An African American Pioneer in Greece: John Wesley Gilbert and the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1890-1891.

Posted by John W. I. Lee

John W. I. Lee, Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Barbara, here contributes an essay about John W. Gilbert, the first African-American student to participate in the Regular Program of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA) in 1890-1891. Lee is writing a book about John Wesley Gilbert, the early history of the ASCSA, and the development of archaeology in Greece.

In his official report to the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) for academic year 1890-1891, Director Charles Waldstein praised students Carleton Brownson, Andrew Fossum, John Gilbert, and John Pickard, who had “proved themselves serious and enthusiastic” throughout the year.  Waldstein went on to describe the School’s 1891 excavations at ancient Eretria on the island of Euboea.  While Fossum and Brownson excavated Eretria’s theater, Pickard and Gilbert “undertook the survey and careful study of all the ancient walls of the city and acropolis, and will produce a plan and an account which… will be of great topographical and historical value.”

Waldstein’s report gives no indication that one of the students, John Gilbert, was African American—the first African American scholar to attend the ASCSA.  With the passage of time, memory of Gilbert’s pioneering contribution was forgotten at the School, until Professor Michele Valerie Ronnick of Wayne State University searched for him in the ASCSA Archives in the early 2000s.  Ronnick’s work on Gilbert, featured in the School’s Ákoue Newsletter, forms the foundation of my research.

John Wesley Gilbert. Photo: Daniel W. Culp, Twentieth Century Negro Literature (1902)

John Wesley Gilbert was born about 1863 in rural Hephzibah, Georgia; his mother Sarah was enslaved.  After Emancipation, Sarah took her young son to the nearby city of Augusta.  From childhood Gilbert thirsted for learning.  An 1871 Freedman’s Bank register bearing his signature gives his occupation as “go to school to Miss Chesnut.”

“Six months of the year,” Gilbert later recalled, “I ploughed, hoed, picked cotton, split rails, and spent the other six months in the public schools of Augusta.”  After attending the Augusta Institute (forerunner of Morehouse College), Gilbert in 1884 enrolled as the first student of Paine Institute (today Paine College), a cooperative inter-racial endeavor of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South and the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (now Christian Methodist Episcopal Church).  Rev. George Williams Walker, Paine’s president from 1884-1910, would become Gilbert’s lifelong mentor and friend.

With Walker’s help, Gilbert in 1886 transferred to Brown University.  There he studied classical languages, literature, and history with Professor Albert Harkness, one of the original members of the American School’s Managing Committee.  Graduating in 1888, Gilbert returned home to become Paine Institute’s first Black faculty member while simultaneously reading for an MA in Greek under Harkness’ guidance.

Managing Committee records preserved in the ASCSA Archives in Athens suggest Harkness nominated Gilbert for the School as early as 1889.  Despite the presence on the Managing Committee of Basil Gildersleeve, a Confederate apologist and opponent of racial equality, the School had previously welcomed two other African American scholars.  Sadly, Wiley Lane of Howard University had died suddenly in 1885 before departing for Greece; William Sanders Scarborough, the preeminent Black Classicist of the day, planned to go in 1886 but could not find funding.

The American School of Classical Studies at Athens from south, ca. 1890. Photo: ASCSA Archives.

By January 1890, Gilbert secured a Brown fellowship for travel to Greece, earning nationwide attention in the African American press.  In June, when Gilbert spoke at the commencement of Ware High School in Augusta—Georgia’s only publicly funded high school for Black students—more than five hundred people attended.  Gilbert officially enrolled as a Brown University MA candidate for 1890-1891.  Leaving behind his wife Osceola and their baby daughter Alma, he set off for Athens in September 1890.

1890-1891 was a momentous time for Greek archaeology.  John Gilbert arrived in Athens amid high hopes that Americans would soon be digging at Delphi, only to see the French win the site (for the inside story, see Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan’s essay “The American Dream to Excavate Delphi”).  Gilbert may have met Heinrich Schliemann before the excavator of Troy left Athens for the last time in November.  Gilbert certainly attended Schliemann’s funeral in January 1891 in Athens and the memorial conference held at the School a few days later, where he and his fellow students were probably introduced to King George and Queen Olga of Greece.  Just two weeks after that, the British Museum unveiled the papyrus rolls of the Aristotelian Athenaîon Politeia, a long-lost treatise on Athenian government that the London Times hailed as a discovery “almost unprecedented in the whole history of classical learning.”

Delphi before excavation, 12 April 1891 (or life among the ruins). Photo: ASCSA Archives.

Gilbert’s year in Greece was also pivotal for the fledgling American School.  Since its foundation in 1881 the School had chosen a new director annually, hampering the development of a coherent program. The 1888 appointment of Cambridge’s Charles Waldstein as Permanent Director promised stability.  But, Waldstein was only in Greece from late December to mid-April at most, so the School continued selecting Annual Directors.  This awkward arrangement had worked poorly in 1889-90 and the stakes were high for 1890-91.

Rufus Richardson, 1886. Photo: Dartmouth College Archives.

