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  • Mississippi Mahjar:Lebanese Immigration to the Mississippi Delta
  • James G. Thomas Jr. (bio)

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In 1892, Commour Ellis immigrated to New London, Connecticut, from Mount Lebanon, Syria, with sons George and Michael. In 1901, she and her five sons moved to Meridian, Mississippi, where they joined her brother. Seven years later, the family moved to Port Gibson, Mississippi, where they opened a mercantile business on Main Street. Commour Ellis and sons (left to right) James, George, Michael, and Sam. (Commour's son John is not pictured.) Courtesy of the author.

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As anyone who has studied the history of the South knows, racial hostility was ubiquitous across the Mississippi Delta throughout the hundred years following the Civil War. But contrary to the dominant narrative, conflict there was not purely limited to the relationships between blacks and whites. As Haseeb George Abraham, a Lebanese peddler who immigrated to the Mississippi Delta in 1885, discovered, those who came to the Delta from elsewhere had to learn the customs of the region before they were accepted into the social culture there. Gregory Thomas of Vicksburg describes how his great-grandfather traveled across the region peddling his wares, once unintentionally asking a lady on a Delta plantation to "sleep with him," instead of asking if she could provide shelter for the night. Knowing little English, he soon found himself upon the back of a horse with a noose around his neck, prepared for his hanging. Only when another Lebanese man came along and inquired as to what had happened was the mistake made clear and Abraham's life spared.1

Haseeb Abraham's experience provided him a crash course in the ways of the Delta. Generally, itinerant peddling gave immigrants the opportunity to gradually learn and adapt to the prevailing social customs of the South, including its stringent social codes and harsh judicial practices. Interactions with rural farmers and, occasionally, townsfolk gave peddlers the chance to view the culture as somewhat passive observers in the sense that they were perpetually "passing through."

Moving to the Mississippi Delta

Between the 1880s and the end of World War I, a combination of famines, epidemics, extreme poverty, and religious and political genocide led to more than 100,000 deaths in the Mount Lebanon region of Ottoman Empire-controlled Syria. During that same period, over 100,000 Lebanese residents of the predominantly Christian region participated in a mass migration that scattered them across the globe to places such as Australia, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States. While most of these Lebanese citizens intended to emigrate only until conditions at home had improved, many eventually realized that the life of an emigrant in the United States was preferable to that on what was commonly known as "the Mountain." Ironically, many Lebanese fleeing hardship and oppression found themselves in Mississippi, settling in the caste-based, Jim Crow Delta, where they were considered neither black nor white. These Lebanese immigrants—mostly male—found work peddling wares to blacks and whites across the Delta, forming close economic bonds in and with black communities and hoping one day to assimilate into the economically and socially dominant white community—all while retaining vital elements of their own cultural heritage.2

For decades, observers from within and beyond the mostly rural Mississippi [End Page 36] Delta have chiefly defined the region as a black/white dichotomy that consisted primarily of planter-class and poor whites, and slaves-turned-sharecroppers-turned-impoverished blacks. William Alexander Percy furthered that notion in his 1941 autobiography Lanterns on the Levee:

[T]he cloth of the Delta population—as of the whole South—is built of three dissimilar threads and only three. First were the old slave holders, the landed gentry, the governing class; though they have gone, they were not sterile; they have their descendants, whose evaluation of life approximates theirs. Second were the poor whites, who owned no slaves, whose manual labor lost its dignity from being in competition with slave labor, who worked their small unproductive holding ignored by the gentry, despised by the slaves. Third were the Negroes.3

The reality, however, is that the region has long...


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