Did Pearl Harbor Speed Up the 1943 Repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act?

One of the greatest injustices in American history involved people of Chinese descent. In 1882, motivated by fear of loss of jobs for whites and by anti-Chinese racism, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only law that singled out a specific ethic group, prohibiting the entry of Chinese laborers for 10 years, but it was extended several times until it was finally repealed after 61 years on Dec. 17, 1943 by President Roosevelt. In signing the bill, Roosevelt proclaimed in a letter to Congress that the  Chinese Exclusion Act had been "an historic mistake" and that repeal was "important in the cause of winning the war and establishing a secure peace."  However, there was no explanation provided about why after 61 years, the mistake was finally recognized and corrected.

What factors led to the long overdue repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act? In the 1940s, negative public attitudes toward Chinese still existed.  Chinese were still seen in terms of outdated negative stereotypes and treated as second class residents.  Why would the U. S.government after 61 years choose to repeal this law?  Did it finally recognize its gross unfairness? That reason seems unlikely as other injustices by the U. S. government continued such as the February 19, 1942 Executive Order 9066 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 that authorized the relocation and internment of U. S. citizens and residents of Japanese ancestry to areas remote from the West coast and major cities on unfounded fears that Japanese Americans would sympathize with Japan and be a security risk.

Was it a response to active campaigns by Chinese Americans for repeal? Although Chinese American organizations fought for repeal, and in 1905 helped fund the efforts in China to boycott American goods and products in protest against how Chinese were mistreated in the United States, they failed to overturn the exclusion law. They lacked a powerful leader such as a Martin Luther King who led the fight for civil rights for black Americans in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1940s, Chinese Americans had insufficient influence and political power, given the small size of the Chinese population and failure of the general public to oppose Chinese exclusion, to demand its repeal.

It seems more plausible that the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act was motivated primarily by the World War II conflict between Japan and the United States. Japan wanted to dissuade China from joining the United States against it. Japan continually reminded China that the U. S. had unfairly excluded Chinese from entering the U. S. since 1882 in the hope that China would not join the U. S. against Japan in WWII. Recognition of this situation gave the U. S. Congress a strong incentive to repeal Chinese Exclusion to eliminate this powerful argument of Japan.

Arguments in the House of Representatives deliberations on H. R. 3070 in 1943 show this pragmatic reason was a major justification for repeal. It was recognized that China was a needed ally against Japan and that it was embarrassing to continue the exclusion law against Chinese. Some Congressmen who reluctantly voted for repeal still defended the original 1882 basis for exclusion, namely to prevent 'hordes of Chinese' coming and taking jobs from whites, but recognized that this threat no longer existed in the 1940s so that exclusion was no longer needed. One of the opponents of repeal, Compton White (Dem-IA), defended the 1882 law and argued against repeal because Chinese "coolies" would spread the opium habit among American boys and girls.

Congress set a quota of Chinese allowed to enter using formulas created by the 1924 Immigration Act based on country of origin. The result was that the total annual quota for Chinese immigrants to the United States (calculated as a percentage of the total population of people of Chinese origin living in the United States in 1920) would be only 105. Not only was this number pitifully small, Congress counted Chinese coming from any country, not just China, in the 105 due to fear that much larger numbers of Chinese could enter the U. S. because immigration within the Western Hemisphere was not regulated by the quota system. Thus, if Chinese in Hong Kong, for example, were to apply under the huge, largely unused British quota, thousands more Chinese than 105 could be eligible to enter each year.

Repeal of exclusion had a positive impact on Chinese in America that can not be overestimated. It enabled family reunification, the formation of new families, and gave them the right to become citizens and obtain the right to vote.

But for non-Chinese, repeal of exclusion must have been a relatively insignificant event judging by the low interest shown by newspaper coverage in the days immediately following the repeal on Dec. 17, 1943. Newspaper coverage in the days just after passage of repeal was brief, and usually buried among want ads, movie ads, and comic strips rather than on the front page as shown below.


A White Aristocrat's Negative View of Delta Chinese in 1941

The Chinese were a small but vital community spread across the Mississippi Delta for over a century operating family-run grocery stores that primarily served the black plantation workers who were not usually welcome at large white grocery stores.  Overcoming many obstacles, including racial prejudices, they succeeded and made valuable contributions to their community. Recognition of the Chinese role was demonstrated in an earlier post on this blog in 2011 that presented Mississippi Public Radio interviews with three Delta Chinese with a grocery store background.

However, even as late as 1941, the Chinese "got no respect" from white gentry as illustrated by the demeaning comment about the lack of useful contributions to the community by the Chinese. This observation was made by a prominent white writer and plantation owner, William Alexander Percy, in his nostalgic memoir, "Lanterns on the Levee", which was a romanticized lamentation for "the good old days." However, Percy was not a "redneck" racist; in fact he led the fight against the rising power of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.

The following paragraph excerpted from Percy's memoir provides a clearer context for understanding how even educated and influential white community leaders had a narrow view of Chinese, portraying them as lawless illegal immigrants who often fought among themselves in tong wars.


An Unsung Hero Championed Delta Chinese Right to Attend White School

A previous post on this blog described the legal proceedings in the1920s case in which two daughters of a Mississippi Delta Chinese grocer, Jue Gong and his wife, Katherine, were removed from attending a white school in Rosedale in 1924 because Chinese were not considered caucasian. The school board was sued with a writ of mandamus to reinstate the two daughters in school on grounds of the 14th Amendment calling for equal protection. The school board reversed its decision but it was promptly overruled by the Mississippi Supreme Court.  The parents obtained legal assistance and appealed the decision all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court in 1927, but to no avail, as it upheld the lower court.

