With examinations of race and racism in 19th-century America usually locked behind defined white-vs.-Black borders, the federal Chinese Exclusion Act is a forgotten facet exposing another shade of the brutal struggles for legal rights in the United States.
This law passed by Congress in 1882 all but barred immigration from China and denied U.S. citizenship to Chinese then living legally in this nation.
This overlooked law that one 19th-century U.S. senator described as “nothing less than the legalization of racial discrimination” is a featured element of an intriguing exhibit at the National Archives on Chestnut Street near 9th Street in Center City.
This exhibit entitled “Documented Rights” presents various artifacts and documents about struggles for civil rights and human rights from the vaults of this federal records keeping agency.
Artifacts include a facsimile of the Emancipation Proclamation handwritten by President Abraham Lincoln freeing slaves in southern states during the Civil War plus examinations of fascinating, forgotten anti-slavery/anti-discrimination struggles in Philadelphia.
“We’re where Americans can find out about themselves,” Philadelphia National Archives branch head V. Chapman-Smith said.
This free exhibit, on display until December, provides details about the pivotal 1898 U.S. Supreme Court ruling involving Wong Kim Ark.
Although born in the U.S. authorizes blocked Ark from entering America when returning from a visit in China by claiming the San Francisco resident was not a U.S. citizen.
In that ruling America’s highest court declared that virtually everyone born in the U.S. is a U.S. citizen.
“I love these stories because they make us look at contemporary issues,” Chapman-Smith said, referencing contemporary debates around the legal status of children of undocumented immigrants, particularly from Mexico.
Immigrants from China became coming to the U.S. in large numbers during the first California gold rush (1848–1855) and to work building the first transcontinental railroad.
The Exclusion law led to Chinese in America living a prison-without-walls existence, unable to bring family into the U.S., unable to visit their homeland (due to restrictions on re-entry) and unable to enjoy full rights in this land that extolled freedom.
This law arose largely from the demonization of Chinese immigrants during America’s post-Civil War economic downturns when some politicians, labor leaders and others vilified Chinese workers for contributing to those economic woes.
The exhibit shows how the Exclusion Act, repealed in 1943, shredded the life of Philadelphia man named Edgar Yuen Fong who lived in the 5800 block of Lansdowne Avenue.
Fong came to Philadelphia in 1912 joining his father who owned a laundry on 10th near Race Street. In Philadelphia, Fong studied for the ministry. While working in a munitions plant during World War I federal agents arrested Fong in July 1918 charged with entering the U.S. without proper paper work.
Fong fought deportation in federal courts for over twenty years.
When Fong lost his final federal appeal and was deported back to Hong Kong he was a respected social worker in Philadelphia’s Chinese community and held many leadership posts in the Methodist Episcopal Church. One local news account described him as a “model citizen.”
Ellen Mulligan, an archivist at the Philadelphia branch, said Chinese immigrants faced exclusion from certain schools in the South forcing them into the blacks-only schools during segregation.
The “Rights” exhibit includes a display with photographs of an early school desegregation legal battle in Virginia conducted by the NAACP.
The white authorities in that Virginia county defended their segregation by dismissing the NAACP’s evidence of vast differences one town’s white school and its Black school by arguing that schools for whites in rural areas were similar to that town’s Black school.
“That argument by those authorities shows me that educational inequality is not just race but class,” Chapman-Smith said.
One intriguing element of the exhibit is accounts of the little know legal fight in Philadelphia over two slave ships (Phoebe and Prudent) captured off the coast of Cuba in July 1800 by a U.S. naval vessel, built in Philadelphia.
The captive Africans, completely naked and chained on those ships, were released by a federal judge into the custody of a Philadelphia anti-slavery organization who found jobs and lodging for those men and women rescued from a cruel life of slavery.
Those Africans, who eventually secured their freedom, received last names taken from the name of that naval vessel — Ganges. Today descendants of those Africans live in the Philadelphia area.
“We brought their descendants in for a program,” Chapman-Smith said. “What happened with those ships in the federal court here and how people here helped those Africans said a lot about Pennsylvania as a place and the complexities of the North vs. the South.”
Many people use the National Archive branches for genealogical research on their families. Chapman-Smith said the author of the famed book “Roots” — Alex Haley — utilized the National Archives for his research.
The Philadelphia branch presently hosts a Family History Summer Institute for Students where youth receive in-depth, guided genealogical historical research.
Richardo Serrano is an intern from Puerto Rico who is working with the Summer Institute.
“It is interesting in a sense that my island’s history is not disassociated with the U.S.,” Serrano said. “I see this as an extension of our history.”
Chapman-Smith is proud of the programming provided at the Archives branch for students.
“We give young children a sense of their place in the world.”
Linn Washington Jr. is a graduate of the Yale Law Journalism Fellowship Program.