Before Brown v. Board of Education, These Chinese American Parents Fought for Desegregation in 1880s SF

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A Chinese American family from San Francisco won a lawsuit in the 1880s after the eldest daughter was denied admittance to an all-white school, creating a vital civil rights case for Asian families in America.

Barred from an education: Joseph and Mary Tape, who had both immigrated to the U.S. at a young age, were not allowed to enroll their 8-year-old daughter, Mamie, in Spring Valley Primary School in September 1884 because she was of Chinese descent.

  • Instead of sending Mamie to one of the mission-run schools in Chinatown, the Tapes wanted her to attend a school in their neighborhood.

  • While attempting to enroll Mamie, claiming her rights as an American-born citizen, the principal of Spring Valley, Jennie Hurley, referred to a school board policy against accepting Chinese children.

  • An 1880 law by the state of California (Code 1662) declared that children living in the state were all entitled to public education, but local school board policy and social norms prevented the Tapes and other Chinese families from enrolling their children in several schools.

  • The couple went to the Chinese consulate, which then brought the issue to the San Francisco Board of Education. However, the board ultimately ruled that the school was in its right to prevent Mamie from attending.

  • The Tapes hired a lawyer to sue the principal and the board, resulting in Tape v. Hurley.

Impact of the case: The California State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Tapes in March 1885, declaring that public education was for “all children.”

  • The Tapes' lawyer insisted that denying Mamie access to Spring Valley violated the 1880 California school law, in addition to denying her equal protection under the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

  • The San Francisco School Board pushed for a new law immediately after the California State Supreme Court's decision. This law would authorize schools for non-white children, specifically those of “Chinese and Mongolian descent.”

  • The Tapes tried to enroll Mamie for a second time, but Spring Valley was allegedly too full and also claimed Mamie did not have sufficient paperwork to prove she was vaccinated.

  • Mary wrote a letter to a local newspaper and asked, "Is it a disgrace to be born a Chinese? Didn’t God make us all!!!”

A time of prejudice: Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, restricting immigration and preventing anyone of Chinese descent from naturalization.

  • The Library of Congress stated that many Americans "blamed Chinese workers for lower wages and economic hardship."

  • Chinatowns across the country "are really the consequence of the exclusion laws, which created the conditions, between racism and the law itself," according to John Kuo Wei Tchen, co-founder of the Museum of Chinese in America and chair of public history and humanities at Rutgers University, as reported by NBC.

  • Joseph Tape, who was born Jeu Dip, moved to San Francisco from southern China around 1864, while Mary moved from China in 1868. Joseph was 12 years old when he immigrated.

  • The couple, “thoroughly Westernized,” experienced economic success due to Joseph's various ventures, such as his thriving delivery business in the 1870s.

The Tapes could not enroll any of their children in all-white schools following Tape v. Hurley, so they resorted to a Chinese-only school. The family moved to Berkeley 10 years later and eventually enrolled their children in non-segregated public schools.

The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed by the Magnuson Act in 1943, seven years before Brown v. Board of Education.

Featured Image via Wikimedia Commons

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