Michelle Caswell: Exploring the History of South Asian Americans in California

UCLA IS professor and co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive presents Feb. 23 symposium of researchers, archivists, artists, and community members.

A daylong symposium on “History From Different Angles: South Asian American Stories in California” will take place at UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library on Saturday, Feb. 23, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Michelle Caswell, associate professor at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies and co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), in conjunction with SAADA’s Executive Director Samip Mallick, will present a diverse range of ways to preserve the stories of South Asian Americans through the perspectives of research, activism, art, and family history.

“South Asians have been in California for at least 130 years, but the stories of these early immigrants are not well known,” says Professor Caswell. “For example, thousands of immigrants from the Punjab region worked on farms and in sawmills all along the West Coast in the early 20th Century. They formed a radical political party to advocate for the overthrow of British colonial rule in India. Many became U.S. citizens, but their citizenship was revoked based on racial grounds in a landmark 1923 U.S. Supreme Court Case, U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind. This history provides crucial lessons that can inform debates about immigration and activism against racism today.

Michelle Caswell, associate professor at the UCLA Department of Information Studies, is a co-founder of the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA). Courtesy of Michelle Caswell

“SAADA has spent the past decade digitizing records created by some of these early South Asian American immigrants to California. The symposium is a way for us to activate the archives, ensuring that scholars, students, artists, activists, and community members will leverage these histories in the present.”

Caswell credits her students at UCLA IS as “crucial players in making this event happen.”

“Our students helped digitize many of the historic records the panelists will be discussing,” she says. The event was first proposed by Sonja Carlson (MLIS expected 2019), who wrote the initial California Humanities grant proposal to fund the symposium for her final project in my community archives course last Spring. In this way, the symposium also shows the real-world impact of work done by our students.”

Presentations on prominent figures in South Asian history will be given by their descendants, scholars, and historians. These will focus on Dalip Singh Saund, the first South Asian elected to U.S. Congress; Bhagwan Singh Gyanee, a leader of the Ghadar Party; Kala Bagai, one of the very few South Asian women immigrants in the early 1900s; and Bhagat Singh Thind, whose case for citizenship went before the Supreme Court in 1923. Professor Caswell and SAADA co-founder Mallick will give the lunch hour presentation, and a conversation between Amarjit Singh Marwah, DDS, a philanthropist and community leader, and Sharon Sekhon, Ph.D., of The Studio for Southern California History, will close out the symposium.

This event was made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and additional support from the UCLA Department of Information Studies, the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center.

Admission to this event is free of charge, and lunch will be provided to all attendees.

To attend this event, or for more information, visit this Eventbrite link.


Photo: Dalip Singh Saund (at far right) was the first South Asian elected to the U.S. Congress, representing the 29th District of California from1957 to 1963. Saund was the first Sikh American, the first Asian American, the first Indian American and the first member of a non-Abrahamic faith to be elected to Congress; he is pictured with President John F. Kennedy and Vice-President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Courtesy of SAADA/Dalip Singh Saund Collection