In California, new effort launched to teach dark history of anti-Chinese bigotry

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — When he went to the annual Sacramento Archives Crawl in October, Diego Leibman didn’t expect to discover the dark heart of local history. But in the serene halls of the California State Archives — surrounded by the dusty smell of paper, soft conversation, short-handled hoes and other artifacts out of time — Leibman was introduced to his hometown’s anti-Chinese past.

He heard the story of 10 Chinese miners who in September, 1877, were arrested on accusations of killing a white woman at a granite mining settlement in Rocklin, Calif., a former mining town 40 minutes east of Sacramento. 

Despite a lack of evidence, the men were detained, and a mob of angry Rocklin residents outside the jail threatened to lynch them before dawn. The next day, all 400 of Rocklin’s Chinese residents were notified they had until 6 p.m. to leave town, and by that afternoon every Chinese resident had filed out on foot.

Visitors watch an animated video about the story of Dr. Henry Yee, Chinese American who came to the U.S. in 1908, at the California Museum in Sacramento on Jan. 26, 2020. (Photo by Theodora Yu/Sacramento Bee)

By 6 p.m., white residents axed and flattened all the houses and buildings in the Chinese quarter, Rocklin historian Gary Day said. A fire was sparked and within minutes Chinatown was burned to the ground.

Diego Leibman, recent Whitney High School graduate, stands outside of the school in Rocklin on Friday, July 31, 2020, the day after his drive through graduation. Leibman is calling on the school board to integrate history about Chinese Americans into the curriculum including naming one of the buildings after a prominent Chinese American laborer. (Photo by Alie Skowronski/Sacramento Bee)

“I was shocked…” Leibman, who is 17, said. “No expression of white supremacy, violent or otherwise, will ever surprise me in U.S. history… The part that aggravated me is that it’s not taught.”

The lesson sparked a wave of indignation in Leibman and a desire to unearth even more. He turned to Rocklin historians and Asian American history experts Franklin Odo, founder of the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center, and Ted Gong, executive director of the 1882 Foundation. Their research and expertise helped him understand where Rocklin fit into the larger picture of racism in America.

It was through this research that Leibman uncovered another history: His high school, Whitney High, was named for a white landowner. According to Day and other Asian American historians, Joel Parker Whitney, known as “The Richest Man in Placer County,” likely built his legacy by exploiting Chinese laborers for ditch-digging, road paving and wall building.

Central Pacific Railroad locomotive “Falcon,” during the run to complete the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. This train carried inspectors, perched atop the cowcatcher, with buffalo hide robe on their laps. (Courtesy of Fresno Bee Library)

Leibman became determined to push for his school district to mandate Chinese Californian history as part of the district’s curriculum and name a school building after a prominent Chinese American, such as Wong Kim Ark, who won the first birthright citizenship case in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“(Chinese expulsion) seems inextricably linked to Rocklin’s history and worth mentioning,” Leibman said. “If not for bigotry, we’d have a Chinatown … If nobody learns about this history, that affects how they understand the present.”

For Leibman, this proposal is the first step in getting his town’s residents to learn about where they come from. But Rocklin’s anti-Chinese story is far from unique in California’s Central Valley

Rocklin’s expulsion of its Chinese residents in 1877 was one of nearly 200 violent anti-Chinese pogroms in California from the 1870s to the 1890s. It’s recent enough for contemporary Americans to be able to trace the effects of this expulsion today in demographic data and Chinese American migration patterns in California.

“We’re not generations removed from these histories,” said Jean Pfaelzer, a historian and author of “Driven Out,” a history of Chinese expulsions in California.

As migration to California was propelled by the Gold Rush in 1848, many Chinese residents settled in Northern California and the Central Valley, where their labor was often exploited.

California railroad construction relied on Chinese workers, seen moving granite near the opening of Summit Tunnel. When asked if Chinese could do the tough physical jobs, contractor Charles Crocker said, “They built the Great Wall of China, didn’t they?” (Courtesy California History Room, California State Library)

Perhaps the most infamous example is construction of the Transcontinental Railroad between 1863 and 1869. About 20,000 Chinese workers made up 90% of the railroad’s workforce.

It was painful and brutal work, with Chinese workers being paid almost 50% less. They were forced to provide their own food and, in some cases, their own housing.

After railroad construction ended, Chinese people found work primarily in manual labor, including fruit cultivation, ditch-digging and manufacturing as well as in laundries and restaurants. 

And while it’s important to acknowledge how Chinese laborers were marginalized and exploited, Cecilia Tsu, a historian at the University of California, Davis, said it’s even more important to recognize their rebellion.

“That part of the story needs to be told,” Tsu said. “They’re not just these powerless victims of the system.”

Pfaelzer cited the first lawsuit ever filed for reparations in the U.S., in the Northern California port city of Eureka, where 300 Chinese residents were kicked out one weekend in 1885. Instead of shuffling out obediently, 52 exiled Chinese residents filed a lawsuit for $152,000, although the suit was ultimately unsuccessful.

And Tsu recalled the history of laborers leveraging landowners’ dependency on their work to get better contracts, though they still worked for lower wages than white workers.

She pointed to the case of Wong Kim Ark, who in 1898 challenged the U.S. government’s refusal to recognize his citizenship despite his birthplace of San Francisco. He eventually won his case at the Supreme Court, paving the legal road to birthright citizenship.

To change the Rocklin school district’s curriculum, the proposal first needs to be on the school board’s meeting agenda. After Leibman rallied 58 people to advocate for him during the Aug. 5 meeting, the board agreed to form a committee to review the proposed changes and decide on whether to add them to the curriculum.

California and American history have historically scrubbed Chinese American contributions, such as in the famous photograph taken upon the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, which doesn’t include a single one of the Chinese laborers whose backbreaking work was essential to connect the West Coast with the rest of the country. 

The legacy of Asian American history, its struggle and resistance, is a powerful reminder that Asians have carved out space in America for a long time.

“If you are interested in having an accurate view of the past, then you can’t ignore this history,” Tsu said. “Do we want a history that’s just about myth and celebrating American identity, or do we want to know the truth? Who really built this country? If we want to know the truth, then we have to include this … We need to include this history because this is our history.”

Ashley Wong covers the Asian American and Pacific Islander community for The Sacramento Bee. This dispatch is part of a series called “On the Ground” with Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow her on Twitter: @wongalum.

A version of this story appeared on USA TODAY on September 24, 2020