Editor's note: CNN's Moni Basu, a Bengali immigrant, was born in Kolkata, India.
By Moni Basu, CNN
(CNN) - In the next few weeks, Fatima Shaik, an African-American, Christian woman, will travel “home” from New York to Kolkata, India.
It will be a journey steeped in a history that has remained unknown until the publication last month of a revelatory book by Vivek Bald. And it will be a journey of contemplation as Shaik, 60, meets for the first time ancestors with whom she has little in common.
“I want to go back because I want to find some sort of closure for my family, said Shaik, an author and scholar of the Afro-Creole experience.
That Americans like Shaik, who identify as black, are linked by blood to a people on the Indian subcontinent seems, at first, improbable.
South Asian immigration boomed in this country after the passage of landmark immigration legislation in 1965. But long before that, there were smaller waves of new Americans who hailed from India under the British Empire.
The first group, to which Shaik’s grandfather, Shaik Mohamed Musa, belonged, consisted of peddlers who came to these shores in the 1890s, according to Bald. They sold embroidered silks and cottons and other “exotic” wares from the East on the boardwalks of Asbury Park and Atlantic City, New Jersey. They eventually made their way south to cities like New Orleans and Atlanta and even farther to Central America.
The second wave came in the 1920s and ‘30s. They were seamen, some merchant marines.
Most were Muslim men from what was then the Indian province of Bengal and in many ways, they were the opposite of the stereotype of today’s well-heeled, highly educated South Asians.
South Asian immigration was illegal then – the 1917 Immigration Act barred all idiots, imbeciles, criminals and people from the “Asiatic Barred Zone.”
The Bengalis got off ships with little to their name.
They were mostly illiterate and worked as cooks, dishwashers, merchants, subway laborers. In New York, they gradually formed a small community of sorts in Spanish Harlem. They occupied apartments and tenement housing on streets in the 100s. They worked hard.
And they did all they could do to become American in a nation of segregation and prejudice.
A huge part of that meant marrying Latino and African-American women – there were no Bengali women around - and letting go of the world they left behind.
Unlike other immigrants of the time, they didn’t settle in their own enclaves. Rather, they began life anew in established neighborhoods of color: Harlem, West Baltimore and in New Orleans, Treme.
By doing so, they also became a part of black and Latino heritage in America.
“One of the most important things I took from the research is the fact that in the years of Asian exclusion, African-American and Puerto Rican communities actually gave (the Bengali men) the possibilities and the shelter to rebuild their lives,” said Bald, a documentarian who teaches writing and digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Those communities lived up to the promise of the nation when the nation failed to do so … because they were equally marginalized and equally deprived of full membership.”
Musa married Tennie Ford, a black Catholic woman. They raised their children near New Orleans’ Congo Square, where slaves once gathered. Ford took her children to church on Sundays while Musa knelt on a prayer rug and faced Mecca.
Musa died when Ford was pregnant with her son. Ford raised her children with African-American traditions; the ties to Bengal faded.
Shaik was aware of her Indian roots. Her name was the first obvious hint.
When she was little, in the 1950s and ‘60s, she rushed to the porch when phone books arrived with a thud. Her family was the only Shaik. She longed to find another name that was similar.
In India, the history of Bengali peoples evolved and was documented in print as India gained independence in 1947 and the nation was partitioned. East Bengal became East Pakistan and later, in 1971, Bangladesh.
But the sons of that land who came to America seeking a better life remained invisible. Until Bald began digging around.
Last month, he published "Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America.”
The book has generated palpable excitement among the descendants of the Bengali immigrants.
“I just said, ‘wow,’” said Nurul Amin, 62, whose father once sold hotdogs from a Harlem pushcart.
“This put a stamp on our world,” he said.
Shaik, an author and scholar of the Afro-Creole experience, said she was finally learning her grandfather’s history. It dispelled notions of a monolithic black identity and connected her to a faraway land.
California native Vivek Bald grew up with a strong sense of connection to India. He heard stories from his Indian immigrant mother that made a mark when he began making movies about the diaspora.
