As my time as a history undergraduate I rarely adventured into the area of truly original research. There were times where I explored overlooked or untold portions of a well known story or I even attempted to reinterpret a very well known aspect of history. However, I never ran into the barrier that I have recently found in one of my archival internships this summer. I believe I have found an historical narrative that has not yet been told or given its due consideration. As a very recent student of history, I should find this exciting. This is a scholar’s dream. However, as a new information professional I am equal parts excited, horrified, guilty, and bewildered.
What exactly have I stumbled upon? The mostly untold story of South Asians in the Seattle area especially during the early 20th century. I saw mostly because some historical institutions like the Wing Luke Asian Museum are beginning to correct this oversight. However, every time I try to learn more about the Asian population in Seattle or dig into local repositories I’m hit with an abundance of information on Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and the more recent Vietnamese immigrants, but the information on South Asians is minuscule. I feel like I am chasing a ghost. I know they were here and I know they took jobs similar to most Asian immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century, but their memory has not been as fervently preserved as others.
The exercise of trying to dig up historical documents about these men has really driven home how much of a responsibility we as archivists, librarians, and historians have in creating the historical record. Take for example Doug Chin’s book Seattle’s International District: The Making of a Pan-Asian American Community. Chin mentions the anti-Asian riots that took place in Vancouver, British Columbia in the fall of 1907 which were mostly carried out against Chinese and Japanese immigrants. However, Chin does not mention the 1907 Bellingham, Washington riot that expelled the town’s South Asian population. With this small exclusion Chin has solidified the former incident more firmly in the historical narrative of the Pacific Northwest, but has further washed the latter from our memory(67-68).
As the summer progresses I hope to chase down my research ghost and help to build the historical narrative of the experience of South Asians in western Washington at the beginning of the 20th century. This research project will also stick with me as a cautionary reminder of just how powerful not mentioning an aspect of history is as including it.
Update: Before publishing this post I’ve received many responses to my research inquires from local repositories. These responses only back up my initial findings that really no historical narrative exists for these immigrants. My hypothesis is that these men did not form lasting communities so there were no impulses to save or create a lasting community memory. These men either voluntarily left or were pushed out due to anti-Asiatic sentiments. Does this hypothesis seem sound? Could an historian still create a narrative for this group even with so little archival evidence?
Background: As part of my Master’s program I am required to complete a course on instruction. My quarter long project for this course is to create a teaching or training module with the subject and population of my choice.
Subject: I chose for this project to focus on a local history program for new residents to a community. As a new resident myself I have found reorienting myself to my new community’s local history very hard. Diving into detailed history monographs or approaching a historical society without any basic knowledge of the community’s history can be a very intimidating. I am hoping by reaching out to new residents who were interested in their previous home’s history would become interested in their new home’s as well. I also hope this will increase new residents participation in local history societies as well.
Process: I hope to develop a history lecture module or series of modules that introduce local history to new residents by a new resident. One of the reasons I believe that new residents don’t connect with their new community’s local history is connected with the lack of personal connection they feel to their new place in the world. A national survey in 1994 spearheaded by Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen looked into how Americans interact with the past. The book, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, breaks down the findings of the survey (an awesome book for anyone interested in local history and why normal people suddenly become history fanatics after school). In it the authors state that “Almost every American deeply engages the past, and the past that engages them most deeply is that of their family” (22). So by removing these people from their hometowns which most likely has some sort of family tie, these new residents are removed from the most compelling source of historical interest. What historical societies in these new communities need to do is replace this familial interest with a new personal connection.
I hope to provide this new connection in my modules. Hopefully by introducing new residents to different local history topics, a personal connection can be made. This can be a topic with as simple a connection as the history of the neighborhood the resident is now living or a more complex social issue such as the history of transit in the area.
Outcome: I hope to help grow the interest of local history in a very booming population in my new community. This will help grow interest in the local historical society which would call for more organization in their holdings leading to such projects as an online database. This growth will lead to a much richer historical environment for the whole community and also a much more inviting one.
I hope to keep you all updated on my project and what sort of feedback I get back from my community. As of right now I hope to partner with the Kirkland Heritage Society and the King County Library to spread the message to the community. I have also been very inspired by Seattle’s Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI) and their Nearby History program (which might be where new residents end up if they become interested in detailed research).