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Little Syria on the Wabash

Location: NW corner of Cherry St. and 5th St., Terre Haute (Vigo County, Indiana) 47807

Installed 2018 Indiana Historical Bureau and St. George Orthodox Church

ID#: 84.2018.1

Text

Side One:

In the early 1900s, Arabic-speaking Christian Syrians established a community here, part of a movement of Middle Easterners contributing to the growth of cities in Indiana and U.S. Syrians began their lives in this city as poor pack peddlers and with their savings many bought houses and became grocers. They overcame many obstacles, including prejudice against them.

Side Two:

In 1927, Syrians established Orthodox Christian church here, which preserved the community’s identity and traditions. Their children and grandchildren enlarged the local Syrian contribution as professionals, civic employees, and businessmen. They also enriched the city’s cultural vitality through their ethnic festivals and cafes. Many original families are here today.

Annotated Text

Side One:

In the early 1900s, Arabic-speaking Christian Syrians established a community here, part of a movement of Middle Easterners contributing to the growth of cities in Indiana and U.S.[1] Syrians began their lives in this city as poor pack peddlers and with their savings many bought houses and became grocers.[2] They overcame many obstacles, including prejudice against them.[3]

Side Two

In 1927, Syrians established Orthodox Christian church here, which preserved the community’s identity and traditions.[4] Their children and grandchildren enlarged the local Syrian contribution as professionals, civic employees, and businessmen.[5] They also enriched the city’s cultural vitality through their ethnic festivals and cafes.[6] Many original families are here today.[7]


All oral history interviews were conducted by Dr. Robert Hunter, Professor of History at Indiana State University, and applicant of the Little Syria marker. Interviews belong to his private collection.

[1] “Good American Business,” The [Seymour, Indiana] Tribune, November 10, 1906, 7, accessed Newspapers.com; “Armenians and Syrians,” Indianapolis News, March 8, 1907, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; “Immigration Spurs Trade,” Indianapolis Star, June 24, 1907, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; “George Hanna,” 1910 United States Federal Census, Terre Haute Ward 1, Vigo, Indiana, Roll T624_385, page 4B, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Saline Nasser,” 1910 United States Federal Census, Terre Haute Ward 6, Vigo, Indiana, Roll T624_385, page 11A, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; Corrected interview with Helen Hanna Sims, January 24, 2011, submitted by applicant; James Schreiber, “Sorting Future Americans,” The Brook [Indiana] Reporter, May 17, 1912, 6, accessed Newspapers.com; “M A Ellis,” 1920 United States Federal Census, Terre Haute Ward 1, Vigo, Indiana, Roll T625_467, page 1A, accessed AncestryLibrary.com; “Syria on the Wabash,” Indianapolis Star, July 20, 1974, 67, accessed Newspapers.com; “Middle Easterners,” 381-383; Dr. Robert Hunter, “‘The Blood in Them:’ Founders of the Syrian Community of Terre Haute, Indiana, 1904-1940,” Connections: The Hoosier Genealogist 56, iss. 1 (Spring/Summer 2016): 4.

The composition of American immigration changed during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. A 1912 article in The Brook [Indiana] Reporter noted that prior to 1883, the majority of immigrants traveled from countries in western Europe like England, Germany, and France, but between 1883 and 1907, the majority hailed from areas such as Turkey, Austria-Hungary, and Syria. These migrants brought with them a demand for American products and stimulated commerce and industry, particularly steamship companies. The Indianapolis News noted in 1907 that migrants from “Levantine countries,” such as Turkey, Syria, and Armenia, “have all made contributions to America’s making, though as a rule they have not been so welcome as other races.” The article added:

Until fifteen years ago Syrians were almost unknown here. Among the first comers were those who came to the Chicago fair in 1893. They liked the country and advertised it so much that many of their countrymen came over to take up the manufacture of gewgaws [trinkets] for peddlers.

During this period, Syrian immigrants began to settle in Terre Haute from Ayn al-Shaara and other American cities they had initially migrated to, such as Cairo, Illinois. In his “‘The Blood in Them:’ Founders of the Syrian Community of Terre Haute, Indiana, 1904-1940,” Dr. Robert Hunter noted the Terre Haute community that grew on the banks of the Wabash, known as “Little Syria,” was a “partial reconstruction of the one that existed in Ayn al-Shaara,” comprised of:

strongly bonded patriarchal families, many of whom had become enmeshed through intermarriage; the Syrian Eastern Orthodox Christian Church; a distinctive culinary tradition; a set of cultural values that included generosity and hospitality; Syrian marriage, and the primacy of Arabic; and the village tradition of nightly visits made possible by the close proximity of Syrians living next to one another in the West End.

