Assad Dakroub: Muslim Musician and Arabic Teacher in the Midwest



Assad Dakroub




When immigrants to the United States began to arrive from Greater Syria in the 1880s, their numbers were relatively small, but they were noticeable. As these numbers increased, and Ottoman and former Ottoman emigrants left in earnest, those who arrived were largely poor, on the verge of becoming poor, and primarily Christian (Orthodox, Melkite, and Maronite). Arab Muslim immigrants to the United States represented only ten to twenty percent of new arrivals from the Levant, if that. Consequently, the majority of those musicians who recorded music in the 1920s and have been featured on the Midwest Mahjar identified as Christian, while a couple identified as Druze (Amer Kadaj) or Muslim (Prince Mohiuddin). Assad Dakroub was a minority among minorities in the first wave of Arab immigration to the US – he was a musician or singer, Muslim, and educated. Some of the places he settled give us a peek into smaller Syrian/Lebanese Muslim communities built in the Midwest, and on the plains and prairie – Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Sioux City, Iowa, and Michigan City, Indiana, among them. Dakroub’s story also includes the cities that came to have the largest concentration of Arab Muslims in the United States – the Detroit metropolitan area including Highland Park.

Assad Dakroub or Assad Deckroub or Assad Ali Deckroub (Dakroob, Dackroub) was born to Ali and Fatima Dakroub on either 2 June 1887, 7 July 1883, or 9 August 1885 in Tibnine, Greater Syria (now Lebanon) depending on whether one uses his Social Security claim, the death index, or his World War II draft card.  Dakroub seems to have entered the US not through Ellis Island or Canada, but through Mexico. Entrance of Lebanese/Syrian immigrants via Mexico and Cuba began in the late nineteenth century, the number of those who took this route increased, especially after the passage of the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924. The Immigration Act of 1924 limited Syrian immigrants to 100 per year.

Dakroub seems to have entered the US at El Paso, Texas, in November 1906 as Ali Dakroub. Even in 1906, Dakroub declared Michigan City, Indiana, as his final destination with immigration officials. In 1907, Indiana had some 2,000 Lebanese/Syrian residents, and in Michigan City, Arabs immigrants, Joe K. Bodine and Mike Fairoh, each owed a general merchandise store at 225 Franklin and 740 W. 6th Street.  Dakroub definitely had relatives in the United States, but evidence does not explicitly identify whether Tourfic Dakroub or Abraham Dakroub were brothers, cousins, or some other extended relative.

Documentary evidence about Dakroub is sparse. We get glimpses of Dakroub as he settled around the Detroit metropolitan area in search of work fitting his qualifications and skills. The 1920 Detroit City Directory, list “Assed Deckroub” at 513 Jefferson Avenue E.” Similarly, the 1925 Detroit City Directory, lists “Assad Dakroub” as a music teacher working and living at 1745 1St Street. 

The digital copy of the Detroit City Directory for 1925 contains pages that are barely decipherable, yet here's the listing for "Assad Dakroub." Note his occupation is a music teacher. Courtesy of Ancestry.com 


The previous year, the United States Congress passed one of its broadest and most sweeping immigration restrictions in history and Canada was not too far behind. In fact, Canada excluded “any immigrant of any Asiatic race” except farm laborers and domestic servants including Turks and Syrians. Canadian authorities rejected Dakroub’s admission to the country from Detroit in October 1929. By 1930, "Assad Deckroub" took up residence with relatives Abraham and Maggie Deckroub. There was also another relative, a Samuel Deckroub, living at 154 Victor Avenue in Highland Park, Michigan.

Assad Deckroub, Abraham and Maggie Deckroub, and Samuel Deckroub all reside at same address. Abraham and Maggie once lived in Sioux City, Iowa. Detroit City Directory, 1930. Courtesy of Ancestry.com


Victor Avenue in Highland Park had been the sight of one of the earliest mosques in the United States built solely for religious worship for American Muslims. Although the press mentioned a mosque in lower Manhattan in 1892-93, word of a masjid emerged again in 1898. The Ottoman consul general rented an apartment at 17 Rector Street to Mehmed Ali Effendi from 1909 until around 1912 which served Muslim residents of New York used as a mosque. The structure at 17 Rector, however, was not built for the purpose of functioning as a mosque. In 1921, the year after Assad Dakroub shows up in the Highland Park suburb of Detroit, the Kabroub brothers undertake a venture to establish one of the first purpose-built mosque in the United States.

The Highland Park mosque commanded front page attention 11 January 1921 Detroit Free Press. The mosque occupied a 60-square foot lot and the structure built and designed by Theodore L. Degenhardt stood 45 by 30 feet at 241 Victor Avenue. It costs approximately $45,000 to construct, Mohamed Karoub financed the venture, and Hassan Koruob served as the Imam. The Imam and his brother declared a muezzin tower unnecessary, but the structure included two minarets on either side of the domed roof which had a star and crescent mounted on it top. The Free Press noted the five times during the course of a day reserved for prayer and noted regular service on Fridays.

Birth of the masjid in Highland Park, Michigan. The Detroit Free Press, 11 January 1921. Courtesy of Newspapers.com


The mosque sponsored Eid al-Fitr although the building had not been completed when Ramadan ended in June 1921. Almost as soon as construction began controversy, not from the outside, but the inside ensued. Would the mosque serve as a community space, cultural space, or a space only for worship? After three conflict-filled years, the Karoub’s abandoned the project and the building fell into disrepair.

