Bellingham Race Riots –
Hindus Expelled from the City
[From The Sikh Bulletin, September-October 2007]
A brief history of early immigration to the United States reveals prejudice, hostility and blatant discrimination against the people of Asia. At the turn of the twentieth century, when Indians started coming to the United States, Americans had already developed hatred and hostility against the Chinese and Japanese. In 1907, the number of Indians in the Pacific Coast states was very small, but they became victims of the prevalent anti-Asian sentiment of the American people. There were barely 250 Indians in the city of Bellingham in the state of Washington, yet American lumber mill workers committed unforgivable atrocities and expelled all the Hindus from the city in what is known as Bellingham Hindu Race Riots. On the 100th anniversary of the Hindu Race Riots, the Indian American community remembers the pioneers who patiently suffered physically, psychologically and economically but stayed calm under provocation, remained law abiding under lawlessness and observed non-violence under threat of violence, practicing what Gandhi Ji was preaching in South Africa at that time.
Chinese were the first among Asians to come to the United States in search of economic opportunities. The lure of gold in the 1850s induced them to migrate and by 1880, the number of Chinese in the United States had reached 322,000, almost all in the Pacific Coast states. The rapid growth of Chinese population provoked resentment against the immigration of “cheap” labor. The employers welcomed the Asian laborers and employed them in their lumber mills, railroad construction and farms while the white laborers vehemently opposed them. The labor unions agitated bitterly against the employment of Chinese workers and wanted to bar their immigration to the United States. Some politicians, perpetually starved for campaign money and union endorsement, willingly and openly backed the union demand. In 1862, Congress passed a law forbidding American vessels to transport Chinese immigrants to the United States. The Naturalization Act of 1870 denied Asians the right to become naturalized citizens. The unions kept pressuring members of the Congress for more stringent laws. In 1882, America passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which virtually ended the source of cheap labor for American business.
Following the passage of the Chinese exclusionary law, labor organizations launched a virulent campaign of intimidation against those who employed Chinese servants or workers. The American press continued to give the ‘Yellow Peril’ a high profile by depicting the Chinese as depraved opium smoking, alien looking, and diseased coolies.” Anti-Chinese sentiment in the Northwest region sometimes exploded into violence at various places, forcing some Chinese workers in the fields, mines, fisheries, lumberyards and laundries to flee the area.
However, the labor need of the American employers for their businesses did not end with the enactment of the new law. They encouraged Japanese workers to migrate to bridge a labor supply gap. Japanese laborers had been coming to Hawaii but in 1900, their labor contracts became invalid on Hawaii becoming part of the United States. So, many Japanese workers also started migrating to the Pacific Coast states in the mainland. Thus, the number of Japanese workers rapidly increased to meet labor shortage. But the labor unions found them a new threat to white workers, blaming the Japanese for lowering wages of American laborers and branding them as the new ‘Yellow Peril’. In 1905, with the formation of Asiatic Exclusion League, the anti-Japanese movement was launched. But the movement had little immediate impact on the number of immigrants from Japan, as close to 31,000 Japanese laborers, largest ever in a single year, came to America in 1907 . However, under constant and relentless pressure by the Asiatic Exclusion League, President Roosevelt, in 1907, signed the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan ending immigration of Japanese laborers to the United States and issued an executive order stopping the secondary migration of Japanese from Hawaii to the mainland.
The first trickle of Indians in search of economic opportunities came to California at the end of the nineteenth century. On April 5, 1899, four Punjabis who had worked in the British Royal Artillery in Hong Kong, landed in San Francisco and were allowed to stay in the United States by the US Immigration Service . The grant of permission gave an encouraging signal for other to Indians to follow those four pioneers. There was abundance of jobs in the lumber industry in Washington and Oregon states and plenty of land to farm throughout the Sacramento, San Joaquin and Imperial valleys of California. On hearing about the economic opportunities in America, many more Punjabis headed towards the far away land. The new immigrants found jobs which the white workers would not do, usually menial jobs, in factories, lumber mills, farms, etc. They were needy workers who accepted low wages, poor working conditions and very often traveled from place to place in search of work. The employers preferred Indians to the whites for their willingness to do any and all kinds of work. The labor unions despised the Hindu laborers for fear of competition for jobs and wages. As the number of Indian workers increased within a span of few years, they too started facing discrimination and hostility, in the same manner as the other Asians who had come before.
