“I talk for those of our men who, in factory and field, in all sections of American industry, work side by side with their fellow American workers to strengthen the industrial framework of this country.” -Ibrahim Chowdry, in a letter given for testimony during the US Congressional Committee on Immigration and Naturalization hearings in 1945.
Ibrahim Chowdry is the reason I am an American. He was my grandmother’s first cousin, and he sponsored my family to come to the United States from Bangladesh. He was also the first documented Bangladeshi man to settle in New York City, arriving in the 1920s. This was more than half a century before South Asians immigrated to the US en masse in the 1980s.
The recent wave of immigration monopolizes the narrative of South Asians in this country. Even though Punjabi farmers arrived on West Coast during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and indentured servants and maritime workers came ashore to America in small numbers as early as the 1600s, South Asian immigration in the US is still viewed as a recent phenomenon.
Yet, the letter to Congress mentioned at the beginning not only highlights the lives of those within an earlier South Asian American generation, but also reveals the activities of a political pioneer.
Chowdry came to the US at a time when immigration laws closed the US to Asians and South Asians alike. Laws such as the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924, and the 1923 Supreme Court decision, The United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, forced South Asian migrants to stay largely hidden from historical records. Their stories were only passed down through family tradition and storytelling.
The men who came from present day Bangladesh (then the East Bengal region of the British Raj) settled in areas such as New York City, Detroit, New Orleans and Ohio. They came from labor and working classes, and many were maritime laborers and peddlers.
Their stories are now told by Vivek Bald, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the author of a new book, Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America. Released in January, the book details the untold stories of earlier South Asian migrant workers.
Bald said he pursued this topic in part because “these histories were so counter to the history that I’ve been led to understand. We’re used to South Asian history in which there was this gap between 1917 and 1965, where supposedly nothing was going on.”
In reality, many things happened during that “gap.” For one, a group of Bangladeshi men settled down and married Latino and African American women, creating a richly diverse community. Many of them pooled their money to help open restaurants and small businesses. They started organizations to empower their communities and offered social support for new immigrants who moved in.
Ibrahim Chowdry, a Bengali community organizer in New York.
Ibrahim Chowdry was at the forefront of these efforts. He escaped a British crack down over his political activities in East Bengal and settled in New York City in the 1920s, where he initiated numerous community organizations to help his fellow East Bengalis and built connections with other ethnic enclaves in the city. His first community organization, the Indian Seamen’s Club, provided a place of dining, rest, and congregation for South Asian maritime workers on shore leave in the city.
His son, Noor, said in the book that Ibrahim Chowdry “helped ex-seamen with immigration problems, led religious functions and interfaced on his community’s behalf with British, Indian and Pakistani consular officials. Chowdry even went from one New York-area hospital to the next, meeting with staff and asking them to call him whenever anyone was admitted with the surnames Meah, Ullah, Uddin, or Ali.”
Laila Chowdry, Ibrahim’s daughter, described her father in the book as a key community leader.
“We lived in an apartment with a lot of rooms and he had a couple of his countrymen living there always," she said. "Usually they (Bengali countrymen) would call him on the phone and he would run off. If someone was sick or if someone died, he would make their funeral arrangements.”
Aladdin Ullah, a writer and comedian in New York City whose father, Habib, was a close friend of Chowdry’s, said Chowdry knew Malcolm X personally.
Malcolm X’s Nation of Islam followers shared the same neighborhoods as the Bangladeshi immigrants and the two groups would debate each other over religious practices.
“Chowdry was such a devout Muslim that he interacted and spoke to these men about Islam,” Ullah said. “There was a picture, I remember as a child, of my uncle Ibrahim and Malcolm X together.”
Chowdry’s dedication to the Muslim community expanded beyond Harlem. He was involved in coalition-building efforts with African American Muslims and Middle-Eastern Muslims, and reached out to Christians and Jews to form interfaith groups. He established the first mosque in New York City, the Al Madina Mosque, which still stands today.
The stories of Bangladeshis in Harlem should also be noted for their unique place in history. These were men who left a country under British colonial rule, only to come to a country going through a period of rapid change, as well as turbulence on issues of race and immigration.
They arrived in America where Jim Crow laws were in full effect and interracial marriages were banned outright.
Ullah, the writer/comedian, recalled a story of his father visiting a cousin who migrated to Atlanta in the 1950s. They went to a restaurant where they were promptly rejected service, with the waitress commenting, “We don’t serve niggers and spics.”
This climate pushed these early immigrants to build coalitions and rely on multicultural communities. It prompted these Bangladeshi men to see Puerto Ricans and Blacks as their neighbors and political allies.
“They couldn’t afford to be racist, they had to depend on humanity instead of discriminating against it,” Ullah said.
Today, efforts to cross the racial divide are rare. Community organizing often splits along race and ethnic lines.
The newer wave of South Asian immigrants, many of whom are educated engineers and Ivy League graduates, seldom share working class struggles, or promote intercultural unity.
Bald and Ullah aim to continue expanding their efforts to document these stories for the public to consider. Ullah wrote and is currently performing in Dishwasher Dreams, a one-man show based on his father's journey. They are also collaborating on a documentary about the history of Bengali Harlem, and Bald is using his website to host a digital oral history project, with hopes that the children of mixed marriages from that era will come forth to share their stories.
To me, sharing these stories means giving a sense of heritage to South Asian Americans, and especially to the often-marginalized Bangladeshi community. It is very powerful to know that our US presence is not just 20 to 30 years old, and that our forefathers are part of the complex tapestry that is American history.
Perhaps this example parallels other AAPI groups, and demonstrates that there could be more to the story of immigration than what is presented in mainstream dialogue. We are a deeper part of this country than we realize. My lineage in the US may not trace back to the Mayflower, nor am I a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. But I can now say I have my roots in Bengali Harlem, and I could not be prouder.