Most accounts of this case of school segregation of Chinese in Mississippi have dealt only with the legal issues and proceedings, but a new book, Water Tossing Boulders, by journalist Adrienne Berard provides a richly detailed description of the social and cultural context of the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s. This well-researched study brings the people and the community to life as Berard researched the background to set the stage and analyze the complex interplay between racial discrimination against blacks, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the forced labor of black convicts to build levees, the floods that destroyed the cotton crop that was a mainstay of the Delta economy, how Chinese came to settle in the Delta as early as the 1870s, the intermediary status of Chinese grocery families placing them between blacks and whites, and the mass exodus of blacks from the Delta to the north to escape racism and find employment. Her book, which reads like a novel at times, makes you feel as if you were right there observing events as they unfolded from 1924-1927.

Given the economic disaster in the Delta, everyone suffered.  Chinese grocers, dependent on black cotton plantation workers, lost customers in the downturn who could not afford to pay for food. One wonders, then, how Jeu Gong and Katherine were able to pay a lawyer to file a lawsuit.  In fact, they  could not afford to pay, but they found an unsung hero, Earl Brewer, who rose from a hard scrabble life to become the governor of Mississippi before being soundly defeated later in a bid to become a Senator. Brewer was a progressive who believed the Chinese were unfairly treated and decided to represent them pro bono.  
Although the appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court in 1927 failed, probably because Brewer turned the case over to an inexperienced attorney, Berard's book provides us with a better understanding of the many interacting factors affecting race relations in the Delta. Without Brewer's advocacy on the behalf of the Gong Lum family, the case would probably never have been filed.


How To Rid Your Town of Chinamen: Tacoma and Truckee Methods

      Chinese immigrants arrived in Tacoma, Washington in the 1870s.  Many had worked on the Transcontinental Railroad and when it was completed in 1869, they were unemployed but moved to the Pacific Northwest to help build the North Pacific Railroad.  Others worked on farms, in fishing, and in saw mills. From their arrival, migrants faced discrimination in a land that was considered by many at the time to be "white only." Anti-Chinese sentiment further increased during the economic depression of the decade of the 1870s.

In Tacoma, anti-Chinese whites adopted an extreme way in 1885 to deal with Chinese.  They simply expelled them from the city overnight.  Chinese were ordered to leave the city of Tacoma by November 1, 1885 or face being removed by force. About 400 Chinese complied and left their homes and their livelihood out of fear and intimidation.

On November 3, 1885 several hundred men, led by Mayor Weisbach and other city officials forced the remaining 200 Chinese onto a train bound for Portland. They then burned the Chinese settlements to the ground. Chinese buildings, houses and communities were destroyed in the following days.

This "solution" to the Chinese presence became known as the "Tacoma Method" and was employed in other western communities such as Eureka, California, to forcibly remove their Chinese populations.

For more information about the "Tacoma Method" and to learn about how Tacoma acknowledged the injustice and commemorated its memory with the creation of "Reconciliation Park."

On November 30th, 1993, the Tacoma City Council unanimously approved Resolution No. 32415, which acknowledged that the 1885 Chinese expulsion was “a most reprehensible occurrence,” authorized the construction of a commemorative park located at a former National Guard site on Commencement Bay, and set aside $25,000 for preliminary site plans.[30] The park is a 3.9-acre shoreline plot located at 1741 N. Schuster Parkway in Tacoma, within a half mile of the site of Little Canton, where many Chinese residents of Tacoma lived before they were expelled in 1885.[31] The park, which officially opened in 2011, currently includes a waterfront trail, a bridge with a Chinese motif, and a pavilion donated by Tacoma’s sister city, Fuzhou, China.

The "Truckee Method"

         When the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, about 1,400 now out-of-work Chinese laborers went to Truckee to seek new jobs building railroads through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Within a period of a few months, one third of Truckee's population was Chinese which led  to some white men forming a vigilante committee called the Caucasian League.  In June, 1876, a small group of white men attacked several Chinese woodcutters outside of town. They set fire to the woodcutters' cabins, and when the Chinese ran out the attackers shot and wounded several of them. One of the Chinese men died the next day. Seven men were arrested and stood trial, but in spite of direct testimony by two of the defendants against the other five all were acquitted after the jury deliberated for just nine minutes.

A Second Truckee Chinatown Across the River
    Little more than a year after moving fire once again raged through the new Chinatown, destroying half of the newly built homes and stores. There is no record of any loss of life due to the fire, but again the Chinese were forced to rebuild their community.
    Frustrated by the resilience and perseverance of the Chinese, in 1885 Charles McGlashan formed the Truckee Anti-Chinese Boycotting Committee which adopted the following resolution: "We recognize the Chinese as an unmitigated curse to the Pacific Coast and a direct threat to the bread and butter of the working class."
    They further resolved that all merchants in town should boycott any Chinese who comes to them either for employment or for goods, in hopes of literally starving the Chinese out of Truckee.  
      Over the first two months of 1886, McGlashan and other town leaders succeeded in getting every business in town to refuse to sell anything to the Chinese. As food and other supplies dwindled in their community, many Chinese had no other recourse than to leave town.         By the end of February the "Truckee Method" of forcing the Chinese away was declared a success by its leaders.  However, records indicate that although the boycott leaders claimed to have rid the town of Chinese, a small group remained.




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