Indian immigrants in Canada had been facing similar problems as those in the United States. Since India and Canada were British dominions, it was easier for the Indians to migrate to Canada where they had started coming at the beginning of the twentieth century. The majority of the new immigrants were Punjabi veterans or peasants who were physically well built, strong and muscular. They were eager to obtain work and found jobs in lumber mills in British Columbia. They were hard working and proved more productive than the white workers. Some Canadian companies sought more of similar laborers and publicized availability of job opportunities in Canada to entice more cheap labor from India. For the first few years, about 2000 immigrants were permitted to come to Canada annually.
As per the 1904 Census, there were only 258 Indian nationals in British Columbia but that number increased rapidly during the two-year period of 1906-1907 when about 5000 Indians migrated to Canada, thereby causing unease for the local whites. There was already a backlash against the Chinese and Japanese from the white laborers and their unions. Fear of labor competition from the newcomers, led to racial antagonism and demands for exclusionary laws against Indian workers. The Asian Expulsion League in British Columbia actively lobbied against the importation of cheap labor from India.
The local press carried many scare stories against the “Hindu Invasion.” In 1908, the Canadian government required Indian immigrants to have $200 in their possession on landing. Also, the Indian immigrants were denied entry if they had not come by “continuous journey” from India. Since there was no direct shipping between Indian and Canadian ports, legal immigration of Indians to Canada virtually ended. As the Indian immigrants saw the doors closing on them in Canada, many started filtering to the United States where they found jobs in the lumber mills in Bellingham and other towns in the state of Washington which borders the state of British Columbia in Canada.
The Indians in the United States and Canada were commonly called “Hindoos”, (“Hindus”) irrespective of their faith. The overwhelming majority of the arrivals from India were Sikhs who preserved their religious beliefs and practices by keeping beard, long hair on their head and wore turban. They were easily distinguishable from the rest of the immigrants, but unfortunately, they were called “Rag heads”, a derogatory term used for the “Hindus” at that time.
In the United States, Indians legally admitted from 1899-1907, numbered only 1967 . The total number of Indians in the country, however, was slightly larger as some Indians had come directly from Canada, Hong Kong and other countries. However, Hindu concentration in a few small communities in the Pacific Coast states, particularly several with turbans, drew high level of visibility on their presence and provoked hostility from the Asiatic Exclusion League which carried propaganda against the “The Tide of Turbans” and “Hindu Invasion of America”.
In the early 1890s, three railroad lines connected the small cities which became Bellingham on November 4, 1903, thus enabling area businessmen to market their products, salmon, timber and coal to the outside world. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, lumber was needed for rebuilding of San Francisco. In time, lumber and shingle mills sprang up in the area to meet the surge in demand. These industries were labor intensive and needed cheap manual labor which was filled by the new arrivals – the Hindu workers.
Bellingham had a history of strained race relations. In the 1880s the Chinese had been driven from the town by a mob. A few years later, the Japanese faced similar hostility. Labor unions and their members had resorted to lawlessness and violation as a means of achieving their objectives. A similar situation could prompt mob action in violent persecution of the Asian workers.
Hindu workers had come as sojourners and without spouses, were paid low wages and could afford to live only in the poor squalid part of the town or in shanty structures provided by the mill owners. They lived frugally, subsisted on income that was prohibitive for whites to survive on, maintained low standard of living and many shared crowded lodging to save money to pay off their debt or meet family obligations back home. They were willing to do any kind of manual job but the unskilled white laboring men feared that competition from Hindu workers would displace them from their jobs and bring wages down. Their festering hostility and pent-up frustrations manifested in violence against Hindus, vandalism of Hindu belongings and hatred of their religion, lifestyle and living.
At the time of the riot, Bellingham’s lumber mills employed about 250 unskilled Indian contract workers. Punjabi laborers accepted jobs which white laborers had refused to do. They would perform work which could be in violation of labor laws but would not complain for fear of employer retaliation. The union leaders wanted to maintain higher wage levels for their members but had failed to convince the mill owners to fire the Indian workers and discontinue their hiring. One mill owner in particular, Whatcom Falls Mill Company provoked resentment at the rumored replacement of white laid-off workers with Indians. The racial prejudice and bitterness, born out of job loss of white laborers, erupted into violence against Indians who had the least social or political power in the city of Bellingham or even in the country.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) had more than 800 members in Bellingham and was an affiliate of the Asiatic Exclusion League. On Labor Day, September 2nd, 1907, more than a thousand union members and others paraded through the town to demonstrate their unity and show their strength. There was a beating of several Hindus which nearly resulted in a general disturbance. The union warned the mill owners that no Indians should be employed in the lumber mills or anywhere in Bellingham after Labor Day.
