In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, most Armenians immigrated to New England for one horrific reason: genocide.
Long a persecuted Christian minority in a crumbling Islamic empire, Armenians suffered three spasms of ethnic cleansing by the Ottomans. Most didn’t survive.
Many of those who did came to America. They worked hard, and they influenced our music, our art and our politics. An Armenian American ran Brown University, another ran California. One rose to the top of the tennis world and another to the top of the pop music industry.
Once they arrived, they tended to hang onto their Armenian identity. Today, Armenian communities in Boston, in Portland, in Providence and most of all in Watertown, Mass., support many Armenian institutions. There are Armenian newspapers, schools, summer festivals, sporting events and dinner dances.
But beneath the dancing and the music and the food lies a deadly serious purpose: to force the U.S. government to officially acknowledge the mass murder of their people. It’s something that Turkey denies even today. And it’s something the federal government refuses to do.
Armenians in New England have not forgotten. Every year they celebrate April 24 as a day of remembrance with solemn prayers and speeches.
But they’ve gone even further than that. In the 1920s, Armenians who survived the Ottoman violence hatched a plot to avenge their people – from Watertown, Mass. Only in the past few years have details about the conspiracy come to light.
Armenia, a mountainous country wedged between Turkey, Iran and Georgia, goes back to antiquity. Its most notable geographic feature is Mount Ararat. The country adopted Christianity as its official religion sometime in the third or fourth century, even before Rome did.
The state religion is the Armenian Apostolic Church. (For an explanation of its relationship to the Roman Catholic Church, click here.)
In the 1860s, Protestant missionaries in the region persuaded a handful of young Armenian men to come to Massachusetts to study for the clergy at the Andover Theological Seminary in Newton. Others came as servants to the missionaries, but then found better work elsewhere.
Armenians Immigrate En Masse
In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire (or Turkish Empire) controlled much of Armenia and persecuted the minority Armenians. The Turkish Sultan Abdul Hamid believed the Christian Armenians threatened the Islamic character of the empire, if not the empire itself.
And so the first wave of Armenian genocide began with the Hamidian massacres of 1894-1896. The Ottomans killed somewhere between 80,000 and 300,000 Armenians.
By then, several thousand Armenians, mostly young males, already lived in Providence, Worcester and New York City. But the Hamidian massacres sent 12,000 Armenians from the Ottoman Empire to those cities as well as Boston throughout the 1890s. Christian missionaries in Asia helped them get here.
Then in 1909, Ottomans massacred another 20,000 to 30,000 Armenian Christians in the Adana Province. Violence continued with the Balkan Wars in 1912. Armenians who either fled the Ottoman Empire or were deported swelled the U.S. Armenian population to 60,000 before World War I. They chose Massachusetts and Rhode Island as their second and third favorite destinations.
The expression ‘Young Turks’ first referred to a new generation of Turkish leaders who decided to kill all 2 million Armenians inside the empire. On April 24, 1915, the Young Turks had 200 Armenian intellectuals arrested and then murdered. And so today, April 24 stands for all the violence committed against Armenians.
For seven years after the 1915 violence, the Turkish military slaughtered thousands of able-bodied men. They also enslaved children and sent everyone else on death marches to concentration camps in the Syrian desert. Soldiers raped, starved and murdered their Armenian victims. Estimates of the death toll range from 600,000 to 1.5 million.
“Genocide” wasn’t even a word then. Turkey still denies it ever happened.
Armenians in New England
Many genocide survivors came to the United States, lured by their Armenian relatives who already lived here. By the end of World War I, about 78,000 Armenians lived in the United States. Another 10,000 arrived in 1920, and more than 20,000 from 1921 through 1924. Then the U.S. government pretty much shut the door on Armenians by instituting a quota system for immigrants.
Before World War I, most Armenian immigrants were young unmarried men. After the war, traumatized widows and orphaned children arrived as refugees. “Eat your vegetables, remember the starving Armenians,” became a catchphrase at many an American dinner table.
