- Margaret D.
- Friday, April 29, 2022
The history of the Syrian-Lebanon Society in Columbia tells the story of a group of immigrants who came to South Carolina seeking opportunity, and who eventually blended the cultures from their homeland to that in their new-found home.
Lebanese Christian immigrants from the former Ottoman Empire began arriving in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. Many, who were considered Syrians at the time, came in search of economic opportunities. Most arrived in New York at Ellis Island, but soon these immigrants spread to areas across the country, including to South Carolina.
In a southern society where people were seen in terms of Black and White, these new immigrants challenged South Carolinians to see the world in a more nuanced way.
In 1929 the Syrian-Lebanon Society was organized in Columbia to promote goodwill and fellowship in the Lebanese community and to assist new immigrants in establishing good relationships with other South Carolinians. In 1930 the first statewide Syrian-Lebanon Society convention was held in Columbia. During World War II, the Syrian-Lebanon-American Society, as it was then called, paused its annual conventions but instead held several fund-raising drives for war bonds.
After World War II, the Society resumed its annual meetings with vigor. On June 22 and 23, 1946, Dr. Charles Malik, the first Lebanese ambassador to the United States, came to speak to the club in Columbia representing the newly formed Republic of Lebanon. At that time, officers in the club included president A. A. Sabbagha, vice-president Ernest Nauful, executive secretary George Khouri, recording secretary Albert Hykil, and treasurer J. Skaaf Mack. Committee members who planned the gathering included M. S. Tibshrany, Albert Knuckly, George A. Khouri, S. S. Tibshrany, George Sabbagha, S. N. Barkoot, G. M. Hykil, Marie Khoury, Mitrey Matney, E. Skaaf Mack, Saad Simon, Emma Matney, Olga Hykil, Isaac Shadney, Phillip Albert, E. J. Ayoub, Joe Abduplla, Nirman Marsha, E. Khoury, Mrs. Leo Khousa, and M. Owen. The two-day event included a banquet at the Wade Hampton Hotel and a picnic at the Pinewood Lake clubhouse. Entertainments included a presentation by Arabic poet and noted journalist Elia D. Madey. Musical entertainment was provided by singers Najeebe Morad and Anton Abdelahad, violinist Phillip Solomon, and Joseph Budwey on the oud. In the evening Frank Bolick and his orchestra provided music for a ball at the Wade Hampton Hotel. Over 600 guests were present from around the state.
In 1947 the Syrian-Lebanon-American society purchased property in Eau Claire to use as a clubhouse for annual meetings. Governor Strom Thurmond was invited to be guest speaker at the first meeting there. Thurmond praised the group for their patriotism, industry, and citizenship. The society’s clubhouse was set on 6 acres of “towering pines” and contained ample parking and a large ballroom. Events were held to raise funds for local charities, and the ballroom could also be rented out for weddings or celebrations. For decades this property, at 5325 Fairfield Road, held dances, bingo games, speakers, and other events.
In 1950 the women of the Syrian-Lebanon-American Society held a bazaar at the clubhouse in Eau Claire, offering Syrian pastries, needlework, clothing, and other crafts for sale, inviting the wider Columbia community to attend. It was a popular event to be repeated. Some organizers of the event included Mrs. Julia Ayuab, Mrs. Ed Khoury, Mrs. Marie Khouri, Evelyn Topshie, Mrs. G. M. Hykil, Mrs. S. S. Tibshrany, Mrs. Lucile Bistany, Mrs. Leo Koosa, Mrs. Regina Marsha, Mrs. Emma Asmer, Peppy Chigges, Mrs. John Livididits, Mrs. James Brethes, Mrs. George Sabbagha, and Mrs. Joe Abdalla.
An interesting figure from this community was Elias Skaff Mack, a Syrian-born businessman who was elected Mayor of Lexington in 1947. Elias Mack’s story provides an example of what life was like for a Lebanese immigrant in Columbia. Elias was 6 years old when, in 1898, his mother Badrier “Lillie” Mack brought him and his older sister Emma to New York. His father George Mack had immigrated there 3 years earlier and sent for them once he had the money for their travels. By 1900 the family made their way to South Carolina where Lillie’s father Ayoub Gussen had settled a few years prior. George found work here as a grocer and, being of the Protestant faith, the Mack family joined Trinity Episcopal Church. Young Elias Mack attended only five years of formal schooling at the Ursuline convent before beginning working as a stock and delivery boy at Star Dry Goods Store in Columbia. Elias learned quickly on the job and, at just age 17, opened his own store with a partner. During World War I Elias served as an interpreter, as he spoke Arabic, Hebrew, English, and a little German. After the war Elias returned to Columbia and eventually moved to Lexington to open a jewelry store and grocery business. Elias Mack wove himself into local society by joining the Lions Club, the Episcopal and later Lutheran church, the Red Cross, the American Legion, the Forty and Eight Club, the Shriners, and he was a Mason. He was also an active member of the Syrian-Lebanon Society.
As obituaries of those first wave of migrants appeared in the newspaper, many cite that the deceased were born in the cities of Beirut or Aleppo. They came to Columbia between 1895 to 1925 and the men often were successful merchants, operating grocery stores in downtown Columbia. These Christian families joined churches such as Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Peter’s Catholic Church, or the Saint Francis de Sales Parish in Columbia. Many men also joined the Richland Lodge of the Masons, the American Legion and other service organizations. The women were also active in benevolent organizations in the community like the Legion Auxiliary. Many also had family in New York, New Hampshire, California, and other areas of the county. Tombstones in Elmwood Cemetery of these early migrants have Arabic and English inscriptions.
In time attendance at the regular meetings of the Syrian-Lebanon American Society dwindled and the clubhouse was sold in 2009. But the history of the Syrian-Lebanon Society in Columbia is a unique tale. There is no doubt this group was afforded more opportunities than other ethnic groups in the state. But they also took great pains to cement their successes by professing their love of country, volunteerism, and through political savvy. Today many descendants still live in our midst and I hope enjoy reading their ancestors' names here.