The Indian workers nonetheless appeared at their jobs on the following day, Tuesday, September 3. At night, at least five instances of violence to Hindus were reported to police, and a gang of boys and young men smashed windows of two of the Hindu homes. In the afternoon, on September 4, 1907, two Hindus walking on C Street were chased and beaten. In the evening, a mob of 400-500 white men, predominantly members of the Asian Exclusion League, attacked Hindu dwellings, smashed windows and pulled the Indians from their beds. Panicked, some Hindus escaped from their quarters in night clothes while others jumped out of the buildings, some hurting themselves in the process. The rioting mob rushed to C Street to the biggest domicile where thirty Hindus were lodged. The crashing of window panes and the loud humiliating yells of the rioters for the Hindus to come out, apprised neighbors that a riot was in progress. Then, the rioters went on a rampage from mill to mill, finding as many Indian workers as they could while others ransacked the homes of the Hindus, and pocketed money, jewelry, bank passbooks and other valuables. They eventually rounded up about two hundred Indian workers, brandishing clubs triumphantly, herded them to the City Hall basement where the Hindus stayed during the night for their alleged safety. Some rioters addressed the impromptu audiences on the street corners, fanned their indignation and incited them to “help drive out the cheap labor.” The purpose of the racial attack was to “scare them so badly that they will not crowd white labor out of the mills.”
Indians became victims of prejudice, hostility and violence. Some were injured, several lost their belongings, and all experienced bigotry and suffered humiliation. The nightmares of fright, brutality and vindictiveness forced traumatized Indian workers to leave Bellingham in search of safe haven. An area newspaper reported, “Frightened Hindus numbering 135, or approximately half the Indian colony, left Bellingham on September 5, one day after the riots. Twenty-five of the dusky Singhs had left at noon and seventy in the evening by Great Northern for Vancouver and approximately forty left by the 4 O’clock train for Northern California”. Although Hindu crews were assured of protection by special police officers at the mills of the B. B. L. Company, the E. K. Wood Lumber Company and the Morrison Mill Company, but those who got paid at the mills, cashed their checks at the banks and headed to the train station. However, some mill owners took advantage of the situation and refused to pay the Hindu workers. Several stayed nervously for one extra day in deadly fear of their lives to draw their pay and get their checks cashed. Within a few days, all Hindus left the unfriendly city, denunciating the lack of police protection. Many of the departing Hindus expressed their disappointment for they had heard of America as a good place for laboring men, yet they were paid no better wages and became victims of violence and lawlessness in the presence of law enforcement officials.
The town police failed to provide any protection to the Indian immigrants from the angry mob. As reported by the Bellingham Herald of September 5, mobs controlled the city without interference from authorities. When the terror stricken Hindus were in the basement of City Hall, police made no effort to stop mob outrages. The public at the time believed that a “little nerve on the part of officers would have checked the riot.”
Mayor Alfred L. Black called a special meeting of the city council on September 5, and stated that Hindus were British subjects and had every right to be in the city and engage in such occupations as they desired. The mayor assured the Hindu interpreters, Nand Singh, Attar Singh and Sergent Singh, who were present at the council meeting, that they were entitled to protection of the laws of the country, state and city. The mayor directed the police chief “to swear in fifty deputies to prevent any further rioting or the breach of the laws.” The mayor also instructed the chief to arrest and prosecute any and all persons to a final determination any man engaged in the riot. The Bellingham Herald reported about the meeting on the front page under ‘Mayor Declares that Rights of Hindus Must be Protected” on September 5, 1907.
Despite assurances from the mayor, Indians had no hope of any protection from the city police. They faced death threats and continued violence if they stayed in Bellingham. The racist rioters also intimidated the mill owners and asked them to fire the Indian workers. Panicked by the intensity of the hatred and fearful for their safety, Hindus left to find work elsewhere.
