Saturday, June 1, 2013

When the Past Should Not be a Prologue, From the National Archives

Race in Immigration and Naturalization

In the US Supreme Court,
US v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923

My original research, at the National Archives and Records Administration in 1997. This is the basis of all subsequent accounts on this ruling and case, by many persons and institutions.

The Adventurous Road
to Finding Historical Documentation about
Mr. Thind’s Legal History.

In 1997, after having come across the name of the ruling US v. Bhagat Singh Thind several times, and read a few references to this gentleman’s life experiences in living in America nearly a century ago, I decided to explore this history further.

Opportunity came that summer in the form of a research program for educators at the National Archives and Records Administration of the US Government. In exchange for developing a lesson plan, for two weeks, I could have a federal government archivist help me find materials on any topic from the vast records that the government accumulates and saves for historic purposes.

To save time, and facilitate things, I was told that if I sent the specific title/name of the research topic ahead of time, by the time I got there, there would be materials already waiting for me, so I could narrow down the topic, and proceed faster. Delighted, I sent the name of US v. Thind and related rulings to the archivist in Washington D.C.

When I got to Washington D.C, I found that unlike colleagues, who had racks and racks of materials awaiting them, the archivist could find only a slim folder with the barest summary of the Thind case. He informed me there was no more for me – perhaps I should change the topic for my research, he suggested - he had not really heard about the case (so it was not important?!), and that nothing more could exist, since he found nothing else in the vaults.

How could this be? This man’s case had gone through the immigration and legal system in this country for so many years, all the way up to the US Supreme Court – surely there existed more than just a slim folder about this man in the US Government’s records?

This young archivist said he had done all they could, and found nothing more; but the older archivists agreed with me – there had to be more. The senior archivists were more concerned with ‘where’, while I was becoming ‘increasingly’ intrigued by the ‘why’ angle, too.

I was referred from one amazingly experienced archivist to another. These wonderful public service employees heard my frustration, and decided to help me tackle the mystery of the Thind documents. The inner world of these marvelous sleuths of the dry document world of the US government is a story in itself, worthy of narration another time.

One scrupulous archivist, a person that archivists themselves rely on to tackle hard cases, asked me to tell him all I knew so far about Mr. Thind, and he could then direct me what area to search.

I narrated the sketch of Mr. Bhagat Singh Thind’s life. He came from India in the early part of the century, by ship via the Pacific, landed/ entered the US on the West Coast (remember all those pieces of paper you fill out when you come to the US – believe it or not, each one is kept on microfiche in the Government’s records), that he was granted US citizenship, and then it had been rescinded in 1923, by the US Supreme Court, on the grounds that he was not a "free, white man." I felt this was racial injustice, and like the Amistad case, it was history that needed exposure. I added that among the Indian community the belief existed that this might be related to the Gadar activists on the West Coast, and the colonial mentality of some whites in the US who did not like to see India gain freedom from Britain.

I also stated that there was bitterness about how this US Army veteran had been treated … and my lesson plan was going to deal with this aspect of racism in US laws. Specifically, how the judiciary, which is meant to be the protector of individual rights and be a recourse for injustice, had become a prime instrument of injustice… and this hidden aspect of US history needed to be taught in public schools.

Before I had finished saying this or could launch into how I was a US citizen and entitled to my children being taught the real history of people from South Asia who had been in this country for nearly a hundred years, but were still invisible in textbooks, and how schoolchildren should not be fed lies of omission (paid for out of my taxes, which also supported public education, etc.)…, the archivist said, "Stop. I think I know where you can find some documents."

I was delighted. "If he was in the US Army, during World War I (I nodded yes), and his case went to the US Supreme Court, there is bound to something on him in Military Intelligence Files. Let’s look there before looking anywhere else."

I went to wait in the Reading Area while he filled out some forms for documents containing the name of Mr. Bhagat Singh Thind. When the documents arrived – I was amazed to see two cart-loads of files, each box bursting with documents!

I found some intriguing historical documents, which had some peripheral "intelligence" connection to Mr. Thind.

