Sikhism in America

1903 CE Indian Immigration to North America Begins

Twenty Asian Indians immigrated to North America. In 1904, 258 entered followed by 145 in 1905. By 1906 about 600 had applied for entry to the U.S. from Vancouver. The vast majority of immigrants from India in this period were Sikhs from the Punjab.

1905 CE Sikh Workers on the Railroad

Sikhs worked on the Western Pacific Railway in Northern California. Two thousand Sikhs worked on a seven hundred mile road from Oakland to Salt Lake City. They were responsible for the construction of a large number of bridges and tunnels.

1907 CE Bellingham “Anti-Hindu” Riot

A mob of some 500 white lumberjacks attacked 250 Sikh mill workers in Bellingham, Washington, beating them and burning their belongings. Some Sikhs fled into Canada, where 400 were arrested. The press was sympathetic to the attackers. The Asiatic Exclusion League (AEL) was formed in 1907. 

1907 – 1910 CE Immigration through San Francisco

After 1907, immigration of Indians shifted to California, through the port at San Francisco. Though immigration of Asian Indians was not illegal, immigration officials scrutinized immigrants carefully, rejecting many on medical grounds. In 1910, 1,403 entered the U.S. through San Francisco.

1910 – 1920 CE Sikh Farmers Settle in California

The Punjabi immigrants, most of them Sikh, but some Muslim, settled in the San Joachin Valley in central California and the Imperial Valley in southern California. Beginning as farm workers, some were successful enough to lease and then buy land.

1912 CE Khalsa Diwan Society

The Pacific Coast Khalsa Diwan Society was established in Stockton, California. It provided support for Asian Indians facing discrimination in the U.S. and for those seeking to end British rule in India. The KDS was also the managing organization for the Stockton Gurdwara.

1912 CE Stockton: The First Gurdwara

The first gurdwara in the United States was established in Stockton, California. The “Sikh Temple” as it was called was built by an agriculturally based Sikh community. It was, for over three decades, the only Sikh worship facility in the U.S. 

1913 CE Alien Land Law Passed

The California legislature passed the Alien Land Law, barring those ineligible for citizenship from leasing or owning land in California. After the 1923 Thind decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which established Asian Indians or “Hindus,” as ineligible, the Alien Land Law threatened the livelihood of many Sikh farmers. They lost their lands or had to find ways to transfer legal title to others. 

1913 – 1918 CE The Ghadar Party and Indian Freedom

The Ghadar Party was a movement of Indians in California dedicated to the overthrow of British rule in India. It was led at first by the Punjabi Hindu Har Dayal, based at Stanford University. Ghadar means “revolution” in Punjabi, and a few California Sikhs returned to India, hoping for an armed revolutionary uprising. Its international activities led to the San Francisco “Hindu Conspiracy” trial in 1917 – 1918.

1917 CE Immigration Act of 1917

Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1917, called the “Barred Zone Act,” which barred immigration from certain areas, designated by longitudinal and latitudinal zone. India was included in the “barred zone.” Legal immigration came virtually to a halt for thirty years. By this time between 6,000 – 7,000 East Indian immigrants had come to the U.S. 

1918 Hindustani Welfare and Reform Society 

Founded in the Imperial Valley for mutual aid to farmers, its leaders were Ram Chand (a Hindu), Asa Singh (a Sikh), and Fazl Din (a Muslim).

1920s CE Sikhs in the Imperial Valley 

By 1920 Sikhs leased more than 32,000 acres in Southern California’s Imperial Valley. These Sikh farmers, many of whom had been in Holtville or El Centro for a decade, were settled. Unable to bring wives from India, they chose to marry Mexican wives. A distinctive “Mexican-Sikh” population emerged.

1922 CE The Ghadar Party

The revived Ghadar Party, now dominated by Sikhs, continued to work for India’s independence until 1947. It also became a focus for Sikh community organization in the U.S.

