SEPARATED BY 99 YEARS,
TWO EVENTS LINK GENERATIONS OF
On November 2, 2014, several hundred people gathered on this chilly autumn day at Fresno State’s Maple Mall to watch the Fresno Armenian community—with singular purpose—embark on the construction of a stone monument dedicated to the victims and survivors of the Armenian Genocide
Nearly 99 years before, almost to the very day, Fresno Armenians had also assembled for a community event. This occasion, however, was marked by much more somber and pressing purpose. At the time, the Genocide was in full swing. Western Armenia was being emptied of its native inhabitants as ordered and carried-out by the Young Turk regime of the Ottoman Empire. Many Armenians from Van, Bitlis, Kharpert, Erzerum, Dickranagert, and Sepastia were led to the infamous Der Zor where they died from starvation or exhaustion (see map of deportations). Others were murdered outright, often in ways that defied all sense of humanity.
And so, on November 4, 1915, Fresno Armenians crowded into the long-forgotten Fresno Auditorium—with that same singleness of mind—to raise money and save what little was left of their brethren back in the Old County.
Flipping back though the worn pages of the Fresno Morning Republican (FMR), then Fresno’s leading source of information, one can still read about the event in two articles buried in the back pages of the newspaper. Though tersely written, the accounts plainly reveal the inseparable bond between immigrants and their homeland. Additionally, from a historical perspective, they and other FMR articles tell us how and to what extent Fresno Armenians in particular responded during the darkest chapter in Armenia’s history.
On November 4, the FMR’s morning issue announced a fund drive in which “hundreds” of Armenians would likely attend, so it must’ve been a quite a surprise to the newspaper when an estimated 2,000 to 2,500 people filled the auditorium later in the afternoon. This figure is impressive even by today’s standards, considering that very few community events approach (much less exceed) 1,000 in attendance. And yet what perhaps makes it still more astounding is that based on Minasian’s (1972; Bulbulian 2001:47,251) research, Armenians living in Fresno County at the time numbered a little less than 9,000. By comparison, the current population is at least 50,000 if not more. Much like this year’s groundbreaking ceremony, the mass meeting brought delegations from the rural towns (Fowler, Sanger, Selma, etc.) surrounding urban Fresno. The FMR also noted that “Armenian stores and shops were closed…out of tribute to the countrymen who have been massacred by the Turks” and that the area’s packing houses allowed their Armenian laborers to attend the assembly.
On that day in 1915, reported the FMR, the meeting collected $25,000 in pledges, with another $25,000 likely to be added once all the “subscription” or donation cards were received. This monetary figure also deserves some comment. Based on the annual valuations of the Consumer Price Index, $50,000 in 1915 would be worth about $1.1 million in 2014. Interestingly, the few details contained in the newspaper account strongly suggest that the local fund raising endeavor was a well-planned and concerted effort that likely employed (at least in part) the administration of the Near East Relief (even though this renowned charity organization is not mentioned by the FMR). Donations were sent to the Catholicosate in Etchmiadzin and the American Embassy to the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople. (The Ottoman Empire did not become an enemy of the United States until 1917 when America entered WWI on the side of the Allies.) Collections were distributed for three stated purposes: Armenian refugees in the Caucasus, exiles in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, and Armenian volunteers.
Certainly, numbers and statistics can communicate a lot about past events or trends, but it is people that really make-up what history is all about. Fortunately, the FMR identifies the six speakers at the event, and with the help of Berge Bulbulian’s (2001) Fresno Armenians and some other sources, rough sketches can be pieced together about these men who served as leaders of the Armenian community a hundred or so years ago.
