Yesterday evening, the Hellenic Students Association (HSA) and the Johns Hopkins Hellenic Association hosted an event celebrating the bond between the Greek and African American communities at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of African American History and Culture.
The event, sparked by an idea one year ago following the creation of the Hellenism in Public Service Initiative by Congressman John P. Sarbanes, featured a wide range of political figures, influential community members and students.
Over 60 people, a number greater than the expected turnout, attended the event.
During his speech, Lieutenant Governor Anthony Brown presented a Governor’s Proclamation which recognized the unity of the Greek and African American populations and declared March 27, 2013 a day of celebration of these communities. This recognized the accomplishments of the event, as well as the long history of strong ties between Greeks and African Americans.
Given the longtime presence of both Greek and African American communities in Baltimore, the event carried great importance for many of its attendees.
Kaliope Parthemos, Deputy Mayor of Economic Development in Baltimore, in her speech with Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, shared that she anticipates this event will mark the beginning of a conversation about the history of the two communities.
“I hope this is the beginning of a discussion and that we think about what we can do for the current civil rights struggle,” Parthemos said.
Congressman Sarbanes, also recognized the importance of celebrating the bond between the Greek and African American communities.
“We need to bring attention to this legacy of solidarity. The Reginald F. Lewis Museum is a national treasure and I think this [event] was seen as an opportunity to reevaluate it again within the conscious of not just the community but the whole country,” he said.
Aris Melissaratos, Senior Advisor to President Daniels for the Johns Hopkins University, also felt the museum should be viewed through a larger lens, enabling it to become more significant for the entirety of the country.
“I watched this museum [get] built when I was in office. I’m disappointed [it] isn’t more famous. It needs to be the national museum of African American history,” Melissaratos said.
Sarbanes also recently thought up an initiative to recognize Hellenism in public service, which sparked senior George Petrocheilos’s idea for this event one year ago. Petrocheilos is the President of the Hellenic Students Association (HSA).
“Inspired by the Hellenism In The Public Service Initiative, started by Congressman John P. Sarbanes, I got introduced to the strong bond between the Greek and the African American community,” Petrocheilos said.
The closely knit past of the Greek and African American communities was a focus of the event and one that Petrocheilos hopes to highlight further in the future.
“The ultimate goal of this gathering will be the creation of a permanent exhibit at the [Reginald F. Lewis] Museum. We would like to raise awareness on [this] very strong bond and we would love to get a permanent exhibition at the museum, so everyone can have access to all that information, forever.” Petrocheilos said.
Despite the attention that Petrocheilos and others devoted to the issue, not all figures in attendance were always aware of the Greek and African American relationship.
Skipp Sanders, Director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum, was unaware that this bond persisted until he was contacted by Petrocheilos.
“What I knew was the ancient connection, and I had no idea about the bond in modern times,” Sanders said.
Sanders, who was responsible for allowing the Hellenic Association’s event to be held for free at the Museum, initially hesitated about the idea because of its unfamiliarity.
“I was skeptical at first, but George was very passionate about it so that convinced me,” Sanders later admitted.
Anthony Brown, Lieutenant Governor of Maryland, was similarly unaware that such a strong connection existed between the two groups.
“When I first received the invitation [to this event], it did not occur to me that there was a bond between the Greek and African American communities. Now it is clear [to me] that they share a common journey of suffering, sacrifice, and struggle, as well as triumph and victory,” Brown said during his remarks at the event.
Once made aware of the relationship between two groups that make up a significant part of the Baltimore community, Brown became eager to join in the conversation. He made this sentiment clear in his comments last night.
“Tonight we have the opportunity to recommit ourselves to the shared values that we have,” Brown said.
Sanders supports this idea, and plans to work in conjunction with Petrocheilos to create an exhibition on this subject.
“Lost things are the kinds of things a museum exists to tell: the story of a bond between two groups, touching histories, blending cultures,” Sanders said.
Petrocheilos has been dedicated to the HSA and the Greek cause since his arrival at Hopkins. Early on, he formed a bond with Melissaratos and has been receiving monumental support for HSA from the Hopkins affiliate since.
“Aris Melissaratos [has been] our biggest sponsor throughout the years,” Petrocheilos stated.
Though Melissaratos has remained in the Baltimore area and stayed involved with Hopkins since graduating from the Whiting School of Engineering in 1966, he was unaware of the Hellenic Students Association until Petrocheilos brought the organization to his attention four years ago.
“I didn’t know HSA existed until George told me it did four years ago,” he explained. “And I came to the U.S. at age 13 and have been in Baltimore since then.”
Other speakers continued to stress the importance of strengthening not just one population within a community, but multiple in conjunction with each other.
Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings noted in his remarks that while the voice of one group on its own is not always heard, a combination of voices from both ethnicities, Greek and African American, is powerful. He related his positive outlook on this bond to an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go by yourself, but if you want to go far, go together.”
“We’re constantly thinking, how do I get my race to advance faster? It’s about empathy: people working together, having empathy and doing something with it,” Cummings said.
Like all who spoke at the event, Cummings, too, was a proponent of continuing the discussion about this connection between cultures.