1923 CE Bhagat Singh Thind Denied Citizenship 

Bhagat Singh Thind came to the United States in 1912 and served in the U.S. Army during World War I. A naturalized citizen, Thind’s citizenship was revoked by the provisions of the 1917 act. This rescinsion, upheld by the United States Supreme Court in 1923, had devastating consequences for Sikhs.

1938 CE India League of America Established

Jagjit Singh became president of the newly formed India League of America. Sikhs fought for restoration of their right to U.S. citizenship.

1946 CE Congress Passes Immigration Quota Bill

The virtual exclusion of Asian Indians since the “Barred-Zone” Act of 1917 ended on July 2, 1946 with the passage of the Luce-Celler Bill granting natives of India the right to American citizenship and an annual naturalization quota of one hundred. This act was passed largely through the efforts of Jagjit Singh and Anup Singh of the India League of America. The quota was so small that it did not appreciably increase the Sikh community, though it did help to rebuild Sikh family life.

1948 CE Gurdwara Opens in El Centro, California

Imperial Valley Sikhs had worshipped in homes for decades. They purchased the Japanese Buddhist Temple in El Centro in 1947, since few Japanese returned to El Centro after release from detention camps. In 1948, America’s second gurdwara opened.

1956 CE First Sikh Elected to Congress

Dalip Singh Saund became the first Asian American to be elected to the U.S. Congress. Saund had come to the U.S. in the 1920s to study at the University of California at Berkeley where he eventually earned a Ph.D. in Mathematics. He managed a farm in California and worked for the right of Asian Indians to become citizens. He served two terms in Congress.

1965 CE New Sikh Immigrants

The Immigration Act of 1965 gave preference to visa applicants whose skills were needed in the U.S., especially highly educated professionals. Thus the Sikhs entering the country after 1965 differed greatly from most of their predecessors. The Sikh community increased fourfold in the decade between 1965 – 75. By 1975, more than 8,000 Sikhs had become American citizens.

1966 – 1969 CE New Gurdwaras for America

In these years, Sikhs organized to open gurdwaras. In many cities Sikhs began meeting in one another’s homes, renting space for festivals and programs, and finding an appropriate building or site for a gurdwara. The Sikh Study Circle in Los Angeles, the Sikh Center of the San Francisco Bay Area, and the New England Sikh Study Circle all began this way. In New York, Chicago, Detroit, Washington D.C., and Houston efforts were underway to establish gurdwaras.

1967 CE Sikh Foundation of Palo Alto California

This organization was formed for the purpose of disseminating knowledge about Sikh history, religion and culture. The Sikh Foundation hosts television and radio interviews and talk shows. They are active in book printing and distribution.

1968 CE Yogi Bhajan Comes to America

Harbhajan Singh came to the U.S. and attracted American followers with Sikh teachings and yoga classes. He founded the Sikh Dharma Brotherhood in Los Angeles in 1968. The movement, known also as 3HO (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization) has over 120 yoga and meditation centers throughout the world.

1969 CE Yuba City Gurdwara Opens

A gurdwara opened in Yuba City, California, to serve the old-timers and the new immigrants in Sutter and Yuba Counties. The new gurdwara seated 2,000 in the main hall. Built by progressive Sikhs and equipped with folding chairs, it soon became dominated by newer more traditional immigrants. By 1974, the chairs were gone and within a few years two other gurdwaras were built in the area to accommodate the different styles.

1969 CE Richmond Hill Gurdwara

Sikhs who had been meeting in homes and rented sites since 1963 incorporated and purchased a former Methodist church building in the Richmond Hill section of Queens in New York City. It was converted to a gurdwara which opened in 1972.

1969 CE First Gurdwara in Los Angeles

To celebrate the 500th birthday of Guru Nanak in 1969, the Sikh Study Circle, opened the doors of L.A.’s first gurdwara on North Vermont Avenue.

