Found: A Long-Lost History of an Immigrant Community

A street scene in Harlem, New York City, in 1935

You have learned about the waves of immigrants who came to America seeking a better life—from England, Ireland, Germany, China, Italy, Mexico, and many other places. We know also about the enslaved Africans who were brought here against their will. But some immigration stories are still being uncovered.

One such is the account of people from Bengal, a region that is now shared by eastern India and Bangladesh. Many of these newcomers settled in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City.

The first wave of South Asian immigrants arrived on the Atlantic seaboard in the 1890s. They sold embroidered silk and cotton fabrics. Eventually these merchants spread to other cities, including New Orleans and Atlanta. Another wave came in the 1920s and 1930s, when immigration from much of Asia was actually illegal, following passage of the 1917 Immigration Act. The new Bengali arrivals were primarily male, Muslim, illiterate, and poor. But they worked hard at the most menial jobs, as dishwashers, cooks, and subway laborers. They slowly formed a community in Harlem, where African Americans and Latinos had settled earlier. The Bengalis married into the Harlem community. They found more acceptance in Harlem than they would have elsewhere.

Now the story of New York’s Bengali immigrant community has been revealed in a new book—Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, by MIT professor Vivek Bald. The book chronicles the lives of immigrants such as Habib Ullah, who left home at the age of 14. Ullah eventually got to New York, where he married a Puerto Rican woman and worked as a restaurant cook. Ullah refused to teach his son the Bengali language, because he wanted him to be 100 percent American. Now that son, Ullah Jr., speaks English and Spanish but also feels closely connected to his Bengali heritage. Ullah proudly says “I’m a Banglarican!”

Image credit: © Archive Photos/Getty Images

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