Migrants who changed county’s face featured in new exhibit
EASTON, Pa. (AP) — When she first arrived in Easton nearly 20 years ago, Yasmine Karam would call her mother long distance in Kfarsghab, Lebanon, just to get a recipe.
There was Lebanese bread, cooked on a stone in a wood-fired oven like pizza.
There was kibbeh, a paste of raw meat ground with cracked wheat, salt, pepper and mint that’s made with a jurn and madaaqa — stone bowl and pestle.
There were foods Karam thought she would never taste again such as thick, tangy Lebanese yogurt dressed with dill and mint leaves.
“The kitchen is where we live. We eat in the kitchen and laugh in the kitchen. It’s literally the most important room in the house,” said Karam, who will recreate a traditional Lebanese kitchen for “Destination Northampton County.”
The new, permanent exhibit coming to Easton’s Sigal Museum next month highlights the different populations that immigrated to Northampton County, including those from Kfarsghab, a village named for Lebanon’s rugged terrain.
In addition to immigrant histories and current-day stories, the exhibit will replicate a Philadelphia dockside, such as the one immigrants may have seen when they first set foot in America. Visitors can open trunks filled with the things immigrants carried such as currency, food, clothing and jewelry. And they can get a whiff of smell boxes that hold the musky, coal-fire scents of a 19th century street.
It will feature lessons on the “great migration,” when African Americans, many from Cuthbert, Georgia, traveled north in the early part of the 20th century to work in factories and in the steel, slate and cement industries.
There will also be a replica of a 1950s-era barber shop that was the social center of Easton’s African American neighborhood in those days.
“The barbershop was huge back in those days. That’s where you got all your information from,” said Clarence Alford Jr., 61, an Easton resident whose father moved to the city from Cuthbert in the 1950s.
He estimates nearly 20 of Easton’s African American families came from the small town about 160 miles south of Atlanta, where the main sources of income were from cotton fields or chicken farms.
“The jobs in Easton were a lot better. They were making a lot more money and had better working conditions,” said Alford, whose father worked in the Ingersoll Rand factory.
Brittany Merriam and Jean Bemesderfer, the museum’s curators, have been working on the exhibit since 2016, when they surveyed community members throughout the county about what they would like to see in the 1,200-square-foot space that had held a display on the candy company Just Born.
Merriam remembers some of the comments the museum got back: “Where are the stories about the African American community? What about the children who grew up in Northampton County?”
In response, Merriam and Bemesderfer audited the Northampton County Historical & Genealogical Society’s archives for information about the county’s different cultures.
The Sigal Museum, on Northampton Street in downtown Easton, is an affiliate of the historical society. While the society had many artifacts on Western Europeans and the Lenape Indians, it had very little on Jewish and Lebanese immigrants, who built significant communities in Easton. And nothing on African Americans, who worked at places such as Bethlehem Steel and Ingersoll Rand and set up a strong foothold in surrounding communities.
“We can tell the story of the Revolutionary War really well, but we weren’t telling stories of diverse communities,” Merriam said.
She speculates that historical society members focused on what was familiar to them.
“Part of what I’ve come to hear is that minorities haven’t made up a large part of this county, but they were a part of it. When you have a small group it’s easy to leave them out, but it’s not OK,” Bemesderfer said. “Minorities might have been a small part of this community, but they are a large part now.”
There’s also the idea that wealth and preservation go hand-in-hand. If a person can afford to take care of their belongings, those things are more likely to be passed down, Bemesderfer said. It would be difficult for an immigrant, arriving with very little, to preserve clothing and other mementos.
But those were the things the museum needed to create a rich experience, rather than a stagnant display.
So the museum met with leaders from the African American, Jewish and Middle Eastern communities and they put out a call for photos, stories and family heirlooms.
Merriam and Bemesderfer recall a meeting last year at the Paradise Club, one of the oldest black social clubs that still exists, on Canal Street in Easton’s South Side. About 10 club members pored over hundreds of photographs.
“It spurred memories and people were able to recreate whole blocks of families, Bemesderfer said.
“I wish this would have happened years ago so that way a lot of the older people who have since passed on could have given their information,” said Alford, a member of the Paradise Club.
Local African American history, especially stories about people’s everyday lives, haven’t received the attention they deserve, he said.
Alford has struggled to find information on the predominantly African American neighborhoods that sprung up on Canal and Stewart streets.
“They might have stuff on South Side if it’s a church or a store, but as far as where we lived and where we grew up, you don’t see that,” he said.
To fill in the blanks, the Sigal also hosted events at the museum with the Easton branch of the NAACP and members of the local Jewish community.
At the same time, Lafayette College received a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a portion of which went toward gathering oral histories from migrant families throughout the county.
The family of Meinardo Santos, a doctor from the Philippines who settled in Easton, were among those who shared their histories with the museum.
Santos started practicing psychiatry out of his South Side home in the 1960s. He and his wife Ann, who came from an Irish family, had nine children. Meinardo and Ann have both since passed away.
“At that time, where we lived on South Side, the racial makeup of Easton was that you were either black or white, or if you were white you were Irish, German or Italian,” said the Santoses’ oldest son, Meinardo Santos Jr., 60.
“It was kind of funny. As I recall, there was some trepidation from the neighbors in the area we were going to live because they didn’t really know, ‘What’s a Filipino? Are they like Puerto Ricans?’” he said.
A neighbor, Jack Fagan, who was a fireman and had served in the Philippines during WWII, told the other neighbors that “Filipinos are good people,” he said.
The Santos family was known for their pig roasts, which they still host for baptisms, graduations and other special celebrations. Part of the fun in those early days was inviting neighbors to give the pig a spin using a hand-turned spit, said the Santoses’ other son, Lawrence. They would start preparing the pig at 5 a.m. so it would be done in time for the evening party.
Santos Jr. thinks the exhibit will show the evolution of Northampton County and highlight the hard work of those who settled there.
“People who I know like my dad, they came here and through hard work and determination they made something of themselves and made something for their families to be proud of,” he said.
The exhibit will open as the Sigal approaches its 10th anniversary. And its curators hope it will grow to include more migrant stories and pieces.
The immigrant experience here and elsewhere is a shared one. As Karam noted, she picked up new recipes from her Easton neighbors, such as baked macaroni infused with Lebanese spices and the tomato sauce favored by her Italian friends.
Someone even gave Karam a yogurt culture preserved in olive oil, which she used to cultivate her own batch.
Easton’s Lebanese community is about 3,000 strong, estimates Karam, who teaches Arabic and works at a local Mediterranean deli.
Most, she said, trace their roots to Kfarsghab, from which the first group emigrated in the 1880s, settling in New York and Philadelphia. In 1900, the first Kfarsghabian came to Easton, according to Our Lady of Lebanon, a Maronite Catholic Church in the city.
Karam settled in Easton in 2000 in search of more stability. Her sister and uncles also live in the city.
She believes Lebanese-Americans will find the Sigal’s exhibit “eye-opening.”
“The fact that the museum had interest in their heritage is something to be proud of,” she said.
ABOUT THE EXHIBIT
What: Destination Northampton County celebrates inclusivity, diversity and community by sharing the stories of those who settled here long ago and today.
Where: Sigal Museum, 342 Northampton St., Easton.
When: Grand opening 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Nov. 9; then Wednesdays through Sundays.
Admission: $7; $6 for students; $5 for seniors, children under 12 and active military members; free on Sundays, to children ages 6 and under, and to Snap/EBT recipients.
For more information: Contact the Sigal Museum, 610-253-1222; sigalmuseum.org.
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com