The earliest Sikh immigrants to America were young men. Carrying the weight of hungry families on their shoulders, they braved the difficult journey by boat from the Punjab region of India to the states of Washington and California. Leaving villages ravaged by British exploitation, these pioneering Sikhs saw in America a nation that rewarded hard work. And work hard, they did. From 1903-1908, thousands of Sikh laborers toiled to build our nation’s roads and railways in Northern California. They laid 700 miles of roadway between Oakland and Salt Lake City, remaining today as part of Interstate 80.
With new infrastructure in the region came new opportunities for Sikh immigrants to do what they had done for generations: farm. Sikhs began working as farmhands and, soon after, harvesting their own crops. Known for their work ethic and agricultural expertise, they were considered ‘safe bets’ for investors and quickly amassed more than 80,000 acres of farmland. Just as they began to thrive, their American dream was challenged by increasing acts of discrimination and violence aimed at the successful Sikh immigrants.
Facing discrimination, Sikhs living in America sought ways to stay connected to their religion and culture. The first gurdwara, or Sikh house of worship, was founded in Stockton, California in 1912. The Stockton Gurdwara became the heart of organized Sikh religious life in the US. Though the Sikh American community remained small, the resilient, pioneering spirit of its members kept it alive against all odds throughout the coming decades of injustice and oppression.
Bhagat Singh Thind immigrated to the United States to attend university, and soon after was recruited to fight for America in World War I. During the war, he was promoted to the rank of Acting Sergeant, and eventually received an honorable discharge in 1918 with his character described as “excellent.” When Thind applied for American citizenship, it was initially granted. But just days later, his citizenship was repealed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. His case eventually reached the US Supreme Court, where it was ruled that individuals of Indian descent were not eligible for US citizenship. This landmark decision dashed the dreams of Indian immigrants across America.
A ray of hope during a bleak time for Sikhs in America was Dalip Singh Saund, a man who pursued the American dream with vigor. Inspired by the writings of Abraham Lincoln and Woodrow Wilson, Saund left home in rural India to study at the University of California at age 21. Though he initially planned to return home after a few years, Saund stayed and earned a PhD in mathematics, took on leadership roles in the lettuce farming industry, and became a social activist. In the 1940s, he helped convince the US Congress to pass the Luce-Celler Act, granting naturalization rights to Indian immigrants.
A groundbreaker in many ways, Saund was elected in 1956 as the first Indian American Member of Congress, not long after becoming a citizen himself. While his election represented a key victory for Sikhs in America, it also brought to light the stigma Sikhs still faced. Saund’s Campaign Manager, Dr. Amarjit Singh Marwah, had to hide during campaign events because he wore a turban.
After President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Sikhs were welcomed more freely to America to contribute their expertise and talent in professional sectors, and raise their families in a country that increasingly valued diversity and religious freedom. Driven by a strong sense of purpose, Sikh immigrants sought opportunities to apply their skills and passions to better the lives of all Americans. Today, Sikhs are doctors, teachers, farmers, and civil servants. A Sikh invented fiber optics, another is currently the CEO of MasterCard, and several have won Olympic gold medals. Sikhs have fought in every American war since World War I, proving themselves willing to put their lives on the line to protect the freedom of all Americans.
September 11, 2001 will be forever remembered by all who lived through it, and its consequences will be felt for generations to come. On this dark day, Sikhs experienced the same shock and fear as all Americans, and joined in mourning for the lives that were lost. During this difficult time, Sikhs began to realize that because of a misperception of turbans being associated with terrorism, their everyday lives would drastically change. Sikh families experienced terrifying acts of hate, some lost their jobs, and those who wore turbans felt the sting of others’ suspicion everywhere they went. Years later, the misperception of turbans and those who wear them persists, and Sikhs continue to experience stigma and violence which stems back to the aftermath of this dreadful day in American history.
There are approximately over half a million Sikhs who call America home. Sikhs have founded over 300 gurdwaras in communities across the nation. Census data show that Sikhs pursue higher education more frequently and earn higher salaries than the nation as a whole. But our immigrant success story doesn’t make the sting of discrimination or acts of hate we experience any less painful. We faced our worst nightmare in 2012, when a white supremacist fatally shot six Sikhs and injured several others inside their place of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
While Sikhs are often misunderstood or violently targeted because of the outward symbols of our faith, we haven’t lost hope. We know that the Sikh values of freedom, equality, and justice for all are the values upon which America was founded, and the values that will ultimately prevail. We believe that telling the story of who we are and what we stand for is an important step in building bridges to connect us with all who love this country.