He’d produced a documentary about taxi drivers and was struck by the class divide in South Asian communities in America. The people who came in the wake of 1965 had taken the reins of community representation. Yet, they had little in common with newer waves of working-class immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In his exploration of the diaspora, he met actor and stand-up comic Aladdin Ullah, 44, one of the sons of Habib Ullah, who’d arrived by ship from what is now Bangladesh in the 1920s. Bald was fascinated with Ullah’s story. He’d never imagined such a history.
“This was a population who came to the United States at a time when this country had erected quite draconian race-based immigration laws,” Bald said. “They came during that time but were able to build networks in order to access jobs all over the United States.
“The story,” said Bald, “was so completely different than what I had heard about South Asian immigration in the United States.”
Their memories had survived in the African-American and Latino families into which they married.
Bald began researching their history. It took him nine years to meticulously comb through marriage and death records, other court documents, newspaper stories and archival treasures.
He is now in the process of making a documentary film.
The project became a series of astonishments for Bald.
“I think the revelations I had along the way had to do with how resourceful both of these groups of men were in dealing with a home country that was under the rule of the British and on the other hand, another country that was closing its doors to them and passing increasingly more restrictive and racist immigration laws,” Bald said.
Aladdin Ullah, whose one-man act “Dishwasher Dreams” explores his father’s experiences, imagined how difficult life must have been for the Bengalis.
“These were illiterate men who came to America with hopes of a better life. That’s like me going to Sweden to start a Mexican restaurant,” he said.
“They learned the American hustle, not the American Dream.”
Ullah was young when his father died.
“I rejected my culture. I was a hip-hop kid, a kid from Harlem. I listen to rap. I didn’t have any connection to Bengalis.”
But it was an acting role that led Ullah to reconsider his father’s identity.
He was preparing to play the part of a stereotypical Middle Eastern prince in a Hollywood movie. “Death to America,” he shouted at the mirror, practicing his line.
He reflected on his father. He was not a king; he was a dishwasher.
“I felt my father’s presence in that hotel room.”
Ullah wanted to know more.
Habib Ullah and Ibrahim Chowdry likely arrived in New York City some time in the 1920s.
Chowdry had been a student leader back home in East Bengal and fled after British authorities were alerted to his activities. He rose to prominence in New York as a Bengali community leader.
Ullah left East Bengal’s rural Noakhali district at the young age of 14, traveled to Calcutta and found a job on an outgoing ship.
Bald’s book documents Ullah’s arrival in Boston, where he either jumped ship or fell ill. His son, Habib Ullah Jr., always thought his father had gotten lost.
Either way, he ended up in New York, married a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Echevarria, and moved to East Harlem.
South Asian immigrants today tend to be a more insulated community. Many parents urge their children to marry other “desis,” people of the Indian diaspora.
But back then, it was different. The Bengali Muslim men knew they had to do all they could to make it in America.
Echevarria died in 1952 and left her husband to raise the children. Ullah Jr. remembers his sister being sent off to his aunt’s house in New Jersey. He did the rest of his growing up with his father in an apartment on East 102nd Street.
His father worked as a cook at the Silver Palms restaurant on Sixth Avenue and 44th Street. He left the house at the crack of dawn for the subway ride. He came home tired, took a nap and then cooked dinner. Rice and curry. Later he and Chowdry opened their own restaurant, The Bengal Garden.
Occasionally they’d head down to the Indian seamen’s club in the Lower East Side and after 1947, to the Pakistan League of America, an organization Chowdry and Ullah co-founded.
Ullah Jr. called his father’s friends “Chacha,” the Bengali Muslim word for uncle. Some of them changed their Bengali names to Charlie and Harry and in the case of Ibrahim – Abraham.
Ullah Jr. even asked his father once to teach him Bengali. The answer was no.
“He wanted me to be an American boy,” Ullah Jr. said, trying to mimic a Bengali accent.
He remembered his father asking a literate friend to pen letters in Bengali to his mother and brother back in Noakhali.
“He would bring them home and I would address them and send them out,” he said.
Ullah Jr. grew up playing on the rooftops and hanging out on the streets.