Article about divisions and financial problems with mosque in Highland Park, Michigan. The Detroit Free Press, 20 April 1924. Courtesy of Newspapers.com


Although ethnomusicologist and researcher, Richard K. Spottswood only lists Dakroub’s “Anta And Rabiha (Meejena)” #200 Parts I & II” on Macksoud in his encyclopedic Ethnic Music on Record, Dakroub recorded at least Macksoud #203 A “Mookatabat El Shams (Meejena),” & #203 B “Woodah El Habib,” #206 A & B “Yamamy Aud Mohalhal (Meejena),” “  #207 A  “Yalom Hali Yalom,” #207 B “Atabh Harge (Meejena).” He recorded only on Macksoud, but he was certainly contemporaries of Wadeeh Bagdaddy, Louis Wardiny, and Salim Doumani.

Assad Dakroub, Macksoud #203 A "Speaking to the Sun". Courtesy of Richard M. Breaux collection. https://soundcloud.com/profbro/macksoud-red-mookatabat-el-shams-meejena-203a

Assad Dakroub, Macksoud #206 A "Speaking to My Love and Her Crazy Uncle," Courtesy of Richard M. Breaux collection. https://soundcloud.com/profbro/macksoud-red-206b

Interestingly, Dakroub does not appear in the 1920 or 1930 US Census, but we know much more about him between the years 1932 and 1944 than we do any other time in his life. Detroit’s 1932 City Directory reversed his name and printed his first name as Dakroub and his last name as Assad. Once again, he moved to a new address. This time he resided at 9576 Dix Avenue and worked as a general laborer. But he didn’t remain in Detroit much longer. By November 1934, the Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Argus newspaper ran a story the announced Professor Assad Dakroub instructed 37 students, mostly Syrians, between the ages of 7 and 50 at a new school operated inside the “city polling place at Sixth Street and Nesmith Avenue” at 421 North Nesmith. After four months in operation, enrollment decreased to 25, but students founded the Junior Arab Society as an entertainment and scholarship group for enrolled students. Classes met six days a week.

Dakroub lived at 416 Nesmith Avenue in 1935, but listed only the school’s location of 421 Nesmith Avenue in the Sioux Falls directories for 1937 and 1938. His occupation – teacher or principal depending on the year.

Of the handful of newspaper articles that mentioned Dakroub by name, it was the 23 June Sioux City Journal, not the Sioux Falls Argus that confirmed that our Assad Dakroub and Macksoud’s singer were one and the same. The faintly reproduced, but still readable, clipping noted that Assad Dakroub, a teacher at the Moslem Arabic school in Sioux Falls had visited Sioux City, Iowa, to officiate a funeral and attended several other social and cultural events. At one event, he reportedly read from the Koran, but most revealing is the statement, “Mr. Deckroub is well known as a musician and has been a teacher for the past 11 years.” 

This article notes that Assad Deckroub as a well-known musician and teacher. Sioux City Journal, 23 June 1935. Courtesy of Newspapers.com


For reasons unknown to us, Dakroub attended the 10th Annual festival of the Lebanese American Club of Brockton, Massachusetts, in July 1939 with some 6,000 other guests. In one publicized set of events, the South Dakota-based Dakroub participated in a singing competition with Arabs and Arabs Americans from across the United States. Nearby Syrian communities to Sioux Falls included Ross, North Dakota, Sioux City, Iowa, Mankato, Minnesota, and Omaha, Nebraska.

"Assad Deckroub" is most clearly identified in the 1940 US Census and on his World War II Draft Card. From the Census we learn Dakroub claimed to have finished four years of college education, continued to teach Arabic in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and had, at some point in the past, submitted his Declaration of Intent to become a U. S. citizen, but had not completed the naturalization process.

From the16th United States Federal Census, 1940, Sioux Falls, Minnehaha County, South Dakota.  

Assad Deckroub, World War II Draft Registration Card, 1942. By 1942, he lived in Michigan City, Indiana. Note the likely relative "who will always know [his] address" still lived on Victor Avenue. Courtesy of Ancestry.com


The circumstances which compelled him to move from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Michigan City, Indiana remain unclear. What is clear is that Michigan City, like Sioux Falls, had small Syrian Muslim community, in addition to its larger Syrian and Lebanese Christian community. To be sure, St. George’s Orthodox was established in 1911 and consecrated in September 1914; also, in 1914 Syrian/Lebanese residents established Saint Anthony Maronite Society, and the Bader Elmoneer Society Muslim social club. The Muslim social club filed for non-profit status in 1924 as the Asser El Jadeed Islamic Center, completed a structure in 1933 (one year before the Mother Mosque of America in Cedar Rapids, Iowa), and this continues on as the Islamic Center of Michigan City, today, although the Asser El Jadeed building stood until 1969.

The Asser El Jadeed Society in Michigan City proposes a building. The (Michigan City) Reading Times, 27 June 1933.


Dakroub’s Michigan City address in 1942 represents his last documentable place of residence. He appears to have filed for social security in April 1949 and died 12 January 1952 in Eloise, Michigan.  A combination mental hospital, poor house, and T.B. hospital occupied Eloise from 1832 until 1982. A number of well-known personalities spent their final years in the Eloise Infirmary or poorhouse. Sadly, Assad Dakroub was likely one of them.



Richard M. Breaux

© Midwest Mahjar

Comments

  1. Excellent! I recall (from researching the Arabic immigrants to Flint, Michigan) that Tibnine was the home of several of them, and also that the earliest ones who applied for citizenship (starting in 1896) seemed to be Muslims from Damascus. The group of Muslims in Highland Park assimilated pretty well, with some pretty unusual practices (Sunday school, necklaces with crescent and star instead of crucifixes). My father knew Karoub's son, Carl Karoub, who taught instrumental music in Detroit (incidentally I found that his first name was Kahlil).

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    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment and the wonderful insight.

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