandparents gave us – our house wasn’t really worth that much. But the neighborhood I know was changing very quickly. And I have this image, my uncle George would pick us up from school, my mother’s brother, and then we would drive, I don’t know if it’s still there but there was a McDonalds—It’s the first time I had McDonalds at Fenkell and Grand River. And I would get my two hamburgers, and small fries and a Coke, and I remember seeing a scene there were four black men that were beating up on a white man.
MV: And that was like the last image that I had. It was almost—that was the feeling that this isn’t our neighborhood anymore. So we were going to school—were we living in Livonia—we couldn’t because we hadn’t moved out yet. I remember he was driving us to school—no. What I can’t recall is if we were living—did we get into the house? Were we living in Detroit—were we living in Livonia going to school in Detroit? I don’t think so, I think it was the other way around—we were still living in Detroit, so he would drive us to school and then drive us back. And then when my grandparents rented their house and then they came and moved into ours, gave my dad, you know, money, we put a down payment on a house in Livonia which we couldn’t afford but we just needed to leave because the neighborhood changed, you know, very quickly. And it really was a change that we were not welcome. So, we felt like we didn’t know what was happening. My dad took a significant loss because after my uncle left, he went to Livonia. My dad bought the house from my uncle so my uncle could leave. And so now he had two pieces of property and he took a bath on both of them.
LW: You moved to Livonia and finished school all the way through high school in Livonia?
LW: Where in Livonia did you move to? What street?
MV: It was on Barkley—it was Five Mile and Middlebelt. We always kind of stayed on Five Mile going all the way. And we were there for three years. The store was vandalized, toward the end of the sixties, I think in ’69—the party store.
LW: The party store. Okay, so tell me about the party store during July of ’67, tell me what happened?
MV: Well, the party store was doing very well. My dad was making—had a good reputation. There were two other party stores I know of one that was owned by a Lebanese family and my dad used to brag that he put Lebanese man out of business and the way that he did it, he hired a black man to work for him—
MV: Mike. They had a very good relation—Mike would go into the neighborhood and even attract people to come he says, “Why are you going to the Lebanese person, he’s charging you an arm and a leg. Come over here to Niko’s party store.” [Laughter] That’s what it was called—Niko’s party store. My dad had the reputation that if you didn’t have enough money for bread, for milk or eggs—those three things—you know, he would see what you have and whatever you have you can buy what you need. But when it came to beer or alcohol—candy with the little kids, he was always generous. They would buy a Tootsie Roll and he would throw in a Sugar Daddy.
MV: My dad was always, to this day, was very generous.
LW: How wonderful.
MV: So because of this reputation he was very much admired and he would try and treat a lot of the customers that would come in—not the people who were coming in to buy beer and wine, but the regulars who were buying milk and bread or the kids would come in for a comic book and he would try to teach them Greek, right? “Kalimera, you know, good morning.”
MV: So he tried to – it was kind of an interesting to see, you know, black people speaking Greek, or something that we only heard in the home. I guess maybe that is what made an impression on me that there really wasn’t—I didn’t see a difference Just like I don’t see a difference in people if one is a brunette and one is blonde, right.
LW: Okay, I see.
MV: There’s different hair colors, there’s different eye colors, there could be different skin colors. So, this was my father and I think my mother both made this impression on us that there’s only one race, and that’s the human race.
MV: Unlike my uncle, but I won’t digress into that. Because he had a very different experience. But when the riots started and there was a great deal of vandalism going on—in the vicinity of my dad’s store, the neighbors came out and they wanted to protect the store from being damaged so they had formed a human chain around – at a time that there was the most destruction going on. There were places burning left and right. The building next door did catch fire that was connected to my dad’s. But my dad’s store didn’t sustain damage but nobody came and attacked directly, my dad’s store, in ’67. There were other instances, but even the neighborhood there changed, you know, it seemed that the black American community afterwards became even more militant, aggressive—I’m searching for a word, but even Mike had turned on my dad.
LW: Wow. How did he turn? Can you give me an example?
MV: I don’t know the reasons but he pulled a knife on my dad.
MV: And, you know, my dad let him go. But then there were break-ins to the store. So it was almost – it was considered a high crime area, you know, even at that time. There was a railroad tracks and my dad said that someone was found dead on the railroad tracks, you know, almost on a weekly basis. There was a great deal of drug trafficking that was starting to come in, and gang violence. So, that neighborhood was changing as well. So it wasn’t, the way my dad described it, it wasn’t the poor black people that were just trying to survive, just trying to make a living, families, now you began to see a more—almost like a criminal element with again, gang violence. So they were looking at taking whatever you had.
