Moy Kee Part II: A Royal Visit

Royal Prince Pu Lun, future emperor of China, with Mayor Holtzman’s party attending Moy Kee’s reception, May 20, 1904, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
A Royal Lunch

Moy Kee was undoubtedly “One of the happiest persons in Indianapolis,” according to The Indianapolis News on May 26, 1904. It appears he was also one of the busiest. Moy Kee and his wife, Chin Fung, were preparing to host royalty. Chinese Prince Pu Lun, rumored heir to the Qing Dynasty imperial throne, was visiting America and agreed to have lunch at Moy Kee’s chop suey restaurant in Indianapolis before he departed from the city. According to news reports, Moy Kee’s house was “thrown into raptures over the honor,” as he, his wife, and servants frantically cleaned the restaurant, prepared their best ingredients, and laid out the finest decorations they had for the prince.

On May 27 at 1 o’clock the prince, Indianapolis Mayor John Holtzman, business tycoon and future Senator William Fortune, esteemed poet James Whitcomb Riley, and other notable guests bore witness to Moy Kee’s late night labors. Outside of the restaurant, traditional Chinese lamps were strung with brightly colored ribbons. The American and Chinese flag flew side by side. A May 28 Indianapolis News article described the interior of the building as:

Oriental rugs were spread from the street to a teakwood table, where were placed two beautiful inlaid chairs covered with crimson satin draperies. The carved table stood on beautiful rugs, and upon it were placed burning incense, chop suey, and Chinese wine.

The first course consisted of the restaurant’s signature chop suey paired with American beer. Ice cream and tea were served for the second course, and the luncheon ended with traditional Chinese wine. Upon departing, Chin Fung presented the prince with a hand-knitted scarf and Moy Kee gifted him a bouquet of flowers. The prince gave the Moy family a silk scarf bearing his name and, upon leaving, informed Moy Kee that he would elevate him to Mandarin of the Fifth Rank, a prestigious Chinese status that would allow Moy to entertain and be entertained by royalty, wear special regalia, and hold a certificate denoting his prestige. This honor was monumental for a Chinese immigrant like Moy and a status that many of the wealthiest men in China failed to achieve.

As discussed in part one of this series, Moy Kee was granted an American citizenship in 1897 and then rose to prominence in Indianapolis by becoming the unofficial leader for the small Chinese community in the city. Part two follows the rest of Moy’s life as he entertained Prince Pu Lun, achieved even more wealth and status in both China and America, and then struggled to retain that prominence later in life.

Royal Prince Pu Lun, future emperor of China, with Mayor Holtzman’s party attend Moy Kee’s reception, May 20, 1904, courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Prince Pu Lun and the St. Louis World Exposition

During the early 1900s the Qing dynasty’s isolationist policies started thawing, and the nation began entering foreign affairs. This new administrative goal was evident when the government opted to not only participate in the St. Louis World’s Fair (China had declined to participate in the Chicago World Fair eleven years prior) but to appoint the nephew of the emperor, Prince Pu Lun, as the official fair commissioner. Pu Lun’s visit generated positive media coverage that helped warm American attitudes towards the Chinese. Domestically, Americans were fearful of “The Yellow Peril” of Chinese immigrants, whom many believed were impossible to assimilate into “The American Melting Pot.” Some accused the Chinese of flooding the labor market and stealing jobs from white Americans. Abroad, Americans believed the Chinese Empire was backwards and culturally stagnant. Rising racist attitudes towards the Chinese culminated in President Chester A. Arthur signing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

The Chinese Pavilion [large pagoda], Louisiana Purchase Exposition, St. Louis, Mo., circa 1904, courtesy of The Library of Congress.
Twenty-two years after the Chinese Exclusion Act was enacted, China sought to dispel these stereotypes at the World Fair and built one of the most lavish exhibits in the entire event. The government spent a reported $500,000 (approximately $14.5 million by today’s standards) on their pavilion, with its highlight being a near exact replication of Prince Pu Lun’s summer palace. This visit expanded beyond St. Louis, and during his travels the prince visited several countries and American states, including Indianapolis. While visiting, the prince strengthened Chinese diplomatic relations and learned about other systems of government, education, technology, and culture. He would bring this newfound knowledge back to China to improve their own institutions. In America, he also reviewed the welfare of Chinese immigrants and success of Chinese business. The prince may have even forged business relations between China and successful merchants like Moy Kee.

