Arab Indianapolis Heritage Trail
Discover the Places Where Arab Americans Changed Local History
Known as Indianapolis’ first Arabic-speaking neighborhood, the Syrian Quarter was located in a part of downtown now occupied by Lucas Oil Stadium. The current home of the Indianapolis Colts sits on top of what used to be Willard Street, where in 1900 Sundays were filled with the sounds of Arabic-speaking children learning the art of fencing and the smells of roasted lamb, Turkish coffee, and tobacco water-pipes, all of which were shared on the small patios of narrow “shotgun” townhomes. African Americans, native-born white people, and immigrants from Italy, Poland, Greece, and Hungary also lived on Willard Street. Some of the city’s best-known Syrian and Lebanese families, including the Freijes, Haiders, Josephs, Kafoures, and Trads, got their start here.
Today, it is the entrance to Hilbert Circle Theater, home of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra. But in the 1930s, it was likely the most public physical manifestation of Arab American contributions to Indianapolis. In 1929, Nicholas and Julia Shaheen moved their Oriental Rug shop from 2204 North Meridian, near today’s IU Methodist Hospital, to 45 Monument Circle.This store, located in the center of the city on the circle around which so many of Indiana's most important public events have occurred, prominently broadcast the ethnic identity of its owners: it sold oriental rugs and linens, which were associated in American popular culture with Arabs, Turks, and Persians. The Shaheens saw their ethnic identity as a way to market their goods, an entrepreneurial passport to the American dream.
Among the many Americans memorialized at the Indiana War Memorials are Hoosiers of Arab descent. Arab Americans began serving in the U.S. military in large numbers during World War I and have done so in every war since. In World War II, it was often the children of immigrants who often wore the uniform, and some, commemorated in both the main building and the World War II memorial, made the ultimate sacrifice. Like others from American ethnic groups sometimes seen by the white majority as "foreign," Arab Americans identified military service as an important proof of their patriotism and belonging.
This humble red brick building on Massachusetts once housed the largest Arab American charity in the United States. Staffed by Michael Tamer and LaVonne Rashid, the American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities was the fundraising arm for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis. It became the largest Arab American charitable organization in the United States. The reason why the office was located in Indianapolis was because Lebanese performer and actor Danny Thomas handpicked Tamer, an Indianapolis resident, to run the campaign. “I must thank God that along came Mike Tamer,” said Thomas, “because without his leadership, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital would have been just a dream.”
The first Arab American statewide office holder and a prominent example of second-generation Arab American success, Helen Corey was elected the Reporter of the Indiana Supreme and Appellate Courts in 1964 with over 1.1 million votes. An office once held by U.S. President Benjamin Harrison, the Reporter’s job was to accurately edit, publish, and distribute all of the decisions by the State of Indiana’s higher courts to law libraries, universities, and law offices, a task that was very different in nature before the age of the world wide web. Helen Corey was given the same office that President Harrison used, Room 416, in the Indiana Capitol. Today that office belongs to an Indiana Court of Appeals judge.
The concrete steps in this empty lot offer a clue to the structure that once stood at this location and was home to the first Arabic-speaking religious congregation in Indianapolis. St. George Syrian Orthodox Church, associated with the Antiochian branch of Orthodox Christianity, was built in 1926 on this lot. Though humble in both size and appearance, the church represented the arrival of Syrian and Lebanese Orthodox Christians in a city where membership in a religious congregation was an important passport not only to salvation but also the cultural, social, economic, and political power.
Warren Central’s reputation as a fearsome competitor in football rests in no small part on the legacy of National Football League quarterback Jeff George and his sons. In 1984 and 1985, Jeff George quarterbacked the school to consecutive state championships. He went 28-0. In 2013, Jeff George, Jr. brought home another state championship for the school, and then, almost unbelievably, his brother, Jayden George, did it again in 2018. Though the George family is well-known for its success on the gridiron, there is less awareness in Indiana and the United States of their Syrian roots.
Starting in the 1930s, this building was the center of Arab American social life and civic activities in Indianapolis for more than a decade. It was also the site where, in 1936, the Midwest Federation of Syrian and Lebanese Clubs was established. It was where the first and second generations of Syrian and Lebanese Americans in Indianapolis came to raise money for charity, enjoy Arabic poetry, dance to American bands, and share Levantine feasts with one another and the community at-large.
Though he did not actually live there, the Governor’s Residence was the symbolic home of Indiana’s first executive of Arab descent, Mitchell Elias Daniels, Jr. The grandson of Syrian immigrants, Daniels grew up on the city’s north side, where he attended Washington Township schools. He served as Sen. Richard Lugar’s chief of staff and director of President George W. Bush’s Office of Management and Budget, and in 2004, was elected Indiana’s 49th Governor. Retiring from electoral politics, he then became President of Purdue University.
Named for the man sometimes called Indiana’s father of cardiology, the Nasser Center on the campus of St. Vincent Hospital commemorates one of the most successful cardiologists in the United States. Trained at the Indiana University School of Medicine, Dr. Nasser co-founded St. Vincent’s cardiology center in 1972 and was later given an American Heart Association Lifetime Achievement Award for his contributions to the field. Though the building honoring his legacy was built largely to train health care providers through high-tech simulations and other educational activities, it became better known during the era of the COVID-19 pandemic as a vaccination center. After being used in this capacity, in 2022, the building, which features glass displays of Dr. Nasser's sayings and achievements, resumed operations as a training and simulation facility.