Fortunately, the new Annual Director, Rufus Richardson of Dartmouth, developed good relations with Waldstein.  Richardson’s wife Alice and their three young children accompanied him to Greece.  Alice Richardson’s father Henry Chandler Bowen had helped found The Independent, a widely-read New York weekly.  Thanks to this family connection, The Independent published no less than eighteen American School-related items during 1890-91, including an article by John Gilbert.

Three other students joined Gilbert for the year.  Yale PhD student Carleton Brownson was from a Connecticut family of physicians and ministers.  Andrew Fossum of Iowa, son of Norwegian immigrant farmers, had earned his PhD from Johns Hopkins in 1887.  John Pickard of New Hampshire, an 1883 Dartmouth graduate, had taught high school before going to study in Germany in 1889.  Along with Pickard came his wife Jeanie, her mother Caroline Gerrish, Jeanie’s cousin Edith Harris, and their friend Emma Potter.  Edith and Emma attended many School activities, garnering them a brief mention in the School’s official report.

While Brownson, Fossum, and Gilbert took rooms in the School’s new building, Pickard and the four American women lived with Presbyterian minister M.D. Kalopothakes and his American second wife, Margaret Kyle.  The Kalopothakes house and church lay just across from the Arch of Hadrian, where the Greek Evangelical Church is still located today.  John Gilbert probably attended some of Rev. Kalopothakes’ Sunday services, conducted in Greek.

Previous Annual Directors had deemed archaeological “excursions” secondary to classroom study, but Richardson led Gilbert and his fellows through an intensive fall program of site visits and trips that would set the School’s pattern for decades to come.

John Pickard, ca. 1892. Courtesy of the Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, NH. 

In Athens, the group relied on Jane Harrison and Margaret Verrall’s just-published Pausanias text and commentary, Mythology and Monuments of Ancient Athens.  Edith Harris wrote in a letter home: “There is a good deal of joking about [Harrison] and her books.  The students go out to walk with ‘Jane.” At present, we have her [i.e. the School’s copy] in the house and often you hear the cry, ‘Where’s Jane?’ ‘Have you got Jane?’”

Where most foreign travelers in Greece hired horses, John Gilbert and his fellows walked.  “Professor Richardson was fond of hikes,” Andrew Fossum later wrote.  In Attica the group followed routes German topographer Arthur Milchhöfer had recently explored for the Karten von Attika, including a three-day loop of some 75 miles from Athens via Kifissia to Marathon, Rhamnous, and the Amphiareion.  A ten-day, 250-mile slog in the November rain took them from Delphi through Phocis to Thermopylae and back through Boeotia to Athens.  Caroline Gerrish describes her son-in-law John Pickard returning “like a veritable tramp, splashed with mud from head to foot, and literally dirty as a pig…. They slept in all kinds of places, from a barn to a church, and they were invaded by bed bugs, which they very cutely named the Persians.”

Gilbert and the other students spent the winter attending site and museum lectures—including two-hour-long talks in German by Schliemann’s protegé, the architect Wilhelm Dörpfeld—and working in the School’s library.  It was the coldest winter Athens had seen in decades, with several heavy snowfalls.  During this time Gilbert wrote his MA thesis, entitled “The Demes of Athens” according to a letter he sent from Athens to William Sanders Scarborough.  While no known copy of his thesis survives, Gilbert’s research set him squarely in the midst of contemporary debates about Athenian topography and political organization.


The School’s focus now shifted to the ancient site of Eretria on the island of Euboea.  By early February of 1891, Fossum was excavating Eretria’s theater.  Brownson, Richardson, Waldstein, and the School’s “cook and master of all trades” Nikolaki arrived by the middle of the month.  After finishing their library work, Gilbert and Pickard arrived on February 26 and soon began a survey of Eretria’s topography.

Eretria 1891, first days of excavation. Carleton Brownson standing on the left side of the trench; Charles Waldstein wearing a pith helmet amidst his workmen on the right side of the trench. Photo: ASCSA Archives.

The group found quarters in an abandoned house in the village of Nea Psara, with Gilbert and Pickard sharing one of the two bedrooms.  Nikolaki converted another abandoned house into a kitchen and dining hall.  Gilbert and Pickard’s original survey map, preserved in the ASCSA Archives, labels the houses as “dormitory” and “salle à manger”—details omitted from the professionally redrawn version published in AJA.

The ASCSA Archives also preserve the only two known photographs of John Gilbert in Greece.  Both were taken at Eretria, almost certainly by Rufus Richardson.  Many of Richardson’s other shots of the season failed to develop, so most of the published photos of the 1891 excavations were taken by J.W. Gordon Oswald, a wealthy Scottish archaeology enthusiast who visited Eretria several times, or by Dörpfeld during a visit on May 5.

One photo shows the American School excavating the so-called “Tomb of Aristotle” east of Eretria, possibly near modern Magoula according to ASCSA Mellon Professor Sylvian Fachard, who has surveyed the area.  Waldstein never properly published this dig, but details emerge from an 1892 account he penned for Century Magazine, and from essays by Gilbert and Pickard that The Independent printed in April 1891.  The June 1891 “Archaeological News” column of what was then called The American Journal of Archaeology and of the History of the Fine Arts reprinted large portions of Gilbert’s and Pickard’s essays verbatim.  As was common practice at the time, the column omitted their names.  John Gilbert thus became the first African American scholar to be published in AJA, albeit anonymously.

