Philly archive preserves South Asian American history

Posted: February 07, 2014

IN 1886, Anandibai Joshi became the first Indian woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree - from the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, now the Drexel University College of Medicine.

In 1939, Har Dayal, an Indian nationalist revolutionary, died in Philadelphia, where he lived his last years. He had founded the Gadar Party, which sought to overthrow British rule in India through armed revolution.

Important documents relating to both Joshi and Dayal might be lost to eternity, if not for the efforts of a 32-year-old North Philadelphia man who runs a digital archive near Chinatown that preserves the history of South Asians living in the U.S.

The South Asian American Digital Archive, Samip Mallick said, was born from his desire to maintain his community's past and to prevent its history from becoming eroded.

The archive was set up in Chicago in 2008 as a volunteer-run organization by Mallick and co-founder Michelle Caswell. It was moved to Philadelphia in 2012, and Mallick became its first full-time staff member. Caswell, now an assistant professor of archival studies at UCLA, still serves on the board of directors.

The nonprofit archive, on Vine Street near 12th, documents the lives of people in the U.S. who trace their heritage to Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and many other South Asian diaspora communities around the world.

"We started [the archive] because we recognized that there were no other institutions working systematically to document and preserve stories from South Asian American communities," Mallick said.

Material on Dalip Singh Saund, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1956 to 1963 - the first Asian-American to do so - also is found in the archive. So are more-contemporary materials detailing South Asian American experiences in citizenship, politics, arts, business, medicine, law and more.

"We are not creating a new history; we're just uncovering stories that have already happened," Mallick said. "For us it's really exciting to tell those stories, those overlooked aspects of the American story that have never been told before."

In 1923, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that South Asians were ineligible for citizenship. That law stood for two decades, until President Harry S. Truman signed the Luce-Celler Act, which gave certain naturalization rights to South Asians and Filipinos while still limiting the number of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent to just 100 per year.

The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 radically changed the immigrant-quota system and led to an increase in South Asian immigrants in the U.S., as well as those from Africa, Latin America and other parts of Asia.

The archive doesn't seek possession of these materials, but instead digitizes and provides online access to them. It has more than 1,600 documents, photographs and audio files, all accessible online through its website.

The archive seeks "to work closely with individuals, organizations and institutions who may not be willing to relinquish their custody over materials, but are happy to work with us to bring greater awareness to these important stories," Mallick said.

Most of the financial support comes from individual donations.

Mallick hopes that the archive will not only celebrate the distinctiveness of the South Asian American community's past but also make the stories relevant to others.

"We're not just telling one community's story; we're telling a part of the American story," Mallick said. "Sharing stories from immigrant and minority communities helps to create a more-inclusive society by ensuring that unheard voices are included in the historical narrative."


The archive can be accessed at saadigitalarchive.org.


On Twitter: @navahsan92

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