There’s a story at Lucas Oil Stadium that has nothing to do with Jim Irsay, Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck.
More than a century ago, the first Arab American immigrants to Indianapolis settled on the land currently covered by the Indianapolis Colts stadium, according to new research led by Professor Edward Curtis of IUPUI.
The area was known as “Willard Street,” filled with “narrow, timber-framed houses.” There were families of African American, Italian, Polish, Greek and Hungarian descent, but Willard Street was described as a “Syrian colony” from Syria. Americans began settling there in the 1890s. The majority of those residents, men, worked as peddlers, Curtis learned. And women could often be found “rising early and working late,” the Indianapolis Journal reported.
This exciting discovery of the past – hidden beneath the Colts’ current stadium – was just the tip of the iceberg for Curtis, who himself is a descendant of Arab immigrants.
“That was one of the things that confirmed to me how important this story is,” Curtis said. “It makes you think, ‘Hey, wait a minute, where else has our history been buried and forgotten?'”
He zoomed out from Lucas Oil Stadium and passed through other parts of Indianapolis, from the Statehouse to Indiana University. From food, medicine, politics, religion and sports, he found traces of Arab-American contributions everywhere.
But that story is largely unknown, Curtis said. Until now.
“People like me have been a part of this place for so long,” Curtis said. “By imagining us, by putting ourselves into the history of this place, I certainly feel more at home here.”
Arab American History in Indianapolis
By 1900, there were at least 208 Arabic-speaking immigrants in Indiana, according to Curtis’s “Arab Indianapolis” project. By 1910, the population reached around 1,000 people. They worked in factories and as peddlers. They owned grocery stores and retail stores. By 1935, according to Curtis, there were at least 43 Syrian and Lebanese grocers in Indianapolis.
His own ancestors, originally from Syria and Lebanon, settled in Illinois, but he has lived in Indianapolis for more than 15 years. The parallels in the two states are similar, Curtis said, because people assume the Midwest’s history is largely homogeneous and white.
St. George Orthodox Church, now in Fishers, was founded in 1925 as the “first and only” Syrian church in Indianapolis. According to Curtis’ research, approximately 15,000 Arab Americans from Indianapolis served in World War II.
In 1964, Helen Corey became the first Arab American from Indiana to hold elected office, serving as a reporter on the Indiana Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Around the same time, she also published “The Art of Syrian Cooking,” “one of the most influential cookbooks on Syrian cuisine ever written in English,” Curtis wrote in her own book .
Decades later, Jeff George, great-grandson of Syrian immigrants, cemented his legacy as quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. Mitch Daniels, grandson of Syrian immigrants, took office as governor of Indiana.
In his documentary, when Curtis asks, “Why is it important for people to know that Arab Americans helped build this city?”
Dr. Shadia Jalal, a Jordanian-American physician in Indianapolis, sums it all up: “I guess that means we’re Hoosiers.”
This story is important not only on an academic level, but also on a personal level for Arab American Hoosiers.
Growing up, when other kids asked, “What are you?” Curtis’ grandmother always had an answer ready, telling him: You’re Arab. You are Syrian. You are Lebanese.
In this assurance, he found a sense of belonging.
“She was the one who gave me my Arab-American identity as a way to not only belong to a historical past in a distant land, but also to belong to America,” Curtis said. “It was really important to assure a little brown-skinned boy in rural southern Illinois of his worth, of his worth.”
Discover family history, through “Arab Indianapolis” and Ancestry.com
It’s not a feeling much different from what 25-year-old Sierra Martin is looking for today.
The IUPUI student helped share Curtis’ project in her “Introduction to Arab American Studies” class, where she learned about her own family’s history in Indianapolis. Martin always knew about his heritage, that his great-grandfather had immigrated from Syria. She ate falafel and grape leaves growing up, but she didn’t know much else. She asked questions but didn’t get many answers.
Her grandmother, who was the subject of racist taunts growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, pushed much of her heritage away, Martin said, so it was never passed down to younger generations .
But with this discovery of history, the family found a new sense of belonging.
“It was sort of therapeutic,” Martin said, “to experience a culture that I come from that wasn’t shared with me.”
She learned, for example, that her great-grandfather owned two bars in the city, Mousetrap on Keystone Avenue and Pink Elephant on Virginia Avenue, which is now a parking lot.
As part of a class assignment, Martin took his family on a “heritage tour” around Indianapolis, including major spots like Freije’s Market, a Syrian business. They then had lunch at Canal Bistro in Broad Ripple, eating kibby, falafel, tabbouleh and discussing their roots.
“I was asking (my grandmother) some questions and for the first time,” Martin said, “she wasn’t ashamed to speak openly being Arab… she just talked about it openly at lunch and smiling, and I didn’t don’t do it. You know, something…just changed. And it was just a good feeling.
His IUPUI course is over, but Martin still has more to discover in his personal journey.
With the help of her grandmother and Ancestry.com, she began tracing their family history, adding new names to a growing family tree. She is learning Arabic, although it is a difficult second language to learn.
“Sometimes I wonder,” Martin said: “Are you really that Syrian? » Do I have the right to look into this? Do I have the right to try to recover part of the culture that has been abandoned? »
These questions also arise as she attempts to pass on her family heritage to her 4-year-old son.
“Sometimes when I’m trying to teach him, when I’m teaching our culture myself, I feel like it’s not my place,” Martin said. “I feel like I’m always outside of my own culture.”
But she is not alone in her journey.
One day, she accidentally received a message from a stranger in Michigan. They both had family ties to a certain Jerome Shamy, the great-grandfather of Martin “Jim”.
“Oh, we’re related,” she recalled, they soon realized.
Most of his distant relatives live in Dearborn, Michigan, Martin learned, where his great-great-grandparents originally settled in the United States.
“We’re actually friends on Facebook now and trying to get together,” Martin said. “I wish I could go to Dearborn and meet the others because apparently they have more stories and recipes and stuff from (my great-great-grandparents)… And I don’t. never seen a photo of (them)…
“I feel like I’m just trying to learn a lot about their lives. I just want to see pictures of them.”
Although there remains much uncertainty and many unanswered questions, Martin is sure of a few things. His great-grandfather’s business ventures. Her great-great-grandmother’s recipes, passed down by her grandmother.
Part of her family history has been lost between generations, but she learns to embrace the journey of inquiry and her family’s unique history.
It’s in the kitchen that she feels most confident with her heritage, especially with the unique family recipe for dolmas, or stuffed grape leaves, Martin said. (They do it without mint).
“When other people eat my version of grape leaves, they think, ‘That’s very strange,’” Martin said. “I’m like, ‘Yes, I know. Probably.'”
To purchase the book “Arab Indianapolis,” visit Belt edition.
To watch the documentary “Arab Indianapolis,” visit the website.