The idea that non-white immigrants are, generally speaking, new to the Midwest could not be further from the truth.

By Edward Curtis IV 

Around 1899, my great, great-grandfather, a man named Hanna Samaha, left his beautifully green three-thousand-foot-high village located in contemporary Lebanon where, on a clear day, you could see the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. He landed at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the town of Cairo [pronounced “Care-oh”], Illinois. He also took a new last name – Moses. My great, great-grandfather must have laughed more than once about his new life, for he was a Moses living in Cairo.

I grew up in Mt. Vernon, Illinois, about ninety miles north of Cairo, and I knew that our region, Southern Illinois, was nicknamed “Little Egypt,” and that the mascot of Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, was the saluki, the lightning fast hunting dog of the Egyptian pharaohs. It was not Arabs who had named the region after the land of the pyramids, but the white male settlers who sought to turn the junction of two mighty rivers into a commercial hub.

I was told that they picked the name Cairo because they saw a correspondence between this meeting place and that of the Blue and White Nile Rivers, located in Khartoum, Sudan, south of Egypt but geographically close enough in their imagination. Or maybe it was because Cairo, Egypt, was the gateway to the Delta. Whatever the reason, Muslim, Arab, Turkish, and other “Oriental” place names were ubiquitous in the Midwest before the Civil War—from Elkader, Iowa, to Mahomet, Illinois.

As for the real Arabs, most people beyond Cairo had little idea that there were any of us living in Little Egypt, and outside my family, no one knew that I was a descendant of the first generation.

Inside my family it was a different story. After school and during summers, I spent a lot time with my Arab grandmother, who moved to Mt. Vernon when I was in grade school. For her, there was no contradiction in being a down-home Arab in Southern Illinois. If she harbored any internalized oppression resulting from anti-Arab and anti-immigrant bias, it was hard to detect. From her retelling of our family’s history, we belonged in Southern Illinois; we were as Saluki as a person could be.

Today, when I hear fellow Midwesterners say that racial and ethnic diversity is new to the small-town Midwest, I know in my bones that the region has always been more than a white settlement. Of course, there are new immigrants in the rural Midwest, many of whom stem the tide of depopulation and provide essential labor, especially in agriculture. But the idea that non-white immigrants are, generally speaking, new to the Midwest could not be further from the truth.

And since the 1880s, Arabic-speaking people have been part of this place. From the Dakotas to Minnesota, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Missouri, and Nebraska, people like my family settled in small towns and put down roots. Before 1920, perhaps half a million Arabic-speaking people from the Eastern Mediterranean left what they called Syria, which for them included the modern-day countries of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Palestine. The majority immigrated to Latin America and the Caribbean, with about 100,000 landing in the United States.

Cairo, Illinois, located not only at the confluence of two rivers but also along the Illinois Central Railroad, was an attractive place to settle. The 1900 U.S. Census records perhaps seventeen people who listed their country of origin as Syria or Turkey (meaning the Ottoman Empire). But that was surely an undercount, borne in part from the lack of communication between the census takers and their Arabic-speaking informants. The names of Syrians are unrecognizably transliterated on the pages of the census. For example, there are the “Chopplys” and the “Subecks”–not exactly household Arabic names. Moreover, many of Cairo’s Syrian residents were away peddling much of the time. Others might not have wanted to be counted for fear of deportation or other legal action.

My great great-grandfather, Samaha Moses, and my great-great grandmother, known as Mary Nageedy or Mary Akel, arrived in the United States with their young son, George, in 1899.  I can’t find them in the 1900 census but by 1904, according to Cairo’s city directory, they lived above a grocery store located in a Victorian-style brick building on 415 Commercial Avenue.

George’s new home was four or five blocks east of the Mississippi River and only two blocks west of the Ohio River, at a spot where barges docked on a large wharf. This river bottom city was far more humid than the Middle Eastern home of his birth, and more odorous, too. Like so many other Midwestern river towns in the early twentieth century, downtown Cairo was industrial, commercial, and residential all at the same time. Just steps away from the Moses’ apartment, there was a bottling plant, a beer hall, a brewery, barbers, a creamery, the Elks and Masons, the Cairo Opera House, and the Episcopalian Church of the Redeemer.

Most new arrivals from Syria first settled in the lower section of Cairo’s downtown, which was sometimes called Cairo’s Syrian Colony. A small community of peddlers and laborers, they sought good communal relations with others.  In 1904, for example, a number of Syrians held a banquet for the Cigar Makers Union and “killed a large goat in honor of the occasion.” The celebration lasted “all day,” according to the Cairo Bulletin.

George seems to have begun peddling with his dad almost immediately upon his arrival. His father had trouble learning English, but not young George. By the age of thirteen, like so many immigrant children both past and present, he became his parents’ translator. Not just in business, but in court, too, like when Samaha Moses accused another Syrian man of assault in 1905.

