Bellingham slowly regaining diversity

Chinese immigrants gathered in this picture from the 1890s. Sumas was one of four ports of entry for Chinese into the state.
Chinese immigrants gathered in this picture from the 1890s. Sumas was one of four ports of entry for Chinese into the state. PHOTO COURTESY OF LYNDEN PIONEER MUSEUM

Bellingham's population was whiter in 1980 than 77 years earlier, when Fairhaven and Whatcom merged to form the city.

Visitors to Fairhaven and Whatcom in 1903 would have found a Chinese and Japanese community larger, as a percentage, than today's Asian population. But local anti-immigrant riots, combined with immigration restrictions and rapid growth of the white community, changed that.

Early Bellingham had a small black population, according to the census. But some believe there was a larger black community than what census takers found.

Bellingham has become a more diverse city over the past 20 years, thanks mostly to a burgeoning Hispanic population and renewed Asian community. However Bellingham is still more homogenous than the state or country as a whole.

By all accounts, Bellingham has come a long way from the days when local civic leaders called for driving Asians out of town and spoke admiringly of Ku Klux Klan parades.

Pedro Perez, who moved to Bellingham from California's Central Valley with his wife in 1986, said he has found locals have "opened their arms" to Hispanics, for the most part.

"Sure, you're gonna have your one freak weirdo who's against any kind of growth, especially from an ethnic group," he said.

Sometimes, Hispanic people find it harder to get a job or have to pay more for a home, said Becky Diaz, a former president of Whatcom Hispanic Organization and former member of the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs.

"Bellingham is not an in-your-face racist community," she said. "It's always gonna be subtle."

Felix Anderson, a black man and associate pastor at Bellingham's Christ the King Church, said he has not found racism in Whatcom County so much as ignorance borne from lack of experience with black people.

Bellingham's Hispanic, Asian and black communities have grown dramatically in recent decades, spawning churches, schools, restaurants, grocery stores, barber shops, social groups and other businesses and institutions.

But the city's Hispanic and black populations are still smaller, as a percentage of the population, than the country as a whole, and the Asian population is smaller than it was in 1900.

People say they still face the stares that come from being different, and the isolation that comes from not having established communities of people who share their racial and ethnic backgrounds.

"People don't stay here unless they can withstand being out of place and not having that bother them," Anderson said. "Because that's the way it is."