“Yankees of the East”: The Racial History of Twentieth Century America Through the Eyes of Worcester Armenians and Their Descendants


During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Worcester, Massachusetts was the primary site of Armenian settlement in the United States. New England Protestant missionaries who worked in the Ottoman Empire first fused the connection between the old country and the U.S. when they sponsored Armenian converts to find work overseas (Deranian, 1998). As the Armenian people were driven out of their ancestral homelands by violent persecution, they transformed Worcester into a new Armenia. With them they brought their political organizations, their churches, and their businesses and on their backs they carried their pain, their trauma, and their resilient culture. As they arrived in the U.S., Armenians encountered a new, unfamiliar phenomenon as a result of two separate court cases. In 1909 and 1925, In re Halladjian and U.S. v Cartozian, respectively, declared that Armenians were white by law, a status that enabled them to become American citizens and, in many instances, to prosper (Haney-Lopez, 1996). While historians have long discussed the Armenian Genocide, little conversation has been dedicated to the lives of Armenians within the context of their legal whiteness in the U.S.

This project seeks to understand Worcester’s population of identifiable Armenian Americans in terms of sex ratio and occupation. The case study of Worcester will serve as a microcosm of the larger Armenian American experience. Broadly, where did Armenians settle and why? How did their legal whiteness affect their trajectory in the U.S. in comparison to non-Armenians? Worcester provides an ideal lens through which to view Armenian-American history because while it represents the American city that has longest been inhabited by Armenians, its population is largely understudied, yet teeming with stories unwritten and unheard. 

Historical Background 

There are many factors that pushed Armenians to leave their ancestral homelands and pulled them to settle in the United States. As early as the 1830s, Armenians gradually migrated to the United States, usually under the provision of New England Protestant missionaries who did their work in the Near East (Balakian, 2003). Though small in numbers, this group of early immigrants thrived in U.S. academic institutions, attending schools like the Andover Theological Seminary, Yale, Princeton, Amherst, and Clark University. They became professionals, with jobs as dentists, theologians, and scholars (Mirak, 1983). However, the first true instance of mass Armenian immigration was in the 1890s as a result of the Hamidian Massacres (1894-1896). The 1880s and 1890s marked an era of Ottomanism in the Ottoman Empire that was modeled after emerging European ideals of nationalism (Ueno, 2013). Under this system, “All the subjects of the Empire [were] without distinction called Ottomans no matter what religion they profess” (The Ottoman Constitution, 1876). The Young Ottomans drafted a constitution that included equality before law, civil rights, religious freedom, and security of life and property for all. Under the guise of rising tolerance and democracy, Armenians were still second class citizens, especially in provinces like Marash and Van where tensions heightened everyday (Ueno, 2013). Armenian persecution was often overlooked and forgotten as the reforms served as a tool of erasure for the reality of their plight. 

Due to mounting persecution, many Armenians fled the Ottoman Empire and settled in the U.S. This new phase consisted of men of poorer classes who left to recover from failing crops, lack of business, work, and food (Mirak, 2016). They followed the examples of their predecessors and landed in towns mainly along the East and West coasts. The Industrial Revolution brought about the need for wire in technologies like fences (for westward expansion), electric lights, pianos, telephones, and women’s hoop skirts; labor was in high demand. The Washburn & Moen Manufacturing Company—the largest wire mill in the world—employed most of Worcester’s Armenians. Armenians were often targets of ethnic violence and class tension because they were seen as “strikebreakers” and “scabs” for working long hours for low wages (Deranian, 1998). These laborers mainly consisted of young males who worked to send money home and believed that their stay was temporary. However, the Armenian Genocide of 1915 and the violence that preceded it kept many Armenians from returning to their homelands. And on some occasions when they did return home, they were murdered as a result of growing anti-Armenian violence (Deranian, 1998).

With the help of legal whiteness, affirmed by In re Halladjian (1909) and U.S. v Cartozian (1925),  many of these Armenians began to establish themselves in the U.S., specifically in towns like Worcester, MA (Haney-Lopez,1996). They opened businesses that served both Armenian and non-Armenian populations, such as the Ararat Grocery Company, founded by three Worcester-Boston immigrants of Kharpert, the Anatolian province from which most Worcester Armenians came from (Mamigonian, 2004). Even young women were able to find work in stores in Downtown Worcester. For example, Marion Der Kazarian (1995) was employed at Berberian’s Men’s clothing store and at Farsakian’s Fruit Store after she arrived in Worcester in 1921 as a result of the Genocide. Additionally, many Armenians entered the American educational system, which Mirak (1983) argues played a key role in establishing the population of Armenian immigrants into the mainstream. Slowly, Armenians integrated themselves in the U.S., yet maintained their own distinct institutions such as Armenian churches, schools, and namely, political organizations (Bakalian, 1993). Their growth was gradual up until the late 20th century when Armenians arrived from the Middle East and Russia as a result of civil war and the fall of the Soviet Union.

