EDITOR’S NOTE: Sept. 4, 2007 marks the 100-year anniversary of Bellingham’s “Hindu” riots, when a mob rounded up the city’s East Indian mill workers and ordered them out of town. This is the first part of a two day package examining the riots, their aftermath and comparisons to racism today.
BELLINGHAM — Hundreds of men huddled together all night in the stuffy basement of the city’s new red brick City Hall, worried the mob that had rousted them from their beds, hauled them from their jobs and stiffarmed them to the town jail would have worse in store for them as dawn broke.
The East Indian immigrants, mostly workers in area timber mills, were survivors of Bellingham’s second major race riot in two decades. On Sept. 4, 1907, roving gangs of thugs walked from mill to mill, from boarding house to boarding house, hauling out “Hindus,” roughing them up and ordering them to get out of town.
“Hindu” was the common label in Canada and the U.S. for all East Indians, though most early 20th century immigrants from India were Sikhs from the Punjab region.
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The next day, city officials decried the use of force and hooliganism on the immigrants, fretting that Bellingham would get a reputation for lawlessness. But most people — judging by the words of city officials, business leaders and newspaper editors — were pleased with the result.
“While any good citizen must be unalterably opposed to the means employed,” editorialized The Reveille soon after the riot, “the result of the crusade against the Hindus cannot but cause a general and intense satisfaction.”
Within a couple of days, most of the city’s estimated 250 Indian immigrants had boarded trains for points north and south.
By the end of the week, an even larger body of thugs in Vancouver, B.C., emboldened by an anti-Asian rally there and, perhaps, Bellingham’s evictions, trashed the city’s Chinatown district. By the end of the year similar riots erupted along the Pacific Coast. Within a decade, the U.S. would pass restrictions barring most Asians from immigrating at all.
It would be nearly the end of the 20th century before significant numbers of East Indians would call Whatcom County home again.
“Bellingham and a few other places had a reputation as a place that wasn’t really welcoming to Asians,” said Paul Englesberg, director of the Asian American Curriculum and Research Project at Western Washington University.
It’s hard to say whether the men would have stayed in Whatcom County if the 1907 riot hadn’t forced them out, Englesberg said. Like many immigrant groups traveling to follow the work in canneries or timber mills, they might have moved anyway.
“It just seems in other communities, people who might have come originally as laborers set up various kinds of businesses. They get settled here and their kids settle here,” he said. “It seems like in this case, neither the Chinese nor the Sikhs had a chance to do that in Bellingham.”
LABOR FEARS FUEL RACISM
By 1907, hostility against Asian immigrants had long been brewing in the Pacific Northwest. Many of Bellingham’s residents could remember when the town’s Chinese immigrants had been thrown out in 1885. Asian immigrants provided cheap labor for the physically demanding fishing and timber jobs that fueled the booming economy. But white workers also feared the immigrants posed competition for jobs.
“It was a city going through an immense amount of social and physical change, and all these new people coming in, scrambling for jobs,” said Erika Lee, an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota.
“American migrants coming from the East Coast felt a sense of privilege coming to the West. This was part of their pioneer journey. They were coming to make it,” Lee said. They were horrified at the idea of these jobs going to “unassimilable, really foreign, exotic people,” as East Indians were described in the racial hierarchy of the era.
Chinese immigration to the U.S. had been cut off in 1902, but immigrants from Japan, India and the Philippines were arriving to take their places in the region’s resource-based industries. South Asian migration was particularly sudden that year, Lee said, with about 600 East Indians arriving in the Pacific Northwest in the summer of 1907.
The tensions roiled into violence in the days leading up to Sept. 4, writes Joan Jensen in her 1988 book, “Passage from India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America.” Union representatives had warned mill owners to fire their East Indian workers by Labor Day, Sept. 2. A Labor Day parade drew a thousand union supporters to the streets of Bellingham, Jensen wrote, but the East Indian workers reported for work the following day nonetheless.
That night, police received reports of vandalism and assaults targeting East Indians, Jensen wrote, setting the scene for the next night’s riot.
‘THE MOB RAN AMUCK’
The town’s three newspapers chronicled the events of that Sept. 4 through lengthy and sometimes conflicting accounts. The descriptions also reflect an era when racism was considered respectable and white supremacy thought to be a mainstream, scientific fact.
According to newspaper accounts, the riots began about 10 p.m., when police were told a “drunken mob was on the rampage, baiting Hindus, destroying property as well.”
Jensen wrote that two East Indians had been knocked down and beaten while walking on C Street. One man tried to escape on a streetcar but was dragged off amid cries of “help drive out the cheap labor.”
The police chief and two officers left the station in the basement of City Hall, now the iconic red brick building that houses the Whatcom Museum of History & Art, and found the group “making no trouble” at C Street, the Bellingham Herald reported. But they heard cries from the tidal flats and found two boys throwing rocks at a naked East Indian man.