Some of the Indian mill workers went to Everett, another town, sixty miles south of Bellingham, to work in the sawmills there. Two months later, on November 5th, 1907, over five hundred armed men attacked and beat the Indians, robbed them and destroyed their belongings. The result was similar to the incidents that occurred in Bellingham. The Asiatic Exclusion League and other similar groups reveled in victory, became emboldened and wanted to prevent further immigration from India and to force those already in the country to go back. Members of the League wrote to President Theodore Roosevelt, “warning him that massacres were sure to result if he didn’t do something to curb Asian immigration into the Northwest.”
Indians were British subjects but the British Indian ambassador did not care to ask the American government for compensation for injuries or loss of property of the Indian workers. Since the media reported about the riots worldwide, the British Consul in Seattle visited Bellingham. He did not care to meet or sympathize with the Indian nationals who suffered at the worst racial attack against them in America, but he met instead with the mill owners to obtain a list of names of Hindu workers for his official report to his government. The number of Hindus employed by various mills was given as 145 as per Gerald N. Hallberg in his article on Bellingham, Washington’s Anti-Hindu Riot. However, on Thursday, September 5, 2007 the Bellingham Herald reported the number as 186 under the heading “Hindus March Back to Mills under Guard”. The actual number of Hindus forced out from the city was substantially more.
Union leaders, churches and the media denounced the riots. The Bellingham Herald in its editorial titled ‘A Public Disgrace’ condemned the action of the rioters. “No amount of argument will justify the acts of the mobs. Exhibition of man’s inhumanity to man as that of last night shall not be tolerated. Such lawlessness is an outrage upon American decency. The Hindus were there in response to a demand created by the scarcity of labor. In filing the jobs, the Hindus were contributing to the prosperity of the community. A mob of hoodlums has disgraced the city.” Rev. J.W. Fiesher of the First Methodist church said, “Mob violence cannot be justified under any circumstances. Orientals are hired here not from choice but rather from necessity. And this not because there are not white laboring men but because there is a large class of white laborers so irresponsible that they cannot be depended upon. The outbreak of riots was to say the least unpatriotic, un-American, cowardly and uncharitable.” Rev. William Orr Wark, pastor of the First Congregational Church criticized the Police Chief Thomas saying, “The police lacked moral courage and that a man acting as Chief Thomas did is not fit to be the head of the police department.” Rev. Cheatham of the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church said, “As civilized people we should be heartily ashamed of it.” The unions were against the employment of Asian labor, yet the Industrial Workers of the World strongly condemned the mob violence of Wednesday night and adopted a resolution declaring that “the action against the Oriental colony was not in accordance with the principles of organized labor for the peaceful and lawful settlement of labor difficulties.” The Central Labor Council also issued a statement condemning the action as “wholly unlawful and contrary to the principles of true unionism.”
Despite widespread condemnation of the race riots in Bellingham, similar assaults in California took place in Marysville, Live Oak, and other communities where the immigrants had settled . The Asiatic Exclusion League and the labor unions used violence and riots, presumably as an effective method of excluding the Hindu workers from jobs and residential communities. They also kept incessant pressure on elected officials and politicians who, in 1917, succeeded in getting an immigration law passed by the United States Congress over the veto of President Woodrow Wilson. The new law prohibited immigration from virtually all of Asia except Japan.
The race riots had a devastating impact on the Indian community in the Pacific Coast. Indians had come in search of a chance for a better life for themselves and their families and worked even at menial laboring jobs. They could never have anticipated that America – considered the best among civil societies – had people full of meanness, malice and ill-will against different looking people. Indians did not attempt to take away jobs from the unskilled white workers; they simply filled a portion of the deficit in human resources. The white laborers, excited by the labor unions, perpetrated unparalleled, heinous crimes against innocent and law abiding Hindus who had come from a distant land with a dream of a better life, but unfortunately, Bellingham became the burial place for their dreams.
Inder Singh regularly writes and speaks on the Global Indian diaspora. He is president of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) and chairman of Indian American Heritage Foundation. He was president of National Federation of Indian American Associations (NFIA) from 1988-92 and chairman from 1992-96. He was founding president of Federation of Indian Associations in Southern California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more info, visit www.GOPIO.net 818 708-3885 GOPIO-Intl@sbcglobal.net