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« 'Cool Down, Little Girl' | Main | New Videos Show Why Workers Need Collective Bargaining »


Frederick Douglass's Fight For Chinese Immigrants

By Angelo Lopez
June 24, 2011

Frederick Douglass is best known as an abolitionist and a champion of African American rights. One of the most compelling orators of the nineteenth century, Douglass delivered countless abolitionist speeches and civil rights speeches to defend the African American community from slavery, discrimination and lynching. Frederick Douglass, though, did not fight for only the rights of African Americans. He fought for the human rights of all groups that he saw as being harassed or discriminated against and he involved himself in the great reform movements of his time. Douglass participated in the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls in 1848 and signed the Declaration of Sentiments. He supported the labor movement, the temperance movement, and he fought against peonage. One of the little known facts about Frederick Douglass is his advocacy of equal rights for immigrants, especially Chinese laborers. In the book Ripples Of Hope: Great American Civil Rights Speeches edited by Josh Gottheimer, I found a speech that Douglass made on December 7, 1869 attacking the discrimination and violence that Chinese immigrants were facing. In light of the controversy over immigrant rights today, we could draw lessons from Frederick Douglass's speech.

The Chinese were the first Asian immigrants to enter America, and they were initially welcomed to this country to fill California's labor shortage in areas like draining swamps and mining the gold fields and quartz mines. According to Ronald Takaki's book Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans, the Chinese made great contributions in railroad construction, especially in laying tracks for the Central Pacific Railroad for the transcontinental railroad. Over 12,000 Chinese were employed by the Central Pacific Railroad, making up 90 percent of their entire workforce. They drilled and blasted rock during the winter and spring, and several miners froze in the snow.

After the Pacific stretch of the Transcontinental Railroad was finished, those Chinese workers entered low wage industries where employment was available to them. In the 1860s, Chinese workers made up 46% of San Francisco's labor force in four key industries- boots and shoes, woolens, cigars and tobacco, and sewing. In the San Joaquin and Sacramento River deltas, Chinese workers constructed irrigation channels and miles of levees, dikes and ditches. They worked the vineyards and wineries of the Sonoma Valley. In 1870 the Chinese constituted 18 % of all farm laborers in California, and in 1880 they represented 86% of the agricultural labor force in Sacramento County, 85% in Yuba, 67% in Solano, 55% in Santa Clara, 46% in Yolo, and 43% in Tehema. Ronald Takaki would write about the importance of Chinese laborers:

The significant role of Chinese labor in the industrial development of California was widely recognized. A.W. Loomis, in his article "How Our Chinamen Are Employed", counted thousands of Chinese factory operatives working in woolen mills, knitting mills, paper mills, powder mills, tanneries, shoe factories, and garment industries. In his essay "Chinamen or White Man, Which?" the Reverand O. Gibson argued that Califoria's manufacturing interests could "not be maintained a single day" without the low rate of Chinese labor. In "The Golden State", published in 1876, R. G. McClellan described the state's economic dependency on Chinese labor: "In mining, farming, in factories, and in the labor generally of California the employment of the Chinese has been found most desirable; and much of the labor done by these people if performed by white men at higher wages could not be continued nor made possible."
The Chinese worker was able to fill these low wage industries because they were easily exploited without any means of legal recourse. They would occassionally try to strike, but the industrialists would be able to get the militia to break up the strikes. Takaki wrote of the Chinese dilemma:
One answer to both questions was a proposal to reduce the Chinese into a permanently degraded cast-labor force: they would be ineffect a unique, transnational industrial reserve army of migrant laborers forced to ba a foreigner forever. They would be what sociologist Robert Blauner has termed an "internal colony," a racially subordinated group. Unlike white immigrants such as the Irish, Italians, and Poles, the Chinese would be a politically proscribed group. Part of America's process of production, they would not be allowed to become part of her body politic. "I do not believe they are going to remain here long enough to become good citizens," Central Pacific official Charles Crocker told a legislative committee, "and I would not admit them to citizenship."