Prince Pu Lun in Indianapolis

Prince Pu Lun arrived at Union Station in Indianapolis on May 18 for a ten-day tour of the Hoosier State. His schedule moved at a breakneck pace, with the press breathlessly reporting on his every move. Some highlights of the visit include the prince visiting the Columbia Club, meeting James Whitcomb Riley, touring Purdue University, and attending a commencement at May Wright Sewall’s Classical School for Girls.  Moy Kee had been anticipating Pu Lun’s visit for months now and tried to be as involved as possible. He was among the crowd of Chinese gathered to welcome the prince at Union Station. Afterwards, Moy attended a welcome reception held at the Statehouse where he presented the prince with a bouquet. Moy Kee and Chin Fung again met with the prince two days later, this time at the Local Council of Women’s reception. Technically, only Chin Fung was invited to this reception, but Moy Kee insisted on going, stating his wife needed an “escort.” Afterwards, Moy was granted a short audience with the Pu Lun at his hotel. While the specifics of the meeting were not discussed, the prince was likely interested in seeing how Moy Kee and other immigrants were faring in Indianapolis and may have developed a business relationship with Moy Kee.

The next few days there seems to have been little interaction between Moy and Prince Pu Lun as he traveled to Lafayette to tour the campus of Purdue University. During that time, Moy lobbied for the opportunity to host Prince Pu Lun one last time before his departure. He begged William Fortune that the prince grant him one more audience and “that he might stay for five minutes, a minute, or the least fraction of a minute.”  Upon hearing the request, the prince decided to not only call upon Moy but to visit his chop suey restaurant and lunch with the Moy family.

The lunch was brief but pleasant and provided Moy with a critical opportunity to leave a lasting impression on Prince Pu Lun and his Hoosier hosts. The three-course meal combined American cuisine such as ice cream and beer with traditional Chinese chop suey and freshly brewed tea. This interesting fusion of food and drink reflected Moy’s unique background as both a Chinese and American citizen and ensured all the guests received a dish or drink that they enjoyed. When the Prince recommended Moy Kee for the fifth rank, it seems that Moy was genuinely surprised and delighted. He profusely thanked the prince for the honor and bowed multiple times to show his appreciation. After exchanging gifts and pleasantries, Prince Pu Lun departed the restaurant. He climbed the Soldiers and Sailors monument and said his goodbyes to his hosts Mayor Holtzman and William Fortune before traveling to Union Station and departing for Buffalo, New York.

Moy Kee with wife Chin Fung and two toddlers (possibly grandchildren), courtesy of The Indiana Album.
Moy Kee is Named Mayor of Indianapolis’s Chinatown

While the prince’s visit lasted only ten days, it had a great impact on the Indianapolis’ Chinese community and Moy Kee. On the prince’s return trip from New York, he briefly stopped at Union Station. Moy Kee waited for his arrival and presented him with a handcrafted emblem he had commissioned as a thank you for granting him an audience. The emblem was a jeweled American flag with a Chinese dragon styled on its face. In the dragons’ fangs, it held a three-carat diamond. All in all, the emblem was rumored to cost 700 dollars, the equivalent of nearly $20,000 today. Newspapers reported that the prince and Moy chatted like “old friends” at the station. According to the Indianapolis News, in late July, Prince Pu Lun fulfilled his promise of elevating Moy Kee to fifth rank. Moy received a blue-bordered certificate embossed with the imperial seal that read:

This is to certify that, by the order of his imperial highness, Prince Pu Lun, Moy Kee, Indianapolis, ind., U. S. A., is hereby appointed mayor of Chinese. He is directed to attend to all the business of our people truthfully, honorably and honestly. To Moy Kee is hereby given the fifth rank and right to wear the crystal button.

The certificate is the first time Moy Kee is referred to as “Mayor” of the Chinese population in Indianapolis. While the term “Mayor of the Chinese” was an unofficial title that held no political power, the Chinese government often named a prominent leader of an immigrant community as the mayor. These leaders were expected to represent the Chinese people and act as an informal liaison between the Chinese government and American government. For the Chinese people itself, it also solidified the social hierarchy to be followed. For Moy, the title “Mayor” recognized his leadership within the American community while the fifth rank designation solidified his significance within Chinese society.

