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The 1907 Bellingham Riots

The 1907 Bellingham Riots in Historical Context

by David Cahn
September 5th, 1907. The morning following the riot, crowds gather outside Bellingham’s city hall.

On September 4th, 1907 five hundred white working men in Bellingham, WA gathered to drive a community of South Asian migrant workers out of the city. With the mission of “scar[ing] them so badly that they will not crowd white labor out of the mills,” the growing mob rallied and went to work.1 The rioters moved through town, breaking windows, throwing rocks, indiscriminately beating people, overpowering a few police officers, and pulling men out of their workplaces and homes. They eventually rounded up two hundred or so of the South Asian immigrant workers in the basement of City Hall to stay the night. The mob was successful in that within ten days the entire South Asian population departed town. Despite promises of protections from city officials, the South Asian workers well understood that there was no protection for them in Bellingham and migrated up and down the Pacific coast looking for safer and saner living conditions.

The historical forces that lead to this outbreak of racist violence in this small town in the Pacific Northwest are complex and were long in the making. The actions of the rioters would in the coming decades have very real repercussions in the halls of Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court and the lives of migrants the world over. In less than twenty years the overt racism, violence and illegal efforts of the 1907 Bellingham riot eventually found legalized and strengthened expression through the U.S. legal system and federal government. The Bellingham mob and the federal government alike both served to police and protect the boundaries of U.S. citizenship and white privilege.

Today the U.S.-Mexico border has increasingly become both a literal and symbolic site of fierce debate, contestation and struggle over the changing identity of the United States. Similarly, as Chinese, Japanese and Korean immigrants made their way to the shores of California and surrounding states at the turn of the last century the Pacific coast held an equally powerful hold on the national imagination. “The Pacific Coast is the frontier of the white man’s world, the culmination of the westward immigration which is the white man’s whole history,” wrote one California editor in 1911. In terms that could be found in the debate over the U.S.-Mexico border today, he went on to state, “It will remain the frontier so long as we guard it as such; no longer. Unless it is maintained there, there is no other line at which it can be maintained without more effort than the American government and American civilization are able to sustain.”2 In more ways than one this editor was writing about the boundaries of the U.S. nation-state as well as the boundaries and definitions of U.S. citizenship and white privilege.

For a variety of reasons, the first wave of South Asian migrants to North American came mainly from the Doaba region of the Punjab in northern India. The railway system introduced to the country by British colonialism helped facilitate easier travel from the landlocked Punjab to seaports by the late 1800s.3 Punjabi men serving in the British Indian Army would return home after serving throughout the British Empire - including Canada - bringing home stories of work and economic opportunity abroad. Additionally British steamship companies hired Punjabi men to work on expeditions to North America.4 By 1907, there were not more than 2000 Asian Indians to be found along the U.S. Pacific Coast. Thousands more tended to migrate to Vancouver, British Columbia and “migrated south, seeking work in lumber camps and on railroads, or in other jobs.”5

Several hundred of these migrants found work as contract laborers in the lumber mills of the newly-incorporated city of Bellingham, WA. The recent introduction of the Great Northern Railway connected Bellingham to the outside economy and helped quickly turn it into a boom-town built primarily off of lumber and fishing. In a city home to one of the Pacific Northwest anti-Chinese campaigns of the late 1800s, and a strong tradition of not letting Chinese live in town except during the salmon season, this new presence of South Asian laborers was immediately unwelcome. Bellingham was home to an 800-member strong chapter of the Japanese-Korean Exclusion League, a national labor organization with the avowed mission “to guard the gateway of Occidental Civilization [West Coast] against Oriental invasion.”6 It was from these ranks that organized agitation began to emerge, demanding that no South Asians be employed in the lumber mills or anywhere in Bellingham after Labor Day - September 2nd, 1907. More than a thousand union members paraded through town that day to show their organized strength. The South Asian workers nonetheless appeared at their jobs the following day. The subsequent tension blew into the full scale riot of September 4th.