I grew up hearing about my great-grandfather’s generosity and his friendships, and the press accounts confirm that he was convivial. In 1912, he was perhaps the only Syrian invited to a large party celebrating Edna Deeslie’s sweet sixteen. He was well liked, and by 1913, he opened his own store in nearby Mounds, Illinois, a village of fewer than one thousand people in 1910 that nevertheless had its own inter-urban railroad car link to Cairo, about seven miles away.

What I didn’t know, until I started looking, is that George Moses was a romantic who had fallen in love with a woman other than my great-grandmother. In 1916, he became the talk of the town when Emma Schnautz, his former fiancée, sued him for $15,000 “Because He Changed His Mind,” according to a Cairo Bulletin headline. George had been courting Emma, the daughter of German-born August Schnautz and Hoosier native Anna Ferstel from Evansville, Indiana, for a couple years. George met her when “she was visiting relatives” in Mounds.

But in March, 1916, George Moses instead married Mary Hamaway, a Syrian immigrant from Kennett, Missouri. It’s not clear to me how they met, but by this time, Syrians knew and socialized with a lot of other Syrians. Their success as a community relied on the building of complex chains of migration. Syrians utilized railroads and roads throughout the region to socialize, conduct business with one another, attend weddings and funerals, and organize community advocacy and philanthropic campaigns.

Marrying within your own ethnic group is often remembered in oral history interviews as a source of pride and honor. But those cultural values were likely less about any attachment to the old country as they were a pragmatic recognition of the need to protect and build one’s community in the United States. Ethnicity has always been a claim on social, political, and economic power.

George Moses identified Levantine cultural tradition as the source of the misunderstanding. “The system of matchmaking in this country is confusing,” he told the newspaper. In Syria, the “custom . . . is for the parents to select the girl for a young man. . . When the time comes for the marriage either party has the right to refuse and then another match can be made, but not … to the tune of $15,000.” Moses was telling the truth. This was indeed how matches were made in Ottoman Syria.

But my great-grandfather was around twenty-four years of age in 1916, and given his successful integration into English-speaking popular culture, he was likely savvy to American cultural traditions and expectations. He must have known that when you asked a woman to marry you, a good man was supposed to follow through. Maybe his confusion about matchmaking was just an excuse to do what his parents likely wanted – for him to marry another Syrian. Or perhaps he really did change his mind.

Whatever the reason, the broken engagement became a memorable court case in Cairo. Next to December 15, 1916, newspaper headlines about the U.S. Congressional vote on Prohibition and the Central Powers’ peace proposal to end World War I, “Southern Illinois’ Greatest Newspaper” announced that “Love Letters Are Read in Suit for Breach of Promise.” And contrary to George Moses’ expectations, his former fiancée, the 21-year-old “pretty and petit blonde” from Evansville, showed up in a Mound City circuit court with “piles of love letters.” Perhaps embellishing, the newspaper dubbed them “burning love letters.”

There were so many –“scores,” it was said –that one day of testimony was not enough. Court adjourned at 5PM, with Emma’s attorney promising to return the next day to read more of them aloud. Emma herself would then take the stand.

The dates of the letters indicated that the break-up was abrupt. George was still writing to her in February just a month before marrying Mary Hamaway. Emma was devastated, explaining that “her heart was injured to the equivalent of the amount asked in the suit,” which in 2023 would be worth over $400,000.

The next day, the case took a dramatic turn. George had an answer for Emma. He possessed his own pile of letters from Emma to him. “These, he said, contained evidence that the course of their love did not run smoothly.” The letters would show that it was Emma, not George, who broke off the engagement.

But before George’s letters were read aloud in court, officials from the Roman Catholic Church, of which both George and Emma were members, intervened. They negotiated a truce, the details of which were never made public. “Just as the trial seemed to be coming to a climax. . . the interested parties refused to proceed further and the case was thrown out of court,” reported the Bulletin. The newspaper added, no doubt yearning for more melodrama in Mound City, “courtroom spectators declared the sudden termination was disappointing.”

George Moses was now “permitted to live happily with his bride,” and as for Emma, in just a little over three months, she married the 40-year-old German American Dr. Henry C. Knapp from Evansville. Emma was widowed in her thirties, but she remarried, divorced, and then married for a third time when she was seventy-two.

This story is more than an amusing, romantic incident. It helps us understand the social status of a bilingual Syrian immigrant and his perhaps platonic love affair with a German immigrant’s daughter. At a time when other Syrian men were presented as lotharios, untrustworthy, even violent seducers of white women in vaudevilles, plays, fiction, and newspapers, George Moses came across in the local daily as anything but that. Some white readers may have seen my great-grandfather in this light –and who knows what they said about him in Evansville –but extant media coverage did not use or abuse any of the typical stereotypes of the swarthy, dangerous Syrian to frame Moses’ actions.

What makes it so poignant is that the tale was repeated in town after town across the Midwest, although perhaps without the romance. There was plenty of prejudice expressed about Turks, Arabs, Muslims, and Syrians in the country, but white people in places like Sioux Falls, Fort Wayne, and Cedar Rapids also went on record about the loyalty, productivity, and respectability of some Syrian immigrants, especially in cases where these Syrians had become important to the local economy. Cairo, Illinois, was another town where Syrians participated, if tenuously at times, in white society.