From that point onward, Moy constantly referenced his ties to Prince Pu Lun and his fifth rank designation. Later that fall, Moy attended the St. Louis Fair and spoke at the China Pavilion while publicly donning the robes and regalia that denoted him as fifth rank. At home, Moy conducted pricy home renovations and began ordering lavish items to decorate his home in a fashion that “befit his gentleman rank.” In 1906, Moy Kee traveled to Washington, D.C. where he met with Indiana Senator Charles Fairbanks. He even had an audience with President Theodore Roosevelt. Without a doubt, in the immediate years after Prince Pu Lun’s visit, Moy had reached the zenith of his power. He had successfully clawed his way up the social ladder of both Chinese and American society. Now, a much more difficult task presented itself to Moy Kee, retaining his hard-earned influence and social standing.

Moy Kee’s Fall from Prominence

Moy Kee once again received an imperial letter in October of 1907, but, unlike the last imperial letter Moy received, this one contained unwelcome news. It informed Moy that he had been stripped of his rank as Mandarin of the Fifth Degree and his status as the mayor of Indianapolis’ Chinese had been revoked. The succinct announcement refused to elaborate on why Moy’s statuses had been rescinded and led to widespread speculation.  Moy believed fellow Chinese in Indianapolis engineered his downfall. This paranoia stemmed from his role in 1902 as an interpreter in the murder trial of Doc Lung, a local Chinese laundryman. Some accused Moy of siding with the police and courts over the Chinese community. Newspapers speculated that the revocation was caused by accusations that Moy had raised relief funds for Chinese earthquake victims but had never donated them. It may have also been a result of shifting political powers in an increasingly unstable Chinese royal dynasty, which would collapse in 1911. Regardless of the reason, Moy was unable to protest the Chinese delegation’s decision. He and his wife had already arranged to set sail for Canton, China on October 21st to visit family and friends in a year-long visit. They decided to proceed with their trip, but Moy publicly expressed his disappointment that he would not be returning to China with his fifth rank status.

A year later, in March of 1909, Moy Kee and Chin Fung returned to America. However, after landing in Tacoma, Washington Moy’s citizenship papers were not accepted, and the couple was taken into custody. The Moy family was arrested because the Chinese Exclusion Act forbade Chinese from entering the country and officers believed Moy’s citizenship papers were not legitimate. During questioning by immigration officers, Moy allegedly declared himself to be a “citizen of Indianapolis, the best city in the country.” The couple was detained for over a month in deplorable conditions. Several times, it seemed that they were going to be deported back to China. Multiple figures in the Indianapolis community vouched for the Moy family’s right to reenter and the Indianapolis Star published several scathing stories criticizing the Seattle immigration office for detaining him despite his citizenship. Finally, on April 18, Moy was released and allowed to return to Indiana where he resumed operation of his chop suey restaurant. The month they spent in detention was a bleak reminder that outside of Indianapolis, their family and other Chinese were not welcome in America.

The Indianapolis Star, April 13, 1909, accessed Newspapers.com.
The Indianapolis Star, April 19, 1909, accessed Newspapers.com.

More trials awaited the Moy family in 1911. This time the bearer of bad news was the federal government. On August 4, Moy was informed that a petition asking for his citizenship to be revoked by the federal courts had been filed on the basis of his naturalization being awarded “wrongfully and without right,” fourteen years prior. According to an August 5 Indianapolis Star when Moy heard this news in his restaurant, he:

Dropped a dish which he had had in his hand and stared for several moments in silence. A look of anguish clouded his customarily smiling countenance. It was one of the saddest moments of his life. It was with difficulty that he spoke. ‘It’s no use to buck Uncle Sam… I’ll not fight it. If they don’t want me to be an American… it’s no use to fight them- I haven’t enough money to do that, even if I wanted to. It’s too bad.’ Then Moy fell silent. He would say no more.

Moy Kee was over sixty-three years old and the dogged vigor and determination to retain his citizenship, something he had lobbied tirelessly for as a young man, had faded. However, the Indianapolis community still stood by the former Chinese mayor, with local newspapers universally criticizing the investigation. Mayor Samuel L. Shank even wrote a letter to President Taft imploring him to allow Moy to retain his citizenship, calling him one of Indianapolis’s finest citizens. The letter fell on deaf ears and on October 9, 1911, Moy lost his beloved American citizenship.