In Boston, at first, Armenians settled in South Cove, what is now known as Boston’s Chinatown, along with Syrians, Greeks and Chinese. Moses Gulesian, an Armenian businessman, put many of the refugees up in his cornice factory in the city’s South End. (The now-trendy South End has an Armenian restaurant called Anoush-ella, which serves up fast-casual food.)
They also settled in Worcester, where they built the first Armenian church in America in 1890, Church of Our Savior. They also built the first Armenian Protestant Church, the Armenian Church of the Martyrs.
Armenians found homes in Providence and Portland, Maine, as well. As a whole they worked hard, sent their children to school and went to church on the Sabbath. And they may have been starving, but all but 2 percent of them could read.
Watertown, Mass., easily ranks as the largest Armenian community in New England. It’s also the third largest in the United States behind the California cities of Glendale and Fresno.
Armenians first moved to East Watertown, known as Little Armenia, because of jobs. They worked at the Walker & Pratt Stove Co., the Aetna Mills and the stockyard. Many opened bakeries, grocery stores and photography studios. Stephen Mugar, who immigrated to Boston from Armenia with his parents in 1906, started a shop called Star Market, now part of a large supermarket chain.
The most desirable company to work for was the Hood Rubber Co. In 1896, Hood Rubber opened a 67,000-square-foot rubber footwear factory and began hiring Armenians from Chinatown. The company paid relatively well, sponsored English lessons and ran a medical clinic. Hood’s rubber shoes began carrying names that reflected its workers’ ethnicity: Adana, Aleppo and Smyrna. By 1920, 500 Armenians worked at Hood Rubber alongside other immigrants from Asia.
The Abstract Expressionist painter Arshile Gorky escaped the 1915 genocide as a boy, joined his family in Watertown, and got a job at Hood Rubber. He escaped to the factory roof to draw with chalk, which eventually cost him his job. He later took courses and taught part-time at the New School of Design (later the New England School of Design) in Boston, then on to lasting fame in New York City.
By 1930, Watertown had 3,500 Armenians. That number grew to about a quarter of Watertown’s population in 2000, somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000. According to the 2013 American Community Survey, 12,000 Armenians live in Middlesex County (which includes Watertown).
Armenian identity remains strong in Greater Boston through continual revival. Armenian-Americans publish two newspapers in Watertown, the Armenian Weekly and the Armenian Mirror-Spectator. They also run the Armenian Museum of America and St. Stephen’s Armenian Elementary School. Moreover, St. James Armenian Apostolic Church in Watertown holds an annual Armenian festival featuring Armenian losh kebab and live music. And between festivals, you can still get your Armenian food fix at shops like Sevan, Arax, and Massis on Mount Auburn Street.
Nearby Belmont is home to the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research.
Violence in Armenia separated Arshile Gorky and his father for 12 years, but they reunited in Providence, where Gorky’s father worked at the Iron Winding Company in nearby Cranston. Gorky had no interest in following his father into foundry work, and returned to Watertown.
Gorky’s father had come to Providence with the biggest wave of Armenian immigrants who escaped the 1915 genocide. They settled on Smith Hill, Olneyville, the North End and Federal Hill. Jobs could be had in the Locomotive Works, the Rhode Island Tool Works and the Corliss Engine factory. Many saved enough to start small businesses such as tailoring shops, grocery stores, butcher shops and candy companies.
Between 1898 and 1932, 6,375 Armenians came to Rhode Island, where they raised their families. Harry Kizirian, the Providence-born son of Armenian immigrants, became Providence postmaster after heroic action in World War II. He oversaw the creation of the first automated post office. Several buildings in Providence, federal and municipal, now bear his name.
Vartanian Gregorian, an Armenian born in Iran, came to the U.S. as a student at Stanford in 1956. Later in life, he served as president of Brown University for nine years.
In 1997, the Armenian Historical Association of Rhode Island formed to tell the story of Armenian immigrants in the state.
Garabed Yeghoian and his small family began the Armenian settlement in Portland after barely escaping the Hamidian Massacre in 1896. They fled from Istanbul to Marseille, France, with other Armenian refugees.
