After a turbaned Sikh became the president of Hoboken, New Jersey’s city council, the City Council in Charlottesville, Virginia has voted in longtime resident and city planner Satyendra Singh Huja as their mayor for the next two years. This is another ground-breaking accomplishment for Sikh Americans, whose acceptance in this country has often been challenged by those ignorant of our physical appearance and articles of faith.
When he retired from his position in City Hall in 2004, Satyendra Singh described some of the challenges he faced working in city planning for Charlottesville:
Like millions of members of the Sikh religion, Huja keeps his hair uncut and wrapped inside a turban. To this small southern town, he brought a distinctive appearance– and some distinctive ideas.
Less than a year into the job, he told Charlottesville that it should remove cars from the very heart of Main Street. No sooner had the Downtown Mall opened in 1976 than he oversaw a massive survey of historic structures– and soon unveiled a preservation ordinance that targeted 97 specific buildings, an act that inflamed some property owners by mandating what they could do to their buildings. Before long, “the urban turban” was one of the nicer things people were calling him.
“I used to dread going down Main Street,” says Huja. “People were telling me to go back to India. I was ready to be fired every six months.”
Any yet, he wasn’t. Instead, 30 years later, he’s been elected by his peers as Mayor of Charlottesville, a small American town but also a historic one: Charlottesville is the hometown of American founding father Thomas Jefferson and nearby that of James Madison. The symbolism is two-fold for Sikhs and for America, in that such a person is able to reach the position he has, maintaining his religious articles of faith, in a place that had a role in the founding of this country.
UPDATE – January 11, 2012: Commenter A_itoj Singh brought to my attention that Harvinder “Harry” Singh Anand, another turbaned Sikh actually pre-dated Ravinder Singh (in Hoboken, New Jersey) as a turbaned Sikh who headed a city council. Harvinder Singh was elected Mayor of Laurel Hollow (an affluent village in New York) back in 2007, and still holds this position. More information about Harvinder Singh is available on wikipedia, as well as in a 2007 article appearing in the New York Times, and in an interview with with Nikki Rattan in 2008.