Confronting a century-old act of racism

“One of the core values and beliefs that should bring us together as Americans is standing against hate and racism,” President Biden said on March 21 on the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, “even as we acknowledge that systemic racism and white supremacy are ugly poisons that have long plagued the United States.”

The Bellingham Riots of 1907 demonstrated how racism can lead to dangerous fears about immigrant communities.

On September 4, 1907, a mob of 500 men stormed through Bellingham, Washington, targeting the town’s South Asian immigrant community. The mob members felt their jobs at the local lumber mills were at risk because of Bellingham’s growing Punjabi migrant population, which had come to the Pacific Northwest in search of higher wages and a better life.

The majority-white mob vandalized the town as people searched for the South Asian workers, who mostly hailed from the Doaba region of Punjab in northern India. The mob forced the workers into the basement of Bellingham’s City Hall, where the city police claimed they kept the workers for their safety. The 200 workers and their families stayed there for the night before leaving the next day.

While no one was killed, migrants were beaten and injured. Less than two weeks later, the entire South Asian community had emptied out of Bellingham in search of new jobs and safety elsewhere.

Bellingham residents remember the event as one of the town’s darkest days. That’s why in 2007, on the 100th anniversary of the riots, then-Mayor Tim Douglas proclaimed September 4 a Day of Healing and Reconciliation.

The Day of Healing and Reconciliation was held to “celebrate a positive, collective healing and reconciliation movement within our families, communities, churches and government and to educate ourselves and others about our collective history of government policies which impacted Native communities and other ethnic groups,” according to the proclamation (PDF, 46.4KB).

A little over a decade later, in 2018, the City of Bellingham erected an Arch of Healing and Reconciliation outside the present-day city hall to commemorate the immigrants who had been removed from their homes at various intervals since the late 19th century. Its inscription reads, “Healing and Reconciliation.”

At the monument’s unveiling, Western Washington University’s President Sabah Randhawa spoke about the importance of coming together as a community to acknowledge a painful past while working towards a brighter, more inclusive future.

“Let us acknowledge that against the background of thousands of years of indigenous culture in this region, virtually all of us are immigrants,” he said.