In this photo provided by the US Library of Congress, members of the the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People are photographed as they surround a tablet to honor militant abolitionist John Brown during the pilgrimage of the 23rd annual conference of the NAACP to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1932. Photius Fisk joined the American Anti-Slavery Society, and also worked with and helped fund the activities of Brown.
While large numbers of Greeks did not arrive in the US until the 1880s, quite a few made their way across the Atlantic much earlier. In my own state of Maryland, archives indicate that Michael Ury (Youris) became a naturalized citizen by act of the General Assembly of Maryland in 1725. In the early 1800s, many young Greeks were sent to the US, owing to the devastation of the Greek War of Independence and such natural disasters as the plague. Brought over by philhellenes, they were adopted by American families mostly in New England, received excellent educations, and went on to lead accomplished lives and make great contributions to their adopted land.
Lesser known is the story of the boys recruited by British and American evangelical Congregationalists, Protestants of the reformed tradition, for missionary work. Their concern for the boys notwithstanding, American missionaries saw the crumbling Ottoman Empire as an opportunity to recruit people of various religions into their brand of Christianity, increasing their membership and enhancing their reputation in America, against a crowded landscape of religious denominations. Scholars today believe that this undertaking contributed to the dichotomy between East and West, encouraging the concept of Muslims as “the other,” and leading to what Edward Said coined as “Orientalism,” a misguided view of the Muslim world.
Some of these boys became Congregational ministers or followed different professions altogether, while others returned to Greece or Asia Minor after completing their education. An example of the latter is Dr Alexandros G. Paspatis, an orphan from Chios who became a doctor and eventually settled in Constantinople, establishing more than 200 schools for Greek children throughout Turkey.
Most of them studied at Amherst College in Massachusetts, whose founding in 1821 coincided with the start of the Greek Revolution and aimed at establishing a school for the education of indigent young men for the Christian Ministry. Indicative of the strong presence of Greek students at Amherst is the fact that its first foreign graduate was Nicholas Pantoleon Petrocokino, another Chiot orphan, who received his degree in 1825.
I found the story of Photius Kavasales, whose philanthropic deeds were legendary, of particular interest. Photius became a Congregational minister turned abolitionist, freethinker, anti-violence activist, friend of the poor, and a strong defender of women’s rights, especially of black women.
According to his biographer, Lyman Hodge, Photius was born on the island of Hydra in 1807 and raised in Smyrna, Asia Minor. The 1814 plague that ravaged the city and killed 30,000 to 40,000 people claimed his entire family, save for an older brother, who lived in Malta but died later during the Greek Revolution. Finally sent to Malta to live with a maternal uncle, Photius was invited in the summer of 1822 by the Reverend Pliny Fisk, an evangelical Congregational minister, to study in the US at the expense of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, America’s first missionary society.
Arriving in Salem, Massachusetts, on February 22, 1823, the anniversary of George Washington’s birthday, Photius spent the next five years in school, preparing for Amherst College. Not inclined to abide by what he considered an unreasonably strict code of conduct, however, he was expelled and promptly returned to Malta in 1827, just as the Allied force of British, French, and Russian warships had gathered there in anticipation of the Battle of Navarino. With the help of Ioannis Capodistrias of the Russian fleet, who later became the first governor of Greece, Photius was able to get back to the US in 1828, via Martinique in the eastern Caribbean. It was here that he first witnessed the horrors of slavery, marking the beginning of his journey to becoming a devoted abolitionist.
Joining the evangelical Congregational Church, and working at various jobs, Photius was able to study at the Theological Seminary in Auburn, New York. His first preaching job was in Halifax, Vermont, followed by positions in several towns. His denouncements of slavery, however, made it difficult to maintain a job, and in 1840, he moved to Washington, DC, where with the help of former President John Quincy Adams, by then member of the House of Representatives, whom he knew from his early days in the US, Photius was appointed chaplain in the US Navy. By act of Congress, he also changed his name from Photius Kavasales to Photius Fisk in honor of his patron, Pliny Fisk.