For Crocker and other employers of Chinese labor, the Chinese would be allowed to enter and work temporarily, then return to their homeland while others would come here as replacements. The Chinese would be used to service the labor needs of America's industry without threatening the racial homogeneity of the country's citizenry. The migrant workers would be inducted into a labor supply in a circular pattern. Anti-Chinese laws, economic exploitation, and racial antagonism would assist in this process, compelling the Chinese to leave America after a limited period of employment. They would remain strangers.


This exploitation of the Chinese cheap labor caused resentment from the white labor force. Takaki wrote:

But the racially divided farm-labor force genererated ethnic antagonism, and Chinese became targets of white-labor resentment, especially during hard times. "White men and women who desire to earn a living," the Los Angeles times reported on August 14, 1893, "have for some time been entering quiet protests against vineyardists and packers employing Chinese in preference to whites." Their protests did not remain quiet as economic depression led to violent anti-Chinese riots by unemployed white workers throughout California. From Ukiah to the Napa Valley to Fresno to Redlands, Chinese were beaten and shot by white workers; they were herded to railroad stations and loaded onto trains. The Chinese bitterly remember this violence and expulsion as the "driving out".

This racial resentment began to translate into anti-Chinese laws. American white miners threatened by the Chinese competition pressured the California legislature to pass the foreign miners' license tax. This tax required a monthly payment of three dollars from every foreign miner who did not desire to become a citizen. This was aimed at the Chinese immigrants, since a 1790 federal law reserved naturalized citizenship to white persons. In 1855, the California legislature passed a law called "An Act to Discourage the Immigration to this State of Persons Who Cannot Become Citizens Thereof", which imposed on the owner of a ship a landing tax of fifty dollars for each passenger ineligible to natural citizenship. In 1862, the California legislature passed a law "to protect Free White Labor against competition with Chinese Coolie Labor, and to Discourage the Immigration of the Chinese into the State of California", a law that levied a tax of $2.50 per month on all Chinese residing in the state, except those Chinese operating businesses, licensed to work in mines, or those engaged in the sugar, rice, coffee and tea industries.

The resentments that were building up against Chinese workers eventually resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. In the 1870s, the United States entered a severe economic slump and anti-Chinese groups like the Supreme Order of Caucasians and the Workingman's Party pushed for passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which excluded Chinese laborers from entering the country and it forced settled Chinese in the U.S. to to obtain certifications for reentry if they wanted to leave the U.S. and return. Signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 8, 1882, the act was supposed to last for only ten years, but it was extended as prejudiced feelings against Chinese remained strong as the country entered the twentieth century.

This was the atmosphere that Frederick Douglass addressed when he spoke in defense of Chinese immigrants on December 7, 1869 for the Parker Fraternity Course. The Parker Fraternity Course was a series of lectures in Boston, Massachusetts that was established by abolitionist minister Theodore Parker to talk about the important issues of the day. Douglass would say of the situation of the Chinese in America:

Already has California assumed a bitterly unfriendly attitude toward the Chinamen. Already has she driven them from her altars of justice. Already has she stamped them as outcasts and handed them over to popular contempt and vulgar jest. Already are they constant victims of cruel harshness and brutal violence. Already have our Celtic brothers, never slow to execute the behests of popular prejudice against the weak and defenseless, recognized in the heads of these people, fit targets for their shilalahs. Already, too, are their associations formed in avowed hostility to the Chinese.

In all this there is, of course, nothing strange. Repugnance to the presence and influence of foreigners is an ancient feeling among men. It is peculiar to no particular race or nation. It is met with not only in the conduct of one nation toward another, but in the conduct of the inhabitants of different parts of the same country, some times of the same city, and even of the same village. "Lands intersected by a narrow frith, abhor each other. Mountains interposed, make enemies of nations." To the Hindoo, every man not twice born, is Mleeka. To the Greek, every man not speaking Greek, is a barbarian. To the Jew, every one not circumcised, is a gentile. To the Mahometan, every man not believing in the prophet, is a kaffe. I need not repeat here the multitude of reproachful epithets expressive of the same sentiment among ourselves. All who are not to the manor born, have been made to feel the lash and sting of these reproachful names.