The Puerto Ricans embraced each other, the blacks high-fived. And the Bengalis? They asked: “How was school?”
Ullah Jr. grew up speaking English and Spanish. The Bengali or Bangla side of him diminished but never went away.
“I’m a Banglarican,” said Ullah Jr. of his identity. “We assimilated into the neighborhood. I’m immersed in both cultures.”
In the late 1960s, his father, then ailing from asthma, returned to Noakhali to remarry. He returned with Moheama, a traditional Bengali woman who was much younger than her husband. Aladdin Ullah is her son.
Ullah Jr. wishes he had accompanied his father on that long trek home. He is 70 now and doesn’t think he will ever step foot on his father’s homeland.
“I have a whole family I have never met, and will never meet,” he said. “Now my father has passed away. His brother is gone. The lines of communication are gone.”
Curry on the stove
Chowdry became a key figure in New York. He lobbied Congress to change naturalization laws of the 1940s, connected with African-American Muslim groups in Harlem as well as Jewish and Christian leaders.
At age 32, he married Catherine, a 17-year-old woman who was born in Cuba to Puerto Rican parents, and had two children, Laily and Noor.
Both Laily and Noor recalled a father who was busy; that he became the guy to call in the Bengali community. He was always rushing out of the house.
Except one day when Noor Chowdry had gone to the Bronx Zoo and come back with a 15-inch catfish he’d caught in the lake. His father was about to leave the house, but when he saw that fish, he took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and got a knife out.
Bengalis are known as fish lovers and Ibrahim Chowdry could not give up the thought of a spicy fish curry.
John Ali Jr. also remembers that Bengali food was the one constant from the homeland.
His father, Mustafa “John” Ali, like Chowdry, also came to play an important role for Bengali men in the industrial towns where he worked, including Chester, Pennsylvania, home to a Ford car factory and the Sun Shipbuilding plant along the Delaware River.
Ali learned English from listening to the radio and helped “anchor the broader network of escaped seamen in a series of key locations,” Bald wrote.
Ali Jr., 83, remembers his father always having a pot of curry and rice on the stove’s back burner. Just in case any of the Bengalis stopped by.
Ali Jr., who wrote on the last census that he was a “black Bangladeshi,” moved to Atlanta almost three decades ago, where he settled in the mostly black southwest neighborhood of Cascade. He married a black woman, as had his father, and never saw himself as anything else. In his tenure in the Army, he’d always been colored.
In his youth, he read a lot of Indian history, about independence and the infamous, 18th-century Black Hole of Calcutta incident in which prisoners suffocated in a dungeon.
He recalled his father listening to news about India on the radio and translating it for his fellow Bengalis who did not know English.
“I thought I would see Bangladesh one day,” he said. But he never did.
His father returned to his hometown of Sylhet in the 1960s after his wife's death. “I was surprised he went back,” Ali Jr. said. “He got homesick.”
Shortly after, his father died on his way back from Haj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage, in Saudi Arabia.
These days, Ali Jr. sees Bangladeshis running the corner gas station or convenience stores in his neighborhood.
“Salam alaikum,” they greet him.
“Alaikum salam,” answers Ali.
It’s not difficult to see why the Bengalis would assume this black Catholic man is one of their own. But beyond the universal Muslim greeting, Ali can say nothing to them in Bengali.
Fatima Shaik’s grandfather’s ancestry was a positive for her family who lived under the sting of racism and segregation in New Orleans.
Her family was told they were unworthy and ignorant. But they held onto the memories of Shaik Mohamed Musa, whose family owned land in India, who traveled across the world to come to America, who started a business.
With a father like that, her grandmother encouraged her dad, he could achieve anything.
“My father spoke of his father all his life.” Shaik said. “He always spoke about how important India was to him.”
Musa left behind a hookah from India, a few papers and jewelry, including a diamond stickpin. Hurricane Katrina washed away much of Shaik’s grandfather’s belongings. Her father died the following year.
Shaik began searching, “in earnest,” she wrote on the Bengali Harlem website, “as one suddenly does after realizing just how much is gone.”
