A century later, Sikhs want memorial of anti-East Indian riots in Bellingham

A series of stories published Sept. 5, 1907, the day after a mob chased down and beat East Indians during a drunken rampage.
A series of stories published Sept. 5, 1907, the day after a mob chased down and beat East Indians during a drunken rampage. The Bellingham Herald

Members of the Sikh community hope to install a plaque at Maritime Heritage Park or somewhere in the Lettered Streets neighborhood to commemorate East Indian mill workers who were rounded up by a mob and forced out of town more than a century ago.

The area is where the “Hindu” riots occurred Sept. 4, 1907.

That night, roving gangs walked from mill to mill and from boardinghouse to boardinghouse – roughing up Hindus and ordering them to get out of town. Although most early 20th century immigrants from India were Sikhs from the Punjab region, it was at that time common in the U.S. and Canada to call all East Indians “Hindu.”

In Bellingham and other parts of the Pacific Northwest, the immigrants were seen as too different from the dominant culture because of their turbans, their vegetarianism and their dark skin, according to newspaper editorials of the day. They were accused of taking jobs from white workers because they were willing to work for much less.

Shaken, an estimated 250 East Indian men, most of them timber mill workers, left within a couple of days of the riots despite Mayor Alfred L. Black’s assurances that the city would protect them.

“What we would like to do is memorialize that event. Next year, September, will be 110 years,” said Satpal Sidhu, a County Council member who is part of Whatcom County’s Sikh community.

Downtown Bellingham also could be a possible site for a memorial plaque, he added.

Bellingham City Council member Terry Bornemann introduced the idea at a council meeting Monday, Sept. 26, after Sidhu asked him about installing a memorial.

“This was a significant incident in our history,” Bornemann said.

The memorial request is in its early stages.

It remained under discussion with the city, and a decision hasn’t been made about the memorial. Supporters would like to have it in place in time for next year’s anniversary.

Newspaper accounts of that night indicated that a mob chased down – including at C, D and Forest streets and along parts of the waterfront – and beat East Indians during a drunken rampage. They then took them to Bellingham’s jail, in the basement of what now is called Old City Hall, where they were held ostensibly for their own protection.

The Old City Hall sits on a bluff above Maritime Heritage Park.

A hundred years later, city and county leaders proclaimed Sept. 4, 2007, as a Day of Healing and Reconciliation.

That’s the spirit of the memorial, according to Sidhu.

“We want to do it in a positive light,” he said. “We want to do it in the way that we did in 2007, that this is something we must remember and we must work so something like that doesn’t happen again. That is really our biggest effort – healing and reconciliation.”