1970 CE Expansion of American Sikh Community

The decade of the 1970s brought a dramatic increase in Indian immigration. The San Francisco Sikh community opened its first center and new gurdwaras were opened in Yuba City and Live Oak.

1973 CE Hindu-Jain-Sikh Temple

The Indian community of Pittsburgh shared space and the planning for a new temple for all three traditions in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. By 1981, the Sikh community had grown substantially and opened its own gurdwara, the first in Pittsburgh.

1978 CE The Sikh Council of North America

The Council was founded by professionals as a religious and socio-cultural organization to research Sikhism and to inspire interest among Sikh youth in Sikhism. It held a yearly conference in different parts of the United States at which each gurdwara was represented by at least one delegate. The organization ceased to exist in the mid-1980s.

1979 CE First Sikh Parade, Yuba City

The first annual Sikh Parade in Yuba City commemorated Guru Gobind Singh’s enthronement of the Guru Granth Sahib. Punjabi dress, full beards, turbans and swords marked this public show of Sikh pride.

1980s CE New Gurdwaras

The Sikh population built new gurdwaras in cities throughout the U.S., spreading in the New York and California areas and beyond. In this decade, new gurdwaras were opened in Chicago (1980), Seattle (1982), Oklahoma City (1983), North Carolina (1984), Long Island (1985), Bridgewater, New Jersey (1986), Glen Rock, New Jersey (1988) and suburban Boston (1990).

1980 CE Peace Prayer Day

Yogi Bhajan continued his work with non-Punjabi Sikhs. In 1980, he established Peace Prayer Day in the mountains of New Mexico where people from many different religious traditions gathered to pray for peace. This gathering is now held annually at the time of the summer solstice.

1984 CE Attack on the Golden Temple

Indian troops attacked the Darbar Sahib, the “Golden Temple,” the Sikh holy shrine, in an attempt to rout a group of separatists under the leadership of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. This attack touched off a wave of anti-government sentiment among Sikhs in India and abroad. Sikhs in the U.S. were outraged, and protested publicly.

1984 CE The World Sikh Organization

The W.S.O. was established in the U.S. in the wake of the incident in Amritsar. It is concerned with the social, political, religious and human rights of Sikhs and marks the increasing visibility of Sikhs in the West. The newspaper, World Sikh News, based in Stockton, California was started.

1985 – 1990 CE University Conferences on Sikhism

By the mid-1980s, Sikhs formed a community of more than 150,000 in the U.S. Conferences co-sponsored by the Sikh community and major universities were held at the University of Michigan (1986), the University of Toronto (1987), and Columbia University (1989).

1987 CE Kirpan Case in New York

The kirpan, or short sword, must be worn by all initiated Sikhs. Partap Singh of New York was arrested while traveling by subway in New York because he is wearing the kirpan. The court dismissed the case after learning that it was a religious custom.

1988 CE First Sikh Day Parade, New York

Held in April near the time of Baisakhi, the parade included the Khalsa in full dress, Panj Piaras, and floats—one of them bearing the Guru Granth Sahib.

1990s CE Stabilization of Sikh population

As the U.S. Sikh population continues to spread out geographically, gurdwaras have opened in New Orleans (1990), Orange County (1991) and Atlanta (1991). Sikhs continue to find ways to strengthen their cultural and religious traditions and to transmit them to their children.

1990 – 1991 CE Sikhs Harassed During Gulf War

Sikhs, with their turbans and beards, were sometimes mistaken for Muslims by Americans. There were attacks on some Sikh gurdwaras, which were defaced with graffiti and had their windows broken.

1994 CE Court Permits Kirpan in School

When the Livingston, California Union School District prohibited three Sikh children from wearing the kirpan to school because of a ruling barring the possession of knives, the case was taken to the courts. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in August that the children could wear the kirpan.

1995 CE California School System Teaches Punjabi

Yuba City High School and Live Oak High School implemented Punjabi language programs due to the efforts of Sikhs in the area. Hardial Singh Dulay chairs two Punjabi language panels in the Yuba City school district.