An officer handcuffed the boys, but he and the chief quickly released them. The chief later said he worried the mob would have become more violent had he kept the boys in custody. Some would later allege the police knew the riot was planned and had agreed to let it happen as long as no one was hurt.
Either way, the rioters apparently got the signal the police wouldn’t interfere. The group rousted East Indians from a second house on C Street, then another house on D Street, where their landlord turned his partially dressed tenants out into the street. The mob chased the men down the railroad tracks over Squalicum Creek, the city limits, and told them to never return.
“Finding the police unable to cope with the situation,” the Bellingham Herald reported, “the mob ran amuck. With whoops of glee they gathered together the Hindus of old town and escorted them to the station where Judge Williams’ old courtroom was turned over for their use and there the men from India were herded like so many cattle.”
The men were joined in the basement by 18 others who had been pulled off their jobs at Morrison Mill, on the waterfront at the foot of Laurel Street, and about a dozen more yanked from a house on Forest Street.
Descriptions vary of who made up the mob. Some reports say they were teens while others list them as boys and men of all ages. They don’t all appear to have been white. The Herald reported the mob included several Filipino and black men.
The mob met no resistance until they arrived at the gate of Bellingham Bay Lumber mill at the south end of Cornwall Avenue, demanding to be let in to collect the mill’s East Indian workers.
“The gatekeeper calmly pulled out a gun,” the Herald reported, “and said he would shoot the first man who tried to enter. “Not a man made a move.”
It’s unknown if the 35 men working the night shift inside knew they were the target of an anti-”Hindu” frenzy sweeping the town.
IMMIGRANTS SOUGHT MONEY FOR FREEDOM FIGHT
Many of the East Indian immigrants of the time were men in their 20s to 40s who hoped to earn some money for themselves and their families as well as raise money, collect weapons and return to India to fight the British, said Satpal Sidhu, a Whatcom County resident and leader at the Sikh temple Guru Nanak Gursikh Gurudwara.
Vancouver, B.C., was typically the first stop, and many were on their way to San Francisco, a center for Sikh revolutionaries.
“They were actually freedom fighters,” Sidhu said.
The men likely came from families who were struggling to hold onto their farms in India, Jensen said.
“Money lenders were starting to foreclose because times were hard,” Jensen said. “They needed a way to bring in extra money, so essentially, you exported your children.”
But while many mill owners hired East Indians in droves, the workmen got little respect from them. In the aftermath of the riots, one mill owner called them “the poorest workmen we have,” complaining, “We are forced to have men and cannot secure the proper number otherwise.”
Bellingham’s mill owners may have insisted they would rather have hired white men, but East Indian laborers developed a good reputation, said John Wunder, a history professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who has studied the anti-Asian movement in the American West.
“The Indians were in good demand because they were known for their work excellence,” he said. “They were bright and they were coming from India — many of them could speak English.”
Labor would get a little scarcer that night of Sept. 4, 1907. Hardly discouraged by the guard’s shotgun at the gate of Bellingham Bay Lumber, the mob went around to the side of the property and broke through the fence. Workmen inside told the East Indian workers they should leave, “so the terrified Hindus were quickly collected together and shoved through the hole in the fence.”
Two of the workers were injured in the scuffle. One reportedly fell off a fence while trying to escape and was sent to the hospital. Another fell into the bay, was pulled out by the police and was delivered to the City Hall jail “covered with blood.”
Thirty-five men were taken from Bellingham Bay Lumber, each accompanied by two of the rioters. In their absence, the mill closed.
“The mob was wild with its success,” the Herald wrote, “and while dragging and shoving the unfortunate darkskinned workmen through the streets, yelled and sang songs at the top of their voices. Straight to the station they marched, shoving the thirtyfive with the others into the already stifling room.”
They were joined soon by about 20 more workers from the E.K. Wood Lumber Co., where Boulevard Park is today. By the end of the night, about 200 men were crowded into the basement of City Hall.
“It was one of the most weird sights ever witnessed in this city when the Hindus were marched through the streets,” the Herald reported. “The dusky men, some with little brass lamps, others with bundles, a few with telescopes, but nearly all with baggages of some kind; some clad only in long flowing nightshirts, others in ragged trousers, the collection of headgear included everything from battered derbys and straw sailors to turbans of every color of the rainbow, were hurried to the station. Some of the captives slunk along. Others marched with quiet dignity, but a few had to be dragged.”
CITY PROMISES PROTECTION
The physical treatment the men received was matched by the excoriation East Indians got in the popular press as a threat to Bellingham’s economic and social fabric. They’d work for much less money than white men, it was feared, undercutting their wages. They were so different, with their dark skin, turbaned heads and vegetarian diets, it was editorialized, that they could never contribute to American society.