She is excited about her journey to Kolkata, specifically to Hooghly, across the Ganges River, to the place from where her grandfather and many of the early "exotic" goods peddlers hailed. Director Kavery Kaul plans to document Shaik's trip in March for an upcoming film, "Streetcar to Calcutta."
"The story of Fatima's grandfather, Shaik Mohamed Musa, belongs to all of us," Kaul said from Kolkata. "It's the history of the Indian diaspora and the making of America, the story of long overlooked links between cultures that looks to the past as it points us ahead to the future of our global society.
"The project takes me back to Kolkata where I was born and it leads Fatima on a journey in search of the name she bears." Kaul said. "Entering a world so different, so far from home, is sure to give her another sense of belonging."
In some ways Shaik feels it will be a journey guided by spirits. She will be taking her grandfather and father to India – the home that one knew and the other always dreamed of knowing.
I think when indians date black people that is gross. And now they are getting married and having kids with them. This story sickens men. i will not read or purchase this book. Get rid of this article and stop trying to embarrass the Indian community.
Mr. Patel, please reconsider. Black people can be wonderful girlfriends and boyfriends... And husbands and wives... for Desis.
A wonderful piece of history. I/we only knew that only people from India who came to this country
are students/professionals because there is no other way of coming here.
Amar shonar Harlem ? Excellent read and a movie needs to me made for these pioneering Bengalis and their African American – Hispanic families. This story deserves the silver screen.
Sikhs from India and pre partion Bharat, in CA also had same fate – they married Mexicans and now are wealthy land owning farmers in CA
Even Gujratis and Patels have the similar story. They came here in the 1950's as Chemists, Engineers and Businessmen later becoming Motel owners in the deep south and elsewhere. Many Gujjus came here from Africa too, mainly Uganda and Kenya. These people have never seen India but all are ultimately Indians.
Could not deprive myself writing about Gujratis. Gujrati peoples are very sophisticated and nice on the surface but extremely communal internally. If there is a Gujrati person managing a group in a company and there is a job openning the Gujrati manager will preserve the job for another Gujrati. He will hire anyone else you can be sure that he did not have any other choice. Gujratis have deep love for money just as the ants has for sweet stuffs. Just for saving even a penny they can go any length. Whatever I said so far is the tip of the iceberg. If you consider how many religious riots has happened in Gujarat so far is a proof of how communal they are.
You say: 'If you consider how many religious riots has happened in Gujarat so far is a proof of how communal they are.'
The 2002 Gujarat riots were put in motion by a mob of Mus lims burning alive 59 Hindu pilgrims on a train. As in that case, religious riots in India are almost always triggered by Is lamists stirring the pot and instigating Mus lims to riot.
Your characterizations of the Gujarati people are over the top and bi goted. As with individuals of any other group of people, Gujaratis also come in varying attributes and traits.
@John..how do you know so much truth about Gujratis.And the best one was that "they can go to any extend for saving a penny even they are millionaires.Genes never changes.
Great article. A pure historical gem. I feel proud for the Bangalis(from Bangladesh, India).
Wonderfull Article!!! After reading this article my respect and love towards African Americans has increased by infinite times. Although, I am not a Bengali it was a pleasure to know their lives and struggles and how they were helped by Africans and Peurtoricans. My husband is a Scientist and he works with African Americans. He always has great words about them. African Americans are pure hearted. They are very affectionate and compassionate more than White Americans. Even today, african americans celebrate their festivals or parties by inviting non-african friends or co-workers to homes which you will notice is rare with White Americans. I am using term white only to tell the difference.
I, too, loved the article. As for your comments about whites, I suggest you circulate more. Maybe it's where you live, but not all races are as you have claimed. One thing that I have noticed is that immigrants are often eager to bring home-cooked foods to potlucks and do open their homes to visitors. But then, I have noticed those traits in people who don't live in urban areas; people of all colors.
"It is a pit of human misery filled with amazing history and remarkable spirit. Then look at what it is to be poor here–and thank your God for the priviledge it is to be an American"
A Pit of Human Misery??