1996 CE Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force (SMART) Founded

The Sikh Mediawatch and Resource Task Force was founded to meet the needs of the growing Sikh community through media analysis and education. In 2004, SMART changed it’s name to the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) and, as of 2013, was the oldest Sikh civil rights and education organization in the United States.

2001 CE Sikhs Experience Backlash After September 11th

On September 15th, 2001, Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh immigrant from the Punjab was shot and killed outside of a gas station in Mesa, Arizona. Sodhi was one of many turban-wearing Sikh men and boys who were targeted after September 11, 2001 because they “looked like terrorists.” On the evening of September 11th, the Sikh community in New York City began organizing in response to the attack on three Sikhs in Queens; their efforts resulted in the formation of the Sikh Coalition, a civil and human rights advocacy organization.

2001 CE Passage of Senate Resolution Condemning Hate Crimes Against Sikh-Americans

On October 18, 2001, the Senate unanimously passed a Resolution on Hate Crimes Against Sikh-Americans, which was introduced by Illinois Senator Richard Durbin to condemn and intend to prevent hate crimes against Sikhs, particularly in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

2004 CE NYPD Accommodates Sikh Articles of Faith

The New York Police Department (NYPD) accommodated Sikhs by allowing them to serve as Transportation Enforcement Agents for the NYPD with articles of faith (i.e. turbans and uncut hair and beards) intact, settling a lawsuit against the police force for discrimination.

2007 CE Federal Protective Service Accommodates Sikh Articles of Faith

The Federal Protective Service accommodated Sikhs by allowing them to serve as federal security guards with their articles of faith intact. A lawsuit was settled the following year.

2007 CE TSA Mandates Further Screening for Sikh Turbans

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) mandated that Sikh turbans would be subject to additional security screening, including possible removal and/or pat-down of the turban at security checkpoints.

2009 CE First Sikhs Enlist in the U.S. Army in Decades

Captains Kamaljeet Singh Kalsi and Tejdeep Singh Rattan, an emergency medicine doctor and a dentist respectively, became the first Sikhs to enlist in the U.S. Army in decades, due to a ban implemented in the early 1980s on “conspicuous” religious articles. However, Kalsi and Rattan were granted religious accommodation, allowing them to enlist and serve in the Army without having to compromise their articles of faith.

2010 CE Simran Lamba Becomes First Sikh to Enlist in the U.S. Army in Decades

Simran Lamba, a recent immigrant from India, became the first Sikh in over thirty years to enlist in the United States Army. Lamba, who trained to become a combat medic, was the first Sikh since 1984 to receive an exemption from the Army’s ban on facial hair and headgear that do not conform to regulation.

2011 CE Workplace Religious Freedom Act Signed into Legislation in NYC

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into legislation the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, clarifying standards to which New York employers must comply when posed with religious accommodation requests by employees or potential employees.

2012 CE First Major City Voluntarily Allows Sikh Police Officers to Keep Articles of Faith

Washington, D.C., the seventh largest police force in the nation, voluntarily allows Sikh police officers to keep their articles of faith, including beards and turbans. The policy announcement came after an eight year partnership between the Washington, D.C. police force and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

2012 CE NYC Transit Authority Lifts Religious Headwear Logo Requirement

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) of New York City lifted the requirement that religious headwear bear the governmental authority’s logo, settling a federal lawsuit on the basis that the logo requirement was segregating and therefore a violation of civil rights. The adopted policy required that all religious headwear, such as turbans and veils, be of a shade of blue to match the MTA uniforms.

2012 CE Six Sikhs Killed Inside a Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin

On Sunday, August 6th, six Sikh worshippers were killed during morning activities at a gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The shooting was labeled a hate crime after it was found out that the gunman, who was also killed, had ties to white supremacist groups. In the weeks and months that followed, thousands of Sikhs and non-Sikhs alike gathered in gurdwaras, churches, and community centers around the nation to remember the slain and to stand up against intolerance.