Generally it was evidence of "spies" watching the activities of Indian students at U C Berkeley, esp. one who dared to publish a newspaper for the Indian community! Items relating to the "Hindu Teuton conspiracy" from San Francisco, which became a famous conspiracy trial… surveillance of day workers working on the Panama Canal remitting money home, who had their mail subject to invasion of privacy, as did the Gadar activists in San Francisco, Oregon and Washington. There were documents about a search (unsuccessful) for the "wicked lecturer" and "dangerous Hindu conspirator," (to quote the War Department in Washington DC in 1918) -Lala Lajpat Rai, of the ‘Freedom is my birthright and I will have it’ fame, when he toured the US.

I also found that in addition to "Hindoos" (be they Sikh or Hindu) being watched, Sindhi merchants were under the special scrutiny. Transactions they made from not just the US, and not just Indian cities like Hyderabad, but also from "Malta, Gibraltar, Algiers, Teneriffe (sic), Sierra Leone" to Panama were being kept track of by the US government – in 1918. All under the stamp "TOP SECRET" – I was truly treading dangerous waters!

Could some of the same kind of folks who thought that the business activities of Sindhis had to watched, have removed some documents their official activities from government archives? Could some well-meaning non-racist and patriotic person have avenged his or her anger against American racism by purging US government documents? Is this why the Thind folder was so slim?

Jokingly, I asked the archivist, since I had found US government documents showing evidence that they had watched the Indian in Berkeley who was publishing a newspaper in 1918, and I was a miniscule publisher, and there was a display at the Archives of the "Intelligence" arm of the US government investigating MAD magazine in the 1950’s for contributing to the delinquency of American youth, there might possibly a dossier on me, too? He replied, "try the building there," pointing to a building across the street. Unfamiliar with Washington DC, on my next break, I walked over to see what was the building he had pointed to in jest – it was the FBI’s national headquarters. Shrugging off paranoia, I went back to my research.

So far I had found a great many interesting documents, but nothing directly related to the Thind case. I was near the end of the documents on the second cart when I found a one-page cryptic copy of a film, stating simply, "Suspect." The name below it said "Singh, Bhagat" and in the line below "East Indian." The document contained three columns ‘File Number" "Date and Name" and "Purport of Communication." The dates and places and US Army record matched Mr. Bhagat Singh Thind’s life. Bingo!

I now had specific file numbers to go on. But where were these files, and why were they not in Washington D.C., in the central Archives of the US Government? The Military Archives are in the Midwest, and not released without specific permission of family members/ survivors… so I decided to focus for the duration of the visit to the National Archives in DC to data there.

The Archivist who had helped me so far was equally puzzled about why there was reference to this data about Mr. Thind in a single copy of a film from military intelligence files, and yet, none of it appeared in the documents relating to the Supreme Court case. I felt something had clearly been "sanitized" – but where, when and why?

Could there be any surviving copies of these historic documents? If so, where?
I was given two other leads to follow. I could go check out the US Supreme Court’s Archives, which I was told may contain information the National Archives did not have (which did not make sense); in most likelihood, the information was no longer in D.C., I was told. It was common practice (even each of the triplicate copies?) for many/all supporting documents of a case to be sent back to the court from where the case originated.

In the Thind case, it was the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco – so that is where I would need to look for the missing information. Fearing the usual runaround, and not being an attorney, I decided to postpone this avenue until I got back to the Bay Area.

The second option I had, while in D.C., was to look at the US Justice Department’s Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) archival data. Another helpful archivist had given me a reference to the official historian for the INS, and set up an appointment for me, so I decided to do this first.

When I got to her office, I found that this historian not only knew who Mr. Thind was, she was familiar with the vagaries of the Thind case! Real progress in a few days, when the junior archivist had told me the Thind case could not be significant since he could not find much data. This historian gave me several pieces of information on Mr. Thind, which helped fill in some of the gaps.

For instance, I was able to verify which of the "Bhagt" or Bhagat Singh from passenger landing forms of various ships was the Mr. Thind in question. Therefore I could verify he came from the Philippines.
I also found that there was some confusion among US intelligence agents about if the Bhagat Singh in the US had been the same man who was later executed by the British in India for his activities as a freedom fighter. Mr. Thind entered this country as Bhagat Singh, but soon began distinguishing himself by going as Bhagat Singh Thind.

