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Exclusion–Chinese in 19th Century America

 Chinese labourers working on a trestle bridge on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains.
Chinese laborers working on a trestle bridge on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Visualize a pioneer in the 1800s. What do you see? Now, draw the path of pioneers on a U.S. map.

This is the opening assignment in a lesson by Debbie Wei for middle and high school students on Chinese in 19th century America. It is called Exclusion–Chinese in 19th Century America.

Most students draw people coming from Europe to the East Coast, then traveling West. That is because the textbooks and mainstream media have generally ignored the fact that there were large numbers of immigrants from Asia to the United States during the 1800s in addition to the immigration from Europe.

Collection of primary documents on Chinese American history.

As Ronald Takaki explains in Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans,

By 1870, there were 63,000 Chinese in the United States. Most of them—77%—were in California, but they were also elsewhere in the West as well as in the Southwest, New England, and the South. The Chinese constituted a sizable proportion of the population in certain areas: 29% in Idaho, 10% in Montana, and 9% in California. Virtually all adult males, they had a greater economic significance than their numbers would indicate: in California, the Chinese represented 25% of the entire work force.

Also ignored is the legislated exclusion of Chinese from the United States in the late 19th and 20th centuries. As Debbie Wei explains in the student handout in Exclusion–Chinese in 19th Century America,

The end of the 19th century brought about increased violence and anti-Chinese riots, and many Chinese were simply driven out of their adopted communities. In some of the worst cases, like Rock Springs, Wyoming or Los Angeles, Chinese were attacked and lynched. In each city, over 20 Chinese were brutally murdered in killing sprees. Accompanying the physical violence were waves of anti-Chinese legislation passed both locally and federally. San Francisco, which had a large Chinese population, passed harsh city ordinances designed to harass Chinese workers. By 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which explicitly banned Chinese laborers from entering the United States. The Chinese became the first ethnic group ever to be targeted for exclusion from immigration to the U.S. based on race.

The Exclusion Laws were later expanded to include a wide range of categories and eventually all Asian groups were targeted for exclusion. The racist immigration laws had a profound historical impact on the shaping of attitudes toward race in America. They were not changed until 1965 when Civil Rights legislation made it illegal for the government to discriminate on the basis of race

BOOK_beyond herosTo help highlight this history in the curriculum, Teaching for Change offers the lesson “Exclusion–Chinese in 19th Century America” for use by classroom teachers at no charge. (Originally published in Beyond Heroes and Holidays: A Practical Guide to K-12 Multicultural, Anti-Racist Education and Staff Development.) Curriculum specialist and activist in the Asian American community Debbie Wei designed this lesson using primary sources, critical literacy, and poetry. Download the lesson for free here.

Students can connect the history of the Exclusion Act to contemporary issues in another lesson by Debbie Wei called “Philadelphia Chinatown’s Fight for Survival: A Study of Movements for Social Justice.”

The lesson is available for free from the History Society of Pennsylvania (HSP). The HSP offers the following description of the lesson:

october-15As students investigate Chinatown’s history, they can discover the role of tradition and legacy in shaping a community’s response to struggle. They will also come to understand the role of community organizing in social change and how social change happens. Social change is a dynamic process, with disparate groups who lack power seeking unity in order to gain the strength to affect change. The materials used in this primary-source activity record the experiences of people whose lives, just for a moment in time, are altered as they pursue justice for their community. They present the complexities involved in collective action and help to humanize history for students. The efforts to save Chinatown offer a view into one way democracy works to shape our cities and our nation—a view from the ground up.

DebbieWeiDebbie Wei is a curriculum specialist and activist in the Asian American community. Wei is the elementary school principal at the American Embassy School in New Delhi, India. She was the founding principal of the Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School (FACTS) in Chinatown. She worked for the School District of Philadelphia as an ESL instructor and as a curriculum specialist in Asian Pacific American Studies. Wei taught for 2 years in Hong Kong. She is co-editor of In My Heart, I Am A Dancer, Walking on Solid Ground, and Resistance in Paradise: Rethinking 100 Years of US Involvement in the Pacific and the Caribbean.

For permission to reprint the lesson (other than teachers copying it for their own classroom), write to Teaching for Change.