Golden Rule City: Tacoma Helps Near East Relief During Times of Great Need
The Armenian Genocide (1915-1916) was one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 20th century. International efforts to help survivors and refugees have been tremendous. Led by the Near East Relief, now the Near East Foundation, people around the world and here in Tacoma have stepped up to help.
Medz Yeghern, the Armenian Genocide
Armenians are an ethnic group from West Asia, then ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire sided with Germany during World War I. Viewing Christian Armenians as the enemy, they were targeted for destruction. In total, more than one million Armenians were killed or died of starvation and other mistreatment.
The American Committee for Syrian and Armenian Aid was founded in 1915. It was a national effort. Although it took Tacoma two years to begin giving, the committee’s efforts were met with a generous response. A local relief committee was formed and donations were sometimes solicited door-to-door. The groups also organized their own fundraisers. A “Tag Day” sale was held on June 6, 1917, and raised over $500. In October 1917, the Odd Fellows held a musical and chilled benefit evening, inviting Governor Ernest Lister to speak.
The Tacoma Relief Committee recruited many speakers, mostly missionaries and pastors. Others were Armenian. Mooshek Vorperian has given several talks at local churches and Sunday schools. Seventeen years old, he had lost all his family before he could reach the United States. (His mother and two sisters eventually made it safely to the United States, albeit after his untimely death.) Florence Krikorian, an Armenian living in Seattle, joined Mooshek Vorperian for a speech and talked to clubs about women.
Tacoma Hosts Relief Fair
Wartime fundraising efforts culminated with the Armenian, Syrian and Jewish Relief Fair and Bazaar in 1918. From April 8-13 at Stadium High School, residents from across the city donated items for sale and volunteered. Famous suffragist Emma Smith Devoe served as president of the Women’s Division.
For a quarter (a penny for the kids or a dollar for the whole week), people could browse stalls selling everything from baby clothes to home decor. Army and Navy stalls sold sweaters for soldiers, and elementary school teachers held a fish-pond game for toys. People could buy cakes (with recipes attached) or even a prize cow. A car and a piano were raffled off. The Moose Lodge sponsored a border village called “Tacoma With the Lid Off”. Those looking for quiet can dine or visit the Japanese tea garden. Dances with live music lasted until midnight each night in the gym.
Hundreds of soldiers from Camp Lewis (now JBLM) visited on the last day of the fair, including Major General Henry Greene, commanding officer of the post. Admission was free, but the dances cost a nickel. For some soldiers, the fair was quite personal. Private H. Hagopian of 5th Company, 2n/a battalion, 166e depot brigade at Camp Lewis, an Armenian, wrote a letter of thanks to the directors for helping his people.
Over $10,000 was raised at the fair. Subsequently, the remaining goods were sold at a clearance sale in the Bankers’ Trust Building.
Relief work after World War I
The organization was renamed Near East Relief in 1919 as its work expanded to help other groups, including Assyrians and Greeks, as new conflicts gripped the region. Armenia declared independence but, after several wars, became part of the Soviet Union in 1922.
Near East Relief continued its work in the area and the people of Tacoma continued to contribute. Donations were regularly collected at club meetings and Sunday school programs, especially around Christmas. The Junior League sponsored handmade items by Armenian women and girls in 1924 for Near East Relief, and Lincoln High School students sponsored dozens of orphans.
Beginning in 1922, the group partnered with Goodwill Industries to collect clothing to donate to refugees overseas. Over the next few years, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Campfire Girls and school children helped collect donations from local fire stations and churches on “Bundle Day”.
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
“Golden Rule Sunday” began in 1923 as a fundraising effort by Near East Relief through churches around the world. Tacoma’s response was so generous that Near East Relief leader Charles Vickery visited Tacoma in 1926 to declare it America’s “Golden Rule City”. Tacoma Committee Leader Thomas Swayze was declared a Golden Rule Ambassador and went on a trip to Palestine, meeting President Coolidge along the way.
Some people in Tacoma have volunteered overseas for Near East Relief. In 1922, Alfred D. Merritt became assistant superintendent of supplies at an orphanage for 20,000 children in Alexandropol (Gyumri, Armenia). Much of Tacoma’s clothing donations went there that year.
Frances K. Headlee, former secretary of the state insurance board, became director of a girls’ orphanage in Smyrna, Turkey, serving Armenian orphans and young people, many of whom had been rescued from slavery or forced marriages. Headlee wrote several letters to the Tacoma Ledger talking about his work. Evangeline Acheson, a teacher at Jason Lee Middle School, visited her brother Barclay Acheson in Constantinople in 1930 and later brought him back to talk to Tacoma about relief work.
Armenians in Tacoma
Armenia regained independence in 1991 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. An Armenian community has developed in Tacoma, active in all walks of life and business. Armenians are also present throughout the state. An annual Armenian festival is held in Seattle. Of course, Liberty Orchards’ signature Aplets and Cotlets (made in Cashmere, Washington) were invented by Armenian immigrants based on the traditional dessert.
While Tacoma’s targeted giving to the Near East dwindled during the Great Depression, the Near East Foundation (as it was renamed in 1930) continues its good work in the region, including in Armenia.