MV: So the store was broken into on two or three occasions. So, then my dad, he just – I don’t think he even sold the store I think he just left.
MV: You know, whatever inventory he had left he had to return it, he took a loss. He did very well up until the neighborhood—and now I’m just thinking back, if I was to analyze it, it wasn’t just like the white flight from our neighborhood that changed the neighborhood, I mean even the black neighborhood where my dad’s store was located, even that neighborhood changed, you know, from people who were working, perhaps menial jobs, they didn’t have a very strong income. But the people that came in afterwards, the black people that were frequenting my dad’s store were not the little kids who were coming to buy eggs or milk or cereal. Now, it was a different—it was more people coming in to buy liquor, more people coming in to buy other alcoholic beverages.
LW: And had the store been broken into before the ’67 uprising?
MV: Maybe right before, but in the early days, like from ’60 to’66 or ’67, maybe there may have been one. And a lot of times they attributed it to drugs, people looking for drug money.
LW: So, I want to just talk a little bit about—well, when did your dad actually end up leaving the store? I want to get that.
MV: It was in ’69’ or ’70.
LW: Wow, okay so right around that time.
MV: So two years, you know he stayed two years after the riot.
LW: And after you moved out of the city into Livonia?
MV: Right. Which is why we ended up going into Livonia because he got a job. He just put in a job to work at UPS. They were building a new center. So, he got the job and he was shocked. So the job was on Industrial Road between Middlebelt and Merriman, and I-96 and Plymouth Road. Right in that corridor there.
LW: So, you were going to school, living in Livonia, while your dad was still working at the party store? For some time, for a little bit?
MV: Very short time. Because then he left – that’s what prompted us to move to Livonia, when he got the job at UPS.
LM: So, big changes right after ‘67 for your family. Within a year or two your family had - your dad changed jobs, left the store, you were in a new school, new kids, new everything, new neighborhood. So I want to talk about your church and a little bit about what you do here and also the changes that happened to this congregation, or perhaps a couple generations back congregation, after ‘67. Tell me what your title is here at the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church.
MV: My title in English, I’m the senior priest. That meant something when there were two other priests, now I’m the only priest. So, my title is the only priest at the Assumption Church.
LW: If you could just tell us a little bit about the congregation and who it’s made up of?
MV: The congregation is the second oldest in the city of Detroit. The oldest being the Annunciation Cathedral, which was founded in 1910 and this parish, as the Greeks were beginning to migrate away from what is present day Greektown, toward the eastern parts, the near eastern part of the city, they founded this church in 1928.
LW: What was the original location?
MV: The original location – well they did rented on top, I think, the second floor of a movie theater for a while, but they don’t consider that. The year that the church was incorporated was in 1928. So, probably three years before that they were renting various venues to have the church services. There was, you know, the cathedral downtown. So that was a full functioning – most people, that was the only church. And then as the population began to grow in the first two decades, by 1928, there was a critical mass of Greeks that you could establish a church. So, the first major church was on Beniteau and they were there, that was built, I believe, in 1933, and they were there until 1955 and then they built a church on Charlevoix. And both of these churches are still standing, the buildings, are still standing.
LW: And the church on Beniteau and the church on Charlevoix, we’re talking about in Detroit?
LW: Not Charlevoix Street here?
MV: Ah, it doesn’t go all the way through but it’s the same Charlevoix.
LW: Same Charlevoix, just the Detroit side?
LW: So, the cathedral that was built in 1910 was the first Greek parish and that is not affiliated directly with the Assumption Greek Orthodox Church.
MV: Yeah, it’s the Cathedral Church, which is, it’s the Church of the Bishop.
LW: The hub.
MV: And then, you know essentially the parishes are, I like to think of it as satellites of the Cathedral.
LW: Okay, okay.
MV: So, the parishes that formed, the Greeks that kind of migrated from Greektown toward the east essentially became part of the Assumption Church. And then, on the west side there was Saints Constantine and Helen, and then along Woodward Avenue was St. Nicholas Church. So there were more Greeks moving out, where there were two churches serving the Greek community on the west side and then eventually a third, St. George—which is now in Southgate. There were three—the west side kind of splintered into three groups, where the east side everybody just came to the Assumption.