According to Dr. Hunter, Syrian Christian immigrants arrived in Terre Haute between 1904 and the 1930s in three waves. The first and third waves generally arrived from other midwestern towns, often joining families already established in the city, and the second wave arrived after World War I. Hunter contended that these migrants brought their culture of “hard work, frugality, and self-sacrifice” to the western Indiana city. According to Frank W. Blanning, typically “Syrian immigrants stressed acculturation and the use of English, but in Terre Haute the use and preservation of the Arabic language in the home and at social or church events was encouraged.”

[2] R.L. Polk & Co.’s Terre Haute City Directory, 1915-1916 (Terre Haute: The Moore-Langen Printing Co.), 879-880, submitted by applicant; “Retired Grocer S. F. Tanoos Dies,” Terre Haute Star, March 1, 1950, 2, accessed Newspapers.com; “Rites for George Joseph, Retired Grocer, Today,” Terre Haute Star, November 12, 1949, 5, accessed Newspapers.com; “Syria on the Wabash,” Indianapolis Star, July 20, 1974, accessed Newspapers.com; Raymond S. Azar, “The Grocery Days . . . Then,” The [Terre Haute] Spectator, October 1975, 10, submitted by applicant; Corrected interview with William Hanna and Louis Corey, June 16, 2009, submitted by applicant; Corrected interview with Tom Tanoos, November 15, 2009, submitted by applicant; Corrected interview with Helen Hanna Sims, January 24, 2011, submitted by applicant; Interview with Kay Ellis, September 21, 2012, submitted by applicant; “Middle Easterners,” 381-382; “‘The Blood in Them,’” 4, 8-9.

Syrian migrants may have settled in Terre Haute due to its proximity to the Wabash River, which could facilitate the peddling of wares in Illinois and Kentucky. In his essay for Peopling Indiana, Frank W. Blanning noted that peddling was a preferred way to generate income because it required little investment. It served as a significant source of Syrian employment in the state until the 1920s. Migrant men primarily peddled dry goods, such as notions and lace, to local residents, and were often assisted by their wives. According to historian Dr. Robert Hunter, peddling to farmers gave migrants experience with American salesmanship and allowed them to save enough money to purchase houses, which often served dually as grocery stores. He noted that by 1942 sixty-four Syrian grocers lived in the area, in fierce competition with one another. In some cases, the children of these migrants took over the groceries, but others sought to become professionals and civic employees.

Kaleel Hanna was one of the first Syrians to arrive in Terre Haute and, through packpeddling, was able to establish businesses, own real estate, and employ newly-arriving Syrians in the grocery trade.  According to an interview with William Hanna and Louis Corey, Kaleel initially travelled from Ayn al-Shaara to Fort Wayne before moving to Terre Haute. After peddling utensils and other items that appealed to farm families, local businessman Anton Hulman extended credit to him to establish a grocery store. William Hanna stated that “Hulman’s support, plus bank loans, enabled Syrians to become grocers and end their itinerant lives. In 1907, Kaleel owned a building which later became the Boys Club.” Other Syrians followed in Kaleel’s footsteps, such as members of the Tanoos, Corey, and Nasser families, who peddled in Terre Haute and were often welcomed by local farmers to sleep in their barns.

[3] Corrected interview with Dr. Noble Corey, July 12, 2010, submitted by applicant; Interview with Zianna Alley, December 4, 2010, submitted by applicant; Interview with William Hanna II, January 15, 2011, submitted by applicant; Interview with Stephen Nasser, April 30, 2012, submitted by applicant; Interview with Kay Ellis, September 21, 2012, submitted by applicant.

In addition to the social and economic challenges that accompany relocating to a foreign country, Syrians in Terre Haute encountered prejudice by some residents. Oral history interviews with the descendants of Syrian migrants, conducted by Dr. Robert Hunter, illuminate these experiences. Stephen Nasser recalled:

In school, I was called a Camel Jockey, among other things. I was also called other things that were worse. I was called a ‘White Nigger.’ This IS prejudice. But this was the way of life then. A lot of name calling, bullying.