Douglass then sets forth his idea of an America of all races and cultures. He says:

I submit this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.

There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are eternal, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and the Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity. I have great respect for the blue eyed and light haired races of America. They are a mighty people. In any struggle for the good things of this world they need have no fear. They have no need to doubt that they will get their full share.

But I reject the arrogant and scornful theory by which they would limit migratory rights, or any other essential human rights to themselves, and which would make them the owners of this great continent to the exclusion of all other races of men.

I want a home here not only for the Negro, the mulatto, and the Latin races; but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours. Right wrongs no man. If respect is had to majorities, the fact that only one fifth of the population of the globe is white, the other four fifths are colored, ought to have some weight and influence in disposing of this and similar questions. It would be a sad reflection upon the laws of nature and upone the idea of justice, to say nothing of a common Creator, if four fifths of mankind were deprived of the rights of migration to make room for the one fifth. If the white race may exclude all other races from this continent, it may rightfully do the same in respect to all other lands, islands, capes and continents, and thus have all the world to itself. Thus what would seem to belong to the whole, would become the property only of a part. So much for what is right, not let us see what is wise.

And here I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United States, is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt.

Frederick Douglass's dream of a United States of different races and cultures all sharing equal opportunities has come a lot closer to becoming true. Our nation has benefited from the inclusion of Europeans, Asians, Hispanics, and Africans into our cultural melting pot. When I read about the arguments about our current illegal immigration issues, and see laws like SB1070 pass in Arizona, I think of the situation of the plight of Chinese workers in the nineteenth century. In my eyes, the travails of the Chinese immigrants of the nineteenth century is very similar to the plight that illegal immigrants from Mexico are going through today. They are brought to this country to fill up labor shortages in certain industries and agricultural areas. They are given no means of redressing injustices inflicted on them and thus made vulnerable to being exploited for their cheap labor.

I deeply admire Frederick Douglass's fight to champion the human rights of all groups who are oppressed or harassed. Most of the activists that I know support a broad range of causes. The people I know who are in unions also support the rights of immigrants. My gay and lesbian friends also are against the rise in Islamophobia. My friends who support immigrant rights also speak out for the Wisconsin workers and their rights of collective bargaining.

Many of my civil rights heroes also champion a broad view of human rights. Harvey Milk supported a Teamsters strike against beer distributors. Coretta Scott King and Dolores Huerta have strong advocated the rights of the LGBT community. Civil rights pioneer John Lewis has spoken out for immigrant rights and the Dream Act. Jesse Jackson has attended several union meetings and spoken out for blue collar workers and the unemployed in the midwest. Bayard Rustin spoke out against anti-semitism.

This ability to cherish universal human rights for all people is something I admire. Frederick Douglass summed up the fight against all prejudice in a quote I found in the book Frederick Douglass: In His Own Words.

If what is called the instinctive aversion of the white race for the colored, when analyzed, is seen to be the same as that which men feel or have felt toward other objects wholly apart from color; if it should be the same as that sometimes exhibited by the haughty and rich to the humble and poor, the same as the Brahmin feels toward the lower caste, the same as the Norman felt toward the Saxon, the same as that cherished by the Turk against Christians, the same as Christians felt toward the Jews, the same as that which murders a Christian in Wallachia, calls him a "dog" in Constantinople, oppresses and persecutes a Jew in Berlin, hunts down a socialist in St. Petersburg, drives a Hebrew from an hotel at Saratoga, that scorns the Irishman i London, the same as Catholics once felt for Protestants, the same as that which insults, abuses, and kills the Chinaman on the Pacific slope- then may we well enough affirm that this prejudice really has nothing whatever to do with race or color, and that it has its motive and mainspring in some other source with which the mere facts of color and race have nothing to do...

Slavery, ignorance, stupidity, servility, poverty, dependence are undesirable conditions. When these shall cease to be coupled with color, there will be no color line drawn.


