Interview with Helen Ackle Lyons

The Lebanese community is a pillar of Jackson society, well deserving of a more comprehensive look, but this interview with Helen stands superbly on its own.

I’m first-born in this country.

My grandfather’s brother married my daddy’s sister (Ellis Joseph and Albert Joseph). Albert was married to Mary Ackle, the English spelling they gave us in Ellis Island. Other people with the background name, which means “brain” in (Levantine Arabic), spell it “Akl”. The Cherokee Inn founder was my daddy’s brother, Joseph Ackle.  The other side of the family “Aswic” (?) but they took Christian names. “Aswic” in Arabic means “black”, but the name they took was Simon. And that leads to another story; that of why they used the name “Simon”, which is of course in the Bible, as were all the names: my brother was Isaac, his brother was Joseph (Ackle).

The Simon surname comes from my mother’s uncle; he first came to this country sometime around 1900, earlier than my (Ackle) family. They came through New York. All the families I’m talking about came through Ellis Island. When the Lebanese people all have a name that maybe they spell a little different, “Ackle” can even come from the name “Hackle”. They took these names because of the pronunciation. It wasn’t clear, what with their “brogue” their accent, whatever you want to call it, some would put an “h” on it because of the guttural pronunciation. I know more because of my grandmother, my Daddy’s mother, she lived with us in Jackson. They first came to Lawrence, Massachusetts, which is a bedroom community of Boston. And the reason for that was, so many of the ethnic people stayed there in Lawrence. So many of the cemeteries are full of the Orthodox families who lived there. And one of the Joseph boys, who was Albert Joseph’s grandson, that’s my Daddy’s side of the family, they were Ackles on that side, on the Albert Joseph side. The Ellis Joseph side, though they were brothers, I was not directly kin to them, however, all of these people in Lebanon came from the eastern side of Beirut, up in the mountains.

We spoke Arabic, but not the “true Arabic”. When they came to this country and wound up down here, there was not an Orthodox church here in Jackson. The first Greek Orthodox church in Jackson did not appear until during the Forties. At that time, if you wanted to go to an orthodox church, at that time the orthodox church in Vicksburg was one of if not the oldest in the Southeast. The Lebanese people came to Vicksburg earlier than ours did to Jackson. Ellis Boudron’s family was one of the earliest Lebanese families in the country. Mary Louise Jones is my second cousin. Her daddy was my first. William P. Joseph was my daddy’s nephew. I went with my cousin William P. Joseph to Lebanon. I promised my mother’s mother, Haifa Nassah, married a Simon, original name was Aswic. The reason they became Simon is because my grandfather’s half-brother, who was a professor at the University of Beirut, came to America before the rest of them. He became a professor at the University of South Carolina.

I went to kindergarten at Poindexter. It was the only school that had a kindergarten. We moved from Farish Street to Gallatin Street and then to west Jackson when I was six years old. Clairmont Street. I was born in 1925 so that would have been in 1931. The street is no longer there. I went to Barr School. I went to Enochs Junior High, then to Central High School. I graduated in 1943. I want the emphasis on the culture. People seem to think that I’ve had a very interesting life. I married in New York City, a story that started in WWII. I can’t say that any of my other cousins had the kind of life that I had. My husband was from Pennsylvania. The only reason I was permitted to get married at that time was that my father was interested in the military because he got his citizenship by serving in the military in New York City. My father was interested in going back to Europe because when he came to this country, he left from Le Harve, France. Believe it or not, he was in the air corps in WWI he delivered mail on a motorcycle to the troops in France. That was the story my Daddy told. And he knew some French because of the French in Lebanon. When he came to America, he came because they were being starved. There was a famine, and my father remembered it. I listened to the old folks with my ear to the doors. They spoke in Lebanese among themselves.

Over the years, we have learned many things through our federation that we did not know, these things that we are learning how our culture relates to the Jewish culture. The Federation of Southern Lebanese Clubs has been in existence for about eighty years and has been a life-saver for so many people in our culture to learn from the professors that have studied our background, particularly the ones at the University of Texas. The immigrants didn’t want any emphasis put on them being Lebanese; my father hid a lot of things from us when we were children; he wanted us to grow up as Americans, and we did. He was a young man when he came to Jackson, around 10 years old. He was born in 1898 (Isaac Ackle).

Getting back to them coming to this country, they stayed in Lawrence, MA, until his mother, my grandmother and my daddy went back to Lebanon to get the youngest child who couldn’t come in on the first passage that they bought on a family passage. The little girl was younger than my daddy. I’m assuming, since he was like 10 when he did that, it must have taken them two years to go there, come back and then come South. I know that there were many Lebanese scattered in this area already. It was less developed than in the north, and they were out to make a livelihood out of what they did in the old country. They were merchants and during those days my grandfather peddled, wheeling a buggy, peddled merchandise, “notions”, Momma’s side was related to S.N. Thomas. But they all knew each other. They all came from small towns: Dufaya, Duschway, we have maps showing where they came from. They’re at the clubhouse on Cedars of Lebanon. The building has been there since I was 13. It was dedicated in 1938, July.

My grandfather Joseph Ackles was a peddler. He got to the neighboring communities in a cart with a horse. That year was probably like 1910-11. He peddled materials, dry goods, and there was a family in Jackson whose family wrote a book about Mr. S.N. Thomas, very well-known, they had a wholesale business on President Street. My mother’s mother was related to that family (you can use Billy “William” Thomas as a reference; he still doing ordering for merchants, and he is the surviving grandson of S.N. Thomas). This leads to the Buttross family in Canton.

Let me go back to the clubhouse. The reason we have a clubhouse is because we did not have a church and they wanted to keep the culture alive for their children. That was the reason for five brothers, five names that started the club by buying fourteen/twelve acres. The brothers were the Ackle brothers, two of them, Isaac and Joseph; the Sik brothers; the Joseph brothers, the Simon brothers; I don’t know who the fifth brothers were. Alfred Katool could tell you the fifth. The clubhouse was built by the WPA. And the governor of Mississippi, Hugh White, dedicated the club.

One Reply to “Interview with Helen Ackle Lyons”

  1. Fascinating. Thee is a good Lebanese group in Clarksdale where I grew up. Chamouns, Josephs and more. All great people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *