A short lesson and clip into the subject of the Bellingham Riots, one of the most tragic riots in America's history, and the context that led to it. The riots encapsulate so many Asian American struggles present in both the past and modern-day - this is a needed lesson.
Riots: “a violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd.”
Anti-Asian sentiments are common in America’s past. Since the very first Asian immigrants arrived to the modern day, Asians are often isolated and seen as foreigners. In the present day, one would find a surplus of hate crimes: shootings in Asian run spas, shoving an Asian person under a train, or even assaulting a random Asian walking down the street. Unfortunately, the school curriculum is limited and often leaves much of America’s history in the dust.
The Pacific Coast itself held a lot of importance in the eye of the nation. It was a frontier of the ‘white man’s world,’ as written by many editors in California. Anti-Asian sentiments were already running rampant long before the Bellingham riot occurred. The natural resources found in Bellingham led to a booming economy, which was an enticing environment for many migrants, as they came to America, seeking better lives. Migrants originally found work as contract laborers in the lumber mills of Bellingham. However, the presence of the immigrants angered the white community. Bellingham was home to many Japanese-Korean Exclusion League folks, who would stop at nothing to get their goal: stop the immigration of Asians into America. Their hatred was fueled purely on unreasonable things that were out of the control of the Asian immigrants. The folks of Bellingham hoped that America could stay white and ‘pure.’
Prior to the riot, the 800-member Japanese-Korean Exclusion League situated in Bellingham demanded that no South Asians were to be employed in Bellingham after the upcoming Labor Day. 1000 union members paraded through town. South Asians continued to work against the wishes of the community, and tensions rose between the immigrants and the white people.
Eventually, City Hall was instilled to protect the immigrants. However, City Hall did little for the South Asian migrants.
On September 4th, 1907, five hundred white working men in Bellingham, WA gathered to force a community of South Asian migrant workers out. Many of the justifications were that the migrant workers were ‘stealing’ jobs from the ‘hard-working’ white workers and that they were driving down wages; yet the only reason migrant workers were hired was due to the fact that they could be exploited under poor working conditions and wages.
Many of the laws set in place that ensured rights to white laborers were not set for many Asian laborers. It was the unfortunate truth that exploitation occurred, and many of the South Asian immigrants suffered from low wages, unsafe work conditions and more. But they had no choice but to work. However, the growing white mob still rallied and went to work, destroying the town (breaking windows, etc). They beat people, dragging them out of their homes and workplaces. The worst part? The police enforcement did little to help. The immigrants who made it to the police were put in jail to ‘protect’ them, on the condition that they would leave town shortly after.
Eventually, they rounded up around 200 South Asian immigrant workers in the basement of City Hall, while others sat in jail. The reason they chose City Hall was to drive home the fact that the South Asian immigrants would always be outsiders and foreigners. The very institution meant to protect them would be their place of torment. Within 10 days following the riot, the entire South Asian population of Bellingham departed. The plan of the rioters had worked. Now the displaced South Asian immigrants had to move up and down the Pacific Coast in hopes of saner and safer jobs - which were few and far between. After the riot, a local newspaper was happy to announce that the South Asian immigrants had been “wiped off the map.”
Much of the anti-Asian sentiments experienced in Bellingham, WA were shared across all of the US, especially the Pacific Coast. After the Bellingham riot occurred, hundreds of new members joined the Korean-Japanese Exclusion League, which eventually encompassed all Asians, and they had only one goal: an Asian exclusion act to drive them out of America.
Decades later, decades, the South Asian community continues to feel unwelcome in Bellingham. The emotional trauma and imprint upon the immigrant community will forever be remembered. The South Asian community was torn apart, forced to settle somewhere new and experience the same struggles. The police officers meant to protect, the institution meant to offer them aid instead ignored their struggles and drove them out. The whole system built in Bellingham all worked together to destroy the South Asian community.
The Bellingham Riots may often stand forgotten but are an incredibly important reminder of the struggles of Asian Americans of today’s world and the world of the past, encapsulating many of the struggles of Asian Americans. The anti-Asian sentiments seen in the 1900s are reflective of the anti-Asian sentiments of today. More has to be done to protect the Asian American communities in America, lest they are ‘wiped off the map.’
About the Author:
Amy is an ambitious 15 year old from Westchester with immense curiosity. While she enjoys spending time with her friends, she also looooves to read and learn about obscure facts. It is no suprise that many of her written works focus on AAPI history!
The 1907 Bellingham Riots in Historical Context - Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/bham_history.htm.
Bellingham Racial History Timeline, https://wp.wwu.edu/timeline/south-asians-expelled/.
Bellingham: Home - Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, https://depts.washington.edu/civilr/bham_intro.htm.