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The Asian-American Girl Who Helped School Desegregation in 1885

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Jhemmylrut Teng
Jhemmylrut Teng
 21 days ago

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Tape Family, the child in the center was Mamie(Source: Asian Law Caucus)

This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, let us recognize a Chinese-American family who paved the way for people of color to have equal access to education.

Over a century ago, in the mid-1800s, Asian exclusion was a norm in American society. And discrimination against the Chinese race was institutionalized.

However, despite such evident challenges, one Chinese-American girl challenged the school system of San Francisco by filing a lawsuit against a school principal and the educational board and brought the case to California's Supreme Court.

She was Mamie Tape, and she was the plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case of Tape vs. Hurley in 1885.

The Tape Family

Mamie's parents were both Chinese immigrants. Her father, Joseph Tape, emigrated from Guangdong Province in southern China. At the age of 12, he moved to San Francisco. He became a house servant for a dairy rancher and later graduated to driving the milk-delivery wagon.

Mamie's mother, Mary McGladrey, was from Shanghai, China, and she moved to the United States in 1886, when she was 11. After a few months in Chinatown, she had been taken in by the Ladies' Protection and Relief Society. She's fortunate as during that time, Chinese women were used to working in brothels in Chinatown.

Mary was schooled in English and quickly adapted the Western manners. Mary later became an accomplished photographer and painter. In 1870, she and Joseph married in a Christian union; they adopted the German-surname Tape.

In that same year, Joseph was also operating a successful delivery business and other ventures and became a well-regarded businessman in both the White and Chinese communities. He and Mary settled in the Cow Hollow neighborhood of San Francisco (then called Black Point), an area with few other Chinese residents. Mamie was born in 1876, followed by two more children, Frank and Emily.

The Exclusion Act

The Tape family was one of those Chinese immigrants who settled in America and became successful in careers and businesses. As the rising number of Chinese migrants coming to the country, many locals started to loathe them, blaming them for taking their jobs.

The Anti-Chinese sentiment grew that led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. This law officially banned Chinese immigration for ten years and prevented all Chinese from becoming naturalized citizens.

Many Americans on the West Coast attributed declining wages and economic ills to Chinese workers. Although the Chinese composed only .002 percent of the nation's population, Congress passed the exclusion act to placate worker demands and assuage prevalent concerns about maintaining white "racial purity." The attack against Chinese people began at the height of the California Gold Rush.

When gold nuggets were discovered in the Sacramento Valley in 1848, it was also the time the Opium Wars between Great Britain and China were happening. The latter fell into a grave debt, which forced many Chinese to go overseas to find jobs.

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California Gold Rush(Source: South China Morning Post)

Over 20,000 Chinese immigrants came through San Francisco's customs house looking for work. Violence soon broke out between white miners and the new arrivals, much of it racially charged.

In May 1852, California imposed a Foreign Miners Tax of $3 month meant to target Chinese miners, and crime and violence escalated. In 1854, a Supreme Court case, People v. Hall, ruled that Chinese, like African Americans and Native Americans, were not allowed to testify in court.

Therefore, this decision made it impossible for Chinese immigrants to seek justice against the mounting violence.

Tape vs. Hurley Case

Amid the Chinese exclusion law, the Tape family lived in a White neighborhood. Therefore, Joe and Mary believed that it was just fair to send their eldest daughter, Mamie, to their neighborhood's primary school rather than to the mission-run schools in Chinatown.

Unfortunately, with the Anti-Chinese sentiment, Mamie was denied admission into Spring Valley School by the principal, Jenny Hurley. Mamie's situation was not new, as it was prevalent at that time. But what was uncommon is that Mamie and her family didn't condone such discrimination. They went to the Chinese consulate, which assisted them in lodging a protest to the school board.

However, the board ruled in favor of Hurley, stating that the exclusion was lawful. The Tapes didn't back down. Instead, they hired a lawyer, William Gibson, to sue Hurley and the San Francisco Board of Education on Mamie's behalf.

Gibson brought the Tape vs. Hurly case to the Superior Court, where he argued the 14th amendment of the U.S. constitution. Mamie was born in America; therefore, she is American, albeit with her Chinese heritage. Through this, just like any other American, she has the right to study in any American public school and should have equal access to education.

The court sided Mamie's case:

"it would be unjust to levy a forced tax upon Chinese residents to help maintain our schools and yet prohibit their children born here from education in those schools."

Eventually, Mamie vs. Hurley case advanced to the Supreme Court of California. And in March 1885, the court ruled that the state law required public education to be open to "all children." Mamie won the case. It was considered a cornerstone legal battle for all Asian-Americans.

Unacknowledged Defeat

Even though California's Supreme Court ruled in favor of Mamie, the San Francisco Board of Education didn't acknowledge their defeat. Instead, they pushed for the immediate passage of a new state law authorizing separate schools for "children of Chinese and Mongolian descent."

In a telegram to the state assembly, Superintendent Andrew Jackson Moulder warned that, without the law, "I have every reason to believe that some of our classes will be inundated with Mongolians. Trouble will follow."

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San Francisco Chinatown, 1900(Source: Arnold Genthe)

Mamie's parents enrolled her again at Spring Valley, but she wasn't accepted again. As Principal Hurley said, Mamie's vaccination certificate was expired. Thus, the classroom was already crowded, so they cannot accommodate her.

Even though Mamie's parents did try their best to place her in Spring Valley, Mamie ended up studying in Chinatown with her brother, Frank, when there was already an exclusive school for Chinese.

The family later moved to Berkeley, and finally, Mamie and her siblings managed to attend a non-segregated public school.

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The Tape Family of Russel Street(Source: Berkeley Heritage)

Because of the Anti-Chinese mentality, Mamie's mother, Mary, wrote a letter to Alta California Newspaper. She poured out her sentiment against the ill-treatment of Anglo-Saxon Americans to those people with Chinese heritage:

Dear sirs... Will you please to tell me! Is it a disgrace to be born a Chinese? Didn’t God make us all!!!” Arguing that her children were no different in dress or manner than their Caucasian friends, she railed against the persecution of her eight-year-old child, “just because she is of the Chinese descend...I guess she is more of an American than a good many of you…” - Mary Tape

Mamie Tape never attended Spring Valley Primary School. However, more Chinese children began attending white schools in San Francisco after Tape v. Hurley case. In 1947, the United States Supreme Court finally decided that school segregation was unconstitutional through Brown v. Board of Education.

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