Scope and Contents
The collection documents the immigration and assimilation of mostly Christian Syrian-Lebanese who came to America at the turn of the twentieth century. The immigrants were predominately-small land-owning peasants and artisans from the village of Syria and Lebanon. According to Alixa Naff, immigrants knew exactly where they were going to live and what they were going to do once they immigrated to America. They mostly chose to live in cities where earlier immigrants had already created communities. The majority of the immigrants became peddlers. Peddlers carried packs containing scissors, razors, pins, buttons, ribbons, threads, needles, combs, mirrors, soap, voile and muslin, lace and crotchet crafts, perfume, scarves, picture frames, oriental rugs, fine linens, leather goods, pictures of saints, religious notions from the holy land, confections and cakes. Peddling offered the immigrants a source of income and a way to learn the English language, American customs and lifestyles. It often led to ownership of a small dry goods store. More successful businesspersons then went on to own a department store or a chain of stores. For those Syrian/Lebanese who chose not to pursue peddling as a source of income other occupations included farming, work in New England textile mills, Midwestern factories, Pittsburgh and Birmingham steel mills and Detroit's automobile assembly lines.
It was in these Syrian communities created by Arab immigrants that Dr. Naff sought interviews, photographs and personal papers. For Alixa Naff this pioneering generation of people offered a wealth of information on the immigrant experience and the critical role that peddling played. Naff conducted interviews in urban and small town communities with an emphasis on Midwestern states. Her informants included first and second generation Christians, Druze and Muslims. Locations of interviews included Detroit, Michigan because it was an industrial city with a large and stable Syrian population of all faiths. Cedar Rapids, Iowa was smaller, a railroad depot at the turn of the century and home to the earliest Muslim groups. Peoria, Illinois was also a small, railroad depot at the turn of the century and it consisted predominately of the Maronite Sect originally from one village in Mount Lebanon. Spring Valley, Illinois was a small mining town with a Christian community and the remnant of a once flourishing peddling settlement. Their Eastern Rite Syrian Orthodox Church was the only one in Illinois until 1961 and served smaller Syrian groups.
Oral history interviews deal with the sociological factors of the assimilation process. Most tapes have been fully transcribed or abstracted. Information from the interviews are supported with published articles; demographic statistics; articles from the Arab-American press, books, journals and dissertations published in the United States or in Arab countries. Personal papers collected from individuals and families provide evidence of the experiences discussed in the interviews and add a personal touch to the reference materials. While there are a number of original items included among the personal papers, there is a substantial amount of duplicate materials. Naff would often collect the originals make copies and then return the originals to the donors.