“The Hindu is not a good citizen,” the Herald editorialized the day after the riots. “It would require centuries to assimilate him, and this country need not take the trouble.”
One newspaper, The American, ran a drawing on the front page the day after the riots, depicting two big-nosed, almond-eyed men in beards and turbans. A smaller drawing showed a robed man playing a flute, apparently charming a snake.
“This is the type of man driven from this city as a result of last night’s demonstration,” read the caption.
Despite the exotic descriptions, a photo of the crowded City Hall basement that night shows many men in suits. A few wore turbans, but most wore Western-style hats. Some were clean-shaven.
Some Sikhs in that era sacrificed their turbans and beards, which hold deep religious significance, for the chance to pass as dark-skinned Italians or Portuguese, Jensen said.
The next morning, the Bellingham City Council held an emergency meeting. Mayor Alfred L. Black, aware that the night’s melee against British subjects might have international implications, assured three English-speaking East Indian men brought up from the basement that the city would protect them. He deputized 50 special officers to help keep the peace.
“You may tell all of your associates,” Black reportedly told the men, “that the entire force of this city and of the state, if necessary, will be called on to protect you in doing anything that you may see fit in this city, so long as you abide by the laws.”
The sleepless night in the City Hall basement seems to have made more of an impression than the mayor’s promise of protection.
That day, most of the city’s East Indians would leave.
A JEERING SEND-OFF
The Reveille reported 135 people left on three trains the day after the riot. Larson mill, part of which is now Bloedel- Donovan Park, had escaped the riots and the following night ran a “Hindu crew” of about 14 men — guarded by 15 deputy sheriffs. But the only East Indian employees who reported to other mills were those looking for their last paychecks, often under police escort.
“Hallama, an employee at the (Bellingham Bay Lumber) Company came to the police station last night and asked to be allowed to stay there so that he would be safe,” the Reveille reported Sept. 6. “He is an Americanized Hindu who wears ordinary clothes and speaks fairly good English, and he declared that he voiced the sentiment of the entire colony when he said that they would leave today, as soon as they could draw their pay, and that no Hindu would ever come to Bellingham again.
“He said he and his brethren were certain that the mob would kill them if they remained here. The police, he said, would do the best they could, according to the belief of the Hindus, but the sons of India feared that they would be caught in dark streets some night when the police were not present and would be either badly slugged or killed outright. He said Bellingham was ‘no good place for a Hindu’ and that none of them would ever return to the city again.”
Many Bellingham residents reportedly lingered at the train station, gawking at the East Indians leaving on trains toward Vancouver, B.C., or Oakland, Calif.
“The crowd at the station offered no violence,” reported the Bellingham Herald the day after the riot, “and aside from jeering and the cries of ‘good’ and ‘don’t come back,’ that followed the train, there was no show of feeling.”
Many of the East Indian workmen’s homes were ransacked in their absence. The police said the mob took bank books, cash and several hundred dollars’ worth of gold jewelry. A mill owner said one of his East Indian workmen lost $200 in photography equipment.
“The places were also turned topsy-turvey,” the Herald reported, “and much valuable clothing and articles owned by the Orientals was destroyed that was not carried off.”
Meanwhile, the police arrested five men alleged to have helped start the riot on C Street and at Bellingham Bay Lumber Co. The men, including a “hack-driver” and a “shingleweaver,” faced a fine of $20 to $200 and jail time of 20 days to a year if convicted.
COUNCIL BLAMES MILL OWNERS
City leaders and editorialists feared the stink of lawlessness.
“This is a time for coolness of head,” warned an editorial in the American soon after the riot. “The law must be obeyed, and while it is desirable to get rid of the Hindus, it must not be done by violence and the shedding of blood.”
A few days after the riots against East Indians, the City Council issued its report on the matter. “Hindus,” they found, were mostly “peaceful and quiet” in Bellingham.
But in keeping with the racial rhetoric of the day, the council found that their manner of living was “demoralizing to family ties, and thus lowers not only the economic, but also the moral standards of the white workman.”
The council’s most sympathetic words were for the rioters.
The “spirit of the mob,” they found, “was not that of antagonism against the Hindu as an individual, but rather the spirit of self preservation, believing that the white worker through the presence of the Hindu, was being dragged down, and would eventually be forced to accept their standard of living.”
The council’s harshest words were for the mill owners who hired the East Indians.
“While we deplore the action of the mob in molesting an innocent people, we condemn the mill owners for introducing to this city a class whom they publicly state are undesirable, and to whom they would not grant the right of citizenship.”
The council’s report was silent on the actions of the police, and whether police should have given the rioters use of the city jail.
The resolution was passed by four of five councilmen. One, who objected to the description of the East Indians as “peaceful and quiet,” voted against it.
No one went to trial for the riots. The five arrested men were soon cleared of all charges.
No witnesses could be found to testify against them.