Museum Director Musings: Assembly Bill 2864 and Chinese-American History in Schools

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A month ago, Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2864, sponsored by Ed Chau of Monterey Park, which mandates that California students shall receive instruction in Chinese-American history.  Specifically, the curriculum would address the Chinese Exclsion Act of 1882 and the significant contribution that Chinese Americans have made to California, including their role in the building of the western part of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s.  Click here for the bill’s text.

Chau has been quoted as saying that AB 2864 “brings awareness to two key pieces of history that captures the Chinese American experience.  The first involves the presence of Chinese Americans in building the Transcontinental Railroad that linked the United States from the West to the East.  The second piece of history stems from the discrimination Chinese American faced when the Chinese Exclusion Actof 1882 was enacted to prevent Chinese from owning land, interracial marriages, and the reunion of hardworking Chinese men with their families.”

Indeed, awareness of the history of ethnic minorities that have been underaddressed or left out of school curriculum is essential and vital to our understanding of the past.   In California, this also includes the systematic denial of citizenship to native indigenous Indians; the legal, social, political and economic losses endured by Spanish-speaking Californios and other Latinos; the denial of land ownership and other rights to Japanese Americans; and restrictive covenants requiring that certain properties only be owned by caucasians, among others.

In greater Los Angeles, the history of Chinese Americans is little known and appreciated.  There were two Chinese men enumerated in Los Angeles County in the 1850 federal census, taken actually in the first two months of the following year.  By 1860, there were eleven Chinese residing in the county, including the cook for the Workman family at the Homestead–his name being given only as “John Chinaman.”  A decade later, though, there were over 200 Chinese living in the region, many of them coming down to work on the area’s first railroad, the Los Angeles and San Pedro.

Town And Orange Grove Los Angeles 2005.52.1.7
This Homestead collection stereoscopic photograph from the 1870s shows the north end of Calle de los Negros, which by 1870 was heavily populated by the growing community of Chinese Americans migrating to Los Angeles.  On 24 October 1871, it was the scene of a massacre in which 19 Chinese males, including a teenage boy, were lynched by a mob of Americans, Europeans, and Latinos after inter-Chinese violence led to the death of an American.  In the 1880s, the Calle was removed and Los Angeles Street rerouted in its place.

With its substantial growth in numbers, the Chinese community congregated in an area southeast of the Plaza along the Calle de los Negros, a street named for a dark-skinned Californio, and which had been known for years before the Chinese moved there for its accumulation of grog shops, gambling houses and brothels.

Yet, the presence of these new arrivals raised considerable consternation among the Latinos who formerly inhabited the Calle as well as Americans and Europeans in town.  The tension and mistrust already inhabiting the minds of Angelenos was given an impetus for confrontation and violence.

This leads to a suggestion that local schools consider adding to AB 2864’s mandate by including in curriculum some discussion about a horrific, but significant, event that had its 145th anniversary this week: the Chinese Massacre of 24 October 1871.

The Massacre has been a topic of my work and that of the Homestead’s, as well.  A significant portion of my 1999 master’s thesis, covering lynching in 1870s Los Angeles, was devoted to the lynching of nineteen Chinese males, eighteen adults and a teenage boy, at the hands of a mob of Americans, Europeans and Latinos after internal violence involving the Chinese led to the killing of an American.

Subsequent articles I wrote made reference to the massacre, including one that dealt with some court cases that followed the incident.  While there were seven men convicted on manslaughter charges for their role in the massacre and they were sent to San Quentin state prison, all were freed by the state supreme court on a technicality with the indictment.  The Los Angeles County district attorney declined to retry the cases.

At the museum, our Curious Cases presentation in fall 2015 dealt with the Massacre and a presentation that I gave was followed with a lengthy group discussion with participants as we addressed many issues that came out of the event and its ramifications and connections to modern criminal justice issues.

A Los Angeles News article, 24 October 1871, regarding inter-Chinese fighting that preceded the massacre of that evening.

It wasn’t just that a large mob of hundreds went on a rampage and killed persons who were, with one exception, innocent of any involvement in the killing of that American.   It was that there was a startling absence of effective leadership (and some would argue, gross negligence or, worse, complicity) by law enforcement authorities like the marshal and sheriff, elected officials like the town’s mayor, and others.

Moreover, although a handful of citizens stepped forward to remonstrate with the mob, at great personal risk, and, in many cases, succeeded in saving lives, there were far too many residents who simply stood aside or participated in the slaughter.

Even for a frontier town that had, for twenty years, been known throughout California, the West, and even nationally for its lawlessness and violence, the City of Angels had almost certainly reached the lowest point in its reputation after the massacre.

It is also notable that, while some Chicano historians have stated that all of the most notable lynchings in Los Angeles involved Latino victims, the one that was, by far, the worst of all on so many levels, actually was the Chinese massacre.

This Los Angeles Star article of 25 October 1871 squarely places the blame for the massacre on the Chinese, with the bizarre qualifier that “the very horror of the scenes [of the massacre] became sickening to the participators themselves.  Comment useless.”

For any school district curriculum developers or individual teachers who are looking to implement curriculum concepts concerning Chinese American history based on AB 2864, please consider the Chinese Massacre of 1871 as part of your planning.

Consult the Chinese-American Museum in Los Angeles (click here for its website), check out Scott Zesch’s excellent history of the Chinese in Los Angeles, The Chinatown War (click here for a review), and get in touch with the Homestead, too, by leaving a comment.

Assembly member Chau’s legislation is a needed boost to understanding more about the history of Chinese Americans in California and adding a local component enhances the bill’s effects and importance.

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