Monday, June 17, 2024

The American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association

by Erin Doane, Senior Curator

In June 1955, nearly 1,000 people attended the 19th annual district convention of the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA) at the Mark Twain Hotel in Elmira. AHEPA was founded by eight men in Atlanta, Georgia on July 26, 1922 in part as a reaction against the rise of xenophobia and the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. The organization helped Hellenic immigrants and their families build new lives here and guided them in the process of becoming American citizens and responsible members of their communities. Elmira’s chapter of AHEPA was formed in 1926.

Elmira Chapter No. 111 AHEPA fez donated by Mark Greven

AHEPA is a secret Hellenic fraternal, non-partisan, non-political, non-sectarian organization that encourages the emulation of ancient Greek culture and ideals including civic responsibility, reason, moderation, and a focus on education. Its creed, as summarized by District Governor Kimon A. Doukas in 1955, was:

  • to promote loyalty to the United States of America
  • to marshal into active service the noblest attributes of Hellenism
  • to champion the cause of education
  • to instill progress in every one of our members and
  • to keep our Order united and benevolent

At that time, membership was open to any male of good moral character over 21 years old who was a resident of the U.S. and could read, write, or speak English. AHEPA is still an all-male society but there are auxiliaries - Daughters of Penelope for women, Sons of Pericles for boys, and Maids of Athens for girls.  Being of Greek descent was not a condition for membership. Harry S. Truman, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Robert F. Kennedy, Herbert H. Humphrey, Gerald R. Ford, and John H. Glenn, Jr. were all AHEPA members.

President Roosevelt and the national officers of the order of AHEPA Greek American society, 1936, Harris & Ewing, from

Elmira’s Chapter No. 111 of AHEPA began in 1926 with 26 members. It is one of 30 chapters in District 6. The group first met in rented rooms in the Gladke Building on E. Water Street. From the very beginning its members were involved in political and social activism. They supported charitable endeavors, assisted victims of disasters abroad, and offered educational and service programs for both adults and young people.

In 1939, on the precipice of World War II, the local chapter played host to the district convention at the Mark Twain hotel for the first of four times (1939, 1948, 1955, and 1966). At the meeting, past supreme president of AHEPA Dean Alfange of New Yok City urged members to “promote and encourage loyalty to the United States, its flag, constitution and laws.” He added that “Greeks are doing their part in meeting civic responsibilities and fighting the twins of reaction, Communism and Fascism.”  Throughout WWII, the Elmira chapter lived up to this call to action by selling U.S. war bonds - $40,000 worth in just April 1943 alone - and raising funds for Greek refugees.

Officers of Elmira Chapter No. 111, AHEPA, 1955
Seated l to r: James Siotes, John Knapp, Peter Patros, Edward Sindone, Peter H. Theopheles
Standing l to r: George Apostolou, Tom Greven, Perry Vasil, Peter T. Greven, John K. Diveris, Gus Greven

In 1950, Elmira’s AHEPA chapter moved into a new hall at 129 E. Chemung Place. At that time, the group had 102 members from Elmira, Corning, Ithaca, Waverly, Sayre, Athens, Towanda, and Watkins. The hall had a temple, a spacious dining hall for dinners and dances, a reception hall, a smaller meeting hall, and a kitchen. Nearly 500 people attended its dedication on December 17. Not only did the club used the hall for its own activities, such as church services, club socials, and meetings, it also rented the space to outside groups for suppers, receptions, holiday parties, and other private events. AHEPA gave up the hall in the late 1970s and it later became home to the Teamsters Union Local 529.

Elmira Chapter 111 AHEPA hall, Elmira Star-Gazette, October 29, 1950

The Elmira chapter was very active in the 1950s and 1960s, raising money for educational and health programs within the Greek-American community and serving as a social club for its members. Mentions of the chapter in local newspapers decreased throughout the 1970s. While the chapter still exists today, it is inactive except for some members attending regional and national conferences. 

