By: Michael Aun
One can’t help but wonder…. what if your paternal and maternal grandparents came to this country with nothing but a dream in their hearts and enough money to pass through Ellis Island?
Do you think they were afraid, brave or just plain foolish? Both my sets grandparents in our home hailed from Beirut, Lebanon. The most valuable asset they possessed was a vision and aspiration to taste freedom.
I only met my paternal grandparents once in my life so my knowledge of them was limited. I know they settled in Paterson, New Jersey and like so many immigrants struggled to make ends meet in the “silk city.” It was known for that because silk was the principal source of income for the inhabitants.
My maternal grandfather headed south to Miami to seek his fortune. However, he ran out of funds in Columbia, SC. He paused to earn enough money to resume his journey, but fate would have it that he settled in nearby Lexington, SC and that is the rest of the story.
With little money, no education and unable to speak the language, what did those first-generation Americans face? Most of the Irish settled in northeastern states and became cops or firefighters, not out of some sense of duty, but because no one wanted those high-risk professions.
Like other high-risk jobs such as mining coal, those jobs fell to those who had the fewest options because of language and other economic barriers. Most but not all immigrants were not exactly welcomed in the early 1900’s.
Americans were wary of them because of the competition for employment. In short, they faced prejudice and mistrust. Some would argue not a lot has changed in the past 100 years.
America is the melting pot of the world. When I hear or read of prejudice against legal immigrants my first question to those folks is to ask, “From which tribe of American Indians do you hail?” No Indian blood? Then pipe down. The vast majority of Americans were once just visitors.
Many immigrants tended to cluster into communities where others of their ilk settled. Paterson, NJ was something of a conclave of Lebanese like my grandfather George Aoun. The immigration officer said, “too many vowels” so they dropped the “o” in the last name.
My maternal grandfather, Elias Skaff by name, took on the last name Mack because the immigration officer told him “Look mac, you need to change that last name.”
I suspect it might have been a little easier to immigrate to America in those days, but many of the fears then are similar to those of today. Religious groups like Catholics were a despised minority. Some groups felt the Pope was trying to take over America.
Not a lot has changed. When I offered my candidacy for the House of Representatives in South Carolina in 1980, I recall someone phoned into a popular radio show called “Time to Talk” and posed the question to the host Bill Benton, “Will the Pope tell him how to vote?” Seriously, just because I am a Catholic?
The daring of our forefathers to legally immigrate to a brave new world had to be both painstaking and frightening. Most people who are second, third or fourth generation Americans cannot even identify with the dreadful plight of their ancestors, many of whom were escaping unspeakable horrors of their own homeland.
It took guts to come and imagination to survive. The majority had no education. Being of Lebanese descent, it is in our blood to be entrepreneurial in nature. My maternal grandfather was a merchant.
My own father was an artist by trade. Before being drafted to fight in World War II, he had a string of 29 movie houses in the New Jersey area under contract. He would go to a movie, sketch out a scene, and paint an original marquee on the outside of the movie house to promote the flick.
When the offset press was invented, he was out of business. By that time, he was off to war in North Africa to become an Arabic interpreter for General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
And that, as my late friend Paul Harvey, CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame® would say, “Was the rest of the story.”
Michael Aun is the author of “The Great Communicator” (featuring his grandfather Elias S. Mack). His column “Behind the Mike” has appeared for over four decades.