Abdul Goffer Mondul’s battle for citizenship in 1909 Texas

He moved to Texas, fought for citizenship, and married a woman from Louisiana

Abdul Goffer Mondul moved to the United States from India as a teenager in 1881, and built a life for himself in Texas. He worked as a peddler, married a White French-Irish woman named Mabel, and ended up in a difficult court battle for citizenship.

As I write this, the fate of DACA recipients is up in the air, and none of us know whether Congress will give in and stand with the 86% of Americans who support DACA. Mondul’s story reminds us of our long history in the United States, and how immigrant communities of color have had to continue to fight for equality under the law.

Houston Post, Feb 6, 1909, pg. 8

Abdul Goffer Mondul was born in India in 1881, and moved to the United States in 1898, when he about 17.

We don’t know much about his early story, but it’s quite likely that he was part of the Bengali Harlem wave of immigration that Vivek Bald has written about.

Mondul applied for citizenship in 1906, when he was 25, presumably while living in Texas.

He shows up in the newspapers three years later, in 1909, with a U.S. District Attorney arguing that he’s ineligible for citizenship because of his race.

The DA pointed to the law, which stated “The provisions of this title apply to aliens being free white persons and to aliens of African descent,” and proceeded to argue that Mondul was neither White nor African. Mondul and his attorney pushed back, citing a “number of authorities from the State of Utah in support of his claim.”

Houston Post, Feb 10, 1909, pg. 5

We see Mondul again in the newspapers shortly thereafter, celebrating a huge win: a district judge ruled in Mondul’s favor.

That’s the last I see of him in the papers, and it’s not clear to me whether or not he was subsequently granted citizenship.

(Most accounts describe Bhicaji Franyi Balsara as the first Indian to become a naturalized U.S. citizen. I haven’t seen Mondul’s story show up in writing on the racial classification of Indians in the United States.)

Mondul should earn a place in the legal history of South Asian America. But he was defined by more than that.

We get a fuller picture of Mondul’s life from U.S. Census records, Lutheran marriage records, and Galveston, Texas city directories.

In June 1908, he married Mabel, born Mary Belle Wright, a White woman born in Louisiana around 1886. She was a child of immigrants, her father from Ireland, her mother from France. Their wedding at First Lutheran Church in Galveston, was witnessed by Abdul Hagnied, another immigrant from India.

Mondul worked as a peddler, like many from the Bengali Harlem wave of immigrants. He shows up under that occupation in the 1909, 1909, and 1916 city directories for Galveston, Texas, as well as in the 1910 census.

(Incidentally, in the 1910 census, Mondul, who was married to a White woman, was categorized as “White,” while his friend Abdul Hagnied, who lived with his “Mulatto” employee, was also categorized as “Mulatto.” Race is relational.)

I don’t know how and when Abdul and Mabel met, and what kind of life they created together. I don’t know if they stayed together, if they had children. I couldn’t find any clear record of them in future U.S. Censuses. I don’t know even know whether or not Abdul ultimately acquired citizenship.

But I like to think of Abdul and Mabel getting married in Galveston in 1908, an immigrant from India and the daughter of immigrants from Louisiana.

Maybe he’s a citizen and maybe he’s not, but either way, there they are, an interracial couple chipping away at America’s racial boundaries.

And in that picture of Abdul and Mabel, I see a blessed vision of the country I love so much.

Research notes

The 3 places where Abdul Goffer Mondul lived:

Loose ends and speculations:

  • There was a different trader named Abdul Mondul living in New Orleans at the same time. He’s referenced in Vivek Bald’s book Bengali Harlem, and is recorded in the 1910 Census as having immigrated in 1904. It’s kind of amazing that there were two different Abdul Monduls living in the American South in 1910!
  • From Bald’s research, I believe the Louisiana Abdul Mondul was ethnically Bengali, so perhaps the Mondul in Galveston was as well? And indeed, I just had a Bangladeshi friend confirm that Abdul Goffer Mondul sounds like a Bengali Muslim name.
  • I searched Ellis Island passenger records for “Abdul Mondul” and got back 6 records from 1896–1912. Of those, one of the records shows a ~21 year old coming to New York from Southampton on a ship called the Saint Louis in 1896. According to the 1910 census, the Mondul I’m tracking arrived in the U.S. in 1898 at age ~17. Are these the same people?
  • I looked for Abdul Goffer Mondul in the 1920, 1930, and 1940 U.S. Censuses. There are two Abdul Monduls in the 1930 census; one of them was born ~1893 (but apparently single, and living with family in Tennessee) and another was born in ~1920. There’s a small chance that the Abdul Mondul in Tennessee in 1930 was the same person as Abdul Goffer Mondul in Texas in 1910, but I have no evidence for that.

Sources on this Abdul Mondul

Sources on the other Abdul Monduls, who are probably different people: