The Journal of the Life and Culture of San Antonio

The Lebanese and Syrians

I would define our Syrian-Lebanese heritage as that group of historic moral values, ancestral customs, racial characteristics and ethnic qualities and virtues acquired over the centuries by our forefathers of Lebanon and Syria; brought over to America by our parents and grandparents as they emigrated; and then bequeathed to us, their American descendants, to be used by us to attain a richer and more rewarding American way of life.

Judge A. A. Semaan

Combining the names of the Lebanese and Syrian groups in any listing of these early immigrants is the result of their history. While they speak Arabic, they’re not Arabs. They were all called “Syrians” before the new states of Syria and Lebanon were formed after World War I by the Treaty of Sevres in 1920. In the postwar settlement, their land was carved from the old Turkish Ottoman Empire’s provinces of Greater Syria and Mount Lebanon. [pg 805, 1992 World Almanac)

The early arrivals in Texas were, for the most part, Christians—Syrian Orthodox, Eastern Rite Catholics called Maronites, Greek Catholics called Melkites, and a few Protestants. Few of these immigrants from Lebanon and Syria were Moslems, until 1945, when some came to escape conflicts in the Middle East. [ITC]

They came from one of history’s great civilizations, descended from the Phoenicians who lived on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. Phoenicians had developed an alphabet and helped preserve Roman and Greek philosophy and science during the Dark Ages, and later transmitted this priceless knowledge. Among these people were some of the world’s most ancient and resilient Christians, who had preserved their traditions under Moslem rule since the Seventh Century. [ITC]

References in old books to Syrian peddlers in San Antonio’s Market Square abound. In the 1880s, some itinerant Syrian peddlers traveled alone or in small groups to farms and towns. The peddler carried his goods in his keskey (pack)—his needles, buttons, thread, laces and other notions; religious items from the Holy Land; and clothing. Some of these men became established merchants.

Many Syrians and Lebanese settled in San Antonio in the 1890s and early 1900s. In San Antonio in 1895, Arneen Semaan and his brother in law, Elias Farris, opened the first store in the Southwest specializing in oriental rugs, linens, and art objects. Semaan had been educated at the American University at Beirut. Soon Sernaan and Farris opened similar stores in Houston, Beaumont, and Mineral Wells, Texas, as well as in Arkansas, Missouri, Colorado, and Michigan.

The Semanns and Farrises brought more of their family and relatives to San Antonio, and saw that their descendants became well educated. Several became noted San Antonio lawyers and businessmen. In 1967, Anees A. Semaan was appointed judge of the 175th District Court by Governor John Connally.

At 1917 West Commerce Street, stood the plant of Azar & Solomon Pecans, established by George Azar of the Lebanese family that began the confectionary and pecan shelling business in El Paso sometime before 1900. The family began their pecan shelling enterprise in small rented quarters on West Commerce in 1930, but after George helped invent machinery to raise daily output from seven or eight pounds per worker per day to 250 pounds, they prospered and expanded and continued to thrive to this day.

From the sound of his name, many a San Antonian has long thought Judge Peter Michael Curry to be Irish. He’s Lebanese--one of three Lebanese judges serving in San Antonio during the 1960s. He was appointed presiding judge of the Fourth Administrative District on the retirement in 1968 of Judge Solomon Casseb, Jr., and served for 28 years in that position, until retiring at the end of 1991. After retirement, he continued to sit as a visiting judge.

Judge Casseb also was Lebanese. His father, Solomon, established San Antonio’s first supermarket in 1923 on Alamo Plaza. He’s remembered mostly for his successful real estate business and his four sons, two of whom became bankers and two, outstanding lawyers. [ITC; interview with Curry’s wife on 19 November 1992]

St. George Maronite Church of San Antonio at 6070 Babcock Road is a reminder that most of the Lebanese and Syrians who came to San Antonio are not Moslems, as one might expect. Having moved twice, it’s also a reminder of the changing neighborhoods of San Antonio. In 1925, the church was located in a frame building on the West Side, near the neighborhood of the Syrians and Lebanese—on the corner of West Martin and North Pecos. The area was not far from some of their first shops. The frame church was rebuilt in brick in 1932, but 20 years later, development of the highway forced a move to North Frio and West Morales streets. Then, Urban Renewal development in the area forced another move, and the church of today has stood on the corner of Babcock and Hollyhock Roads since the purchase in the spring of 1974. [pg 102, Diocese Book, 1974].

-Frank W. Jennings, 1992

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