Arab immigrants from the Ottoman Empire province of Syria, which included modern-day Lebanon, first began to arrive in America in the late 1870s, fleeing religious persecution, economic distress, and military duty in the Ottoman army. Like most immigrants, they also were attracted by the lure of America. About 25 percent of them settled, either initially or eventually, in southern states, and by the late 1880s Mississippi had small but established Syrian and Lebanese communities. Some migrants were attracted to the state because of its relatively warm climate, while others came from New Orleans, their port of entry. After the first immigrants became established, family members and relatives from Syria and Lebanon often followed, swelling their numbers.
Nearly all of these early Arab immigrants to Mississippi were Christian, representing sects affiliated with both the Roman Catholic Church (Maronites, Melkites, and Chaldean Catholics) and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The overwhelming majority were poorly educated and had survived in their native land by cultivating small family farms. Farming in Mississippi, however, was based on a modified plantation system characterized by tenancy and sharecropping that was completely alien to Syrians and Lebanese. Moreover, many of the immigrants came intending to make as much money as possible and then return to their homeland; they were not interested in settling on farmland. As a result, the early immigrants’ preferred occupation was peddling household goods, which required little capital and minimal command of English. Because Mississippi’s population lived largely in rural areas without easy access to stores, the state was fertile ground for peddlers. Syrians and Lebanese settled predominantly along the Mississippi River and near railroad towns as well as in Jackson and Meridian.
By 1900 many of the early peddlers had become suppliers and eventually shopkeepers, mostly selling dry goods and groceries. Syrian and Lebanese communities thrived in Vicksburg, Greenville, Clarksdale, Port Gibson, Yazoo City, and Natchez. A yellow fever epidemic in Jackson at the turn of the century drove many of that city’s Syrian and Lebanese inhabitants to outlying towns. The Syrian Business Directory, published in New York in 1908, listed approximately sixty-five Arab-owned businesses in Mississippi, with concentrations in Natchez and Vicksburg. More than 70 percent of these businesses were groceries or dry good stores, but there were also a few clothing stores, restaurants, and bakeries.
According to 1930 US census data, the state had nearly eighteen hundred Syrians and Lebanese (including immigrants and their Mississippi-born children). Around 20 percent lived in Vicksburg, virtually all of them Eastern Orthodox from the al-Kurah district in northern Lebanon. They established the state’s first Orthodox Church in 1906.
In part as a reaction to prejudice and in part to preserve their heritage from the forces of assimilation, Syrians and Lebanese began to form local clubs—usually called Cedars Clubs, after the cedar tree, Lebanon’s national symbol. In 1931 more than four hundred representatives from dozens of such clubs throughout the South created an umbrella organization, the Southern Federation of Syrian Lebanese American Clubs. The federation held its annual convention in Jackson in 1935 and has met frequently in the state since then. Along with local clubs, churches served as centers of social and cultural life for Syrians and Lebanese. Most of these early immigrants were members of uniquely Middle Eastern Christian sects and thus tended to build their own churches instead of joining established ones. This practice allowed them to preserve religious services in the Arabic language.
The flow of new immigrants began to dwindle by 1930 as a result of tightened US immigration laws. By this time, an entire generation of Syrians and Lebanese had grown up in Mississippi, considered themselves Americans, and were rapidly assimilating. Many sought spouses from within their ethnic community, but many others—often to the dismay of their parents—married non-Arabs. Like many immigrant communities the Syrians and Lebanese emphasized education and strong family bonds. This combination produced a community that by World War II was thriving economically and beginning to make inroads into the professions.
The pressures to more thoroughly assimilate were strong, especially in the South, where these Arabs feared that they would not be regarded as sufficiently white. Many Syrians and Lebanese changed or modified their names—Tannous became Thomas; Elias became Ellis; Haddad became Smith. Some left their ethnic churches for traditional Roman Catholic or Protestant ones. Perhaps trying to prove their whiteness, Syrians and Lebanese typically adhered to the dominant hostile position toward civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s.
The second and third generations of Syrians and Lebanese were less likely to marry within their ethnic community. Their links to their Middle Eastern heritage remained strong but were primarily cultural: church affiliation, food, and the use of a few Arabic words of endearment. Many Mississippians who are of only partial Syrian or Lebanese descent nevertheless identify culturally with the community. In this regard, the pattern of Syrian and Lebanese assimilation is typical of most immigrant communities in the United States.
A new wave of immigration from the Middle East began in the 1970s as a consequence of civil war in Lebanon, general regional conflict, and changes to US immigration laws. Many of these newer arrivals have been Muslims and hail from Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, and Morocco in addition to Lebanon and Syria. They have also tended to be better educated than the early immigrants: many are professionals or academics. As a result, they more commonly seek jobs and settle in cities, especially Jackson.
The 2000 US census counted 4,215 people of Arab descent in Mississippi. If those who have only one parent or grandparent of Arab descent are included, the figure probably would have been closer to 10,000.
- Eric J. Hooglund, ed., Crossing the Waters: Arabic-Speaking Immigrants to the United States before 1940 (1987)
- Gregory Orfalea, Before the Flames: A Quest for the History of Arab Americans (1988)
- Afif Tannous, American Sociological Review (June 1943)
- James G. Thomas, Jr., in Ethnic Heritage in Mississippi, ed. Barbara Carpenter (1992)
- James G. Thomas, Jr., “Mississippi Mahjar: The History of Lebanese Immigration to the Mississippi Delta and the Role of the Group within a Traditionally Black-and-White Social System” (master’s thesis, University of Mississippi, 2007)
- The Naff Arab-American Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; US Census Bureau