The Arab American Labor Project

May 20, 2024
By: Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies

In Fall 2023, the Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies published a five-part series on Arab American Labor in the early twentieth century. The digital exhibit discusses the lives and labor of the Arab American working class, sharing these laborers’ widely unacknowledged struggles to become a part of the United States and support their families despite racial animosity, economic turmoil, and a quickly evolving industrial landscape. 

Developed by a team of NC State graduate students and Khayrallah Center Director Dr. Akram Khater, the project aims to disrupt mainstream American labor narratives by highlighting Arab American workers’ impact on United States history. The project refers to “Arab Americans” to discuss the totality of this history; however, it also defers to “Syrian,” “Lebanese,” and “Yemeni” to discuss particular communities who self-identified as such. 

Part one of this series underscores the physical, economic, and organizing challenges faced by Arab American miners in various US communities between 1890 and 1935. Part two documents the working lives of New York City seamstresses (1870–1930) to highlight women and children’s contributions to Arab American labor. Part three traces Arab American auto workers’ integral role in the US automobile industry in Detroit (1910–1970), while part four explores the history of Arab American performers from the early nineteenth century through today. Finally, part five considers the activism of Yemeni laborers working on California farms between 1960 and 1970.    

Dr. Akram Khater expressed the purpose behind this project: “For far too long the stories of Arab American workers have been absent from the history of our community and that of the United States. We undertook this project to bring some of those stories to light, to show how Arab Americans are central to the history of America, and how they labored to build this country. Their stories are as relevant and existential today as they were throughout the twentieth century.”

Chelsea Lundquist-Wentz, Graduate Research Assistant for the Arab American Labor Project, shared her experience: “The most impactful part of this project for me has been hearing the voices and learning the stories of individual Arab American workers, especially through oral histories and conversations with their family members. These firsthand experiences provide an invaluable, new perspective about the link between the Arab diaspora and the twentieth century American labor movement which has provided for workers across racial lines and of many nations of origin.” 

The Arab American Labor Project is available as a free resource distributed by the Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies (lebanesestudies.ncsu.edu). Educators, history enthusiasts, and anyone interested in the intersection of Lebanese migration and US labor history are encouraged to download and utilize these materials. The Khayrallah Center is currently developing project-based educational materials for secondary school teachers to use in their classrooms.

This project would not be possible without authors and researchers Chelsea Lundquist-Wentz, Nicole Ackman, Ginni Leeman, and Dr. Akram Khater. Additionally, the project acknowledges the pioneering work of scholars who have studied and shared the stories of Arab American laborers across the country, including Neama Alamari, Mary Bisharat, Stacy Fahrenthold, Jonathan Friedlander, and Ron Kelley. The team worked closely with Khayrallah Center archivist Laura Lethers, the Arab American National Museum, award-winning film producer Josh Sabey, as well as dozens of museums and historical societies across the United States. 

Visit the Arab American Labor Digital Exhibit here.

Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies

The Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies, based at North Carolina State University, is a leading institution dedicated to researching, preserving, and promoting the history and culture of Lebanese immigrants and their descendants worldwide. Through interdisciplinary research, public outreach, and educational initiatives, the center serves as a platform for the exploration and celebration of the Lebanese diaspora’s diverse experiences.
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