RALEIGH — Bend your knees, grab the handle of an old-time salesman’s sample case at the N.C. Museum of History and you can hoist the iconic burden of a small group of immigrants that has been a part of the state since the late 1800s but has gone all but unexamined until now.
Immigration is central to being Lebanese: About as many people from the small Mediterranean country live outside its borders as do inside them, said Akram Khater, a history professor at N.C. State University who helped the museum create “Cedars in the Pines,” the new multimedia exhibit on the state’s Lebanese immigrants.
There were two waves of Lebanese immigrants, from the 1880s into the 1920s, and another starting in 1975. About two-thirds of all men and women of that first wave who came to North Carolina engaged in some form of door-to-door peddling, Khater said.
He is director of the grant-funded Khayrallah Program for Lebanese-American Studies at the university. The program focuses on the history of the Lebanese-American community across the nation. The free exhibit, which opens Saturday and runs through August, was a collaboration between his program and the museum.
“We wanted to let people know that Lebanese-Americans have been a part of the history of the state for over 130 years,” Khater said. “They have been part of the community, part of the society, part of the economy.”
Khater and the museum also wanted to give Lebanese-Americans in North Carolina their own story.
“Everyone has their own stories, from the kitchen from grandma, from grandpa,” he said. “But we wanted to gather these into a common story and sort of celebrate the hard work and the many years of the contribution coming here, working hard, raising families and contributing to North Carolina.”
In part, the exhibit and his program at NCSU were responses to misconceptions about Lebanese, and Arabs in general, that arose after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Khater said. Religion is a common misconception; many Lebanese are Christian and were responsible for the origins of many of the Catholic churches in the state, he said.
“I kind of darkly joke that the Lebanese are known for two things, terrorism or tabbouleh” salad, he said. “So this sort of stereotypical vision is something we wanted to transcend.”
Early on, Lebanese-American families were scattered around North Carolina. And there was a common arc to the stories of many, Khater said.
It began with those sample cases. They would work as peddlers, walking regular routes that might stretch as far as 50 miles, selling household items, in particular things that women on isolated farms needed, such as needles, thread and undergarments.
It was exhausting work, but lucrative for the time.
In 1906 or 1907, while a factory worker was making about $1,200 to $1,400 a year, a Lebanese peddler might make about three times as much, $3,000 to $3,500, Khater said.
They were frugal, saving carefully and often living with up to 10 people in a small house. And then after five to 10 years, they could afford to open a retail store, which is how communities across the state ended up with Lebanese-American retailers.
Khater cited several examples of what could happen after that.
The Koury family eventually got into the textile business and founded the company that owns the Joseph F. Koury Convention Center in Greensboro. The Mack family started as peddlers, opened a store in Mooresville, then had a family member attend Duke on a football scholarship and eventually become CEO and chairman of Morgan Stanley.
And the George family started a small grocery store in Hickory selling fruits and vegetables, then built Merchant Distributors Inc. which owns Lowes Foods.
“So, the trajectory for many of them is, you start as a peddler, you become a store owner, then you send their kids to college so they become lawyers or what have you, and that’s pretty much the path they took,” Khater said.
On the other hand, he said, all the stories weren’t triumphal. Many early immigrants returned to Lebanon or continued to just get by.
The first wave was powered by economic problems, famine and war in Lebanon, and was relatively small, with about 1,000 immigrants living in North Carolina in 1921. The second, which came after civil war broke out, was larger, and there are now about 16,000 Lebanese-Americans in the state, Khater said, mainly in large concentrations of 4,500 to 5,000 each in the Charlotte and Raleigh areas.
The exhibit explores their stories in three sections. The first looks into the decision to immigrate and how they got here. One display notes that almost 150 Lebanese were aboard the Titanic for its ill-fated voyage. About two-thirds of them were killed.
The second section examines how they assimilated in North Carolina, facing challenges like discrimination. That’s where the phenomenon of Lebanese peddlers is discussed, and it features not just the liftable, 25-pound case but an array of the actual cases used by Side Mack who operated out of Mooresville in the early 20th century.
The third part of the exhibit looks into what it has been like to live in a Lebanese family here, with information on religion, marriage and a display of iconic Lebanese foods. There’s even an interactive display that teaches you dabke, a traditional folk dance.