The Indianapolis Star, August 5, 1911, accessed Newspapers.com.

Moy was not deported by the federal government and allowed to live and work in Indianapolis. While he was generally treated the same by Indianapolis residents, he now could no longer claim equal footing with Americans and was at constant risk for deportation. Symbolically, the federal courts had sent a message that there would be no exceptions to the Chinese Exclusion Act and, subsequently, that all Chinese remained unwelcome in America. For the next three years, Moy lived his life in Indianapolis much the same as he had lived before. He operated his restaurant, threw Chinese New Year parties, and remained a cornerstone of Indianapolis’ Chinese community. Newspapers noted that Moy still viewed himself as an American and outside his restaurant still hung a Chinese and an American flag, flying side by side.

In January of 1914, while eating dinner, Moy Ah Kee suffered a sudden heart attack and died on the floor of his Washington Street restaurant, the same place where he had hosted Prince Pu Lun seven years earlier. After putting the family’s affairs in order, the widowed Chin Fung set sail to China with Moy’s body, where she intended to bury him with his ancestors and live the remainder of her life. In his obituary, The Indianapolis Star recounted his life story and noted that he was one of the most prominent businessmen in the state with an estimated fortune of $25,000 (over $722,000 in today’s currency). The Star ended a two-decade partnership with the Chinese businessman by stating: “He was regarded as the prominent local source of information on questions relating to Chinese affairs and often was consulted by officials and newspaper writers of the city, among whom he had many friends.”

Conclusion
Portrait of Moy Kee and his wife, Indianapolis, Indiana, circa 1900, courtesy of The Indiana Album.

In 1943, twenty-six years after Moy Kee’s death, the United States repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act to signify diplomatic ties between the US and China during World War Two. However, the new immigration quota enacted allowed only 105 Chinese immigrants per year. The strict immigration quotas remained in place for Chinese until 1965, when the United States enacted the Immigration and Nationality Act that ended ethnic quotas. Instead, the United States began admitting immigrants based on education, employable skill, or the need for asylum. While this prevents blanket bans against entire ethnic groups or nationalities, these new admission standards create significant barriers for working-class immigrants, and American immigration policy remains hotly debated today.

This revised protocol led to an influx of highly educated and skilled Asians and, with this new population, the stereotype of Asians as the “model minority” arose. This characterization of East Asians, which generalizes them as smart, affluent, and hard-working, would have been unrecognizable to Moy Kee and other Chinese immigrants in the 1800s. While on the surface this stereotype is complimentary, it is still a negative and egregious overgeneralization of a diverse ethnic group and masks the sordid history of discrimination against Chinese people by the United States. After a series of Asian hate crimes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the nation is once again grappling with the impact of both modern and historical discrimination against people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.

Moy Kee’s life serves as a staunch reminder of some of those inequities and how they consumed the entirety of America, not just the bio-coastal states, for well over a century.  An entrepreneur and businessman, Moy rose to prominence socially and fiscally in a way that was unimaginable to most immigrants. His life reached its zenith when he was granted the Chinese title of the fifth rank while also maintaining dual Chinese American citizenship. However, as Moy Kee put it himself, there was no use “fighting Uncle Sam” and he was stripped of both his fifth rank and citizenship late in life, a sad reflection of America’s political and social landscape during his life.

Ultimately, Moy Kee’s life provides an insightful window into the lives of Chinese immigrants in the Indianapolis community and showcases a story of resilience and fortitude in the face of insurmountable odds. As America continues to confront its tragic past and conflicted present regarding its treatment of Asian Americans and immigrants as whole, hopefully the national dialogue remembers the story of Moy Kee and thousands of other Chinese immigrants who were wrongly barred entry to America and denied citizenship due to their race and the prejudiced stereotypes that were perpetuated about their people.

Helen Corey: Arab American Politician, Leader, Food Ambassador

Helen Corey welcomed John F. Kennedy to Terre Haute just fifteen days before he was elected U.S. president. Credit: Char Wade.