Literature Review

Much scholarship exists regarding the history and aftermath of the Armenian Genocide, yet little about Armenian American history. Before 1983, the only noteworthy work on the Armenian American community was written in 1919 by M. Vartan Malcom. Torn between Two Lands: Armenians in America, 1890 to World War I (1983) represents the next seminal work in which Robert Mirak takes an extensive look at Armenian American history before and leading up to World War I. Mirak’s work contextualizes Worcester’s place within the greater Armenian community of the U.S. and of the world. He emphasizes the political, economic, and social turmoil that the early Armenian immigrants faced and discusses ways in which they overcame their hardships. Mirak focuses on Armenian institutional integration and discusses how Armenians became both Armenian and American over time. Worcester is America: The Story of the Worcester Armenians by Hagop Deranian—a native of Worcester—tells a similar story, while specifically focusing on the history of the early wave of Armenians in Worcester, Massachusetts. Deranian discusses how and why these immigrants planted their roots in Worcester, formed their own institutions, and simultaneously integrated themselves into American life as an act of survival.

Although both Mirak and Deranian do not really address any history past the Armenian Genocide, their works serve as important foundational texts for this project. Furthermore, both works are rich with relevant primary documents, including reprinted archival records like letters, photographs, and newspaper articles. Moreover, Deranian, the child of survivors, was directly affected by the Genocide and lived in Worcester his entire life. In this way, his work serves as a testament to how an Armenian viewed Armenian history in Worcester and beyond. His book, however, is not from the perspective of an academic historian. In the same vein, Mirak’s work presents an outdated look at Armenian Americans today because it does not account for 21st century history. I hope that my research will fill this gap by bringing the conversation into the present, while serving as contribution to the academic scholarship of Worcester Armenians in particular.

Lastly, the explicit discussion of race and whiteness in Armenian scholarship is overwhelmingly scant. Due to their anomalous outcomes, Armenian racial cases are often mentioned in works regarding legal whiteness and naturalization. Namely, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race by Ian Haney-López provides an extensive look at how race, and specifically whiteness, has been constructed through legislative decisions during the late 19th and early 20th century. Haney-López outlines each racial decision, including In re Halladjian (1909) and U.S. v Cartozian (1925), and explores the reasons why the cases unfolded the way they did, including racial science, religion, and—what he labels—“common sense.” This work helps me understand not only how Armenian legal whiteness reinforced racial categories, but also how these decisions had tangible social implications that affected the entire Armenian American population. However, void of a real Armenian voice, Haney-Lopez represents a distant outsider’s perspective. 

As a Black, Native, and Armenian woman, I see Armenian history differently than most Armenians because blackness and indigeneity inevitably intersect with my existence as an Armenian. While I cannot separate my Black and Native identities from my Armenianness, this intersection naturally allows me to see gaps in literature because race is one aspect that I cannot ignore as a woman of color. In her work “A Different Future? Armenian Identity Through the Prism of Trauma, Nationalism, and Gender,” Arlene Avakian (2014, 203-214) criticizes the genocide-centric nature of Armenian scholarship and argues that although it helps define and bolster Armenian diasporic identity, “it detracts from other discussions vital to the growth and health of the community.” I believe that discussing race will allow Armenians to grow collectively. By analyzing my visualizations in relation to Armenian legal whiteness, I will complicate the limited discourse surrounding the Armenian American history in order to advocate for the nuanced identities and experiences that often get lost in between. Beyond the scope of the Armenian community, I hope to challenge narrow notions of race, disassemble dichotomous racial categorizations that forget borderline identities, and to help others better understand victims of trauma. More scholarship of this kind, that challenges the status quo, is necessary so that we can combat the injustices that keep the Genocide from being recognized and voices from being heard around the world.