At far left we can identify Andrew Fossum holding a notebook (which is not preserved in the ASCSA Archives).  In the center we see John Gilbert wearing a bowler hat and John Pickard wrapped in a shawl.  A Greek woman stands at the right, and at the far right edge of the frame we glimpse a rifle butt, evidence of a guard’s presence. The snow-covered slopes of Mount Olympus (at left rear) and the Servouni ridge in the background testify to the unusually cold winter.  Judging from the dry ground, this photo was taken on February 27, before the heavy snow that set in on March 1st.  Waldstein describes workmen on the 27th “breaking up the huge blocks of poros which impeded our progress downward” and freshly broken fragments are visible in the left foreground.

Andrew Fossum, John Gilbert, and John Pickard excavating the “Tomb of Aristotle” at Eretria, 1891. Photo: ASCSA Archives.

After days of snow and rain the Greek workmen sensibly refused to dig, so on March 3 the professors and students hoisted picks, shovels, and baskets and “trotted off…in the rain, singing American college songs” to dig in the mud as locals marveled at “the crazy foreigners.”  Waldstein recalled “the learned Professor Richardson picking away vigorously; while another bespectacled student [probably Pickard] filled the baskets which were handed from one to other.”  The scene was less comical than the urbane Waldstein supposed, for Fossum, Gilbert, Pickard, and Richardson had all grown up doing farm labor.

On March 4 the weather cleared.  The Greek workers, back on the job, uncovered a tomb with a marble slab inscribed [Β]ιότη [Ἀ]ριστοτέλου—Biote the daughter of Aristotle.  Gilbert’s Independent essay, written in March while he was still on Euboea but not published until April 30, reflects what must have been Waldstein’s reasoning at the time: “In another grave, next to this one, and belonging to the same family, was found a gold pen, a symbol for what had been the dead person’s life work.  Now when we remember that the pen was the symbol for a philosopher, that Chalkis, which is near Eretria, was the native home of Aristotle, the philosopher, that the relation between the two towns was generally that of friendly intimacy, and that Eretria, like the Cerameicus at Athens, was probably a burial place for celebrated persons, it does not seem improbable that the grave of Aristotle, the philosopher, was in Eretria, and that the present excavations have brought it to light.”

Waldstein and Richardson returned to Athens from March 9-16.  On the 12th, the Athenian paper Nea Ephemeris announced that the German School (!) had discovered at Eretria a tomb with an inscription bearing the name Aristotle.  News of “the Tomb of Aristotle” soon spread around the world, despite the cautionary notes Waldstein at first sounded.  Later Waldstein grew more confident.  As his 1892 Century article put it, “we do not claim that the attribution of this grave to the great philosopher is here proved beyond a doubt; but for the present we are justified in naming this grave, excavated at Eretria by the American School of Athens, the Tomb of Aristotle.”  Others were less sanguine.  French School director Théophile Homolle expressed “très grande scepticisme” in May 1891 and a journalist visiting Eretria in 1893 reports German archaeologists “smiled rather incredulously” at the notion.

Charles Waldstein supervising the excavation of the “Tomb of Aristotle.” Source: The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 44 (new series 22) (May-October 1892), pp. 414-426.

The second photo, possibly taken later on February 27, shows Gilbert and Pickard flanking an unknown Greek man.  The weather has apparently warmed up, for Gilbert has turned down his coat and doffed his bowler.  Sylvian Fachard identifies the location as the southeast corner of the city wall, where the two round towers whose remains are clearly visible in the image may have flanked a gate.  Eretria’s fortifications received close attention in Gilbert and Pickard’s survey.  While Pickard concentrated on architectural details, Gilbert handled length measurements, using a metric Gunter’s Chain or similar surveyor’s device.  It is possible Gilbert had formal survey training, for Brown offered an elective course on the subject.  Gilbert also had a clinometer, an instrument that enabled him to correct measurements for incline.  Since chain-measuring requires two people, Gilbert must have had an assistant, perhaps the Greek man who appears in this photo.  In his AJA publication, Pickard thanks Gilbert twice, placing his name in the acknowledgements ahead of Waldstein, Richardson, and even Dörpfeld.  Gilbert and Pickard’s survey remains an important source of information on ancient Eretria, for some of the features they recorded in 1891 have since been built over or destroyed.

John W. Gilbert, unknown Greek man, and John Pickard, Eretria 1891. Photo: ASCSA Archives.

On March 19 the American School headed back to Athens. At the very end of the month, John Gilbert escorted Caroline Gerrish, Edith Harris, and Emma Potter to see Nafplio, Epidaurus, Tiryns, Argos, and Mycenae, then took his leave at Patras to begin his journey home.  Back in the U.S., it would have been unheard of for an African American man to accompany three white women on such a trip.

Rufus Richardson, who would later direct the School from 1893-1903, closed his official report for 1890-91 by writing: “It may be predicted with absolute certainty that our four students will go back in due time to America, if not trained archaeologists, at least with an interest in the Greek lands, and the life and monuments of ancient Greece, which will make them infectious centres of interest wherever they pitch their tents.”


