Lebanese Christians Made Big Impact in State
By CHARLES CANTRELL
EARLY SETTLERS: Pictured is Adwon Adwon with his first wife Matilda and children near the turn of the 20th century in Oklahoma Indian Territory in or around today’s Greer County. Over the years the Adwons would host newly arriving Lebanese emigrants searching for opportunity and religious freedom. Many of their guests would eventually end up in Tulsa.
Photo courtesy JOE ADWON
Editor’s Note: This article is the first in a Centennial year-long series saluting families who were in Oklahoma during statehood and have contributed to the state’s well-being since.
In the late 19th century, like so many other immigrants from around the world, the first generation of Adwons came to America because they were experiencing an uneven playing field in their native country. Adwon Adwon and his brother Khalil Adwon were Antiochian Orthodox Christians in predominantly Muslim Lebanon, which at the time was a small piece of the declining Ottoman Empire. As such they, their family and others like them were taxed at a higher rate, had limited economic opportunity and were in line to be conscribed into the ranks of the overburdened Turkish military.
The worst of these constraints must have been limited economic opportunity for young men steeped in the cultural tradition of Lebanon. The Adwon’s native country’s ancient history traces back to the Phoenicians, who introduced the first alphabet, invented the zero, sailed the Mediterranean and beyond, and became Semitic traders and world-class maritime merchants producing textiles, ivory carvings, metal works, glass art and more. With this heritage and a window to the world’s ocean through the Mediterranean Sea, Lebanon built a culture of enterprising entrepreneurship and commerce that endured centuries of occupation by Turkey and France. It was a strong desire for religious freedom and economic opportunity that brought the first Adwons to America, but it was a fearless, self help approach to commerce that made them flourish in the new world and more specifically in the fertile plains of Oklahoma and Tulsa.
The first generation of Adwons came by way of New York’s Ellis Island making the final trek of the journey to Oklahoma by foot. A land opening in Oklahoma Indian Territory in the 1890s around what is now Greer County provided an opportunity for the Adwon brothers to secure their first parcel of real estate. It was the setting down of American/Lebanese roots in the heartland and the house they built that would serve for many years as a stopover place for many Lebanese immigrants to pause, adjust and plan their next step.
It would take a generation before an Adwon would make his way to Tulsa. By the 1930s the city’s oil boom was well underway providing ample opportunity for enterprising young men to succeed in all types of endeavors. Into this climate came Mitch Adwon, son of Adwon and Matilda Adwon, armed with his Lebanese entrepreneurial genes along with unwavering energy and optimism. Some of that energy was spent wooing a new bride, Polly Ann Plunkett. The rest of his energy would focus on building a chain of service stations around Tulsa called Yellow Cab Gas and helping raise his children. Later he would pioneer a chain of self-service gas stations called Go Gas. The marriage would produce seven children who would in turn take their place among Tulsa’s cultural tapestry.
The pioneering efforts of the early Adwon family paved the way for many more enterprising Lebanese to find their way to Tulsa.
Newcomers from across the sea would find a welcoming community of fellow Lebanese willing to lend a hand by helping arrivals blend in and get a foothold in the strange new country of America. The tradition handed down from the first Adwons remained intact throughout the years. Its focus was on retaining the honorable cultural traditions of ancestors characterized by respect, honor, dignity, hard work, humility and compassion. Educating oneself was an important element. It was a set of values that fit well into the entrepreneurial spirit of early Tulsa and it propelled many into becoming exemplary community contributors and preeminent Tulsans.
Branches of the Adwon family tree are resplendent with the names of those who through their talents and initiatives have made a positive impact in virtually every area of the city’s growth. Names like Sadie Adwon from the advertising community, The Saied family of Saied Music, Alex Adwan senior editor of the Tulsa World, Paul Coury of Coury Properties, George Cohlmia of Cohlmia’s, Ed Beshara and many others. All can be traced back to those early industrious immigrants who came here seeking opportunity and religious freedom. Even in the field of medicine Dr. Michael Debakey, renowned pioneer in bypass heart surgery, had a grandmother named Halana Adwon, daughter of Theeb Adwon, son of Yousif Adwon. And on it goes from innovative Lebanese restaurants featuring tabouli and baklava to dry goods, from manufacturing to commercial development; there are so many areas in Tulsa where the Lebanese community has made a significant contribution.
Underlying all the attributes brought over from Lebanon, behind all the hard work and tenacity and in spite of the flexibility it takes to adapt from a middle eastern to a predominantly western culture, there remains a persistent commitment by all those leaves of the Adwon family tree. It is to live life to the fullest, enjoy, live in peace and love one another. Tulsa has provided fertile ground for such a tree to flourish.
Special thanks to Joe Adwon of Adwon Realtors for his help in researching this article.