A brief history on Sikh immigration and the integral part Sikh Americans play in Stockton and the Central Valley.
The descendants of one of the greatest empires in history, Sikh Americans are one of the vibrant and essential Asian cultures that make up the DNA of Stockton. With a reign whose genesis dates back to 1709, the Empire reached its full peak and unification in 1799, when Maharaja Ranjit Singh unified all Sikhs. When Singh died in 1839, colonization in the form of the East India Company made its way. By 1849—after two Anglo-Sikh wars—India had fallen under the control of the British Empire.
With this, there were two options: Work under British rule or leave. Many who chose to leave made their way to the United States.
Many of those immigrating from India came from small peasant families that lived in the Doab region of Punjab—an area which is 90% Sikh. Upon arriving in the US, a large number made their living as contract laborers in the Pacific Northwest, working in lumber mills and railways. Like other Asian cultures in the States, Sikhs faced a heavy anti-Asian sentiment. This would lead to large numbers of them to head further south and reside in California, finding work in the growing agriculture industry in San Joaquin and Imperial Counties.
However, even here, they faced their own discriminatory laws that deprived them of freedoms—laws like the CA Alien Land Laws of 1913 and 1920 that deeply affected Sikh farmers.
In 1911 in the town of Holt, a meeting of Sikhs from across the state took place in order to establish a Sikh society and religious center. Then, on August 22, 1912, Sikhs purchased a lot in south Stockton with the intention of building a gurdwara—a Sikh religious, social, political, and educational institution. The construction of the Stockton Gurdwara served not only the needs of Sikh Americans but also stood as an important resource for all immigrants of South Asian descent.
The Stockton Gurdwara would benefit South Asian students by starting a scholarship fund and purchasing houses in Berkeley for students to stay rent-free. The Gurdwara also fed anyone that was hungry—regardless of their identity—through their community kitchen. The kitchen, known as the langar, is open all hours of the day and is closed only a few hours during the night. This important landmark was the first of its kind of the US and remained that way until 1946.
Notable names to come from the Stockton Gurdwara and our Sikh community include Bhagat Singh Thind (the first Sikh and turban-wearing individual in the US Army) and Dalip Singh Saund (the first Asian American and only Sikh to serve in the House of Representatives in 1956).
With roots that were first set over a hundred years ago, Sikh Americans are one of the many influential and beautiful cultures that give Stockton its "flavor." With deep contributions in the agriculture of San Joaquin County to providing resources for their fellow man in difficult times—like providing food and necessities to citizens in need during the pandemic—the Sikh and South Asian communities here show their devotion to providing seva (selfless service) in everything they do.
To learn more about the Sikh American History Project, click here!
The information presented above was provided by The San Joaquin Historian's The Sikhs in America: Faith, Resilience, and Power.
Side note: In April, this very community holds their annual celebration known as the Stockton Sikh Temple Parade. The festival begins and ends at the Stockton Gurdwara and features music, dignitaries of the faith, free food, and martial-arts demonstrations. If you're looking for a celebration that is rooted deep in the culture, make your way to Stockton in April.
For more on the parade, click here!
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