Carleton Brownson (1866-1948) stayed on at the School for 1891-92.  He and Emma Potter married in 1892.  After completing his Yale PhD in 1897, Brownson taught at the City College of New York until 1936.  Andrew Fossum (1860-1943) taught in Minnesota at St. Olaf College, Park Region Luther College, and Concordia College before retiring in 1923.  John Pickard (1858-1937) took his PhD at Munich in 1892 then taught at the University of Missouri until his retirement in 1929.

John Gilbert returned to teach at Paine College.  His students included Channing Tobias, a future leader of the NAACP.  Gilbert was elected to the American Philological Association in 1897, becoming one of only two Black members at the time.  Newspapers into the 1900s lauded Gilbert as “the ablest Greek scholar of the race,” but his life’s work stretched far beyond Classics.  Even as segregation and racist violence tightened their grip on the U.S., Gilbert advocated tirelessly for interracial cooperation and harmony.  He was an eloquent voice for Black education, economic advancement, and justice, often being mentioned alongside Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois.  As a minister of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, Gilbert in 1911-1912 joined W.R. Lambuth of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South on an arduous mission to the Belgian Congo.  During this journey Gilbert contracted an illness from which he never fully recovered.  He died in Augusta in 1923.

Today, Gilbert is recognized as a pioneering Black Classicist. Some consider him the first Black archaeologist for his work at Eretria.  Gilbert-Lambuth Memorial Chapel at Paine College honors his legacy and Brown University’s Joukowsky Institute of Archaeology recently installed his photograph in a place of honor.  No monument yet stands in Athens to celebrate this extraordinary scholar’s contribution to the American School of Classical Studies, but John Wesley Gilbert remains an inspiration to all who learn of him.


Andrew Fossum quotations are from his unpublished journal preserved in the Andrew Fossum Papers (P0541), Norwegian-American Historical Association. Northfield, Minnesota.

Caroline Gerrish’s and Edith Harris’ letters are preserved in the Harris Family Papers (MS078) and Gerrish Kimball Collection (MS121), Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

 Gilbert, J.W. 1891. “The Excavations at Eretria.” The Independent 43.2213 (April 30, 1891), p. 19 (643).

Pickard, J. 1891. “Excavations by the School at Eretria in 1891. VI. A Topographical Study of Eretria.” AJA 7.4, pp. 371-389.

Waldstein, C. 1892. “The Finding of the Tomb of Aristotle.” The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine 44 (new series 22) (May-October 1892), pp. 414-426.

Dollies and Doilies: Priscilla Capps Hill and the Refugee Crisis in Athens, 1922-1941

Posted by Jack L. Davis

Jack L. Davis, Carl W. Blegen Professor of Greek Archaeology at the University of Cincinnati and a former director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (2007-2012), here contributes an essay about the (forgotten) relief efforts of Priscilla Capps Hill through Near East Industries during the great refugee crisis that followed the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922.

In the months that followed the Asia Minor catastrophe in September 1922 and the population exchange of 1923, more than a million Orthodox Christians were ultimately compelled to desert their birth rights in Anatolia. Their influx to Greece generated an unprecedented humanitarian crisis. American expatriates in Greece took immediate action. Darrell O. Hibbard of the YMCA and Jefferson Caffery, Chargé d’Affaires of the U.S. Mission, created the Athens American Relief Committee, which notified Red Cross missions in Europe and America about the crisis and organized the first relief efforts. Bert H. Hill, Director of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter), was appointed Chairman of the Relief Committee, in which role he was expected to coordinate communication with the Greek government.  Harry Hill (no relation to Bert), an Englishman, head of the American Express Company in Athens, was charged with purchases and banking.  Hundreds of thousands of dollars were collected by the time the Committee was disbanded on November 24, 1922, when the American Red Cross arrived in Greece to provide humanitarian aid together with Near East Relief, the latter focusing largely on Turkey.  Its work had been invaluable. (See also E. Daleziou, ” ‘Adjuster and Negotiator’: Bert Hodge Hill and the Greek Refugee Crisis, 1918-1928,” Hesperia 82, 2013, pp. 49-65.)

The ASCSA’s involvement did not stop there. In the years to come “the School continued to be a hub for Americans offering their services to a variety of refugee relief efforts such as the ARC, the American Women’s Hospital Organization, Near East Relief, the YMCA, and the Athens American Relief Committee” (Daleziou 2013, p. 58). In addition to relief work, Edward Capps, the Chair of the School’s Managing Committee and a professor of Classics at Princeton University, was asked by Greece’s former prime-minister Eleftherios Venizelos to raise awareness in America of what was happening in Greece. Without wasting time, Capps, who knew Venizelos personally from his days as U.S. Minister to Greece (1920-1921), founded The American Friends of Greece (AFG), the broader mission of which was “to promote friendly relations between Greece and the U.S.” (The AFG later published booklets in support of Greece during World War II and a monthly newsletter, “The Philhellene,” which circulated from 1942-1950.)