Helen Corey was perhaps the most noteworthy Arab American leader in central Indiana during the 1960s and 1970s. More than four decades before Mitch Daniels became Indiana governor, she was the first Arab American to hold a statewide elected office. It is a travesty that she has not received the attention that her accomplishments demand.

Born 1923 in Canton, Ohio, her Syrian parents, Maheeba (“Mabel”) and Mkhyal (“Mike”) Corey, were originally from the Damascus area. Her parents belonged to the generation of immigrants who arrived in the United States during what Mark Twain referred to as the Gilded Age. The country was booming economically, and employers were in desperate need of labor. Helen Corey’s family, like others, sought these opportunities. Like many Armenians and Turks, Corey’s Syrian parents were citizens of the Ottoman Empire, which ruled Southeastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean before World War I. Thousands of Ottoman citizens settled in Indiana, especially in Michigan City, South Bend, Indianapolis, and Terre Haute. The Indianapolis News noted in 1907 that these ethnic groups “have all made contributions to America’s making, though as a rule they have not been so welcome as other races.”

As a second-generation immigrant, Helen was raised to embrace both Arab and American cultures, as well as the family’s Antiochian Orthodox Christian roots. “When my sister, brother, and I were children,” she wrote, “our parents sent us to the Orthodox church hall following grade school classes where we learned to read and write the [Arabic] language from Arabic scholars Yusuf (Joseph) Sabb and Hunna (John) Shaheen. Our first lesson taught us that this was one of the richest languages in the world.” When the family was around Arabic-speaking friends, they used Arabic names and titles. Brother Albert was Abdullah. Her father was “Boo Abdullah [the father of Albert]” and her mother was addressed by the title, “Im Abdullah [the mother of Albert].”

She recalled in her 1962 The Art of Syrian Cookery:

When we lived in Canton, Ohio, as children, my sister, brother, and I used to get a great deal of pleasure watching my father and his friends take turns smoking the narghileh (Turkish water pipe) as they relaxed during the evenings, exchanging stories of their journey to this country. The narghileh had the sound of bubbling water and an incense aroma filled the house from the Persian tobacco that was used. Our narghileh was made of beautiful cut glass with an oriental brass stem, and the smoking pipe that was attached had an almost cobra look with its many variegated colors. . . The guests were served Turkish coffee and the hostess was ready to play the part of fortuneteller. The cups were inverted and left to stand so that the coffee sediment formed a pattern on the inside of the cup. Then the cups were turned up again and the hostess interpreted the future of each guest from the pattern in his cup.

Around 1947, the Corey family moved to Terre Haute, the home of a sizeable Arab American community. It was called “Little Syria.” Its proximity to the Wabash River facilitated the peddling of wares in Illinois and Kentucky. Historian Robert Hunter wrote that it was a “partial reconstruction of the one that existed in Ayn al-Shaara,” a village located not far from the city of Damascus. According to William Nasser, Indiana’s “father of cardiology” and the founder of the St. Vincent Hospital heart surgery program, Arab American youth faced discrimination in Terre Haute, where he was forced to ride in the back of the bus. Syrians were also barred from joining the country club. For these reasons, as Helen Corey noted in an interview with Robert Hunter, “in the 1920s and 1930s, Syrians did not have a prominent role in civic affairs and leadership of Terre Haute.” She and other second-generation immigrants opened the doors of opportunity for other Arab Americans. Corey’s political career began in 1948 when she worked as the secretary to the city’s longest serving mayor, Ralph Tucker. She would hold that position until 1961.

This job provided her a platform and the connections needed to become active in the Indiana Democratic Party. In 1956, Corey directed the speaker’s bureau of the Indiana Democratic State Central Committee, and in 1959, she was voted Indiana’s Outstanding Young Democratic Woman. On October 25, 1960, she was part of Vigo County’s welcoming committee for then Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic Party’s candidate for U.S. President. As a Young Democratic National Committeewoman, she was chosen to greet the “Kennedy Caravan” as it motored its way through Indiana and Illinois. She was also elected Indiana’s Young Democrat National Committeewoman and represented the state at the 1960 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles.

Helen Corey was going places. In 1961, she became director of the Bureau of Women and Children in the Indiana Division of Labor. She offered written guidance to Indiana employers on child labor laws and women’s issues in the workplace. She consulted with members of the Indiana General Assembly.

