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The 1907 Bellingham Riots

This special section documents Bellingham, Washington’s 1907 anti-South Asian riot and hosts the documentary video, Present In All That We Do.

Located in the northwest corner of Washington State, just shy of the Canadian border, Bellingham boomed in the early 20th century as a center of extractive industries like mining, fishing and timber. Workers from all over the world arrived in Bellingham looking for jobs, including a sizable number from Asia.

In the early 1900s, Asian immigrants numbered in the hundreds and were a substantial presence in Bellingham, sustaining small communities with their own restaurants, pool halls and barber shops. Yet, due to sustained campaigns of racism and exclusion, little to nothing of these communities remains in the city today. By 1950, city census numbers reported a mere eight individuals of Asian ancestry.

The most visible manifestation of these campaigns was the riot of 1907. A group of South Asian migrant workers arrived in Bellingham in 1906, employed mostly in the city’s lumber mills. Immediately, white labor leaders demanded the South Asian workers be expelled from the city, claiming the newcomers took jobs away from white workers and drove down wages.

On September 4, 1907, the demands of white labor culminated in a vicious riot. White workers broke into lumber mills and pulled South Asians from their work, then entered South Asian bunkhouses, destroying property and stealing valuables. All night, South Asians were driven to the city limits; others were taken to the city jail by police, ostensibly for protection. Within days, the South Asian community was gone, having been, in the approving words of one local newspaper, “wiped off the map.”

The riot, and the persistant racist campaigns that led to it and continued long after it, continue to have lasting effects on Bellingham today. Only since United States immigration reform in the 1960s have any substantial amount of non-white immigrants returned to Whatcom County.

This special section on the 1907 Bellingham riots was created by Andrew Hedden, based on historical material collected for the film Present In All That We Do. It includes the film itself, an historical essay by David Cahn, a collection of newspaper articles, as well as archival photographs and documents. Special thanks to Paul Englesberg for assistance with this on-line presentation.