Priscilla’s Story

Incorporation of the AFG on October 15, 1923 marked the start of Priscilla Capps’s involvement in refugee affairs, a much less well-known story than her father’s.  Priscilla Capps (1900-1985), a graduate of Smith College, had assisted her father in Athens during his service as Minister, while she was a student at the ASCSA, as a kind of “first daughter.”

Priscilla Capps clad in a traditional Greek costume, ca. 1920s. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Oscar Broneer Papers.

Priscilla’s role in confronting the crisis is documented in the archives of Near East Industries (a subsidiary of Near East Relief).  She was associated with Near East Relief from 1923 and became the Overseas Director of Near East Industries in 1925.  Near East Industries was represented in America by Rose Ewald, who marketed refugee craft goods from the organization’s flagship store at 151 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. They were sold by other merchants on commission, in Christmas sales, and in summer sales on Cape Cod.  Capps made frequent promotional trips to New York, and she and Ewald eventually built a business that, at the dawn of WW II, employed 350 women.

James Barton’s The Story of Near East Relief: 1915-1930 (1930) notes that “the general theory of helping women work evolved into the Near East Industries … Workshops were operated in three refugee centers, Athens, Beirut and Constantinople, under the supervision of Miss Priscilla Capps, Miss Dorothy Francis and Miss Sarah Ravndal.”

In Athens itself products of Near East Industries were first offered to tourists from Priscilla’s shop at 48 Amalias Street across from the Arch of Hadrian, and, after 1931, at 2 Amalias, near Syntagma (Constitution) Square.  Independent tourist shops also took goods on commission.

Card advertising Near East Industries. Photo: ASCSA Archives.

Priscilla built Near East Industries on foundations established by the AFG.  And we know how this happened because we have a vivid account of the experimental launch in 1924 of the program of refugee craft production that blossomed in 1925 and became Near Eastern Industries, thanks to Gladys Slade Thompson, wife of W. Stuart Thompson, architect of the Gennadius Library of the ASCSA. Her pamphlet titled Refugee Workshops in Greece: A 1924 Experiment Becomes a 1925 Fact (Washington, D.C.: American Friends of Greece, Inc.) is scarce and deserves to be much better known.

According to Thompson, refugee workshops in two communities of Athens were already producing crafts for the AFG by 1925.  She begins:

“When the great invasion of refugees came in 1922, they had no place to go.  Some slept in boxes, others on street corners, or the gutter, still others in enormous concentration camps that so reeked with vile smells and fifth that they were dangerous to visit.  Today the worst of these pest holes are gone, and some of the refugees who were herded there are now living in the new villages which are growing up around the city of Athens.”

Thompson then turns to the “Kountouriotis Camp” —300 one-room houses in Ambelokipi, built with funds from Greeks in America.  She describes conditions:

“About thirty of these houses run along in a row with one roof.  They look like little bathing houses with all the bareness of the seashore but none of the beauty of the sea.  Short clothes-lines run crosswise down the narrow dirt road, and we are oblique to duck our heads to avoid the many ragged patched pieces of clothing hanging on the lines.  Each house is about ten feet square and has one window, a dirt floor and a roof that is now beginning to leak.”

Koundouriotis Village Workshop. Source: G. S. Thompson, Refugee Workshops.

The village took its name Κουντουριώτικα from that of Admiral Pavlos Koundouriotis, the President of Greece who had granted public land behind the soccer stadium on Alexandras boulevard for the settlement.  (See also

Aerial view of Koundouriotika (ca. 1960), near the soccer stadium, on Alexandras Boulevard (Leoforos Alexandras). Photo: N. Paradeisis, Ambelokipi.

From Thompson’s account we also learn about the workshop there.  She writes:

Won’t you look into the workshop with me?  The room, about twenty feet square, has no furnishing except benches.  Forty women and girls are there, from eleven years up to any age where the woman has eyes to see.  They are embroidering little Greek bags with designs taken from the old pottery of Rhodes, and in another room the cloth is woven by weavers who, in more happy days, wove their own material but never worked for others.  Some are weaving beautiful natural silk into just the right width for scarfs, while others are weaving cotton into material for bags and dresses.

The raw silk and natural dies were brought from Kalamata and the silk dyed in Athens to match the colors of Rhodian pots and antique scarves. Lucy Shoe Meritt, who shared an apartment with Priscilla in 1928, reminisced in the obituary she wrote at the time of Priscilla’s death in 1985: “At the time she was running a shop for the Near East Relief… [the] motifs copied from pieces that Priscilla had found in the Greek Islands… Fortunate are those of us who have reproductions of some of these from her shop which was always popular with tourists” (ASCSA Newsletter, Spring 1986, p. 13).

Near East Industries pouch with Rhodian design. ASCSA Archives, Jack L. Davis Collection.

In a second refugee village, another 100 women were working in Pangrati to produce handkerchiefs and “luncheon sets.”  250 women in Lesbos, 100 in Chios, 100 in Samos, 100 in Crete, and 300 in Thessaloniki also filled orders from the AFG.