For all three figures, I drew from the highest density samples available for each year. In 1970, I used the 1% State Form 1 sample and in 1980, the 5% State sample. The data from Hawaii and Alaska are missing for the years 1940 and 1950. In order to account for as many Armenians as possible, the variables I used include birthplace, mother’s birthplace, father’s birthplace, mother tongue, mother’s mother tongue, father’s mother tongue, language, and ancestry. Data were weighted by PERWT, except in 1940 (instead, weighted by SLWT) when parental birthplace and mother tongue were sample-line variables. The total number of Armenians examined in my data accounts for only the Armenians that could be identified. Because certain variables were only available in specific years, identifiable Armenians were either undercounted or wholly missing in some years. Variables were available as follows: birthplace in 1900-1930, 1980, 2000; parental birthplace in 1900-1930; mother tongue in 1910-1940, 1960-1970; parental tongue in 1910-1920; ancestry in 1980-2000; and language in 1910, 1980, 1990, 2000.

Demonstrating the limits of census research, there seem to be no Armenians counted in 1950 and 1970 because no variable existed that might account for Armenian heritage.  That is not to say that no Armenians lived in the U.S. during those years, but rather that the census had no way of differentiating them, especially because of their legally “white” racial identification. Because Armenians were legally white, indicators of their Armenianness, like language, were not always clear, reliable, or easy to measure. Since there is no distinction between immigrant and non-immigrants, some second, third, and fourth generation Armenians may have chosen English as their language over Armenian, excluding the true population of Armenians who may or may not speak Armenian regardless of their heritage. Though there are large data gaps between 1940 and 1970, ancestry, an open-ended census question between 1980 and 2000,  allowed for more individuals to openly identify with up to two ancestries (and/or ethnicities after 1990). The question often functioned as a tool to count white ethnics and hidden racial minorities (Farley, 1991). Unlike birthplace and language variables used earlier,  the ancestry was more open-ended and accounted for a broader population of self-identifying Armenians, including both immigrants and non-immigrants.

More specific to each visualization, Figure 1 represents the population of people I have identified as Armenian in the U.S. between the years 1900 and 2000. Figure 2 shows the population of identifiable Armenians compared to non-Armenians in Worcester, Massachusetts by year and sex between the years 1900 and 2000. In addition to the variables used in to identify Armenians, the city and sex variables narrow down the scope to the population of Worcester and individually examine the separate sexes, respectively. As with national data, there were also gaps for this graph. No city variable existed in 1970, leaving a gap in both localized and national data. Moreover, y-axes are different for Armenians and non-Armenians because the latter group is so much larger. Lastly, Figure 3 depicts the occupation of Armenians and non-Armenians aged 15-65 in Worcester by year and sex between 1900 and 2000. While the same variables were used as those used in Figure 2 to account for Armenians, occupation was added. For classification purposes, similar occupations were grouped together. For instance, farmers and farm laborers comprised of one group, craftsmen, operatives, and laborers as another, and so on.

Code to generate the figures described above is available on Github. 

Results and Interpretation:

Figure 1.

Figure 1 shows that since 1900, Massachusetts and California possessed the largest Armenian populations. Later, immigration spread to areas like New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. As discussed earlier, Armenians came to Massachusetts, and New England at large, because of the Protestant missionaries from New England who did fieldwork in the Near East. According to Deranian (1998, 13), the first Armenian to come to Worcester was Garo of Bitlis in 1867, the servant of George C. Knapp, a Protestant missionary. Garo received 75 cents a month under Knapp until someone informed him about more lucrative work in the wire mill. Garo and earned $1.50 in one day at the mill. He wrote enthusiastic letters home describing the economic possibilities in Worcester, and so began the chain migration of Armenians. Though immigration did not entirely happen as a result of one individual, the early foundation of Armenians in Worcester certainly enticed other Armenians to immigrate, especially as persecution heightened overseas. In addition to Worcester, Armenians went where manufacturing jobs were in cities like New York City, Providence, RI, Troy, NY, Granite City, IL, and Detroit, MI–as seen in Figure 1. Many immigrants came to these areas by way of Ellis Island and from there, spread out to other urban areas for industrial opportunities. Armenians also often maintained tangible connections to their home communities to the degree that at the height of immigration entire villages were transplanted to the new landscape. For example, Worcester was made up of mostly Armenians from Kharpert (Deranian, 1998).