It so happened that Frances Willard, president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), was traveling in France with a British temperance activist, Lady Somerset. The ladies then decided to take charge of resettling the starving Armenians. Willard arranged for the Yeghoians to travel to Portland, where local WCTU chapters helped them start new lives. Yeghoian built a small grocery store at 166 Lancaster Street and turned a profit in his first year.
By 1908, 25 Armenian families joined them and eventually ran 27 grocery stores and 24 barber shops. They also worked in local factories like Winslow Pottery, Portland Stove Foundry and Portland Leather Tannery. They formed political, religious and cultural organizations, including the Armenian Cultural Association of Maine in 2003. The ACAM since built a monument to the Armenian genocide victims in the heart of Portland’s old Armenian neighborhood, the corner of Cumberland and Franklin streets.
Worcester, one of the first New England destinations for Armenians, once meant ‘America’ to many Armenians. Most who worked had jobs at the Washburn & Moen Manufacturing Co., the largest wire manufacturer in the world. The city still has a significant Armenian population of about 1,300.
About 25,000 Armenian Americans now live in Massachusetts, making it the second most Armenian state in the country.
Not forgetting the Armenian genocide is a big part of being Armenian in America. Eric Bogosian grew up in Massachusetts, and his grandfather told him stories of the Turkish atrocities.
Bogosian is probably best known as Capt. Danny Stone on the Law and Order television series, or as Barry Champlain in the 1988 film Talk Radio. But he’s also an author who researched an Armenian plot to kill the Turkish masterminds of the 1915 genocide.
He learned the Armenians called it Operation Nemesis, and they ran it out of Watertown. Shahan Natali, a former newspaper editor who called himself John Mahy, took charge of the operation.
Bogosian described how, on March 15, 1921, Soghomon Tehlirian walked past Turkey’s former interior minister on a quiet street in Berlin, Germany. Then he shot him in the nape of the neck. Police quickly arrested him and Tehlirian went to trial. But a jury acquitted him, and the sensational trial made people aware of the Armenian genocide.
The Nemesis operatives – who included an accountant, a life insurance salesman and an engineering student – killed five other Turkish leaders. Then they vanished.
Bogosian assembled little-known facts about the assassination plot. Then he wrote Operation Nemesis: The Assassination Plot That Avenged the Armenian Genocide and published in 2015.
Writing the book changed his mind about the way the U.S. government should treat Turkey, he said. He believes the United States should officially acknowledge the Turkish atrocities – something it has yet to do.
“By perpetuating the denial, this is the last stage of genocide,” Bogosian told Asbarez in 2015.
In October 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 405-11 to approve a resolution that acknowledged Turkey’s systematic slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians.
Then on Thursday, Dec. 12, 2019, the U.S. Senate unanimously voted to recognize the Armenian genocide. President Trump, however, did not support the resolution.
Armenians who rose to prominence in Massachusetts include:
- Fred Jaffarian, the first Armenian-American born in Haverhill, Mass. He started the huge Jaffarian Volvo-Toyota car dealership in that city with his wife Alice in 1938.
- Peter Koutoujian, Middlesex County sheriff.
- Rachel Kaprielian, former state secretary of Labor and Worforce Development.
- Peter Torigian, mayor of Peabody for 23 years.
And nationally famous Armenian Americans include:
- George Deukmejian, two-term governor of California.
- William Saroyan, novelist and playwright.
- Andre Agassiz, eight-time Grand Slam tennis champion.
- Cherilyn Sarkisian, also known as Cher, actress, recording artist and fashion icon.
Images: Mount Ararat By Սէրուժ Ուրիշեան (Serouj Ourishian) – Own work, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=51469965. Armenian St. Stephen’s Church By Tandreasian – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45630323. Cher By Raph_PH – CherO2201019-32, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83795981. Eric Bogosian By David Shankbone – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2000713. Armenian folk dancers By en:Nick DeWolf – https://www.flickr.com/photos/dboo/7257620044/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22984216. And Armenians Heritage Park By Yerevanci – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20744910.
With thanks to Anny Bakalian, Armenian-Americans From Being to Feeling American. This story was updated in 2020.