The Way It Was — Highland Park Market

Take a closer look at this 1933 photo of Widad Naff Frenn at her father’s Highland Park Market.
Photograph courtesy of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History from the Faris and Yamna Naff Arab American Collection

1933 In the late 1800s, Syrian and Lebanese merchants began slowly filtering into Detroit. By the end of the Roaring Twenties, thousands of immigrants from Arabic countries had settled in the metro area, largely prompted by the 1922 fall of the Ottoman Empire and employment opportunities at Henry Ford’s auto plant.

Many of these families harnessed their entrepreneurial spirits, and Arab American-owned restaurants and grocery stores started popping up across the region. Pictured here is Widad Naff Frenn, a Syrian-Lebanese immigrant proudly posing at her father’s Highland Park market, where she and her siblings, including sister Alixa, often worked.

In 1962, armed with a tape recorder, Alixa Naff traveled the U.S. conducting interviews with first-generation Arab Americans and assembling a massive collection of artifacts, documents, oral histories, and photographs that is now housed, in honor of her parents, at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

In 1995, the museum hosted its first full-scale exhibition devoted to Arab Americans, A Community Between Two Worlds: Arab Americans in Greater Detroit. Naff, now known as the “mother of Arab American studies” and author of the 1985 book Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience, passed away at age 93 in 2013. Her tape recorder is displayed at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, the city with the largest proportional Arab American population in the country.

Opened in 2005, the museum is the first and only one in the U.S. devoted to presenting the Arab American experience. According to the Arab American Institute, about 3.7 million Americans have Arab American roots, with ancestries tracing back to 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. April is now widely recognized as National Arab American Heritage Month in celebration of the population’s rich and diverse cultural contributions.

This story is part of the April 2023 issue of Hour Detroit. Read more in our Digital Edition. Plus, find even more The Way It Was articles on