Bellingham incident

The Event: Racially and economically motivated riot and expulsion directed against Sikh laborers

Date: September, 1907

Location: Bellingham, Washington

Significance: During the first decade of the twentieth century, Asian Indian immigrants, most of whom practiced the Sikh faith, working in the United States met organized discrimination and even violence.

Asian Indians began to leave India around 1900 to earn money for their families in India and for the independence movement of India against Great Britain. Most were men and identified as members of the Sikh faith. Between 1900 and 1905, several hundred immigrated to the United States and British Columbia, Canada. Since Sikhs often understood English and were hard workers, some Canadian employers began to promote Sikh immigration. In 1907, more than two thousand Asian Indian men arrived in Canada, most of them Sikhs. More than one thousand Asian Indians immigrated to the United States in 1907, hundreds of whom were Sikh laborers crossing the border from Canada. Just south of the border, the town of Bellingham in Washington State had about 250 Asian Indian immigrants, mostly Sikh, working in its lumber mills by September, 1907.

Prejudices against Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino immigrants along theWest Coast were strong by 1907, and the Asian Indian workers in Bellingham became targets, too. Movements against Chinese immigrants during the nineteenth century were driven by white workers’ racism and fear of economic competition with the newcomers. These movements expanded into broad anti-Asian agitation during the twentieth century. In 1905 in San Francisco, the Asiatic Exclusion League formed to block Asian immigrants, particularly those from China and Japan. In Bellingham, the league had eight hundred members by 1907. While the radical Industrial Workers of the World criticized anti- Asian hostility, most unions supported it.OnLabor Day, September 2, 1907, hundreds of union advocates marched in Bellingham against the Sikh immigrants. Calling the Sikhs "Hindus” (falsely believing that Asian Indians all practiced the Hindu religion), marchers demanded that mill owners fire all "Hindus” immediately.

Sikh workers reported for work on September 3, but that night roving vigilantes targeted Sikh residences. The next evening, September 4, a mob of 150 men and boys formed and surged through Bellingham, assaulting some Sikhs and forcing others from bunkhouses and mills into the basement of Bellingham’s city hall.Upto five hundred participants eventually joined in the coercive roundup. Police officers cooperated, claiming that this calmed the vigilantes and reduced violence.

On September 5, with up to two hundred Sikhs held captive, Bellingham’s mayor claimed that the city could protect anyone who wished to stay in Bellingham. However, the obvious failure of the police to stop the previous night’s coercion convinced Sikh laborers not to trust the mayor. A Sikh spokesman stated that all "Hindus” would leave Bellingham by September 7. Approximately half went to Canada and half to California.

No attackers were brought to trial, and most white people in Bellingham apparently supported the expulsion, combining racism with economic fears to justify their approval. A few falsely claimed that Sikh men deserved expulsion because they insulted white women, but most argued that by accepting lower pay and inferior housing, immigrant Asian Indians undercut unions’ efforts to improve economic benefits for white laborers. Waves of anti-Sikh, anti-Asian Indian protests spread from Bellingham north to Alaska and Canada, and south to towns inWashington State and California. Asian Indian immigrants would not return to Bellingham for many decades after the 1907 expulsion. Immigration from India and other parts of Asia to the United States was stopped entirely during the 1920’s, but by the early twenty-first century Bellingham was a more welcoming home for Asian Indian immigrants and recognized the one hundredth anniversary of the Bellingham incident with apologies and commemorations against all anti-immigrant discrimination.

Beth Kraig

Further Reading

Allerfeldt, Kristofer. Race, Radicalism, Religion, and Restriction: Immigration in the Pacific Northwest, 1890-1924. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2003.

Jensen, Joan M. Passage from India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1988.

Lee, Erika. "Hemispheric Orientalism and the 1907 Pacific Coast Race Riots.” Amerasia Journal 33, no. 2 (2007): 19-47.

See also: Anti-Chinese movement; Anti-Japanese movement; Asian Indian immigrants; Asiatic Exclusion League; Economic consequences of immigration; Employment; Industrial Workers of the World; Labor unions; Washington State.

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