Efforts by the AFG were soon absorbed by Near East Industries, while Priscilla Capps built bridges to other relief agencies too.  I quote from a 1929 report of the Near East Foundation, submitted on the eve of the Great Depression:

“Miss Capps gives us a most remarkable report covering her work for the month of March [1929]. You will note that she is most confident in being able to continue the Industries without orders from America.  With Mr. Acheson’s approval, Miss Capps has been loaned by the Near East Relief for two hours daily to organize the various refugee industries under the Refugee Settlement Commission. In this connection it is interesting to advise you of the fact that about 300 of our ex-orphan girls are employed by the Danish Mission work-shops. Their products are entirely of a different character than anything produced by Miss Capps’ workers and practically the entire output is sold in Denmark. These girls have clean, well-lighted work-rooms and Miss Yibson, the Director, is a Danish woman of the finest type. The girls have daily religious exercises before beginning their work and this one industry has done much to keep alive hundreds of Armenian families supported entirely by these ex-orphan girls.”

The Refugee Settlement Commission with which Priscilla Capps collaborated had been created by the League of Nations in September 1923 at the request of the Greek government, and was vested with full legal authority to coordinate resettlement of refugees.  In 1924 her father, Edward Capps, had declined to serve as one of its four members because of other commitments.

Nonetheless, Edward Capps did continue his involvement in refugee affairs, albeit not to the extent of Priscilla’s.  Most of the men employed between 1923 and 1925 in the construction of ASCSA’s Gennadius Library were refugees.  Capps also raised funds to employ Greek men formerly held as prisoners in Turkey so that roads around the School could be improved.  In 1925 he even proposed building a model women’s workshop with salvage timber from the construction of the Gennadius Library (Newberry Library, Horace S. Oakley Papers, Capps to Oakley, April 24, 1925).  And he served as a trustee of Near East Relief. Bert Hodge Hill also joined the Refugee Settlement Commission alongside Edward Capps from 1927 until its dissolution in 1930 (Daleziou 2013).

Greek refugee girls weaving. Photo: The National Geographic Magazine, November 1925, p. 585.

Caught in the Great Depression

By 1931, in the heart of the Great Depression, the financial situation of Near East Industries had become grim. Priscilla’s summer sale in 1931 had failed to deliver anticipated profits and, among other problems, tourism in Athens had declined. She responded to this downward trend in sales by introducing new product lines and by accepting new commissions.  Her women were now making embroidered suits, dresses, and coats, and she announced that Near East Industries would produce stage curtains for the theater of the University of Athens, for the house of the director of the Gennadius Library, for the professors’ house at Athens College, and for the new Corinth Museum.

One product line sold on commission in the U.S. during the 1930s remains popular among collectors today — 8” dolls dressed in traditional costumes of Greece, Albania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Palestine. From the mid-1930s they were distributed in the United States by Kimport Dolls, a company managed by Ruby and Arthur McKim of Independence, Missouri. Kimport had contracted with Near East Industries to market them, but it is clear that the same or similar dolls were already being made in the 1920s in Athens by refugee women.


Some of the dolls made by Near East Industries, Athens, Greece. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Jack L. Davis Collection.

Skyrian doll made by Near East Industries. Private Collection. Photo: Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan

Making Garments for Air Raid Victims

Sales on Cape Cod continued to be held on behalf of Near East Industries even on the brink of America’s entrance into WW II. A press release from the Near East Foundation Archives describes an exhibition of craft goods to be held in Yarmouth Port in July, probably 1940.  The S.S. Excalibur of the American Export Lines had carried the goods from Greece across the Atlantic, running “the gauntlet of mined areas of the Mediterranean.”

Priscilla soon abandoned the production of craft goods for export to America altogether as conditions in Europe worsened.  There were greater needs in Greece itself.  Laird Archer, the resident overseas director of the Near East Foundation in Athens, described (“Identification of the Author,” in P. Capps Hill, General Study of the Problem of Reclothing the Greek People After the War [Near East Foundation, 1943]) her herculean efforts on behalf of Greece:

Mrs. Priscilla Capps Hill did the planning which was the basis for the remarkable production of both home-made and workshop garments for air raid victims and the homeless from invaded regions during the hostilities in Greece, 1940-42… It gave employment to more than 5,000 women and girls from families whose breadwinners were in war service … in a few months more than 400,000 handmade garments were produced – in spite of material shortages and interruptions by air-raids …

The clothing distribution was a joint enterprise of the Near East Foundation and a new Greek War Relief Committee, a group of Americans in Athens who assembled at the invitation of General Metaxas.  Harry Hill, Priscilla Capps’s husband since 1933, was Executive Vice-President and Laird Archer was a member.  Through American Express, Hill ensured that supplies of cloth reached Athens.

Priscilla’s work continued until she and Harry were evacuated in April 1941. Near East Industries in Athens closed, but that did not mark the end of their enthusiasm for Greek causes.  Harry became American Ambassador to the Greek and Yugoslav governments in exile in Cairo during WW II, while continuing to serve the Greek War Relief Committee.

Pins and matches advertising the work of the Greek Work Relief  during WW II. ASCSA Archives, Jack L. Davis Collection.