Members of AHEPA (l to r) unidentified priest (non-member), Mr. Steve Anthony, Mr. Mike Labatos, Mr. Pete Greven, and Mr. Constantine (Dean) Pappas.
Photo provided by Christine Pappas

AHEPA is still very active as a national organization more than 100 years after its founding. Since 1922, over 500,000 members have been initiated and there are over 400 active chapters in 11 countries on three continents. It still adheres to its founding values, providing over $1 billion in humanitarian aid to people throughout the world and awarding over $1.8 million in scholarships to Greek-American youth.


Monday, June 3, 2024

Fly the Friendly Skies? The First African American Stewardess

 By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Do you remember Mohawk Airlines? The “Route of the Air Chiefs” airline carried passengers all around New York State. 

It was one of the first feeder airlines to take advantage of the 1944 Civil Aeronautics Board’s (CAB) push to increase access to regions previously not served. A decade later, Mohawk Airlines increased another kind of access, by hiring the nation’s first woman of color as a stewardess.

Mohawk airlines was the renamed Robinson Airlines operating out of Ithaca, NY. Inventor Cecil S. Robinson started it as a side business to his aerial surveying company, though it wasn’t always profitable. The CAB push meant the government was willing to subsidize new routes, and Robinson sold operations to Robert Peach, one of his pilots and a Cornell University law student. Peach had learned to fly as a pilot during World War II. By 1948, Mohawk Airlines was certified as a regional carrier and flying routes throughout the region, including in and out of Elmira/Corning. In less than a decade, the company outgrew their Ithaca facilities and moved their headquarters to Utica. The growth in aviation encouraged competition among the airlines, and they actively looked for innovative approaches to appeal to passengers. Social norms were changing. In 1956, the carrier publicly expressed an interest in hiring flight attendants of color, and one year later, Mohawk hired twenty-five-year-old Ruth Carol Taylor.


Taylor had lived in upstate New York, graduated from college, and was a practicing nurse. She was born in Massachusetts, the eldest of two daughters of Ruth Irene Powell, a registered nurse, and William Edison Taylor, a barber. The family lived in New York City for a short while, then moved to Trumansburg, so that her father could run a farm. She attended Trumansburg Central High School, and then enrolled at Elmira College.

In 1951, her father died and her mother moved back to New York City. Taylor then transferred to Bellevue School of Nursing in NYC. She graduated and practiced nursing for three years before applying to be a flight attendant. At that time, airlines hired nurses to reassure the flying public, so that was a good fit. However, no airline had hired anyone of color. Taylor, interested in flying, applied to Trans World Airlines (TWA) and was interviewed three times, but was not selected. Determined, she filed a complaint with the New York State Commission on Discrimination. About that same time, Peach, perhaps realizing that things needed to change, instructed his company to look for good candidates. Almost 800 women of color applied and were interviewed to be a Mohawk hostess. The company only hired one, Ruth Carol Taylor. Her first flight was February 11, 1958, and generated so much publicity that TWA quickly hired Margaret Grant and declared her as their first African American flight attendant.

Six months after her first flight, Taylor hit another discriminatory wall and was let go for violating the rule that all stewardesses must be single. She had married her fiancĂ©, Rex Legall. The couple moved to the British West Indies and then to London. They divorced and Taylor moved to Barbados. In Barbados she created the country’s first professional nursing journal. In 1977, she returned to NYC bringing her son and daughter with her.

Ruth Carol Taylor was an activist all her life, fighting for racial equality. She participated in the Civil Rights Movement, co-founded the Institute for InterRacial Harmony, and after her son was mugged, wrote The Little Black Book: Black Male Survival in America or Staying Alive and Well in an Institutionally Racist Society.


Being the first of anything isn’t always easy, but seeing Taylor in her uniform certainly encouraged other young women to consider the profession. When interviewed for an article in JET magazine, Taylor shared that she “…didn’t take the job because she thought being a flight attendant would be so great...I knew better than to think it was all that glamourous. But it irked me that people were not allowing people of color to apply…Anything like that sets my teeth to grinding.”


An activist to the end, Taylor was 92 when she died in May 2023.