Archive spotlights pivotal contributions of Arab Americans in Houston

May 25, 2018 | Katherine Adams

Archive spotlights pivotal contributions of Arab Americans in Houston

In 1946, Houston resident Ruth Ann Skaff’s father, the Very Reverend Thomas Skaff, became the first American-born man of Arab descent in the U.S. to become ordained as a priest in the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America – at the time called the Syrian Antiochian Orthodox Church. He was ordained in Sioux City, Iowa and probably never thought he would be responsible for documenting a significant segment of Arab-American history in Houston.

Skaff brought her father’s 65-box collection to the Archaeology Lab at University of Houston-Clear Lake in June 2017, where undergraduate and graduate students in anthropology and cross cultural and global studies are cataloging it under the guidance of Associate Professor of Anthropology and Cross Cultural and Global Studies Maria Curtis.

“Most ethnic groups have the space to talk about the contributions they’ve made to their communities”, says Curtis. “All immigrant groups have offered something to the American experience and are acknowledged for it, but the same acknowledgment has not always been extended to Arab Americans,” she said. “There remains an invisibility or erasure of positions they’ve held and their contributions, and there isn’t a true understanding of what they’ve given to our communities.”

One of the main misconceptions about Arab Americans, Curtis said, was that they are all Muslim. “Some of the oldest Arab communities in the U.S. are Syrian and Lebanese, and they’ve always been part of our churches because many Arabs are Christian. There are so many compelling stories in all these boxes that Ruth Ann’s father saved over the years. For example, we see the longstanding fellowship and communal ties between the different Christian churches in Father Skaff’s correspondence in Beaumont, Texas. They lived as neighbors and helped each other in times of need and in times of celebration.”

“My father had an abiding love for all people and wanted to help anyone who needed help, regardless of their religion,” Skaff said. “It’s that innate quality that he possessed that helped him create this huge network of people who are part of this archive.”

Skaff said that her father saved nearly everything, including a tremendous amount of correspondence, going back to his earliest years as a priest at his first parish in St. Paul, Minnesota. “He was trying to minister to this disparate community of Arabic-speaking Americans who were trying to establish themselves and encountered discrimination because they spoke as strange language, had darker skins, and were Eastern Christians,” she said. “He worked to elevate the Arab-American Christian profile in communities where he served.” The Very Reverend Skaff had served in a number of parishes in the Midwest before coming to St. George Orthodox Christian Church in Houston in March 1959. He served two more parishes before his death in Houston in 1989.

The boxes, many of which have not yet been opened, contain church bulletins, calendars, program books from national and local church conventions, and many more documents and papers that Skaff, Curtis and her students are working to catalog and archive. “The collection is so vast, there’s no way I could do this alone,” Curtis said. “Together, we’re trying to create a chronology of all this. I think of this collection as the source of much future research.”

Rare documents include the “Official Syrian Directory of Sioux City,” published in March 1938, and the “Constitution, By-Laws and Amendments of the Syrian-American League of Sioux City, Iowa,” published in 1944. The stated objective of that book, said Skaff, was to promote American patriotism among the peoples of the Syrian race.  “It shows that issues of identity, patriotism and heritage keep reverberating, even today,” she said.

“There are so many surprises in the archive,” Curtis said. “We found Lebanese-American newspapers from 1913, written in a language so contemporary; it could have been written today, about an American community yearning for belonging and acceptance. We have found many maps, photos, and of course, recipes from many people and places, most notably from The New Baghdad, what we believe is Houston’s first Arab restaurant.”

Curtis also said they found a number of pamphlets and brochures focusing on humanitarian work and political activism on behalf of those in the Arab world suffering in the midst of political turmoil, as well as correspondence documenting the ways that Arab Americans contributed mightily during the Civil Rights movement.

Skaff’s 15-year association with the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, a Smithsonian affiliate, sharpened her appreciation for the role of community history. But the impetus to catalog this material comes from primary research Skaff completed for the 1986 Texas Sesquicentennial. She researched the first Houston neighborhood in which Syrian-Lebanese immigrants settled.

“That research contains oral histories of then-elderly children of those first immigrants, and it provided the opportunity to share the information with the public. Arab-Americans were a pivotal part of Houston’s history, and they were wholehearted contributors to the fabric of society in their professional and civic lives,” Skaff said.

The research collected from the Sesquicentennial is being cataloged and implemented into the chronology of the Skaff collection. “We have begun to establish categories for all these documents, and the next step is to keep working through the discovery phase.  We are building a map if you will of categories, how they relate to each other, where they overlap and where they diverge; we are rehousing documents in a way to make it easier for future researchers to locate like items. Ultimately, we hope to digitize these materials so that anyone anywhere can have access to them for research” Curtis said. “When it’s done, the entire archive will be moved to the Julia Ideson Building in the Houston Public Library. There is an interesting kind of poetic justice here; this beautiful building once received a sizable donation from the Jamail family, a prominent Arab American family here in town. Now it will also house an impressive Arab American historical collection.”

Houston history, says Curtis, is filled with the impact of Arab-American residents. “They’re everywhere, but nowhere,” she said. “There are so many stories in these boxes of what they’ve given us, and that’s why we want to catalog this collection and share it. We know a great deal about Arab American history in other parts of the country, this collection is an important starting point for establishing a greater understanding of Arab American presence on the Gulf Coast.”

For more information about UHCL’s Anthropology and Cross Cultural and Global Studies program, visit www.uhcl.edu/academics/degrees/anthropology-bs.