Kay Ellis noted:

There was bullying all the time, all day long. Bullying of Syrians. Jews did not bully Syrians but white Americans (Irishmen), the Redneck types, did. Would call insults all day long. I was called ‘Honkie’ by a boy when I was at Sarah Scott in the 1940’s. I took him on right there in our classroom and we both went down on the floor, fighting. The teacher had to take us to the Principal.

Dr. Noble Corey stated:

When I went to the home of a non-Syrian person I was dating to take her out for the evening, her parents would not come out to meet me-this is an example of discrimination that I experienced.

Zianna Alley recalled that one member of the Syrian community was “a 32nd degree Mason but we could not join the Elks Club in TH. She contended:

Discrimination helped us to persist as a community. People with prejudice gave us more ammunition. They looked down on us for so long. We said ‘We’ll show them.’ I was called a ’Syrian nigger’ when I was in elementary school-one never forgets something like this.

[4] “Syrians Buy New Church,” Terre Haute Post, September 21, 1927, submitted by applicant; Frank W. Blanning, “Middle Easterners,” in Peopling Indiana: The Ethnic Experience, eds. Robert M. Taylor, Jr. and Connie A. McBirney (Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Society, 1996), 381-384; Interview with Father David Moretti, Pastor at St. George’s Orthodox Church, June 11, 2009, submitted by applicant; Interview with Helen Corey, June 25, 2009, submitted by applicant; Corrected interview with Tom Tanoos, November 15, 2009, submitted by applicant; Interview with Zianna Alley, December 4, 2010, submitted by applicant; Interview with Stephen Nasser, April 30, 2012, submitted by applicant; Interview with Kay Ellis, September 21, 2012, submitted by applicant; “‘The Blood in Them,’”’ 8-10.

According to the Terre Haute Post, members of the Syrian community purchased the St. George Syrian American Orthodox Church in September 1927. The Orthodox Church not only provided Syrian migrants with religious services, but also helped preserve the Arabic language and cultural traditions. In his essay for Peopling Indiana: The Ethnic Experience, Frank W. Blanning noted that “Christian family life, family customs, and family values, which were developed long before the time of their arrival in America, are preserved and strengthened in their religious lives. . . . Family life and kinship, a source of ethnic strength for Indiana Syrians, also blunts their total assimilation and loss of identity.” Although some Syrian migrants, such as George Nasser, attended services at other local churches, St. George served as a cornerstone of Syrian identity by hosting weddings, events, funerals, and dinner parties. In her interview with Dr. Robert Hunter, Zianna Alley recalled that as a child she attended funerals at the church and that her mother attended Arabic school there. Tom Tanoos, son of migrants from Ayn al-Sahara, illustrated how the church provided a forum to celebrate Syrian culture. He informed Dr. Hunter “We used to have plays in the Hall. We would relive the lives of our parents, why they came here, etc. We would mimic their English accent. Our parents were in attendance and they laughed and liked this. . . . We had a lot of respect for our parents and wanted them to be part of the play.” Father David Moretti, pastor of the St. George’s Orthodox Church in 2009, lamented that in the 1960s Arabic began to be replaced by English within the community. He added that at the time of his interview with Dr. Hunter little Syrian heritage remained and that the church moved when Indiana State University purchased the property.

[5] “University Women to Hold Meeting,” Terre Haute Star, April 5, 1960, 6, accessed Newspapers.com; “Syrian-American Woman Elected to State Office,” December 1964, 12, Helen Corey personal document collection, submitted by applicant; “Joe Malooley,” Wabash Valley Profiles, April 3, 2002, submitted by applicant; “Middle Easterners,” 382; Interview with Mike McCormick, June 8 and June 17, 2009, submitted by applicant; Interview with Helen Corey, June 25, 2009, submitted by applicant; Corrected interview with Tom Tanoos, November 15, 2009, submitted by applicant; Corrected interview with Dr. Noble Corey, July 12, 2010, submitted by applicant; Corrected interview with Donald Nattkemper, October 4, 2010, submitted by applicant; Interview with William Hanna, II, January 15, 2011, submitted by applicant. 

