Story by Megan Marquett
He rummages through his lone filing cabinet, apologizing for his poor filing system. He pulls from the drawer the handful of scholarly articles that mention the Bellingham riots and copies of the original Bellingham Herald newspaper articles from September 1907. The articles provide a living history and allow the modern-day reader a brief glimpse into culture at the turn of the century.
Sept. 5, 1907, the morning after the riots the Herald's front page headline read "Hindus Hounded from City: Mob Drives Foreigners From Lodging Houses and Mills."
On the night of Sept. 4, 1907 approximately 150 white mill workers forced 200 immigrants, originally from Punjab, a region in India that practices the religious tradition of Sikhism, to take refuge in the basement of the Bellingham Court House. Newspaper accounts don't mention any physical injury to the refugees, but they do criticize the police force.
"The turning over of the jail to the men is regarded as the strangest piece of work ever performed in any city in the country," a Herald reporter wrote. "None of the men, so far as known, were armed, and with their guns and club, the police could easily have held the entire outfit."
Englesberg points to his white office wall, where a picture from Collier Magazine hangs. The picture, which also ran, in poorer quality, in the Herald in 1907, shows the Sikhs and Indians outside of the mills. He moves to his computer finding the graphics of turbaned-clad men that ran in the Reveille, the other Bellingham paper, although most of the immigrants didn't wear turbanes, he says. City officials became concerned about the political consequences of the riots when they realized the immigrants were Canadian citizens, Englesberg says.
In an address at an emergency city council meeting the morning following the riots, Mayor Black is quoted in the Herald saying, "The men sought to be driven out of the city are Hindus, and British subjects. Under the laws of the United States and of this city, these men have a legal right to be in the city . . . They have the right to the protection of the laws of this state and city, so long as they do not break any of those laws."
Although Mayor Black acknowledged the immigrants' rights to remain in the city, the mass exodus of Sikhs and Indians continued, as did white mill workers who shouted taunts of "don't come back" as they surround the exiled minority on the train station platform.
The immigrants fled south to California and north to Canada and "they carried about everything from flour and coffee pots and dish pans, clothes of all kinds and descriptions, and bags, trunks, valises and handkerchiefs served to carry goods." Only a handful of the 200 Sikhs remained in Bellingham.
As the Sikhs departed from Bellingham they "declared that they would never return," and they didn't return, Englesberg says.
Few reminders remain of the race riots. The Sikh families who left Bellingham disappeared into new lives, he says.
Englesberg learned about the riots in Bellingham accidentally, while researching Asian immigration in the late 1880s. Current history books exclude Bellingham's riot. Englesberg views the riot as part of a prolific pattern of racism occurring on West Coast at the beginning of the 1900s.
Englesberg says his research has led him to discover a complex trend of racism in the United States that continues to shape the nation's immigration policies. The first immigration act in the United States, the 1924 Reed-Johnson Act, used old census data, which lowered the number of persons from Asia and Eastern Europe who could legally immigrate to the United States, he says.
Senator Johnson, who helped write the 1924 act, worked and lived in Hoquiam, Wash., at the time of the riots. He supported the mill workers action, by writing articles from the peninsula.
In 1907, the Sikhs and mill owners became scapegoats for causing the riot. The immigrants left Bellingham in a hurry, according to newspaper reports, only to meet more opposition at the Canadian border.
"Every effort was made to hurl the undesirable back upon the cities of this country, but the Canadian immigration department was notified that they must be allowed to cross the border so long as they could pass the immigration requirements," the Herald reported.
"In isolation it may not seem important, but because it gets left out of history people don't learn about it," Englesberg says. "Silence says it was acceptable."
In 2007 the Bellingham City Council and Whatcom County Council helped end the silence when they issued a proclamation recognizing the need for reconciliation and tolerance between racial groups. Bellingham Herald headlines such as, "New Sikh arrivals feel welcomed" marked the 100-year anniversary of the riots and the Herald published an editorial accepting responsibility for the paper's role of propagating anti-Hindu rhetoric in 1907.
The purpose of recognizing the anniversary of the Anti-Hindu Race Riot was to identify a wrong, address the past injustice and allow for reflection on current race issues, says Korry Harvey, a Whatcom Human Rights Task Force board member.
In the 1980s, a new Sikh community established itself in Whatcom County. Most knew nothing about the events of 1907, says Satpal Sidhu a Whatcom County resident since the late 1980s.
Englesberg, the Sikh community and the Whatcom Human Rights Task Force, in conjunction with the city and county, worked on an event to recognize the anniversary of the riot.
The Day of Healing and Reconciliation on September 4, 2007, attempted to remind people that the riots happened, but this isn't the same community it was 100 years ago, Sidhu says; he and his family found the county to be a welcoming place.
"Our children were welcomed into the Meridian Schools," he says. "They were the only East India children. They were treated fairly and made good friends."
After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, local children vandalized the Sikh Temple in Lynden, Englesberg says. The community at-large stood in solidarity to denounce the act of racism and discrimination and to send the message that vandalism won't be accepted, he says.
The Sikh community, Sidhu says, would like to have a memorial fountain or plaque placed in a prominent place in Bellingham as a reminder of what happened in 1907.
Unfortunately, immigration issues remain at the forefront of the policy agenda, Harvey says. Today, the immigrants hail from a different country and the racism of the early 1900s has disappeared from newspapers. Racism prevails in a more polite form, but the community can use its voice to squash it, he says.
Englesberg's depth of knowledge about riots and anti-Asian sentiment in the Pacific Northwest is apparent, as he talks for more than two-hours. The information he provides and the information he lacks the time to elaborate on will one-day fill the pages of a book devoted to the subject of the 1907 Bellingham riot.