A youtube video of John Lewis speaking for immigrant rights

A youtube video of Dolores Huerta speaking out for gay marriage

Two youtube videos of Jesse Jackson supporting the workers of Wisconsin


Comments (6)

Ken Poland Author Profile Page:

Once again, Angelo, you've done a great job of research and review. We studied a little about the 'coolie' labor that built the transcontinental RR, in grade school. That's over 60 years ago, I doubt if history lessons of today think that is important enough to include.

We Christians have a difficult time handling our human relationships. It seems to be man's nature to think, "me first" and justify any actions that benefit us, personally. In spite of what many folks think, that is man's nature whether he professes Christianity, Islam, atheist, or whatever. Fortunately, we have those, whether Christian or not, who conquer that selfish nature and truly embrace their fellow man, without regard to their importence or status in society.

We seem to forget the little chorus we learned as little kids in Sunday School. "Jesus loves the little children, All the children of the world, Red and yellow, black and white, They are precious in His sight, Jesus loves the little children of the world."

We have real problems with developing friendships with anyone we don't perceive as improving our position in society. We don't like to give favors to someone who isn't apt to return the favor. In fact, it would appear we are very jealous of our claimed status with God and want to think it's because we are good or better that anyone else. And, incidentally, we set the standards and measurements to guarantee our success and superiority.

Angelo Lopez Author Profile Page:

Thanks, Ken. Wonderful insights. I admire Frederick Douglass for this inclusiveness that you describe. In many of the blogs that I've written, I've tried to focus on individuals or groups, whether they be artists, activists, or the Founding Fathers, who had the courage to fight for people who had no voice in the political process and couldn't fight for themselves.

I don't know if Frederick Douglass is a Christian, but I've learned that there were a lot of Christians in our history who've championed the marginalized and the poor. The Quakers and Evangelicals were important to the abolitionist and women's suffragist movements. Catholics were a major force in the labor movement. Christians participated in the civil rights movement. Christians have been involved in helping the homeless, the unemployed, the poor.

William Wilberforce, Pauli Murray, Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, William Sloane Coffin, William Jenning Bryan and many other Christians helped fight for the oppressed.

What you wrote reminds me of the lesson that St. Paul wrote in Romans. I know that I have my own weaknesses, my own prejudices. We're all guilty of something. I've often been accused of not being a true Christian and maybe some of those people are right. If I understand Jesus correctly though, I don't think he wants people to be perfect. He expects us to make mistakes. I think he wants us to grow, to work to overcome our prejudices, to learn to have courage and to help those who need our help. I look at Frederick Douglass as a hero to emulate, as someone who had the courage to speak out for Chinese immigrants, oppressed workers, disenfranchised women and for his African American community.

Ken Poland Author Profile Page:

"I don't think he wants people to be perfect." Oh! yes He does. But, "He expects us to make mistakes."

We aren't capable of knowing perfection. I remember when the chemists and scientists thought they had minute measurements that identified parts per thousand. We set standards and passed laws. Then science started measuring to parts per million. We had to reset the standards. Then we discovered billions and ad finitum on our quest to exactness or perfection. Are we there yet?

According to the Judeo/Christian tradition (which I subscribe to), God created man as the crowning touch to His creation. (The mechanics as to how and when He did that is immaterial.) He gave man freedom of choice, emotion, conscience, and memory.

It is our freedom that gives us trouble. Right from the git go, man rebelled and made poor choices. Those choices corruped his emotions and conscience. Man developed selective memory to ease his conscience and justify his choices. By our very nature, we are not perfect. But, Christ, who came in the form of man, is perfect and He desires us to follow his example and be perfect. God knew and knows that isn't going to be. That's where His Grace enters the picture and covers all our imperfections so that we may enter into eternity with Him. But as long as we are here on earth we have to deal with our imperfections and try to live as Christlike as we can. We must base our standards and measurements on Christ's example and not our own. The closer we come to achieving that goal the more equatable we will be in our relationships with our fellowman.