Outside of the factories, Armenians also took up farming in California’s San Joaquin Valley–namely, in Fresno. Their agricultural success in Fresno directly corresponds with their legal white status. In 1913, the California Alien Land Act barred “aliens ineligible for citizenship” from owning agricultural land. Since Armenians were considered white by law, they prospered, becoming owners of vast plots of land and leading producers of raisins, while non-whites, like the Japanese, fell behind (Haney-Lopez, 1996). The prosperity of Armenian farmers naturally encouraged more Armenians to migrate to California over the years. Today, Glendale, CA, also referred to as “Little Armenia” has one of the largest population of Armenians in the U.S., a population growth that surged after the 1970s after the civil wars of the Middle East and the fall of the Soviet Union (Mirak, 1983).

It is important to note, though, that the first Armenians to settle in Fresno had roots in Massachusetts, demonstrating how instrumental cities like Worcester were to the foundation of Armenian institutions in the U.S. (Bulbulian, 2001). The priest who is credited for delivering the first Armenian Apostolic  service in the U.S. at the Church of Our Savior of Worcester also helped found the Armenian church in Fresno (Deranian, 1998, 101). Lastly, this animated map demonstrates that although Armenians did gradually spread out, they also maintained the original communities that they established at the start of the century. This reflects how Armenians historically functioned within urban spaces. Although they initially entered the white mainstream economically and academically, they used this external success to bolster their internal institutions–namely, their churches and their political organizations (Mirak, 1983). So, while Armenians did spread out, their roots were firmly planted within the original communities because of the strong institution building that occurred early on.

Figure 2.

Figure 2.

Figure 2 illustrates the sex ratio of people I identified as Armenian in Worcester. In the early years of migration (1830s-1890s) , the population of Worcester’s Armenians was mostly male. These were young men who had connections to Protestant missionaries and who sought work in the wire mills. Armenian women and children most often remained in the old country, as they intermittently received money from their husbands (Deranian, 1998). The gender disparities occurred early on–during the 1880s and 1890s; however, the column graph appears to show that by 1910, the sex ratio balanced out. Due to rising violence, Armenian women joined their husbands in the U.S., which accounts for the influx of women, though it is important to note that still, many were the victims of sexual violence, forced conversion, and death during the Armenian Genocide (Miller and Miller, 1993). Additionally, in 1924, the Immigration Act of 1924 heavily limited the amount of immigrants that could enter the U.S. from Asian countries (Ngai, 1999). Perhaps this is reflected by the lack of growth in the Armenian female population between 1920 and 1930, which occurred in conjunction with the continuous growth of the Armenian male population. While many Armenian men had already been in the U.S., not all of their wives and daughters were able to join them (Mirak, 1983).

Since language was the only measure of Armenianness in 1940, it appears that amount of Armenian speakers (especially women) dwindled. It is important to note that during this time period, Armenians were pushed to forget their ancestral language in order to be “loyal Americans” (Deranian Interview, 2016). Some Armenians in Worcester were punished for speaking Armenian in their public schools (Piligian Interview, 2016). Therefore, Armenian as the primary language, rather than English, on a census form may have been seen as an act of “un-Americanness.” So the sample from 1940 is already so small that Armenian women in Worcester are hardly accounted for. Lastly, while Armenians did leave Worcester after 1980s and older generations died off, this decrease may also be attributed to assimilation and whitening of the population–to people who may identify as white rather than as Armenian for ancestry–either that, or–the California, Texas, and Florida weather was too hard to pass up (see Figure 1).

Figure 3.

Figure 3.

Figure 3 explores the occupational niches of Armenians in Worcester in comparison to Non-Armenians by sex. Armenians were called “hard workers” by their factory bosses and other immigrant groups time after time (Deranian, 1998). During 1910 and 1920, it seems as though no Armenian men were unemployed. Perhaps this is a reflection of their characterization as strikebreakers, or a response to their second class citizenship in the Ottoman Empire; they had to work hard for the survival of their nation. Due to strict gender roles, most Armenian women did not leave the house, especially upon coming to the U.S. with old world order as a potent influence. Though, over time, acculturation encouraged Armenian women to find jobs, working in stores as cashiers and in textile factories. Many Armenians employed other Armenians and Armenian businesses served as a social space in many ways (Mamigonian, 2004). Moreover, in 1930, there is a large increase in unemployment that may be explained by the Great Depression–though it was early in the era. This is one year that Armenian farmers can be seen, which is an important note. Van Aroian, an elder who grew up in Worcester during this period, stated that the Great Depression hit everyone except for farmers because still, “everyone needed to eat” (Interview, 2016). Michael Soojian, of Leicester, worked on his family’s farm during his childhood and went downtown to Main Street in Worcester to sell his crops at the farmer’s market. Often, though, his family gave crops away to the Armenian community members to support one another (Interview, 2016).

