On the night of September 4, 1907, more than 250 Indian men were attacked and driven out of their homes in Bellingham, Washington, USA. It started with a mob of white men chasing and attacking two “East Indian workers” on C Street. Soon, there were more than 500 white men smashing windows, beating the Indians, and physically arresting them or driving them out of town.
They went from house to house, rounding up and individually driving every Indian worker away or to the tide flats. By September 5, the Indians – as it turns out, most of the men were Sikhs – had all fled in fear and evacuated town.
In an attempt to escape British colonial rule, many Indians had fled to North America in the early 1900s seeking jobs and better lives. Bellingham’s flourishing lumber mills had jobs for Indian labourers. However, rumours spread across town that white workers were being replaced by “dark-skinned” workers ready to accept lower wages at Whatcom County Mill.
On September 2, 1907, about a thousand white men held a rally in the city propagating white supremacy. Two days later, the rally gave way to a riot. None of the perpetrators was prosecuted or tackled by the police.
The newspapers and media at the time were equally discriminatory and ignorant. A Bellingham daily, Bellingham Reveille used the headline, “Mob raids Hindus and drives them from city”. They cited the reasons as “insolence” and labour issues, describing them as “dusky orientals” and “dusky sons of India”.
According to them, the purpose of the “anti-Hindu riot” was to “move (the Indian workers) on, to get them out of town, and scare them so badly that they will not crowd white labour out of the mills.”
Another daily, the Bellingham Herald, wrote, “The Hindu is not a good citizen. It would require centuries to assimilate him, and this country need not take the trouble. Our racial burdens are already heavy enough to bear”, continuing to write that, “The result of the crusade against the Hindus cannot but cause a general and intense satisfaction, and the departure of the Hindus will leave no regrets.”
In a separate article, their editor Werter D Dodd wrote, “For good or ill, Bellingham has probably solved for herself the Hindu problem just as she solved the Chinese problem several years ago” and described the mood of the mob as “one of hilarity and good humour.” He also further wrote that the riot was not racially motivated, given that the Hindu is an “Aryan, not a black as frequently characterised in the press”.
The mob violence on September 4 was not the first of its kind, and certainly not its last. For years, anti-Asian exclusion leagues had been forming across America, and in 1917, the US Congress passed an act banning immigrants from South Asia.
Finally, 100 years later, in 2007, the Bellingham Herald published an apology for its coverage, and the Bellingham administration – the Whatcom County Executive Pete Kremen, and Bellingham Mayor, Tim Douglas – apologised, proclaiming September 4, 2007, as a “Day of Healing and Reconciliation” to atone for the regrettable events. The same year, a 58-minute documentary, Present In All That We Do (below) was released to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Bellingham riots.
A documentary made by the Guru Nanak Gursikh temple of Lynden, Washington, in 2014, called We Are Not Strangers also addresses the Bellingham riots, and dramatises the eviction of the Sikhs in 1907.