According to the newspaper, “K. Arakelian” presided at the meeting and also led the fund raising effort by donating $2,500 (or about $55,000 by current valuation). As was its custom, the FMR only provided the first initial of an individual’s given name, yet there is little doubt that at the time the only “K. Arakelian” (and probably the only Fresno Armenian for that matter) who could wield such financial clout was Krikor Arakelian, the famed “Melon King” and first Armenian millionaire in California (Bulbulian 2001:73). Born in 1871, the Marsovan native was among the first wave of Armenians to settle in Fresno in 1883. In 1892 the young bachelor returned to Marsovan to attend college but was later thrown into prison by the Turkish government during the Hamidian Massacres of 1894–1896. He was released thanks to his naturalized US citizenship. Arakelian apparently did not come back alone. Twentieth-century census records indicate that his Armenian-born wife Rosa arrived in the United States in 1896, which would correspond to his escape from the massacres. Along with his brothers, Arakelian went on to make his fortune in agriculture, particularly as a melon grower under the “Mission Bell” label. “Mr. K” passed away in 1951 and rests in Fresno’s Ararat Cemetery.
Another speaker identified by the newspaper was a “H. Nishkian”, most likely Hagop Martiros Nishkian, a vineyardist who arrived in the United States in the mid-1880. When Nishkian became naturalized in 1896, John (Hovannes) Seropian—one of the famed Seropian brothers, the foremost shippers of dried fruit from the San Joaquin Valley in late 19th and early 20th centuries —stood before the Fresno County Superior Court to vouch for the character of his countryman as a new US citizen. A few years afterwards, Nishkian served on the original board of trustees of the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church, established in 1900. His farm lay just south of the intersection of Orange and Butler avenues, in what later became the heart of Fresno’s Armenian Town in the 1950s. In 1907, Nishkian, Seropian, Arakelian, and B. M. Rustigian formed a raisin cooperative and were soon joined by forty to fifty other Armenian growers (Bulbulian 2001:60). Born in 1856, he was the eldest of the speakers who took the podium on November 4th, 1915.
Not all of the community leaders were farmers, or at least not originally so. Among those who addressed the gathering in November 1915 were Drs. Abraham Shahbazian and Sarkis Tufenkjian, who had presumably come to Fresno to tend to the sick but ended up tending vines instead. As Bulbulian (1999:251) explains in the excerpt below,
[Abraham Shahbazian] practiced medicine only a short time but was well known throughout the Armenian community. Each day, he would set out on foot to walk from his farm east of Del Rey to Fresno. He only walked a short distance since many people knew him and eventually someone gave him a ride. He was an active member of the Armenian General Benevolent Union and his daily visits to Fresno included a stop in the organization’s offices on the second floor of a building at the southeast corner of Van Ness and Tulare Streets. (This is probably the Rowell Building.)
Similarly, there is some question as to the extent and duration of Tufenkjian’s practice, considering that he is listed as a “physician” in city directories prior to 1907 but as a “vineyardist” thereafter. There is, however, no question about Tufenkjian’s commitment to the cause. The physician/farmer was the first to sign the donation list, and his contribution of $1,000 (approximately $22,000 by current valuation) ranked second only to Arakelian’s. Born in 1861 in the Kharpert region, Tufenkjian landed in the eastern United States in 1883 and was naturalized in May 1889. A few months after receiving his US citizenship, the young unmarried physician left his practice in New York City to board a ship back to Armenia. Census records indicate that similar to Arakelian’s travels, Tufenkjian also returned to America following the 1894–1896 pogroms and that he, too, didn’t come back empty handed, bringing with him his young wife Perooz and Armenian-born children. By 1901, Tufenkjians had moved to their long-time O Street home near downtown Fresno. His brother Avedis was one of the founders of Asbarez.
Of course, the members of the local clergy—namely, Reverends Mgrdich H. Knadjian and Vartan Kasparian (or Casparian)—were also an integral part of the meeting’s proceedings. In those days, there were no scholars versed in Armenian history, and the idea of a university department devoted to Armenian culture and language would have been a dream among only the most optimistic of immigrants. Armenian history and the written-word were largely restricted to the churches and newspapers Nor Gyank and Asbarez, which were founded in Fresno in the first decade of the 20th century (Bulbulian 2001:82).
A couple weeks after the November 4th meeting, Knadjian, the minister of the First Armenian Presbyterian Church, delivered a lecture entitled “The Greatest Tragedy” to the Presbyterian Brotherhood at the Calvary Church, presumably an audience consisting of both Armenians and non-Armenians. According to census records, Knadjian and his family were recent immigrants, having landed in the United States only three years before. No doubt drawing from his own personal experiences, the reverend explained in the following quote the racist sentiment that fueled the ongoing Genocide as well as the previous Hamidian and Adana massacres.
