Archives celebrate South Asians in Philadelphia

Samip Mallick, cofounder of South Asian American Digital Archive, with an old photo of biochemist Har Gobind Khorana. "These histories are in danger of being lost," Mallick said.
Samip Mallick, cofounder of South Asian American Digital Archive, with an old photo of biochemist Har Gobind Khorana. "These histories are in danger of being lost," Mallick said. (VIVIANA PERNOT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 30, 2014

Among the 1,650 artifacts in the online library of the South Asian American Digital Archive is the immigration file of Harnam Singh, who was 30 when he came to America from India in 1913.

The eight-page document includes a transcript of his interview with immigration officials and can be viewed at the website of SAADA, a Philadelphia-based national nonprofit, with an office at Asian Arts Initiative near Vine and 12th Streets. Replete with Singh's photo, the file is a snapshot of early-20th-century migration.

"Where did you go after leaving India?" U.S. officials asked Singh, who debarked from a steamship in San Francisco with a turban on his head and $52. He described his four-month journey from Pundri, via Calcutta, Hong Kong, Nagasaki, and Manila.

"I might be a laborer if I can find something to do," he offered. "If not, I will do some business." The case was deferred.

Founded in 2008 in Chicago, SAADA moved to Philadelphia in 2012 when its cofounder, Samip Mallick, who has a master's degree in library and information sciences from the University of Illinois, relocated here.

"These histories are in danger of being lost," Mallick, 32, said Tuesday in an interview, "unless there is an intervention to preserve them."

On Thursday, SAADA, the Philadelphia History Museum, and Mayor Nutter's Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs will present "An American Story: South Asians in Philadelphia," a community forum beginning at 6 p.m. at the museum in Center City.

In the first half of the 90-minute event, Mallick, who grew up in Detroit after his parents emigrated from India, will present diverse narratives from the archives, including the story of Anandibai Joshi, who in 1886 became the first Indian woman in the U.S. to earn a medical degree. She graduated from the Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania, now Drexel University College of Medicine.

"It's a uniquely Philadelphia story," said Mallick, "because Philadelphia [at the time] was one of the only places in the world where a woman could earn a medical degree."

Mallick's presentation will include a historical overview, beginning with the 1923 U.S. Supreme Court decision that barred South Asians from the U.S., to the post-1946 era when fewer than 100 a year were permitted to immigrate, to the Immigration and Nationality Act, enacted in 1965, which "opened the door for South Asians to enter in larger numbers."

In the second half of the forum, "anyone, South Asian or otherwise," can use an open microphone to contribute a personal story around the themes of origin and immigration.

Supported by donations and small grants, SAADA has an annual budget of about $100,000. In addition to Mallick and a cast of interns, it depends on an international network of volunteers to digitize and create metadata for the items.

Its collection includes artifacts from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Its focus: the heritage of people who trace their ancestry to India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the other South Asian diaspora communities in the U.S.

SAADA does not take custody of the artifacts. It digitizes them and provides access via its website. The collection includes documents, photographs, and audio files.

For more information, go to



"An American Story: South Asian Americans in Philadelphia," the Philadelphia History Museum, 15 S. Seventh St. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Thursday. The event is free,

but R.S.V.P. is required at

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