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The Story Behind the Exhibit: Cedars in the Pines:The Lebanese in North Carolina, 130 Years in History
The Story Behind the Exhibit: Cedars in the Pines
Our current exhibit, Cedars in the Pines: The Lebanese in North Carolina, 130 Years of History is the first exhibit to commemorate the history of Lebanese immigrants who have made North Carolina their home since the 1880s. Cedars in the Pines was researched and developed by the Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies at N. C. State University. We had the opportunity to speak with Marjorie Stevens the Center’s Senior Researcher and Caroline Muglia head of Communications.
Why did the Lebanese community choose to settle in North Carolina?
Caroline Muglia: Between 1880 and 1914 over 360,000 people left Lebanon for the Americas, Of that, about 120,000 came to America. They left for different
reasons including family circumstances and political repression. But most emigrated because of the economic crisis gripping the country. The declining prices of silk, the dominant industry in Lebanon and Hammana, the hometown of many Lebanese who settled in North Carolina, caused people to look elsewhere for work. Between 1892 and 1924, three-fourths of the immigrants came through New York. Others arrived in Charleston, Galveston, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and Boston. From these ports, many people stayed nearby, while others traveled in seek of jobs and money. Most of the immigrants who came to North Carolina adopted peddling as their trade. Armed with gestures and a rudimentary knowledge of English, peddlers sold clothing, personal items, and sewing materials. By 1910, peddlers had canvassed North Carolina to create a vast network of trade. With an increased fluency in English and built up capital, some peddlers decided to open permanent stores. A few opened up their own wholesale store for peddlers, others opened grocery stores, and some even went into the rug and furniture business. Those that succeeded became an integral part of the community, while those who failed represented the risky investments that immigrants faced in the early twentieth century.
How did the civil war in Lebanon impact the Lebanese community in the United States?
CM: The Lebanese Civil War impacted the Lebanese community in America in two ways: it increased the number of Lebanese migrants to the country, and it reconnected people to a country many of their families still considered home. In late 1974, when residents experienced rumblings of the Lebanese Civil War in the streets through 1990, when the Taif Agreement marked the end of the fighting, over 120,000 people lost their lives; war tore families apart and displaced thousands. During the period of the Civil War, many families fled to America. The Khayrallah Center’s founders, Moise and Vera Khayrallah left their families in the early 1980s to travel to America. Houda Bracewell, another community member, recalled walking to primary school under gunfire before school was canceled for weeks at a time. She and her family immigrated a short time later. During the Civil War, the Lebanese population in America grew tremendously. Most of those Lebanese already living in America had ties to Lebanon, so the Civil War exacerbated the distance and struck fear in many people about the violence of their homeland.
Why was North Carolina such an important location in which to focus on the history of Lebanese immigration?
Marjorie Stevens: As far as early (first wave) Lebanese immigration to the United States, North Carolina wasn't overly significant. However, Lebanese immigration was significant to North Carolina because the state experienced very little immigration in the early 20th century. Just like you might expect, the majority of Lebanese immigrants settled in big cities like New York and Boston, but some Lebanese didn't care for the big cities and chose to settle in smaller cities of the day. In North Carolina, Charlotte, New Bern, and Goldsboro had some of the largest early Lebanese populations. Many of these immigrants worked as peddlers or salesmen traveling door to door, manning booths on the streets, or running their own stores. Today, North Carolina is a big draw for recent (second wave) immigrants who are seeking higher education and employment opportunities in technological and medical professions.
How has the Lebanese community impacted North Carolina?
CM: The Lebanese community impacts North Carolina everyday. A strong, tight-knit, and intergenerational group, the Lebanese influence can be seen in new restaurants featuring Lebanese and Mediterranean fare that have introduced many North Carolinians to the culinary traditions of the country. Places like Sitti, Jazmin, and Neomonde are all family run businesses with traditional recipes on their menus. Less overt influences like a strong commitment to civic and political duty impact the daily lives of North Carolina residents. Families like the Mansours, Zaytouns, Macks, and Salems have committed their lives to local and state politics. On a religious front, Lebanese-Americans living in North Carolina hold diverse religious beliefs and have found places of worship and religious communities with whom to connect. Certainly, this impacts the strong religious fabric already in place in the state.
Come back next week to read part 2 of the Story Behind the Exhibit: Cedars in the Pines.