When the Armenians began adopting American and European ideas, about 50 years ago, the Turks developed a jealousy and a hatred that culminated in two dreadful massacres…The Turk when he found that his prey was taken away from his hand [as a result of the resistance at Van], resorted to his traditional method of attacking the innocent and defenseless populations in the interior. Orders went from Constantinople to every town and village to exterminate the Armenians.
Still in his early 30s, Reverend Kasparian of the Holy Trinity Armenian Apostolic Church was the youngest who spoke before the crowd on November 4. Like Knadjian, he arrived in the United States in 1912. Two years later, he and his congregation saw the construction of a new red brick church at the corner of Ventura and O streets, which just recently celebrated its own centennial in 2014. According to a subsequent FMR article, Kasparian served as the president of the local chapter of the Armenian (or Near East) Relief Fund, whose officers also included Arakelian as Chairman and Nishkian as Secretary. In late December 1915, the group organized two Fresno performances by Armenag Shah-Mouradian—the celebrated tenor of the Grand Opera of Paris and student of Gomidas Vartabed—with a portion of the proceeds going to the relief effort. Born in Moush and known as Daroni Sokhag (the nightingale of Daron), the singer may have even found some familiar faces among the Fresno Armenians, many of whom hailed from that region of Western Armenia.
Leadership is an essential ingredient in any community endeavor, but perhaps just as essential is the worker or rather a group of workers committed to a common cause. In the midst the personal and collective calamities brought about by the Genocide, the year 1915 did bring at least one positive and enduring development to the Fresno community—namely, the founding of the local division of the Armenian Red Cross (Garmeer Khach), or what is known today as the Mayr Chapter of the Armenian Relief Society. Two days after the November 4th meeting, 61 Armenian and 28 American women wearing the Red Cross emblem collected over $1,200 (nearly $27,000 by current valuation) from over 8,000 Armenian and non-Armenian donors during “Armenian Tag Day” (Asbarez 1918:283-284). (“Tag day” refers to a public fund raising drive, whereby each donor receives a tag to acknowledge his or her contribution.) The sum was wired to the Catholicosate in Etchmiadzin that very evening.
As suggested by Asbarez’s account of Tag Day above, non-Armenians responded to the calls for assistance with Christian charity and even brotherly concern. For Armenians living in Fresno in the early 20th century, there were no better friends among the town’s Anglo quarters than Chester Harvey Rowell and his uncle Dr. Chester A. Rowell. The elder Rowell was one of the founding members of the FMR, while the younger served as its editor and manager from 1898 to 1920. According to Wilson Wallis’ (1965:43) Fresno Armenians, the FMR allowed Asbarez use of its printing presses at mere cost during the Armenian newspaper’s first six years of existence. When the doctor passed away in 1912, Armenians raised $400 for the purchase of a silver urn to inter his ashes, and sculptor Haig Patigian memorialized Dr. Rowell with a statue in Fresno’s Courthouse Park.
For his part, editor Chester H. Rowell consistently and unequivocally advocated the Armenians and their endeavors, as is evident in this excerpt from his “Tag Day” editorial.
If this cause is not worth all the nickels and dimes and dollars and larger sums that a tag day can gather up, then nothing is…The Armenians have done their full part—and they have done wonders. They ask us to do only a small fraction of ours.
What is perhaps most interesting about Rowell is that in true journalistic spirit, he didn’t shy away from expressing the realities that beset Armenian immigrants as well as so many other ethnicities.
Coming among us as Christians, we have not always met [the Armenians] in the Christian spirit…There have been faults on their side and on ours—on theirs of pride, sensitiveness, and exclusiveness; on ours of arrogant and unsympathetic intolerance.