LW: So, the cathedral is on Beniteau? Do I have that right?
MV: The cathedral is on Lafayette downtown—
LW: In Greektown.
MV: And then we – the Assumption Church migrated out to around Beniteau, which is between, what—Mack and Jefferson, if you will.
LW: And then the second?
MV: The second was on Charlevoix, just a couple of blocks over.
LW: Okay so two, sorts of, satellite churches off the cathedral.
LW: Okay, I just want to make sure I have that straight. So after the World War I, an influx of Greek immigrant’s necessitated additional space to worship.
LW: Can you tell me about what those churches experienced after 1967, or during 1967?
MV: Well, in ‘67 the cathedral, I can have you speak with a few people that were there at the Cathedral, that’s the Annunciation Cathedral, it’s a different church. The Charlevoix church—and I’ll show you photographs when we go into the church—
MV: the Charlevoix church was there from 1955 until 1976. And this facility that we are at now, construction began in late seventies. So by ‘76 the Assumption parish moved out to Saint Clair Shores.
MV: It became a very – and that parish, where the old Assumption Church was on Charlevoix, where my dad’s party store was, you can see the dome of the Assumption Church. So, it was like two blocks away, three blocks. It was right across the street from Southeastern High School. And in ’67 there was an apartment building across the street from the church and there was a snipper, who was just –I don’t think it was a hate crime, or, I just think it was just a random act of vandalism. That he took a riffle and started shooting at the church. I don’t think he was – from my discussions, nobody knows why people do these things, but I don’t think it was – that the person who did this was actually targeting Greek people. But the neighborhood used to be a very strong Greek neighborhood around the church. But, the Greek people began leaving right after the Second World War. In fact, I was speaking with one of the old members of this parish at length about his – about the Greek community on the east side. And he said that the white flight began right after the Second World War. He said, “We looked at the parish roasters and saw that a lot of the addresses were already in the late forties, early fifties in St. Clair Shores, in the Grosse Pointes, in Harper Woods, so there were already a great deal of Greek people. But, you know, where the church was, there still were quite a few Greek people there. By ‘67 many of them had left and a lot – it was still an African-American neighborhood, so the person who was shooting, we don’t know if he was – was he African American? Was he white? We don’t know. It was just somebody who took a riffle and started shooting.
LW: And that was in July during the riots in 1967? Wow.
MV: So, and, there was actually, on the grounds of the church was where the helicopters would be launching—or was it at Southeastern High School? There was a vacant lot that the helicopters would be landing, so it was a landing zone where the church was.
LW: I believe it was at the high school, but they may have also utilized the church grounds, I’m not sure.
MV: Well, they did, because the church filed a claim because a tank had busted one of the curbs. So in fact, I went and found the parish council minutes in ‘67 to see what damages the church had sustained in the riots and there was broken glass. There was, you know, the curb was crushed by a tank. But then, there was, apparently, a sniper who was just shooting randomly at the church, broke some windows, but had damaged an icon of the Resurrection of Christ.
LW: Tell me about that?
MV: Well, there was an icon that was hanging in the narthex of church, in the vestibule and one of the bullets came and pierced the icon and it was taken down, it was put in a box. It was identified as being damaged during the riots. But it was put in a box and kept in storage for the longest time. When I came to this community in 2002 we had suffered a fire. In 2003 I came but the fire was in 2002 and I found a lot of these old icons and I found this particular icon—and it even stated, there was a plate on it that says that “This icon was damaged during the riots of ’67.” There were other things I found that I said, “These should not be in boxes or in closets, they need to be displayed.” So we made an effort to display a lot of these church artifacts and that icon is one of the things that we thought should be displayed. I’m rather surprised that the church still continued to function in Detroit after that because things continued. This was not my church growing up, I only know from what people have told me. They had hired security guards, even on Sunday mornings cars were being broken into and people were being mugged. None of the evening meetings could take place, at church, you only could only go to the church on Sundays and it was only during the day otherwise people didn’t feel safe. Cars were being stolen. There was just a great deal of—the area was not very safe so they eventually decided to sell the church. They had just paid the church off actually, the mortgage. And they sold it to a black Baptist congregation that still owns the church. They still operate it but they no longer worship in the main—in the church they’re now in the Sunday school or in the community center and the church now is in complete disrepair. It’s been condemned by the City of Detroit because the dome is caved in, it’s a sad thing to see. But it’s still standing there as a monument—
LW: On Charlevoix?