This rise in social status paralleled a rise in economic status. By 1915, many of the peddlers who settled in Cairo had become grocers. This pattern was found throughout the Midwest. Peddlers knew what their customers wanted and they also had lines of credit and supply chains. Grocers in Cairo included Solomon Boalbey; the Elias Brothers; A. Feisal; A. A. Hanna, Jas Joe; Asa Joseph; Koury & Semmon; S. G. Maloof; A. Malouf; and Albert Tenoos. These ten stores constituted 12% of the eighty-four stores listed that year in the city directory.

George Moses, also a child peddler, decided on a different career. According to an oral history interview of long-time Cairo resident Adeby Coury in 1980, George Moses’ father was an “old man” when Coury arrived in the early 1920s. Samaha Moses “peddled all his life,” often around Mounds. He “used to spend the night at a particular farm. He made up his mind that he was going to save enough money to buy that farm, which he finally did. It was a big farm; he was helped by his one son, George, and they became very wealthy, working the land and raising livestock.”

Like so many other Syrians in town, George Moses was also Christian. Religion was another source of Syrian social status in Cairo. In a border town starkly divided along the Black-white color line, Syrians were permitted to attend white churches. Like Mrs. Coury, the Moses family traced their roots to the village of Bteghrine, about twenty miles east of Beirut. Mrs. Coury’s family was mainly Orthodox Christian. Mr. Moses’ was likely Melkite, or Greek Catholic.

“There was no Syrian church in Cairo,” said Mrs. Coury, because there weren’t “enough people to support a church.” Syrians attended the Roman Catholic, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist churches instead. Occasionally, an Arabic-speaking clergyman would perform a marriage ceremony or hold services in town, like in 1912, when St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic church hosted the Maronite Bishop of Sidon.

George Moses settled down with his Syrian wife, Mary, and raised his six children in the Roman Catholic church, which had negotiated an end to Emma Schnautz’s lawsuit. In addition to his farm, he came to own rental properties in Cairo. He was an active member in Cairo’s Syrian-American Club in the interwar era and he spoke publicly in favor of political self-determination for all Arabs, including Palestinians. He passed on that heritage to his children, which was eventually passed down to me.

There have now been six generations of the Moses family living in and around Cairo, and they are not alone. Other multi-generational Syrian families include the Hannas, Mikes, Joes, Khouries, and others. But Cairo is a different place now.

It is known, if at all, as a largely abandoned town. The lovely turn-of-the-century brick buildings of Commercial Street, where my great-grandfather once lived as a child, are mostly gone, replaced not by modern structures but often by empty lots. A bustling, ambitious city once home to 15,000 people has a population of about 1,700 and falling. The stories of people like George Moses are being forgotten.

So, it’s never been more important that we remember the immigrants who not only made our big cities vibrant but also created the rural heartland and the small towns that, for many, still evoke America’s quintessential self. George Moses’ story reminds us that, while racism and xenophobia undeniably saturated and organized the history of the U.S. Midwest and the country as a whole, there were also fissures in the social boundaries of white supremacy. This is an untold and important narrative about the unfulfilled potentialities of a better country.

The lesson of my great-grandfather is not that if you put your nose down and work hard, you, too, can make it in America. It is, rather, that there were paths not taken for all Americans and possibilities that we failed to protect and grow. Mr. Moses was allowed to prosper and he gained the support and trust of Cairo’s white citizens, claiming the privileges of whiteness for himself.

It was a different story for those who lived on the other side of the color line. Black people in Cairo faced violent discrimination, even after the landmark legislation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Acts of 1965. Cairo never fulfilled the promise of the American dream for many of its citizens.

And Moses’ whiteness wasn’t a guarantee, at least not for his heirs. My mother and I, for example, were among his darkest-skinned progeny. We did not pass so easily. My mother’s skin color and her features were politely called exotic and impolitely labeled with racial epithets. When I was growing up in the 1970s, no one could figure out what race I was, and they always asked. It was hard to answer the question, “what are you?,” when I was in grade school.

As memory of small-town America fades, sometimes replaced by white nostalgia and a dangerous erasure of the Midwest’s racial and ethnic diversity, the truth of my family’s existence confronts any who would appropriate history for purposes that dishonor the legacy of Mr. Moses. The real story gives us hope that those who love rural and small-town America will win the battle for the past, freeing us all to embrace the fact that we have always been more than a cultural monolith. Some of us want to go back home, at least in our dreams.

Edward E. Curtis IV is the Plater Chair of the Liberal Arts at Indiana University, Indianapolis. He is the author or editor of 14 books about Black, Muslim, and Arab American history and life, including Arab Indianapolis and Muslims of the Heartland: How Syrian Immigrants Made a Home in the American Midwest.