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Echoes of Freedom: South Asian Pioneers in California, 1899-1965

Chapter 4: The Great White Wall

chapter 4


San Francisco Call cartoonHaving crossed the hurdle of admission to the United States, immigrants from India faced resistance from European and American laborers who were in competition with them for jobs and who feared they would be willing to work for lower wages. This resistance assumed tangible form in racist organizations such as the Asian Exclusion League.The group was responsible for violent incidents in Canada and the U.S., such as the "Anti-Hindu" riot in 1907 at Bellingham, Washington.

On the night of September 4, 1907, a mob of between 400 and 500 white men attacked Bellingham's Hindu colonies. Many of the Hindus were beaten. Some escaped from their quarters in their night clothes. Several sought refuge on the tide flats. Others were driven toward the city limits or jailed. During the course of the disturbance, the indignation of the crowd was fanned to action by speakers who addressed impromtu audiences on the street corners and incited citizens to "help drive out the cheap labor."

New York Times articleUnfortunately, the Bellingham riot was mirrored by similar assaults in California during the months that followed in Marysville, Stege, Live Oak, and other communities where the immigrants had settled.

These incidents, however, didn't reflect the attitude of the whole community. As the immigrants continued to work hard and achieve success some of their neighbors began to accept them. A retrospective account in the Daily Astorian gives an idea of how Indian workers were viewed in Astoria, one Oregon mill town. "We thought they were terrible coming with their turbans," said Hattie Spencer. "We were afraid of them at first. But my dad said, 'They have to make a living same as the rest of us. We are foreigners too.' Chris Simonsen remembered the men in "Hindu Alley" making "chupatti pancakes" patting the dough between their hands. The Indians were especially well-known for their prowess and agility in wrestling. "They were light-heavyweight champions," Bill Wootton said. Helmer Lindstrom remembered that the Indians "never undercut wages" -- they wouldn't work for less than the other employees. And most of the Astoria community considered the Hindus "vastly interesting and peaceable." There were cracks in the great white wall.