Today in History: Dalip Singh Saund born September 20, 1899

SEPTEMBER 20, 2013

One hundred and fourteen years ago, on September 20, 1899 Dalip Singh Saund was born in the Punjab Province of British India. In 1956, Saund was elected to serve in the U.S. Congress, making him the first person of Asian heritage elected to national office in the United States.

Saund arrived in the United States in 1920 to study agriculture and food canning at the University of California - Berkeley. He hoped to return home to his family in India within two or three years with the knowledge to start his own mango canning business. While at the University, Saund stayed within the Indian community and lived in a clubhouse run by a Sikh temple group in Stockton. Were it not for the professors from the math department who spotted his numerical talents, Saund may well have returned to Indian a successful canner. However, the math department convinced Saund to stay in the United States for a total of four years to complete his masters and doctorate in mathematics. By the end of his academic career in 1924, Saund had decided to stay and make his life in America. During his extended time at the University of California Saund also developed a passion for American style political debate and public speaking. Saund joined many local clubs and spoke passionately about India’s struggle for independence and the political climate of the United States.

After he completed his education in 1924, Saund joined a community of agricultural laborers in Imperial Valley, California and continued to seek out public speaking engagements. While he made a living on a lettuce farm, Saund’s enthusiasm for politics and debate built the foundation of his future political career. In 1928 he married Marian Kosa and later the couple had three children, Dalip Jr., Lulie, and Ellie.

Dalip Singh Saund found it increasingly difficult to live in a country that would not allow him to become a citizen. Thus, Saund spent much of his time in the early 1940s campaigning to reverse the restrictions that prevented those born in India from becoming American citizens. In 1946, due to the efforts of Saund and other Indian activists, President Harry S. Truman passed the Luce-Celler Act. Finally, Saund and other Indians already living in the United States were allowed to become American citizens. Though immigration laws still made it very difficult for Indians to immigrate to the United States, it was a clear victory for South Asian Americans like Saund. The Luce-Celler Act made it possible for South Asians to have a political voice and, more importantly for Saund, run for political office.

Despite being an official American citizen for less than a year, in 1949 Saund was elected Judge of Justice Court, Westmoreland Judicial District, count of Imperial, California. Saund was re-elected in 1952 and served until 1957 when he resigned. A local Imperial Valley resident reflected that "[Saund] was a typical Hindu at the time, with his turban on, and he dressed with his robe.... Later on, when he was in the Lions Club and getting into politics he said he was going to be the first Hindu congressman in the United States. He had a purpose…” Saund became the first Asian American to be elected to the United States Congress in 1956. He was elected to two additional terms and in total served from January 3, 1957 until January 3, 1962 when a severe stroke rendered him unable to speak or stand. Though he was eventually was able to walk with assistance, he never regained his ability to speak and passed away on April 22, 1973.

See materials related to Dalip Singh Saund in SAADA: here.

By Kim Coulter, 9/20/2013