Reclothing Greece

Priscilla was also active in the Greek War Relief Committee throughout the war, but from her base in New York.  There she and Alice Carr, former Director of Public Health for the Near East Foundation in Greece, laid plans to reclothe Greece and provide medical aid for workshops and cloth distribution centers when peace would be restored.  In her report to the “Coordinating Committee of American Agencies in Greece,” already referenced, Priscilla noted that the Germans had requisitioned what stores of cloth had existed in Greece and had commandeered mills.  She proposed that relief shipments of food to Greece be followed by supplies needed to re-establish workshops of the sort organized in 1940 and 1941.  In this way the Greeks would quickly become self-sufficient again. She specified both the types of clothing and quantities required. As long as the war continued to rage, she suggested a project be sponsored in Cairo, where Greek refugee women could be put to work and make a start producing the clothes needed after the armistice.  The idea had been first proposed by Dorothy Cox, an OSS officer in Egypt who had been architect for Carl Blegen’s excavations at Troy in the 1930s.

So far as I know, WW II marked the end of Priscilla’s devotion to refugee affairs.  In 1945, the Hills moved to Paris, where Harry served as Vice-President of American Express in Europe.  The Germans had occupied their house in Psychiko during the war, and it was sold in 1947.  Now her attention turned to the welfare of the ASCSA, and after Harry’s death, from her home in Princeton, she continued her father’s campaigns to build the endowment of the School. Her efforts as treasurer and Charlie Morgan’s as chair of the Auxiliary Fund added thousands of dollars to its endowment between 1959 and 1974, “diligently tracking down lost old friends, annually writing informative and persuasive letters to new ones, and publishing the growing list of contributors to the Fund each year” (Lucy Shoe Meritt in ASCSA Newsletter Spring 1985, p. 13). She also donated her collection of old and rare embroideries to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

Priscilla Capps Hill died in 1985.


I am grateful for the help I received in researching this post from Natalia Vogeikoff-Brogan and Eleftheria Daleziou of the ASCSA, Kostis Kourelis of Franklin and Marshall College, Renee Pappous of the Rockefeller Archive Center, Linda Jacobs, formerly of the Near East Foundation, Caitlin Eckhard of the Jackson County Historical Society (Missouri), Nancy Pearl (Walnut Creek, California), and Cathy Breedon (Fargo, North Dakota).

Imagining and Reimagining Greece

Posted by Clayton Miles Lehmann

Clayton M. Lehmann, Professor of History at the University of South Dakota, here contributes an essay about American college students coming to Greece, as part of study-abroad programs. This post represents a modified and shortened version of the 63rd Annual Harrington Lecture, which he delivered 28 October 2015 to the College of Arts and Sciences of the University of South Dakota.  Lehmann was a Regular Member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in 1982/3, lived in Greece while he wrote his doctoral dissertation, and has returned often, three times as the Director of the Summer Session for the American School and regularly since 2005 as one of the professor-captains of the University of South Dakota’s short-term faculty-led study-abroad program “The Isles of Greece!”.

After disappointing tourism numbers for the 2004 Olympics, the Greek National Tourism Organization launched a major campaign, “Live Your Myth in Greece,” to rekindle Greece in the world’s imagination.  When a group of my students arrived in Athens in 2005 for the study-abroad program The Isles of Greece!,[1] they saw the advertisements for this campaign on the billboards and buses on the way into the city.  At first glance, the images appeal to the typical touristic expectation of the Greek quartet of sea, sun, sand, and sex.  But the classical architecture and supernatural figures suggest a more complex imaginary mix.  The fine print on some of these posters read:

Greece: a land of mythical dimensions. Where the spirit of hospitality welcomes you as a modern god. And the siren song draws you into its deep blue waters. Where a gentle breeze through ancient ruins seems to whisper your name. And a dance until dawn can seem to take on Dionysian proportions. In Greece the myths are still very much alive. And in amongst them sits your own . . . patiently waiting for you to live it. Live your myth in Greece.  Ask your travel agent.


Eros and Mermaid posters for Live Your Myth in Greece, Greek National Tourism Organization campaign, 2005; designed by K. Karavellas; and creative design by McCann Erickson-BBDO-Cleverbank Joint Venture. Photographs courtesy of the GNTO.

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Greece 1935-1938: Involuntary Testimonies

For the really significant history is that grass roots history which reveals the everyday life of people, in their homes, and at their retreats, in their work and in their play, in turbulence and in repose.
Theodore C. Blegen, 1948

“I suppose you have heard about the Revolution which is taking place here. It began last Friday night -March 1st. During dinner we heard various rumblings and shots out in the city, but didn’t think much about it, believing them just the ordinary noises of the city. But afterwards they became so pronounced that we knew something was happening. So Betty [Dow] and I went down-town, in the direction from which the shots came. We met many troops marching through the streets, and finally came to the region where the firing came from – near the Akropolis. A revolution is such a strange thing here – everyone takes it as a matter of course, and a little as a joke – and the firing isn’t widespread at all. We were able to approach so near –without any danger – that we witnessed a tank storming a barracks for soldiers, and saw the firing on both sides… after the attacks on the barracks which we saw (we were in a crowd of about 25 – the sole witnesses), we saw other tanks, at close range and finally came upon battalions of soldiers drawn up with guns and bayonets in the streets and ready for action… ” wrote Richard (Dick) H. Howland, age 25, to his family back in America.