This historian shared what information she had, and told me I could file for information about Mr. Thind’s immigration file, but the request would probably be die in inactivity. It was an old case, and assigning one person to track down disintegrating pieces of paper about one man, from so long ago, at the request of a private citizen, was unlikely. She shared some of the correspondence between the IRS’s notorious Mr. Tomlinson and Mr. Thind’s attorney.

However, I could probably get more detailed information from the regional office where all this began. This was Seattle, and there could possibly be some relevant documents there. I was using historic documents to create a lesson plan, so documents I needed.

I asked for an extension of time to finish my research, and checked the National Archives regional office in San Bruno, where the Ninth Circuit Court documents are housed. Strangely, here too, there was chaos relating to the year in which Mr. Thind’s case was heard. Coincidence?

I was informed that while there were court documents like case rulings, the supporting documents and correspondence were not available. There were a few boxes of unsorted data from that year in some warehouse, but since they were unsorted, I could not have access to these. Again the strange wall of "don’t know"…

I was glad to find the official ruling of the Ninth Circuit Court (which had – strangely - not been saved in the official record of the Thind case at the National Archives in DC). I decided to follow up on the word of the good folks who had told me the files had probably been all sent back to Seattle.

To Seattle I went, to the National Archives branch for the Alaska and Pacific Region. Here I was able to find a very supportive archivist, who had pulled out all the information for me. I found a lot of data on Mr. Thind, reports of newspaper clippings about the case, his membership card in the "Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen" and a few pieces of correspondence by the local INS official who pursued Mr. Thind all the way to the US Supreme Court. I still had a nagging sense that there was more, and something about the files on the cryptic copy of Military Intelligence film was missing. The smoking gun had led me to Mr. Tomlinson of the INS, and along with the official and racist words Justice Sutherland of the US Supreme Court, there was enough to build a good lesson plan.

But before sitting down to creating a lesson plan for high school and college students, I decided to follow one more hunch. A local Gadar member in the Bay Area had mentioned that eventually Mr. Thind had received his immigration. And that he had spent his last few years in New York. So – one more branch of the National Archives to explore!

The New York Regional office of the National Archives provided the final piece of the puzzle. I was able to confirm that the same Mr. Singh had indeed finally received his immigration in 1936 - the signature on the certificate matched! Delighted, I called the Archivists and Historian in Washington DC and Seattle and told them about this find – the INS historian would have to revise her information for future dissemination - but we each felt a personal sense of justice accomplished!

To summarize, Mr. Bhagat Singh Thind applied for citizenship four times, according to petitions he filed in 1917, 1918, 1919 and 1936. He was granted citizenship three times, in 1918, 1920 and 1936. His citizenship was cancelled twice in 1918, and in 1923. The reason each time was that Mr. Thind, though a Veteran, was "not a free white man."

The first time Judge Wolverton granted Mr. Thind citizenship over the racist objections of the INS official Mr. Tomlinson, perhaps because Mr. Thind went for his immigration interviews/hearings dressed in full uniform of the US Army.

Justice Sutherland of the US Supreme Court, decided to uphold racism, and rescinded the citizenship of Mr. Thind. Based on this ruling, US v. Thind, the citizenship of many Asians was cancelled, retroactively.
The second time Mr Thind received his citizenship, it was in a different political atmosphere. There had been a House Resolution introduced in the US Congress to specifically exempt World War I Veterans of Asian origin from this exclusionary legal practice. It forced the government to rethink why those who were good enough to be killed in war, as members of US military could be legally barred from US citizenship, despite the Fourteenth Amendment.

Why is any of this important or relevant? If we do not learn from history, history will repeat itself. If in the year 2000, if Dr. Wen Ho Lee can be kept shackled in chains, while in solitary confinement, for nine months (on all but 1 of 58 counts that are later dropped), all immigrants who look different or have accented speech have to be vigilant that the negative history, such as became law based on Mr. Thind’s case, do not become law again. In this effort, knowledge and education are the only and real lasting means of social change. Young people need to understand that ‘the price of ticket has already been paid’, to quote James Baldwin.

Related educational materials are available as a Lesson Plan and Booklets at

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