In 1842, Photius sailed for the west coast of Africa as chaplain on the US frigate Columbia, whose assignment was to capture slave traders. With both captain and officers being slave owners, however, the efforts were less than productive. Freely expressing his outrage and anti-slavery sentiments, Photius soon found himself socially ostracized, with his Sunday services barely attended.
Photius also challenged the Navy practice of flogging, a severe form of punishment used to maintain discipline on board. Determined to change the law that allowed this savage practice, Chaplain Fisk wrote an extensive report on the treatment of sailors, and with the help of Adams and other influential members of Congress, a bill to abolish flogging in the Navy was introduced in Congress. It took five sessions, but finally, in 1850, Congress approved the bill and flogging was officially banned. As a result, Photius was denounced and hated by officers across the Navy, though admired and loved by enlisted men. Throughout his service, with tours to South America, the Pacific, as well as inland, his reputation as an abolitionist and as the man responsible for outlawing flogging brought him not only social isolation but insults and abuse.
Also troubled that Christians, especially Southern Christians, could reconcile their ownership of slaves with their Christian faith, Photius had his revelation during a chance meeting with a Southern preacher, who stated that the Bible not only condones slavery, but ordains it, citing the Old Testament (Leviticus 25:44-46) as proof:
“Both thy bondmen and thy bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. Moreover, of the children of the strangers that sojourn among you, of them shall ye buy, and of their families that are with you, which they begat in your land; and they shall be your possession.”
History has since proven that slave-holding states used the Bible to justify slavery and that slaves were given edited Bibles, which deleted portions that might lead them to question their status.
Further study of the Bible led Photius to conclude that he could no longer be a Christian. Forsaking all systems of theology, he decided to lead a life based on fact and reason, joining the American Secular Union, which espoused secularism and freethought. He also joined the American Anti-Slavery Society, and worked with such famous abolitionists as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas, a runaway slave and one of the greatest intellectuals of his time. Fisk also worked with and helped fund the activities of John Brown, the great anti-slavery martyr, who sacrificed himself and his sons during the famous Harpers Ferry raid on slavery.
Photius Fisk was able to amass wealth through wise investing and simple living. He lived his life, however, as if his wealth belonged not to him but to the world. He helped so many individuals and institutions that on January 26, 1887, the Boston Investigator wrote that “if everyone who had received a kindness at his hands should lay a flower upon his tomb, a mountain of roses would rise over his grave... many a poor negro owed his liberty to this man’s large, tender heart and noble generosity.”
Even after emancipation in 1863, Photius continued to make contributions for the betterment of black people’s lives. He funded schools to educate freed slaves, especially women. He also erected monuments to the memory of brave abolitionists who lost their fortunes and were imprisoned for the crime of rescuing human beings from the bonds of slavery. He helped countless people build their lives, whether black or white, and even helped Sojourner Truth, the former slave who became an outspoken advocate for abolition and women’s rights, build her house in the state of Michigan.
He provided scholarships for needy students at Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth and Amherst colleges. He contributed to the Anti-Slavery Society, the Salem Seamen’s Orphan and Children’s Friend Society, Perkins School for the Blind, headed by another Greek, Michael Anagnos, “the man who made the sightless see.” He also did not forget Greece, his birthplace, which he visited twice during his life, for extensive periods of time. In Greece, he contributed to the Athens Asylum for Orphans, to distant relatives in Hydra, and to the town of Hydra itself.
Photius died in February 1890 in Massachusetts at the age of about 83, leaving bequests for “Boston’s Colored Women’s Home” and for the family of John Brown. While he lost his own family when he was a child, he adopted the poor, the oppressed and the downtrodden as his own to care for.
Connie Mourtoupalas is an exhibitions curator and former President of the National Hellenic Museum in Chicago.