Really? when have you last visited India, trust me, there are places which are much better than US at times and that comes from India, e.g. Education
"Then look at what it is to be poor here–"
One simply cannot compare poverty between two different cultures, its all subjective, e.g. a 50$ does really falls short when it comes food and groceries for a week in the USA but can go a long way in India.
What a wonderful article. And so touching! More please, CNN.
The current crop of cultural bengalis will do their best to forget this happened. As mentioned the immigration numbers have featured more educated bengalis than in the past. But that also comes with a sense of elitism they had back in the homeland and they have such a negative view of black people (i.e. reminds them of the poor people they look down upon in the homeland).
I agree; as an American born Black Muslim convert, I welcome the drama associated with the revelations that Islam is not new to America. The article mentioned how these immigants were welcomed and defended, as a point of pride, by the Black Community. This nuturing is still present within the psychology of the Black Community.
Good article, I did think that some South Asians would have come before 60s, 70s . A lot is known about how and when Afro-American, Chinese came to the US..... but not about other groups. Keep posting such articles, which are informative and interesting.
The "Melting Pot" is phenomenal.
This is a very interesting and informative article. Now I will go and buy the book to read. I think every Indian should read this to appreciate what our predecessors had to go through and who gave them shelters and appreciation.
Very intriguing story! While working on my Master's Thesis, I came to find out Indians have been here for that long too...it was fascinating! None of my relatives, but it was interesting to know that they came that early on and there's nothing in the history books!
BOSE (speaker company) the owner's dad was also one of the migrant who came from Bengla. Just FYI
Good article... but the only reason why I opened this was to see if they were somehow related with "Harlem Shake" 😛
Met James Brown in Narita airport (Tokyo) August 16, 2000. Was kind enough to ask me to sit with him, his wife and associate (Judge?). In our brief conversation, he mentioned that his grandmother was Bengali. His wavy hair and facial features .... I could see it. Signed my boarding pass .... '"I Feel Good", James Brown.' Moment of my life!
Just amazing! had no idea that James Brown, one of my favourite singers had Bengali connection. That is why I dance just like James Brown, or at least try to.
What a wonderful article! For a moment I thought Bengali Harlem was about as Bengali as the Cincinnati Bengals until I read it. One of the subtle notions that emerge from articles such as this is the almost universal love that Bengalis have for their language. Perhaps there is no other instance of language defining a people as much as it defines the Bengalis. Language was one of the chief reasons behind the creation of Bangladesh. Contrary to one of the earlier commenter's views, I do not believe that outside of the Indian subcontinent, Bengalis identify themselves as Indians or Bangladeshi's, simply Bengalis.
@SB not true
Great article – absolutely fascinating. Makes me grateful for my experiences as an immigrant from South Asia – my "hardships" in front of a computer at a desk dont even register on the same scale as these early immigrants. Thank you CNN. Wouldnt it be great if Piers Morgan had the author and some others referenced in this article on his show!
A great article. Surely I will buy the book 'Bengali Harlem'. I'm sure my 3rd grader son will enjoy reading the book. I'm proud to be a Bengali immigrant.
Last year, I read another article on BBC which showed some african immigrants to India(brought in as slaves by the British empire), and married Indian men & women. The descendents mostly look Indian, with a bit of african features.
Please keep them coming CNN!!!
Outstanding article. Speechless I am.... And being an Indian all I can say is that is mesmerizing to read that Indians have so long been part of American society.
Bangladeshis should be called Bangladeshi and not Bengali.
Bengalis are from India and are Hindu strictly.
Articles like these confuses "1diot" south indian and west indian men as they think Bengali's are from Bangladesh. India's President Pranab Mukherjee is also a Bengali i.e. he is from the state of West Bengal. He is a Hindu [and hates muslim culture (not muslims) like rest of the world.