In making this latter statement, the editor likely had in mind an incident, over 20 years before, when a certain Mesrop Sinanian had to be unceremoniously ushered out of the multi-ethnic First Congregational Church. At the time, the church’s parishioners sat in segregated sections, with Anglos in the right pews and Armenians and Chinese on the left without the benefit of neither bibles nor hymn books. On that Sunday morning in 1894, the indignant Sinanian had dared to take a seat not only among whites but the very front row of their section! This act of defiance sparked a series of articles and passionate editorials in the local newspapers and eventually culminated in the founding of the Fresno’s two Armenian protestant churches—the First Armenian Presbyterian Church and the Pilgrim Armenian Congregational Church.
For Fresno Armenians, some things have changed since those times, but it seems that many of the original themes from more than a 100 years ago still resonate through community life. The influence of agriculture continues to be pervasive, and one only has to look at the list of benefactors supporting Fresno’s centennial effort to realize just how vital this legacy is to the community. Moreover, there is still the connection with Armenians in the homeland as well as those in other diasporan communities, as shown by recent assistance provided to Armenians affected by the political turmoil in Syria and the appointment of Fresno’s own Honorary Consul of the Republic of Armenia.
And certainly, the Genocide remains very much in the collective consciousness of the community, with all the ambiguous feelings that come within being a survivor. The farmers, professionals, and clergymen who addressed their compatriots on November 4, 1915, did so with mixed emotions. On the one hand they had seen a new beginning in a New World with the building of an agricultural empire, a burgeoning congregation, and a modern red brick church devoted to the national faith. There was good reason for feeling optimistic about the future. On the other was the irreconcilable and enduring sorrow of losing family, friends, and the place they called home. Alongside that grief was the chilling realization that a very fine line separated a prosperous life in Fresno from an awful death at the hands of the Turks. They well understood that except for a few fortuitous turns of fate—the premonitions of their immigrant parents, a narrow escape from a Turkish prison, or a timely passage to America—there was little else that distinguished the survivor from the martyr. In other words, it took only a very short mental jump to put themselves in the shoes of their starving countrymen, to transport themselves from their comfortable life in Fresno to the killing fields of Der Zor, and to know all too vividly the horrors experienced by the victims of the Armenian Genocide.
As the current Fresno Armenian community puts its own stamp on history with the building of a memorial to the Armenian Genocide, it similarly does so with a longing for ancestors and a homeland lost, the timeless bond between survivor and martyr, and the optimism that justice will be served.
R. Baloian, December 2014.
References Cited and Consulted
1918 1908-1918 Anniversary Publication, Fresno, California. (Thanks to Serpouhie Messerlian for researching and translating the account of Armenian Tag Day.)
2014 Armenag Shah-Mouradian. Accessed at http://www.armeniapedia.org/index.php?title=Armenag_Shah-Mouradian.
Barton, James L.
1915 Who are the Armenians? Fresno Morning Republican November 7, p. 22.
2001 The Fresno Armenians: History of a Diaspora Community. Quill Driver Books/Word Dancer Press, Inc., Sanger, California.
Find A Grave
2014 Krikor Arakelian. Accessed at http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=31499379.
Fresno Morning Republican
1894 Fresno Armenians make charges against Pastor Collins, January 20, p. 2(?).
1915a Armenians to Hold Meeting To Raise Relief Fund. November 4, p. 2.
1915b Armenians Give $25,000 To Aid Countrymen in Turkey. November 5, p.16.
1915c Outlines History of Armenian Massacres. November 24, p.3.
1915d Armenian Tenor to Give Concert. December 30, p. 9.
Khungian, Toros B.
1979 Origins and Development of the Fresno Armenian Community to the 1918 Year. Armenian Review 31(February): 157-173. Original published in Asbarez newspaper in 1918.
Minasian, Armen Don
1972 Settlement Patterns of Armenians in Fresno, California. Thesis, San Fernando Valley State College.
1901, 1904, 1906, 1907, and 1919
Fresno City and County Directories, Sacramento, CA
Rowell, Chester H.
1915 Tag Day. Fresno Morning Republican November 6, p. 4.
1979 “The Founding Years of the Asbarez Newspaper.” Armenian Review 31(February). Original published in Asbarez newspaper in 1918.
1915 Peace Loving Armenians; Turco-German Detractors. Fresno Morning Republican November 28, p. 22.
Wallis, Wilson D.
1965 Fresno Armenians (To 1919). Coronado Press, Lawrence, KS