History > Arab Immigration

Arab Immigration to America Before the 1880s:

The history of Arab-speaking people in the United States can be dated as early as the mid-18th century. Much of the early history of Arab presence is still undocumented. We offer here only some key names:

The Ocracoke Island Inn circa 1920s.

 

  • Wahab Family on Ocracoke Island, in the Outer Banks of North Carolina (mid-18th century):

The first Wahab was an emissary of a “King of Arabia” who was sent to establish Islam in the New World. He was shipwrecked at the coast of Ocracoke with a load of Arabian horses. Even today, some wild horses run in various sections of the island. James Wahab purchased land on colonial Ocracoke and established a Wahab village. Today, the Island Inn, the oldest hotel on the Island, stands at the site of the Wahab Village. It has remained in the hands of the Wahab family ever since. Larry William, whose mother was a Wahab, is the current owner of the Inn.

 

Another of the earliest immigrants, Hadj Philip Tedro was a Lebanese Christian hired to work on the Camel Driver Experiment, a project attempting to establish transportation routes cross the desert between Texas and California to support the population moving West during the Gold Rush.

Painting of Ahmad bin Na’man by Edward Mooney, 1840.

 

  • Ahmad Bin Na’man (ca. 1840):

Ambassador of Sultan Sayyed Said, the ruler of Muscat (Oman) and Zanzibar. He landed in New York City harbor aboard the ship “Sultanah,” and the luxury of the expedition caused a sensation among New Yorkers.

 

 

Arab Immigration to America from the 1880s-1945:

The first Arabs to immigrate to America came around 1880s. They were mostly Christians from Greater Syria (present-day Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Jordan and Syria), who came to flee the economic hardships they were facing as a result of decline in the silk industry, which had been the basis of their economy.

The majority of these early Arabs were poor, uneducated and unskilled. They considered themselves temporary settlers in American (al-nizala), kept to themselves, established their own churches, clubs or newspapers. Many were peddlers. It is estimated that the size of this community was between 130,000-350,000 by the late 1930s.

Photo of a Syrian immigrant named Abraham Swide c. 1915. Swide was a dry goods peddler, a fairly common occupation for immigrants, many of who aspired to one day establish their own stores. (Image from “Arab Americans in Metro Detroit: A Pictorial History”)

Eva Hetty, a Lebanese immigrant, in 1929. Rather than working at home or at a family-owned store like most of the Arab women immigrants, Hetty supported her family as an auto-worker. (Image from “Arab Americans in Metro Detroit: A Pictorial History”)

At first, Arab immigrants were all classified as “Turks” (along with Greeks, Albanians and others) because they came from lands ruled by the Ottoman Empire. The defeat of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I led a new label. These “Turks” were renamed “Syrians,” or at times “Arabians,” and after 1920s when Lebanon was created, “Syrian-Lebanese.” A marker of the American fixation on race, the first wave of “Syrian” immigrants were lumped together with “Asians.”

World War I introduced quotas in number of immigrants to the United States based on Census results, the goal being to re-establish the balance of Europeans to their pre-1890s levels. Asians were deemed “undesirable” and the number of new immigrants dropped significantly.

The question of the racial classification of Syrians and Arabs was raised once more: Are “Syrians” supposed to be “Asians”  or are they “Whites”?  Arab immigrants fought hard to be classified as “Whites” since this insured they could receive American citizenship.

In their efforts to secure their naturalization and be fully considered “whites”, the early Arab/Syrian-Lebanese immigrants worked hard at assimilating, attended citizenship classes, americanized their names, did not teach Arabic to its children and neglected to instill in them pride in their heritage.

 

  • Early Arab Immigrants in North Carolina:

An ongoing project at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill seeks to map the history of early Lebanese immigration to North Carolina. For more information, see the Mainstreet Carolina Project.

Cedars in the Pines: the Lebanese in North Carolina is a recent documentary on the 120-year history of Lebanese immigrants in North Carolina. Interviews with first, second, and third generation Lebanese Americans convey individual and family experiences of departure, struggle, opportunity, and community and, at the same time, raise broadly relevant questions about the immigrant experience in terms of maintaining culture and the relationship between identity and place. The documentary is directed by Dr. Akram Khater from NC State University, it is part of a larger project on the Lebanese-American population currently underway at the Khayrallah Program for Lebanese-American Studies at North Carolina State University. 

 

Arab Immigration to America from 1945 to modern times:

A Yemeni immigrant in Dearborn, outside a Ford plant c. 1950s. Many immigrants came to the Dearborn area, which still has a very concentrated Arab population today.

 

The next wave of Arab immigration to America came from all parts of the Arab world, including North Africa. They were increasingly Muslims, were relatively well-off, highly educated professionals, engineers and doctors. They immigrated because of regional conflicts, such as the creation of Israel and its impact on the surrounding region, civil wars (Lebanon), and political or economic harassment.

These Arab immigrants were politically active. They saw themselves as Arabs and were keen to participate in American politics from the outset.

During the era of civil rights, the questions of minority rights and of muticulturalism were prominent. Arab immigrants began to vocally express their dissatisfaction with the racial categorization “White.”

 

 

Creation of an Arab-American Category:

The label “Arab-American” was coined in the 1960s, and was a sign of the awakening of recent waves of immigrants to their Arab roots. It also signaled the rejection of their automatic racial classification as “White.”

These Arab Americans are a more confident and established group who today seeks to unite the Arab-American community with less regard for country and regional orientation. They are politically active, vocal about their opinions, and more publicly engaged with their dual cultures and dual identity. They proudly assert their right to be both Arab and American.

There is much debate in the Arab-American community concerning how they prefer to be labelled and counted in Census questionnaires. Some of their central concerns include:

    • The benefits and costs of being recognized officially as a minority gorup.
    • Many Arab-Americans waver between the “other” category and their affinity with “people of color.”
    • Some would like to add a new “mixed race” category to the Census, or an “Arab-American” category.

A CVS in an Arab neighborhood of Dearborn, MI. 2001. (Image from “Arab Americans in Metro Detroit: A Pictorial History”)

 

Resources: Michael Suleiman, ed. Arabs in America: Building a New Future (Temple University Press, 1999).