From Privilege to Persecution: Syrians in Mississippi

When I heard about Mississippi’s Phil Bryant joining the cavalcade of Republican governors announcing a ban on Syrian refugees being resettled in his state, something stirred in my memory banks. I finally had it: back in the 1980s, a friend who did international business development for the Magnolia State mentioned in passing that citizens of Syria were the only non-resident aliens allowed to inherit farm or timber land in the state, reflecting a long-ago settlement in a couple of counties. I looked it up today, and sure enough, it seems the Syrian exception–along with one for citizens of the Lebanon–is still in place.

Yankees may not realize this, but Syrians and Lebanese represented a big part of the merchant class of the South back in the day, pretty much serving the same function as Jews in other just-developing parts of the country. In the town where I spent much of my childhood, LaGrange, Georgia, the main department store was Lebanese owned, and there was a fine Lebanese-owned hot dog joint (still there) where my father and many other downtown workers frequently ate lunch.

At that age, I didn’t really know these people as “Arabs.” They were among the few Catholics in town, but other than that, they were just folks. For Syrians, at least, that blessed invisibility may have just come to an end.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.