Angelo Lopez Author Profile Page:

Thanks for your insights, Ken. I appreciate your perspective. I think we all spend our lives trying to find our way to God. I went through a bad experience where a group tried to manipulate me through peer pressure and harassment, so I'm a bit wary about certain aspects of Christianity and certain types of Christians. But I'm also grateful for the positive experiences of Christianity that have really made me what I am, from the best parts of my Catholic upbringing to my first two or three years at an Evangelical church, my life now in an Episcopalian Church.

We all make our choices in life, we take the roads we must take and roads that we can no longer take. No one else can tell us what road we can take. In some ways, I wonder if I'm more Unitarian or Quaker in my point of view than traditional Christian. I'm always more drawn to the rebel or radical fringes of Christianity, the Quakers or Catholic Workers or the early Franciscans.

I wasn't really expecting a conversation on Christianity from this blog on Frederick Douglass. But I appreciate this conversation. You are a lot stronger on Christian theology than I am, so I appreciate your perspectives on this.

Taking a short side trip on immigration, I wanted my blog to draw a comparison between Frederick Douglass's support of Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century and the support many people have nowadays of illegal immigrants from Mexico. I think immigration reform is important. It's important for two reasons.

One reason is to stop the exploitation of a group of people for their cheap labor. Today's illegal immigrants have no political rights, so they have no means of defending themselves from harassment or exploitation. It's happened to past immigrant groups, like the Chinese, the Irish, the Eastern Europeans.

The other reason has to do with our country's aging demographics. As the Baby Boomers age, the ratio of young workers to retired elderly will gradually lessen. This has serious repurcussions to our social service net, as our country may suffer through some of the same problems that Japan has suffered as it's population has aged. The average number of children per American family isn't enough to replenish the necessary number of young workers. Historically, immigration has been one of the ways in which America has replenished its workforce to sufficient numbers. I think Democrats and Republicans have both political and economic reasons to start negotiating for an immigration reform bill.

Just my thoughts on immigration.

Ken Poland Author Profile Page:

Immigration is a very serious issue in our country. It touches all parts of our society. Fair and equitable treatment and regulations are subject to religious interpretations by all our diverse religious communities. Economic interests are affected directly by immigration.

We need comprehensive and consistent regulations and enforcement. Historically we haven't always had that. At the present time financial advantages and political power is dominating the discussion in the coffee shops as well as the legislature.

The claim of our being a Christian nation with all our laws based solely on Biblical law is not realistic. We have diverse religious views that need to be addressed.

As you have pointed out, even those claiming Christianity aren't in full agreement on what the Bible says about individual responsibilities and social structures and regulations.

We have ethnic issues that are creating friction between established communities and the influx of immigrants that don't understand the local attitudes and quite frankly don't intend to adapt. Religion is defenitely involved.

We need to face reality and find common ground that benefits humanity. Your research and acknowledgment of historical evidence of practices that were not always fair and equitable is very important influence that affects how we handle the issues today.

I have sat in discussion groups where the majority have flatly stated that they will not be welcoming and affirming to anyone who doesn't conform to their own absolute and narrow interpretation of religion, economics, and politics. What they don't realize is that they have just said civilization will be subject to survival of the fittest. (digression back to animal instinct).

Angelo Lopez Author Profile Page:

Thanks Ken. I knew people like the majority in your discussion group, very absolute in their way of thinking. I had many friends like that in the evangelical church I once attended. Though they were rigid, they were also very kind, very sincere in their beliefs. The conflicts I got into were very painful because they involved former friends. But it taught me a lesson about the importance of thinking for myself and for respecting differences of opinion.

I admire your respect for the Constitution and respect for differing religious and cultural views. I don't have much hope that Congress will do any sort of comprehensive immigration bill this year. But I do hope they do some piecemeal immigration bills, like the Dream Act or maybe regulations. For industries that rely on these immigrants for their workforce, I hope they'll be able to pressure Congress for some humane and fair immigration bill. And I'm hoping for activists to continue their vigils, protests, petitions, lobbying efforts.

Just as I hope people who are passionate about economic justice for the middle class and poor, passionate about the environment, and passionate about other issues, get involved in civic activism. Like Frederick Douglass.

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