Refuge would be difficult to find for the estimated 250 East Indian immigrants who fled Bellingham following the 1907 race riots.
The men, mostly timber mill workers, got on trains heading north and south in the days following an all-night melee Sept. 4, 1907. Rioters had pulled East Indians from their homes and jobs and took them to the town’s jail. Despite promises from the town’s mayor that they’d be protected from further harm, most left Bellingham as soon as they could get their last paychecks.
But they couldn’t leave hatred behind.
Like those in Bellingham, white workers up and down the Pacific Coast were agitating over East Indian immigrants they feared posed unfair competition for jobs.
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“My sense is the Bellingham riots were the first, or one of the first, and that the impact of it was to spread the violence north and south,” said John Wunder, a history professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who has studied anti- Asian movements in the West.
East Indians also faced organized movements to force them out of Washington in Everett, Aberdeen and Danville, in Oregon at St. John and Boring, and communities in California and Alaska.
Some of the men who fled Bellingham soon tried to take a steamship from Seattle to Valdez, writes historian Joan Jensen in her 1988 book “Passage from India: Asian Indian Immigrants in North America.” But passengers shoved the men down the gangplank and threw one of them over the rail and onto the pier.
“It’s so sad, you get these images of these refugees trying to seek passage,” said Erika Lee, an associate professor of history at the University of Minnesota.
“One of the consequences of Bellingham is, it sort of inspires or facilitates other communities to do the same,” she said.
And one of the first places that got that spark was Vancouver, B.C., where a huge anti- Asian rally took place three days after Bellingham’s riot. Thousands of people, many carrying signs with slogans like “White Canada” and “No cheap Asiatic labor” flooded the streets.
A.E. Fowler, a leader in the Seattle-based Asian exclusionary movement of the time, perched on a telegraph pole and orated to the crowd about how Bellingham residents had just driven out East Indians.
“Fowler specifically uses Bellingham as an example of what could be done,” Lee said. “Then he proposes to march through Chinatown.”
The riot in Vancouver was much bigger than that in Bellingham, with a reported $40,000 in damage and several injuries. After vandalizing Chinatown, the mob headed for Japantown, but the Japanese had gotten word of the riot. According to various news reports, they armed themselves with knives and clubs and beat off the mob, which headed back to Chinatown.
Vancouver’s riot apparently breathed life into the Pacific Northwest’s anti-Asian exclusionary movement — and fueled fears that the growing violence would gravitate south. Fowler’s group planned a large “anti-Asiatic” meeting to rally support for laws restricting immigration from Asia.
Meanwhile, Bellingham’s Japanese community reportedly hunkered down, fearful that if violence broke out, the Bellingham police would protect the Japanese as well as they had protected the East Indians.
Some even left town. One man “laughingly, but reluctantly replied in the affirmative, when asked if he was afraid he would be ‘Hindued,’” The Bellingham Herald reported.
Lee said the riots in Bellingham, Vancouver and elsewhere provided the political backdrop during the final negotiations of the “Gentleman’s Agreement” between the U.S. and Japan, an executive order that restricted Japanese immigration. President Theodore Roosevelt worried that riots, school segregation orders and other action against Japanese people up and down the West Coast, particularly in San Francisco, would insult the government of Japan, a rising military power.
Restrictions against East Indian immigration came with the 1917 Immigration Act, which outlawed immigration from several Asian countries and India.
“It’s a 10-year path,” Lee said, “from Bellingham to the 1917 Immigration Act.”
Exclusionists got a powerful advocate in Congress from Hoquiam Rep. Albert Johnson, said Paul Englesberg, who is researching Asian immigration as he develops course units for area school teachers as part of the Asian American Curriculum and Research Project at Western Washington University.
Johnson told an immigration committee in 1913 that people in Western Washington “have kept Hindus from crowding into Western Washington with the greatest of difficulty, almost riots at times.”
Johnson went on to be one of the architects and namesakes of the 1924 U.S. immigration law, which eliminated immigration from Asia and sharply curtailed entry to people from southern Europe. East Indians, meanwhile, had been effectively ousted from the state’s timber industry, Jensen writes. By 1924, only 94 of the state’s 57,000 lumber workers were East Indians.
Many gravitated to the growing agricultural industry in California, she said.
“They could, in fact, be welcomed in those communities,” Jensen said, “because — here’s another familiar story — they couldn’t get white men to work in the fields.”