With supposedly reluctant cooperation - but cooperation nonetheless - city police opened up the basement of City Hall to keep the South Asian workers overnight for their purported safety. As the City deliberated on what actions to take, local newspapers weighed in on the issue. Though the Bellingham Herald condemned the violence, they sympathized with the riot’s intent. “The Hindu is not a good citizen,” an editorial declared. “It would require centuries to assimilate him, and this country need not take the trouble. Our racial burdens are already heavy enough to bear.”7 The Reveille continued along the same path, offering, “While any good citizen must be opposed to the means employed, 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.” The Seattle Morning Times insisted that that the matter was

not a question of race, but of wages; not a question of men, but modes of life; not a matter of nations, but of habits of life… When men who require meat to eat and real beds to sleep in are ousted from their employment to make room for vegetarians who can find the bliss of sleep in some filthy corner, it is rather difficult to say at what limit indignation ceases to be righteous.8

Shortly after the riot, hundreds of white working class men and leaders of the Japanese-Korean Exclusion League (soon to be renamed the “Asiatic Exclusion League” to encompass its growing opposition to South Asians), convened in Bellingham to hold a mass meeting and demonstration in favor of further “Oriental exclusion laws.” The Bellingham Herald reported that “the league is not working to incite the laboring men to the shirt-sleeve method of expelling foreigners, but desires to have laws passed by the national congress restricting immigration of what it considers a menace to American labor.”9

At the meeting, League Secretary A.E. Fowler declared their “program is that every Asiatic must be excluded and we’re not going to quit till we get the whole cheese… The proper thing to do is to stop the immigration of these undesirables right now, stop it right and stop it for all times… [U]ntold justice is being worked when the yellow coolies and immoral Japanese women are imported to prey upon American society.”10

The League was not alone in its views. Most South Asians were described in the U.S. press as “low-caste Hindoos.” Significantly different attention was given to so-called “low-caste” and “high-caste” South Asian immigrants. Those perceived to be low-caste were described as of “poor class physically as well as mentally,” “more treacherous, if possible” than Japanese immigrants, with brains that do “not readily grasp even the elementary problems of this country.” They are “a dark mystic race” living in “tumble-down ‘shacks’ which a white man, even from southern Europe, would have spurned.”11

The distinctly gendered nature of these news reports should not be taken for granted. That this riot was entirely an interaction between men begs questions of where women and how gender fit into this historical context. Immediately apparent are the ways that news reports of the day raised the twin specters of colored threats to white labor and white women simultaneously. For instance, the front page of the _New York Times_justified the action by explaining “everyday whites are being replaced in the mills by the Asiatics. Many instances of women being pushed into the gutters or insulted on street cars were also reported.”12

The actions of anti-South Asian rioters in Bellingham and other communities along the Pacific coast, combined with the organized agitation of the Asiatic Exclusion League and the rhetoric of the U.S. news media, led to new geopolitical and cultural boundaries that excluded South Asians and others from the legal realm of U.S. citizenship. The National Origins Act of 1924 entrenched and codified these new divisions. The act created a quota system based on maintaining the current “national origins” of the U.S. population. In an era of Progressivism, Social Darwinism and eugenic thought, the Act was heavily lobbied for by national organizations such as the American Legion, Daughters of the American Revolution and the Ku Klux Klan. By restricting all legal immigration to 150,000 a year and allocating slots based on distinct lines, these nativists hoped to maintain the perceived racial and ethnic purity of the U.S. The National Origins Act of 1924 simply dressed up the overt violence and anti-“Asiatic” racism found in the Bellingham 1907 riot in seemingly objective and legal language, though it served the exact same purpose in maintaining the white racial boundaries of U.S. citizenship.

Copyright (©) David Cahn 2008

1 Bellingham Reveille. September 5, 1907.

2 Gerald N. Hallberg. “Bellingham, Washington’s Anti-Hindu Riot” Northwest Mosaics. 1973, p.151

3 Harry Kitano and Roger Daniels. Asian Americans: Emerging Minorities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1994, p.90

4 Margaret A. Gibson. Accommodation without Assimilation: Sikh Immigrants in an American High School. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988, p.38

5 John R. Wunder. “South Asians, Civil Rights, and the Pacific Northwest: The 1907 Bellingham Anti-Indian Riot and Subsequent Citizenship and Deportation Struggles.” Western Legal History. 4, 1991, p.60

6 Robert E. Wynne. “American Labor Leaders and the Vancouver Anti-Oriental Riot.” Pacific Northwest Quarterly. Vol. 57, 1966. Cited in Hallberg, p.147

7 Wunder, p.63

8 Hallberg, pgs.150-151

9 “Hundreds Will Attend Mass Meeting.” Bellingham Herald. September 14, 1907, p. 1

10 “Industrial War is Waged.” Bellingham Herald. September 16, 1907, p. 1

11 Hemant Shah. “Race, Nation, and Citizenship: Asian Indians and the Idea of Whiteness in the U.S. Press.” Howard Journal of Communications. 10, 1999, p.255

12 “Mob Drives Out Hindus.” New York Times. September 6, 1907, p. 1