In an interview with Dr. Robert Hunter, Helen Corey recalled that in the 1920s and 1930s Syrians “did not have a prominent role in civic affairs and leadership of Terre Haute. This came later.” At this point, the Little Syrian community was primarily business-oriented, consisting of several groceries. However, William Hanna II noted that by the 1940s and 1950s, Syrians in Terre Haute began to exit the trade. He noted that “One option was restaurants and bars, that is, something to do with food service. It was easy to make the transition from food in the grocery business to food as owners of restaurants.” These Syrian-owned businesses included Jimmy Nasser’s Americus Club, Asa Malooley’s The Mecca, and Eddie Freije’s Townhouse. Tom Tanoos recalled that by the 1950s and 1960s, descendants of the migrants began marrying non-Syrians and that:

Syrian grocery stores slowly faded away. There were more than 40 stores at one time. There were no more grocery businesses. Kids did not want grocery stores. The younger generation wanted an education and parents realized and supported this. I told all my kids, you guys go to college. I was strict about this.

A 1960 Terre Haute Star article confirmed this statement, reporting that Layla Corey, of Syrian descent, participated in a panel discussion at Indiana State University titled “Progress of Women in Other Countries.”

Near the mid-nineteenth century, Syrians enriched the Terre Haute community as professionals, civic employees, and businessmen. Mike McCormick contended that many members of the Syrian community aspired to be professionals like lawyer N. George Nasser. He asserted that Nasser was “a beloved icon in the Syrian community. This was because he was a professional man. N. George Nasser became City Court Judge and a leader in criminal law at the state level [a case that set criminal standards for insanity in the state].” The son of a grocer, Mose Kassis owned a realty company in the 1960s and was a Republican political appointee. In 1964, Helen Corey became the first Syrian descendant to be elected to public office in Indiana. She served as Reporter of the Indiana Supreme and Appellate Courts. The daughter of a grocer, Corey carried on culinary heritage by compiling a best-selling Syrian-Lebanese cookbook. Donald Nattkemper, a lawyer at the Nattkemper Law Office, recalled other Syrians involved in civic and professional life, such as Carl Ellis who was the secretary of the Chief of Police, Tommy Tanoos who served as a detective, and Martha Maloof who worked for the city engineer. Second generation Syrians also contributed to their communities by serving in the military during World War II and the Korean War.

[6] “Southern-Style, Open Pit Barbecue Is Popularized by Flaming Pit,” Terre Haute Star, June 25, 1960, 6, accessed Newspapers.com; “Syria on the Wabash,” Indianapolis Star, July 20, 1974, 67, submitted by applicant; Anna Spydell, “Like Family,” Terre Haute Living (September-October 2012), 14, submitted by applicant.

Through cafes and restaurants, Syrian descendants have preserved their heritage and enriched Terre Hautean culture. In 1960, the Terre Haute Star featured the Flaming Pit, a restaurant that served a variety of foods, including Mabel Corey’s family recipes for Kibby, Syrian bread, Salata, and Shish-Kabobs. The Saratoga, which is still in operation, was purchased in 1942 by Joe Malooley, who operated it with his brother Abe Malooley, considered “The Mayor of 5th and Wabash” due to his community involvement. Terre Haute Living wrote in 2012: “To say that the Saratoga is a family restaurant doesn’t just refer to the restaurant’s heritage with the Malooley/[George] Azar family. The restaurant is more family oriented than most of any ‘family’ chain restaurant.”

Festivals featuring food, jewelry, and dancing also celebrate Syrian culture. The Indianapolis Star reported in 1974 about the Syrian day at the Banks of the Wabash Festival, contending “It has been said that if you would like to visit Syria, but can’t, a trip to Terre Haute can provide a pretty good substitute.” The article added that Syrian women made items like “Kibby, made of nutritious cracked wheat, and Sfeeha, dough filled with meat and nuts. Syrian dancing and Arabic music played on instruments like the lute and the derbukkk (drums) lured festival goers to a Mid-East experience.” Festivals hosted by the St. George Orthodox Church continue to commemorate Syrian heritage in Terre Haute.

[7] “Nattkemper Law Office,” Terre Haute-Vigo County, IN Polk City Directory (Papillion, NE, 2015), 190; “Tanoos” residents, Terre Haute-Vigo County, IN Polk City Directory (Papillion, NE, 2015), 259; “Nasser” and “Nattkemper” residents, Terre Haute Yellow Book, 2016-2017, 106, submitted by applicant.

Keywords

Immigration & Ethnic Group, Religion