The Lost History of Bengali Harlem

The stories of working-class South Asians in New York City point to a history beyond the narrative of assimilation.

Michaela Stone Cross

February 8, 2021

The Lost History of Bengali Harlem
A 1952 banquet of The Pakistan League of America, an organization whose membership consisted predominantly of former seamen from East Bengal (via Bengali Harlem, a project by Vivek Bald and Alaudin Ullah)

During the Harlem Renaissance, in the early decades of the 20th century — when some of America’s greatest writers, thinkers, and artists were transforming a New York neighborhood into the heart of Black politics and art — Bengali sailors were jumping ship and sneaking into American ports on the East Coast. Hearing the rumors from Ellis Island, where immigration officers were imprisoning the “tired, poor and huddled masses yearning to be free,” the sailors came to port cities like Boston, Baltimore, and New York, making their way into Black and Hispanic neighborhoods, buying Puerto Rican birth certificates to hide their true identities. In 1917, the U.S. government had banned Asian immigrants, and so these sailors survived by “passing” amongst people of color. From the Lower East Side and downtown Manhattan to Harlem in New York City, these refugees married Black and Latina women, and soon were rubbing shoulders with revolutionaries and Black separatists. 

“‘Malcolm X used to come to the house at 100 and Western Avenue,’” said comedian-turned-historian Alaudin Ullah, recalling the words of one descendent. “He was like, ‘I remember I used to give him rasmalai and tea.’” In the 1950 to 1960s Harlem, Muslim civil rights leaders like Malcolm X would debate the tenets of Islam with Bengalis, and jazz musician Miles Davis would sift through the records of Bollywood playback singers like Mohammed Rafi. Black Muslim celebrities like Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul Jabbar frequented restaurants like the Bombay India Restaurant, for the halal food and the Muslim company. Through the 1950s and 1960s, Black and Brown radical politics commingled — almost forgotten, lost between the cracks of American history.

“Bangladeshis are kind of invisible,” said Ullah. “Even in the South Asian circle, we're like the wretched of the earth.” Bengali Muslims, however, were some of the first South Asian migrants to the East Coast due to their predominance in the Calcutta maritime trade. Ullah — the son of Habib Ullah, a Bengali activist who married Puerto Rican Victoria Echevarria — met filmmaker Vivek Bald in the 1990s and started talking about Bengali Harlem, and the men who lived there to hide from immigration officers. “It fascinated him because he didn't know about this, no one knew about this.” The result was Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America, a book on early Bengali migration, and In Search of Bengali Harlem, a soon-to-be-released documentary.