Ordinary People, Extraordinary Contributions

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Contributions

January 12, 2014

On January 3, 1957, Dalip Singh Saund, an immigrant to the United States born in a small village in the Punjab province of British India was sworn into office as member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He was the very first Asian American elected to Congress. His story, in many ways, was an unlikely one. Dalip Saund arrived in Berkeley in 1920. His plan when he arrived was to complete his graduate studies in agriculture at the University of California and then return to India. But while in Berkeley, Saund realized that his passion was not for agriculture, inspiring him to change the focus of his studies, and in 1924 graduate with a Ph.D. in mathematics. Saund arrived in the U.S. at a time when an immigrant from India could earn his Ph.D., but sadly it was also a time when there was vigorous opposition to immigration from Asia, including India. In fact, just the year prior to his graduating, in a landmark decision the Supreme Court barred South Asians from becoming American citizens. As a result, in addition to being denied other rights of citizenship, Saund was unable to find a professorship in his chosen field. Instead, he moved to the Imperial Valley in Southern California and began work as a farmer. For more than 20 years Saund continued this work, but he along with others also continued to campaign for rights for Indians to become American citizens. In 1946 this right was finally granted. A few years later Dalip Saund became a naturalized citizen and soon after decided to run for Justice of the Peace in the local town where he lived. In 1956 he ran for and was elected to U.S. Congress. “I had a very difficult campaign,” he later reflected, “but with the help of my American friends and to the astonishment of everybody I was elected to the Congress of the United States.”


Growing up, I had never heard of Saund’s story, or for that matter, the myriad stories of South Asians in the U.S. who had helped shape American and world history. From the leaders of the Gadar Party, the San Francisco-based organization formed in 1913 to agitate for India’s freedom from British rule, to Bhagat Singh Thind, whose fight for citizenship went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, to Anandibai Joshee, who arrived in Philadelphia in 1883 and became the first Indian woman ever to become a medical doctor, South Asians in the United States have played an active role in the spheres of politics, arts, commerce, entrepreneurship, and innovation. And yet, our history books do not reflect this. When we founded SAADA in 2008, our aim was to create a platform to illuminate stories like Saund’s and the many others like it in danger of being forgotten. Instead of creating a physical repository, we use the power of the digital medium to create greater access and awareness about these important stories and ensure that they are protected and preserved for future generations. Our mission is to build an institution capable of caring for, curating and sharing stories that represent the unique and diverse experiences of South Asian Americans.


Through this work, I am constantly surprised by all the stories that we continue to discover, from Congressmen to everyday people who have made their impact in profound ways. Our organization firmly believes that individuals make history, that ordinary people make extraordinary contributions to society and that everyday stories matter. SAADA ensures that these stories are heard.


Learn more about our effort to document, preserve and share stories from South Asian Americans on our website at https://www.saadigitalarchive.org. Do you want to help support our work or have a story to share? You can reach me by email at samip@saadigitalarchive.org.