Among the dishes featured on the cover of Helen Corey’s 1962 classic are meat pies, stuffed grape leaves, raw kibbi, stuffed zucchini, assorted pastries, and fried kibbi. In the upper right corner there is a water pipe.

It almost unbelievable that, as she was working hard for the state and the Democratic Party, she also found the time to pen one of the most influential cookbooks on Syrian food ever written in English.

Published by New York’s Doubleday Press in its series on global cuisines, The Art of Syrian Cookery (1962) stayed in print for decades. By the middle of 1965, it had sold 17,000 copies. Its influence could be felt across North America, and it was perhaps the most successful book in its category until the publication of Claudia Roden’s The Book of Middle Eastern Food in 1972. Even then, its many fans kept it as an essential reference in their kitchen. Food writers from Los Angeles to Miami mentioned it in their columns. Syrians and other Arabs checked it out from their local public libraries. One Arab American in Morgan City, Louisiana, said that “it was as near as mama’s cooking as anything I have ever read.” In 1982, a well-known Lebanese cook in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, explained that though her grandmother taught to her cook, she also relied on The Art of Syrian Cookery.

The book was dedicated to Corey’s mother, Maheeba, who not only shared the technical aspects of how to make such food, but taught Helen and her sister, Kate, about the cultural, religious, and social meanings and functions of everything from araq (anise-flavored brandy) to zalabee (doughnuts). This was food meant to be shared with others on important occasions in the old country and in the new. Corey explained, for example, what dishes are traditionally offered at wedding receptions and during Arab Orthodox Christian celebrations of Easter and the Feast of the Epiphany.

If it had been published today, this nostalgic food memoir might have launched the career of the charismatic and hard-working Helen Corey as a celebrity chef. But it appeared one year before Julia Child made her debut on public television, and most upscale restaurants hired only male chefs at the time.

Cooking had to remain a side gig.

Indiana Gov. Roger D. Branigin swears in Helen Corey as the first Arab American statewide office holder, 1965. Credit: Sandy Kassis.

Fortunately, Helen Corey’s political career blossomed at the very same moment that the book was published. In 1963, she was appointed executive secretary of the state’s Commission on the Status of Women. The next year, she won the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for office and then Indiana voters elected Corey the 23rd Reporter of the Indiana Supreme and Appellate Courts. She received 1,110,390 votes, enough to unseat incumbent Reporter Virginia Caylor, who got 920,168 votes.

As Reporter, Helen Corey’s job was to edit, publish, and distribute all of the judicial rulings of the Supreme and Appellate Courts and distribute them to law libraries, universities, and law offices. She worked with just two staff members in the Capitol’s Room 416, where Benjamin Harrison once had his office. The significance of Corey’s election as the first Arab American office holder in Indiana was not lost on the U.S. Department of State, which featured her in its Life in America series distributed abroad.

Helen Corey constantly encouraged women to become politically active. In 1965, for example, she was a featured speaker at the Marion County Democratic women’s weekend retreat to French Lick. She addressed the Indiana Federation of Democratic Women in 1967.

In 1966, Helen Corey, Frank Kafoure, and Father Joseph Shaheen, presented Indiana Gov. Branigin with a commemorative license plate celebrating the state’s sesquicentennial and the 40th anniversary of the founding of St. George Orthodox Church. Credit: St. George Church.

That year, she was making $12,500 in her post. The job also came with an official parking spot at the Capitol, but when Corey was assigned spot no. 21 instead of spot no. 22, Republican Clerk Kendal Mathews went berserk. He complained to the governor and the motor vehicles commissioner about it, and he parked in Corey’s spot, even though the parking attendant told him not to. The Indianapolis Star dubbed the incident “Coreyography.” Corey said the whole thing was ridiculous.

This was not the only time her gender became an issue. She was often asked why she wasn’t married, and she gave the answer that one had to give at the time: she believed that women should be married, but that they could have a career, too. Her good looks were also frequently addressed in public; the Indianapolis News referred to her as a “model” and a “pixie politician.”

Helen Corey campaigned hard in 1968, but it was a Republican year in Indiana statewide elections. Credit: Indiana Historical Society.