Another interesting note is the swift transition of Armenians from sales, service, and craftsmen jobs to professionals beginning in 1980. The ancestry variable allowed many Armenians of all generations to identify as Armenian in 1980-2000. It is important to note that the population of Armenians in Worcester seems to decrease between 1980-2000, so perhaps a broader study of Armenian occupation countrywide would be more telling. Still, Figure 3 demonstrates that Armenians did generally accomplish economic success, at least in Worcester. Perhaps this is a sign of legal whiteness that allowed them to enter white institutions early on. Through it all, Armenians seem to be as hardworking, the trait that incensed their early immigrant counterparts. Their ability to make connections within and enter predominantly white institutions early on certainly is connected to their legal whiteness. While other minority groups like Blacks were not even able to worship freely, Armenians had the ability to stroll around in public parks after church on Sunday mornings, to hold community picnics, and to dance in public–unspoken privileges that many did not possess (Deranian, 1998). 


Despite the existing gaps in data, this study and background research shed light on the rich, layered history of Armenian population of Worcester, Massachusetts. Armenian immigrants were greatly influenced by economic opportunities throughout the country in states like California, New York, New Jersey, Michigan, Illinois, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania–but first, in Worcester. A combination of the missionary connection to the Ottoman Empire, the Armenian Genocide, and increasing industrialization first encouraged Armenian men to seek refuge and comfort in the United States. Next, their families–the wives, the children, and the elders–followed them to the cities in which they had already established themselves such as Providence, RI and Fresno, CA. The example of Fresno specifically necessitates the discussion of Armenian legal whiteness. While Armenian raisin farmers eventually prospered, Asian groups like the Japanese were unable to own land. Armenians seemed to rise swiftly into the ranks of professionals within the later half of the 20th century. Perhaps this had to do with the earliest of Armenian American professionals, who sometimes referred to themselves as “Yankees of the East” (Malcom, 1919). Their subsequent legal whiteness confirmed and reified their status in the U.S. Though, as Bakalian (1993) notes, in theory, assimilation is reversible and race is fluid and ever-changing (Omi and Winant, 2014). As more Armenians come to the U.S. and as others leave, especially with the growing necessity of Genocide recognition, it will be interesting to see if and how Armenian identity changes.

Works Cited

Avakian, Arlene. “Different Future? Armenian Identity through the Prism of Trauma, Nationalism and Gender.” New Perspectives on Turkey, 2010,  203-14.  

Bakalian, Anny P. Armenian-Americans: From Being to Feeling Armenian. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1993.

Balakian, Peter. The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2003.

Bulbulian, Berge. The Fresno Armenians: History of a Diaspora Community. Sanger, CA: Quill Driver Books/Word Dancer Press Inc., 2001.

Deranian, Hagop Martin. Worcester Is America: The Story of the Worcester Armenians: The Early Years. Worcester, MA: Bennate Pub., 1998.

Der Kazarian, Marion. Sacrifice and Redemption: A Personal Chronicle of the      1915 Armenian Genocide and the Worcester Armenian Community. Watertown, MA.: Baikar Pub., 1995.

Farley, Reynolds.“The New Census Question about Ancestry: What Did It Tell Us?”  Demography 28, no. 3 (1991): 411-29.

Haney-López, Ian. White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race. New York: New York UP, 1996.  

“Interview of Gina Piligian.” Interview by author. August 2016.

“Interview of Michael Soojian.” Interview by author. August 2016.

“Interview of Van Aroian.” Interview by author. August 2016.

Malcom, M. Vartan. The Armenians in America. Boston, MA: Pilgrim Press, 1919.

Mamigonian, Marc A. The Armenians of New England: Celebrating a Culture and Preserving a Heritage. Belmont, MA: Armenian Heritage Press, 2004.

Mirak, Robert. Torn between Two Lands: Armenians in America, 1890 to World War I. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

Ngai, Mae M. “The Architecture of Race in American Immigration Law: A Reexamination of the Immigration Act of 1924.” The Journal of American History 86, no. 1 (1999): 67-92.

Omi, Michael, and Howard Winant. Racial Formation in the United States: From the 1960s to the 1990s. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Ueno, Masayuki. “‘For the Fatherland and the State’: Armenians Negotiate the Tanzimat Reforms.” International Journal of Middle East Studies 45 (2013): 93-109.