The 1917 immigration act is unbelievable...imbeciles, idiots...how was it determined that a person is an idiot or imbecile? I mean any human being is capable of being an idiot or imbecile, it would be really interesting to find out if and when was this Act enforced to reject someone from entering US
what has changed over the last 50 years? Islam? or the perception of Islam? My point is see how compatible these muslim men were in your country 50 years ago, why are the muslims treated so differently today?
they are treated different because Muslim now, from our part of the world self segregated and are not comparable with western society and value and do not see any value in infidels culture and because of their own behavior they are looked at differently. i am a bangali i see self segregation everyday specially muslim banglai. and this is not a banglai problem rather arab problem. since Islam originated from Arab country these Arabs are brainwashing this bangli in the name of islam and thats the reason they are different
As a Muslim from South Asia who has given a decade to the military/DoD and know of many others who are serving this country day in day out, I call that is a load of bull predicated on lies. But your comment does show exactly what has changed, which is some people using paranoia and generalizations to spread their bigotry and painting a whole religious group with lies based on ignorance. The bigotry that those bengalis faced in that segregated society shamefully is still alive today but much more at the fringes now and not legalized anymore.
This article is about the people from East Bengal (today's Bangladesh) who are mostly Muslims that migrated to America. Nothing wrong with that but it's hot nothing to do with mainstream Indians. There were immigrants coming from India to the American shores since 1700s when it was a part of the British empire. In 1800s there were farm workers from Punjab region notable being Bhagat Singh thind who was a US army veteran that fought for his right to citizenship. If you want to talk about real Bengalis then the article should have focused on the revolutionaries. Bengal was a state of revolutionaries and many fled to avoid English persecution. The article makes no mention of the Boses who were revolutionaries from Bengal like the father of Amar Bose (the founder of the famed Bose corporation). All these immigrants integrated into the mainstream society and married Caucasians as well. So this article presents a lopsided view. It's more specific about Bangladeshi Muslims who came as laborers and lived in ghettos than actual Indians or Bengalis from India
Even if you look closely at the picture it says " Pakistan Zindabad" or hail Pakistan in the backdrop. It's because at that time, Bangladesh was East Pakistan until it became independent, thus proving my point.
Not sure if being "today’s well-heeled, highly(?) educated South Asian" is a good thing or bad thing. I am a Bengali and came from Kolkata as part of the Globalization and IT-boom. We go through our own set of challenges such as Immigration issues etc. But when I think of the folks who came here during the early and mid 20th century, I feel lucky to have come to this country at a time when there is better acceptance and respect for south asians.
Congratualtions to the author for sharing such an exciting piece of history – very well-researched.Although I dont have any direct connections with the folks mentioned in this article, somehow the article still touches my heart. Probably it tells the inner me that migrations from one country to another have always been difficult, and I am lucky to be in a better situation than my previous generation was in!
Well written Article. Can't wait to read the book. Thank you.
There may be more stories from Indians that came to the USA in the 17th & 18th Centuries. These might be from the West Coast of India.
There is also ancient stories of Tribal groups from India traveling overland via China, Alaska into North & South America. I believe it was Lokamanya Tilak who wrote about it.
Very refreshing article. I was not aware of Vivek Bald's this new book. Now I have to buy it. Thanks a lot.
There is a place here in California, about 10 miles south from Modesto, called Delhi. One might get some of history when Indians were broght here to work on railway lines. The history may be compared with other Indians, I am descendant of, here taken to Fiji Islands, under the British indenture system. The editor can contact me about Fiji Indenture system. Thanks
CNN, thank you for this story. Sterling work. More, please?
Working on it! 🙂
Enlightening article. It feels good to read about all the cultures striving to have a better life in this great country. There are always growth opportunities, and this country has chosen to grow over the years for the betterment of all its people. Some things get lost on the way to achieve goals, but proud to see how the grand children of some of the initial immigrants trying to resurrect their forgotten genealogy. Good luck and god bless.
Appreciate you sharing your thoughts, Pachi. Moni, the writer, did an amazing job reporting this story. Vivek Bald, the author of "Bengali Harlem" spent a lot of time researching and writing the book. And the many characters were so gracious to share their stories. Their efforts really brought these incredible stories to light. Please let us know about other identity stories we should keep in mind.
Wow very interesting article! Thanks for publishing something like this CNN instead of your usual bashing of Indian and Middle Eastern men!
Glad you enjoyed it Naveen. Fascinating history, isn't it?