When Helen Corey stood for reelection in 1968, she campaigned hard, giving four speeches a day and traveling over 3,000 miles throughout the state to ask for Hoosiers’ votes. But with the exception of Democratic U.S. Senator Birch Bayh, Republicans dominated statewide offices that year. Helen Corey’s opponent, Marilou Wertzler, got 1,067,357 votes. Corey received 925,616.

After leaving office, Corey remained active with Democratic women’s causes, but by the middle 1970s she turned her attention, at least in part, to political organizing on behalf of Arab American causes. Arab issues were front and center in U.S. public life at the time. For example, in 1973, the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC) stopped selling oil to nations that supported Israel in its dispute with Egypt. This embargo caused fuel shortages in the United States. Despite the fact that OPEC included non-Arab countries such as Iran and Venezuela–not to mention the fact that most Arab countries are not large oil producers–Arabs in general were blamed for making Americans wait in lines at gas stations. Prejudice and discrimination against Arab Americans increased. The social acceptance that Arab-descended Americans had achieved was at risk.

Second- and third-generation Arab Americans established the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA) to lobby national legislators on the foreign issues that affected their lives and livelihoods. One of its programs was “A Day on the Hill,” during which Arab Americans from each state would travel to Washington to meet with their members of Congress. Helen Corey was an obvious choice to coordinate the effort in Indiana. Working with George Halaby, Zeldia Hanna, Vicki Mesalam, and Faye Williams, she kicked off the Central Indiana NAAA chapter’s effort to gain members with a huge hafli (party) at the Stouffer Hotel in 1975. It featured Arab dancing, music, and food.

Over time, the membership of the NAAA decreased as the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee became the largest Arab American national organization. But Helen Corey and other Arab Hoosiers still fought anti-Arab prejudice. In 1990 future Vice President Mike Pence, then a candidate for the U.S. Congress, ran a campaign ad in which a white actor donned Arab head gear, a black robe, dark sunglasses, and used a fake Arab accent to intimate that Democrats were unwitting collaborators of the country’s Arab enemies. Helen Corey spoke out. “It’s degrading a culture,” she said, explaining that the use of racial stereotyping would drive many voters away. (Pence defended the ad.)

Helen Corey’s later cookbooks included meatless menus and an emphasis on the health benefits and Biblical origins of a Mediterranean diet.

In the final decades of the 1900s, Helen Corey did not focus as much on explicit political organizing as she did on culinary diplomacy. A leading authority on Syrian and Lebanese food and cooking, Helen Corey used food not only to bridge ethnic differences among Americans but also to educate Americans about her Antiochian Orthodox Christian faith. In 1990, she self-published her second cookbook, Food from Biblical Lands, and made a 70-minute documentary to promote it. In 2004, she published Healthy Syrian and Lebanese Cooking. These books repeated some of the original recipes from the 1962 classic, but also incorporated new dishes from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Palestine. There were also new stories of Helen Corey’s travels in Syria and new pictures of her family members, including one of her mother’s 100th birthday party.

Helen Corey (second from left) at historical marker dedication in Terre Haute, courtesy of the Tribune-Star.

Corey loved to share that heritage with her nieces. Robert Hunter wrote that Corey preserved and passed on “a big collection of folk stories, songs, and poems, most of which she got from her mother.” Corey told Hunter that “much has been lost,” but she insisted that “a lot has remained…  a ‘Syrianness,’ a sense of who you are and wanting to hold onto it even though you do not have much actual knowledge.”

During her long career, Helen Corey gained recognition and respect for her people, for her culture, and for herself. She is an unsung figure of Arab American and Indiana history whose life is just waiting for greater illumination.

Jay Brodzeller was the chief researcher of this post. Three of Helen Corey’s nieces, Cathy Azar, Sandy Kassis, and Char Wade, provided invaluable assistance. Thanks, as well, to Joan Bey, Matt Holdzkom, Mina Khoury, Rev. Joseph Olas, Father Paul Fuller, Julie Slaymaker, and Father Anthony Yazge.

Additional Sources:

“Armenians and Syrians,” Indianapolis News, March 8, 1907, 2, accessed Newspapers.com.

“Little Syria on the Wabash” historical marker file, 84.2018.1, accessed Indiana Historical Bureau.

Interview with Helen Corey, conducted by Dr. Robert Hunter, Indiana State University, June 25, 2009, Indiana Historical Bureau marker file.