Most of Howland’s letters carry the “Stadium” stamp, which was issued in 1932 as a supplementary stamp of the 1927 “Landscapes” set. The “Stadium” was withdrawn from sale in 1939. Photo: ASCSA Archives, Richard Howland Papers.

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Athens at the Turn of the Century: A Sentimental Capital and a Resort of Scholars

On February 17, 1901, a young American archaeologist and member of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA or the School hereafter) was “roaming over the city in search of Mr. Kavvadias, the general ephor of antiquities in Athens, in order to get a permit to begin work at Vari tomorrow” (letter of Charles H. Weller to his wife).  Together with a small group of students from the School, he had conceived of the idea of conducting a small excavation at the Vari Cave on the southern spur of Mount Hymettus, near the ancient deme of Anargyrous. Known since the 18th century, the cave had been visited and described by several European travelers who were particularly taken by the reliefs and inscriptions carved on its walls.

Vari Cave interior with sculpted figures, 1923. Source: ASCSA Archives, Dorothy Burr Thompson Photographic Collection.

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The Spirit of St. Louis Lives in Athens, Greece

Have you noticed that in the last ten days the press has been flooded with articles about the Doomsday Clock?  Here are some of the titles: “The Doomsday Clock is the closest to midnight since 1953” (Engadget, Jan. 28, 2017), “Nuclear ‘Doomsday Clock’ ticks closest to midnight in 64 years (Reuters), “Doomsday Clock Moves Closer to Midnight, Signaling Concern Among Scientists (The New York Times, Jan. 26, 2017), and “The Doomsday Clock is now 2.5 minutes to midnight, but what does that really mean? (Science Alert).

Martyl's design of the Doomsday Clock for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Martyl’s design of the Doomsday Clock for the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

The Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 by members of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’s Science and Security Board; several of them were part of the “The Manhattan Project” that led to the creation of the first atomic bomb. (For those of you who want to learn more about “The Manhattan Project,” I recommend a drama series that premiered in 2014; although the series was discontinued after the second season, it featured good acting and it was fun to watch. Also see Jack Davis’s Communism In and Out of Fashion, Sept. 1, 2016.)  “Originally the Clock, which hangs on a wall in The Bulletin’s office at the University of Chicago, represented an analogy for the threat of global nuclear war; however, since 2007 it has also reflected climate change and new developments in the life sciences and technology that could inflict irrevocable harm to humanity… The Clock’s original setting in 1947 was seven minutes to midnight.  It has been set backward and forward 22 times since then, the smallest ever number of minutes to midnight being two in 1953, and the largest seventeen in 1991” (after Wikipedia, accessed 28/1/2017). As of January 2017 (and this explains the flurry of articles in the press), the Clock has been set at two and a half minutes to midnight, a reflection of President Trump’s comments about nuclear weapons: “The United States must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” Trump posted this remark on Twitter on December 22, 2016, and followed it with an even more worrisome comment: “Let it be an arms race,” he said, referring to the Russians.

While reading the history of the Doomsday Clock my eyes happened to fall on the cover of the 1947 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which featured for the first time the Clock (at seven minutes to midnight), and the name of the artist who had designed it: Martyl Langsdorf. Martyl is an unusual name, and I had seen it before. I went to the Archives Room of the American School of Classical Studies (ASCSA or the School hereafter), where we keep the School’s administrative records, and personal papers of its members. There, hanging on one of the walls, was an abstract painting depicting a mountainous landscape, and signed in the bottom left corner: “Martyl.” To my surprise, when I checked our inventory, there was a second work of art, an etching, by “Martyl” in the Archives of the ASCSA. But this one also carried a personal dedication: “To George and Lela with affection and admiration, Martyl.” This meant that Martyl’s other painting had also originally belonged to George and Lela Mylonas. Read the rest of this entry »

Expat Feasts in Athens on the Eve of the Balkan Wars

One of Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor's letters to her mother, October 1910

One of Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor’s letters to her mother, October 1910.

“Maybe I asked you before, but will you save all my letters, dear, for I may want to use some of the material in them” Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor (1886-1960) reminded her mother a month after her arrival in Greece (Oct. 20, 1910). And because Emma Pierce respected her daughter’s wish, a valuable collection of private correspondence describing the daily life of a young American bride in Athens in the early 20th century has been preserved in the Archives of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA).

This is the second time From the Archivist’s Notebook features an essay about Zillah Dinsmoor.  In February 2014, guest author Jacquelyn Clemens published an account of Zillah’s Greek experience, mining information from her letters. “Students and scholars who study at the American School… have often been accompanied by their spouses, significant others, and children who live with them here in Athens. In the early 20th century, Zillah Pierce Dinsmoor was one of these women who traveled to Athens along with her husband, architect William Bell Dinsmoor” wrote Clemens in her introductory paragraph. (Read J. Clemens,”Letters from a New Home. Early 20th Century Athens Through the Eyes of Zillah Dinsmoor“)  Barely 24 years old (and away from home for the first time), this fashionable young woman from Massachussets wrote long letters once a week to her mother about her new life in Athens. Read the rest of this entry »