MV: On Charlevoix—of what once was. But the one on Beniteau from thirties looks like a dollhouse. It’s gorgeous. It’s another Baptist congregation that has it. But the Charlevoix church, when you see it—you know, you bring any of our old parishioners—sometimes we go by it, down to our old neighborhood and you know they just start crying.
LW: Difficult to see that like that.
LW: What was your home church growing up?
MV: My home church was St. Nicholas church.
LW: Okay, on Woodward you said it was?
MV: On Woodward—at McNichols and Woodward.
LW: So, further up north closer to Highland Park—where you lived?
MV: I was born in Highland Park but I never lived there. I was born at Detroit Osteopathic Hospital, which I think has been torn down as well [laughter].
LW: Okay… interesting. Is there anything you want to talk about while we’re on the record? About ‘67? Or your experience as a leader in the community?
MV: Well, in ‘67 again, I had very vivid memories. I loved my friends. I can say that I learned what friendship was and there was no color. There was no—there was nothing as far as prejudice, discrimination or bigotry. These were all words not only that we didn’t know what they meant, but we didn’t know what they felt like.
MV: And I think I knew what it felt like before I knew what these words meant, after ‘67. So I think that was – not only did our neighborhood change, but we changed as well. But I think we were reacting to what we felt was being imposed upon us. So I didn’t know what it meant to be prejudiced or bigoted but I knew what it felt like.
LW: What do you think helped you sort of experience that feeling? Was it Allen telling you that he couldn’t play with you anymore?
MV: That was the first thing. I don’t know, I probably still bear a scar deep inside but I think when I was assaulted by the four girls, I didn’t know why and it was for no apparent reason. I think it was the lunch box.
LW: They were about how old?
MV: Oh they were older than I was, they were in middle school. Yeah. There were four of them. I know I swung that lunch box [laughter] and I defended myself but they were on me before I could—I just remember I was just scratched up. My mom was in a panic and my dad was furious.
MV: But that was such a long time ago and, you know, my mom used to always say it’s okay to get angry but never hold a grudge.
LW: Do you think that those experiences when you were little helped shape your decision to become a priest?
MV: Well, I’m sure they have. Because one thing, as I was trying to figure out what to do in life, I began to see there’s a lot of wounded people. I always wanted to do something that involved either protecting or healing. So, I contemplated going into the military, I contemplated going into the police department. My eyes were not good enough [laughter], so I could never pass the eye exam. I was thinking about medicine, because I always wanted to help people and then I realized to be a doctor you have to go to school for so many years and I don’t want to do that. So, I started pre-med, I shifted to engineering and I only needed one semester to get my bachelor’s from Lawrence Tech and then I gave it up. I was called to a different ministry. And that’s what I feel I’m doing—I’m healing people.
LW: You’re also working on your PhD?
LW: And tell me about your dissertation topic for the people that don’t know?
MV: My dissertation topic is on Archbishop Iakovos and the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and their involvement in the civil rights movement, and specifically in his march in Selma, Alabama with Dr. King.
LW: And where was that archbishop from?
MV: He was actually from the island of Imbros which is in the Aegean and it was—when he was born it was part of the Ottoman Empire in 1911.
MV: The island was annexed by Greece, remained in Greek hands for about ten years and then it was again given back to Turkey. So, the Archbishop had to grow up in a very difficult—he was someone who was very much discriminated against. Because of his—not so much because of the color of his skin but because of his ethnicity and because of his religion.
LW: Here in the United States?
MV: In Turkey.
LW: In Turkey. I see.
MV: So, this is what prompted him, he knew what it felt like to be discriminated against. He had to serve. It was compulsory military service. He had to serve in the Turkish army and to serve in the Turkish army as someone who is Greek and someone who is Christian was two strikes against you. And then when they found out he was a clergyman, he was a deacon at the time, they treated him very poorly and this is what really inspired him to get involved in the ecumenical movement and later to be a very strong advocate for civil rights and human rights.
LW: So some parallels to some of the conversations that are still going around about ’67 too
LW: At that time. Well thank you for your talking, on the record, about your experiences and your family’s experiences.
MV: Thank you for allowing me to share.
LW: Of course, it was my pleasure.