Cincinnati’s 1890s ‘Syrian Colony’ of Middle Eastern Refugees


In 1898, Cincinnatians watched a strange Christmas Day procession on the west side of the downtown area. The Cincinnati Enquirer [26 December 1898] reported the event in much the language they would have used if Martians were congregating locally:

“Persons who had occasion to visit certain portions of West Third or West Fourth yesterday morning were somewhat surprised to see small parties of small statured, swarthy men who passed from house to house, stopping in each but a few minutes, before passing to the next visiting place.”

The Fares family arrived in Cincinnati in 1921 with almost no English, described by the Cincinnati Post as Syrians living in Palestine and oppressed by Turkey.
The Fares family arrived in Cincinnati in 1921 with almost no English, described by The Cincinnati Post as Syrians living in Palestine and oppressed by Turkey.

From Cincinnati Post 10 Jan 1921; Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The headline for this article was a single word: “Curious.” What the Enquirer found so amazing in 1898 was a Christmas tradition in the “Syrian Colony” of about 150 households gathered around lower Plum Street from around 1890 into the 1920s.

The late 1800s were a time of turmoil in the Ottoman Empire with uprisings by Christian subjects in Macedonia and Armenia leading to Turkish aggression against Christian populations throughout the Empire, including Syria. The Maronite and Syriac Christians of Syria emigrated in large numbers following the 1860 Mount Lebanon Civil War. Many of these refugees landed in the United States, mostly in New York and Boston, but a few settled in Cincinnati, where the Enquirer found their Christmas customs so unusual:

“In the morning, all of the women stay in doors and the men divide up into parties of 10 to 12. Each party is in command of a leader, whose business it is to knock on the door and apprise the ladies of the names of their callers. As the visitor enters the door, he bows low and says: ‘I wish all within this house a year of good health, peace and prosperity.’ He is then presented with sweetmeats and brandy by his hostess. This is followed by coffee, cakes, cigars or cigarettes and a puff at the narghill or hubble-bubble pipe. The calls are of short duration, and, as the men bow themselves out of the door, each repeats: ‘We hope to meet again in Syria, freed from despotism and tyranny, as we are in the United States.'”

In other words, the recent kerfuffle over whether Cincinnati should welcome Syrian refugees is more than a century too late. Cincinnati accepted Syrian refugees as early as 1890. While the Syrians were not enthusiastically welcomed, Cincinnati accommodated them.

The Cincinnati Syrian Colony mostly occupied cheap tenement houses on lower Plum Street between Front Street and Fourth. There was a second, smaller, “colony” on the east side of downtown around the foot of Broadway. The Plum Street colony was served by the Church of the Atonement on Third Street, where a Syriac or Maronite priest conducted religious rites every few months.

Mostly, Cincinnati found the Syrians “curious.” The newspapers of the day related in some detail the ongoing feuds within the colony, often between women. From time to time, feuds broke out between the Plum Street colony and the Broadway colony. The local newspapers applied random spelling to Syrian names, with Zehenni appearing alternately as Zaney, and Gannin as Kenna or Gehina. Today, we would call most of these folks Lebanese rather than Syrian, but the map and the media of 1900 made no distinction.

There is no question that Cincinnati’s Syrians were proud of their heritage. The Enquirer [24 June 1902] described the case of Grace Waits, 25, who left Syria pregnant and despaired that her child would not be born on Syrian soil. As a consolation, she brought with her a Syrian flag, so that when the moment of delivery arrived, she could cover herself and her newborn with it. Alas:

“Night and day the Syrian flag enwrapped her, and fervently she prayed that the child would be born under its folds. Upon their arrival at a temporary home, 120 East Eighth Street, the flag, in the bustle of arranging their household effects, was mislaid, and the critical moment arrived suddenly. The ambulance barely reached the hospital in time when the boy was born, and then Mrs. Waits wept because her baby was not born under the flag.”

As America inched toward involvement in the First World War, Cincinnati’s Syrian colony stood at the forefront of patriotic organizations. By 1917, the loosely organized “colony” of feuding families had created a thriving Syrian-American Club, meeting at the Guilford School on Fourth Street near Broadway. Joseph Ganin, president of the Syrian-American Club, excoriated [Cincinnati Post 21 April 1917] Germans who supported their home country in the global conflict:

“The Syrian people would rather be cast into the sea than go back to their native country to live. A German who comes to this country, makes his living here and then continually praises and talks about the fatherland is worse than the man who drinks out of a well and then contaminates it. Those who do this are traitors at heart to America.”

A local judge, Howard Hollister, became the champion, in his way, of the Syrians and other refugee minorities in Cincinnati. As U.S. District Judge, Hollister oversaw the citizenship process for Cincinnati immigrants and he railed against anyone who treated them unfairly. Often, Hollister found, immigrants were abused because their English language skills were poor. With the assistance of an Americanization Committee of Cincinnati’s Chamber of Commerce, Hollister pushed for the creation of the American House in the Mohawk neighborhood. There, a former saloon became a meeting house where all sorts of hyphenated immigrants could learn English, banking, and American culture. Just months before he died, Judge Hollister appealed for fairness [Cincinnati Post 14 March 1919]:

“An appeal that alien workmen be given ‘a fair chance’ was issued Friday by U.S. Judge Howard Hollister, vice chairman of the Americanization Executive Committee. He said if attacks on aliens who misunderstood orders are continued such men will ‘hate the country instead of loving it’ and efforts of the American House to teach Americanism will be checked.”

It is a lesson Cincinnati learned a century ago that may need repeating today.

This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities

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