Syrian American Brotherhood on Riverside Park

It’s not clear what will happen to the old headquarters of the Syrian American Brotherhood. The owners of the Refuge Temple Revival Center building are trying to sell it. Looking at the building today, you would have no idea how important the place used to be to Arab Indianapolis. It was a center of Arab American social and civic activities in Indianapolis, a place where some of the most important community meetings and parties of the 1930s were held.

What is now a church used to be the most popular Arab American cultural center in town. Credit: MLS.

The club had been established perhaps as early as 1919. It had rented various properties and held events in outdoor venues, but in 1930, the Syrian American Brotherhood set out to raise money for their own building. That year, they held an all-day picnic somewhere in a grove around Michigan and Kessler Boulevard. Three hundred people, including Syrians from across the state, attended the event, which featured “a three-legged race, a watermelon eating contest and an ice-holding contest.” In 1931, another fundraiser was held at Crow’s Nest, likely referring to the exclusive fief that was home to Eli Lilly, among other elites in Indianapolis. In addition to selling food, the club organized athletic competitions, games, and a bazaar.

By the middle 1930s, the Syrian American Brotherhood purchased the former Temple Baptist Church at 2245 East Riverside. Located in a beautiful spot across the street from Riverside Park, the building looked out on the park’s South Grove golf course, one of three different courses developed on the huge 953-acre property.

Riverside Park was a beautiful, popular, and racially segregated park in the first half of the 1900s. Credit: Tichnor Brothers Collection, Digital Commonwealth.

Riverside Park stretched along the White River from 18th to 38th Street. To this day, it is still larger than New York’s Central Park. It was home to a popular amusement park. Before World War II, it also featured attractive, well-kept Spanish Mission-style architecture, a zoological department, baseball fields, bicycle and pedestrian paths, and tennis courts. Visitors paddled canoes and row boats that were stored in the park’s boat house on the river.

The Syrian American Brotherhood’s purchase of a building on the park signaled the rise of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants and their children in the city’s racial hierarchy. Black people were not welcome at Riverside Park. The city refused to issue event permits to African American groups, and the privately-run amusement park explicitly barred their entry. The fact that Syrians and Lebanese operated their clubhouse in this part of town showed that this group of Arab Americans had achieved social acceptance or at least toleration in a white-dominated city.

By the 1930s, Indianapolis’ Syrian and Lebanese Americans were playing a leading role in national Arab American life. Credit: Indianapolis Star, July 26, 1936, 4.

The Syrian American Brotherhood hall also played a significant role in the history of Arab America when, in 1936, it hosted the organizing conference for the Midwest Federation of Syrian and Lebanese Clubs. Hundreds of club members from Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, and Wisconsin came at the beginning of August to organize the federation, tour the Indianapolis War Memorial, and enjoy each other’s company. All the events occurred at the club. Mayor John Kern was invited to address the delegates at a grand banquet where the entertainment included Arab music and dancing. W. S. Zarick was chosen as head of the federation.

It was also a place where Arab Americans had a lot of fun. The Syrian American Brotherhood was one of many social and civic organizations that enlivened the social scene in Indianapolis during the years of the Great Depression. In 1938, the hall joined seven other venues in Indianapolis to host a benefit celebrating the birthday of President Roosevelt. The funds raised went to Riley Hospital and City Hospital, among other charities. So many Arab and non-Arab performers appeared there during this decade: Julia Taweel, a professional dancer inspired by Arab folk dancing; Dick Jurard and his orchestra; the Rosayln Dancers; and the High Hat Orchestra.

Arab American women often led their own associations and auxiliaries in the 1930s. Credit: Indianapolis Star, May 27, 1939, 11.

The Syrian American Brotherhood allowed other Arab American groups to use the space for their events, too. In 1936, for example, the Syrian Crescent Club staged a 9 PM dance at the clubhouse. Music was provided by the Columbia Melodians. They next year, the same organization teamed up with the Syrian Young Men’s Club to host a benefit for the Red Cross. In 1939, the Syrian So-Fra [Sorority-Fraternity] Club held a dinner and dance marking its second anniversary. Binnette L’Yome [Women of Today] also joined the So-Fra to sponsor a Speedway Hop.

In the spring of 1939, the Syrian-American Brotherhood celebrated its twentieth anniversary. Habib Farrah, “Indianapolis Syrian poet,” planned to give “a history of the Brotherhood in Arabic poetry.” Whatever his declamations were that day, it is remarkable that he could look back on two decades of history for this one club.

By 1939, the history of Arab Americans in Indianapolis was already more than two generations old. The first and second generations had found a lot of economic and social success in the circle city. In spite of anti-immigrant policies that discriminated against people from Syria and Lebanon, and in spite of cultural and religious prejudices, they did not hide their Arab heritage. They bought a building in a prominent spot for all to see. They danced their Arab dances, served their “oriental” food to guests, and recited their Arabic poetry. Their path to integration into white America was to insist on the public recognition and respect of their ethnic identity.

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