Resource

School Segregation

A letter written by a Chinese immigrant mother who fought against school segregation.

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To the Board of Education—Dear Sirs:
I see that you are going to make all sorts of excuses to keep my child out of the public schools. Dear sirs, Will you please to tell me! Is it a disgrace to be Born a Chinese? Didn’t God make us all!!! What right! have you to bar my children out of the school because she is a Chinese Descend. They is no other worldly reason that you could keep her out, except that. I suppose, you all go to churches on Sundays! Do you call that a Christian act to compel my little children to go so far to a school that is made in purpose for them. My children don’t dress like the other Chinese. They look just as phunny amongst them as the Chinese in Chinese dress look amongst you Caucasians. Besides, if I had any wish to send them to a Chinese school I could have sent them two years ago without going to all this trouble. You have expended a lot of the public money foolishly, all because of a one poor little child. Her playmates is all Caucasians ever since she could toddle around. If she is good enough to play with them! then is she not good enough to be in the same room and studie with them? You had better come and see for yourselves. See if the Tape’s is not the same as other caucasians, except in features. It seems no matter how a Chinese may live and dress so long as you know they Chinese. Then they are hated as one. There is not any right or justice for them.
You have seen my husband and child. You told him it wasn’t Mamie Tape you object to. If it were not Mamie Tape you object to, then why didn’t you let her attend the school nearest her home! Instead of first making one pretense then another pretense of some kind to keep her out? It seems to me Mr. Moulder has a grudge against this eight-year-old Mamie Tape. I know they is no other child I mean Chinese child! care to go to your public Chinese school. May you Mr. Moulder, never be persecuted like the way you have persecuted little Mamie Tape. Mamie Tape will never attend any of the Chinese schools of your making! Never!!! I will let the world see sir What justice there is When it is govern by the Race prejudice men! Just because she is of the Chinese descend, not because she don’t dress like  you, because she does. Just because she is descended of Chinese parents. I guess she is more of a American than a good many of you that is going to prevent her being Educated.
Mrs. M. Tape.

Mary Tape, “An Indignant Mother,” The New North-West, May, 22, 1885. Library of Congress.

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Background

Racial segregation of American schools has been a common practice for much of U.S. history. During Reconstruction, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875. It banned racial discrimination in public institutions, including schools. In 1883, the Supreme Court struck down the law and ruled that discrimination in public spaces was constitutional. In Southern states, Black and white students were legally required to attend separate public schools. While school segregation was not set by law in other parts of the country, it was common practice. For example, local officials established separate schools for non-white students.

In the 1850s, Chinese immigrants started coming to the United States in large numbers, fueled by a disastrous Chinese economy and the chance at wealth during the California Gold Rush. They easily found work in railroad construction, on farms, and in laundry businesses. By the 1870s, the American economy plummeted and many people lost their jobs. Nativists blamed Chinese immigrants for taking jobs from Americans. Racist perceptions of Chinese women led to the passage of the Page Act in 1875. More restrictions followed. In 1882, the U.S. government adopted the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned immigrants from China and did not allow Chinese immigrants already living in the country to become American citizens.

About the Resources

Joseph and Mary Tape were Chinese immigrants who lived in a predominantly white suburb of San Francisco in the 1880s. Joseph owned his own successful business, and Mary cared for their four children. They aspired to create a comfortable middle-class life for their family. In 1884, the Tapes tried to enroll their daughter Mamie in the local public school. However, the principal denied her admission because she was Chinese. In response, the Tapes sued the San Francisco Board of Education and the principal, arguing that state law required them to admit Mamie to the school. The Supreme Court of California ruled in the Tapes’s favor, and the case confirmed that all children had a right to public education. 

Within a week, the California legislature passed a new law establishing separate schools for children of Chinese descent. The school again denied Mamie Tape entry, this time stating that she did not have a vaccination record and that classes were full. They expected Mamie to attend the newly established Chinese Primary School in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Francisco. In response, Mary Tape wrote this scathing letter to the Board of Education, which was reprinted in many newspapers. Unfortunately, Mary Tape was not successful in enrolling her daughter in the white school. Mamie and her brother attended the Chinese Primary School instead. 

The Tape v. Hurley case established that all children had a right to public education, but schools could still be segregated. A decade later, the Supreme Court ruled that “separate but equal” facilities were constitutional in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision. It was not until 1954 that the Supreme Court ruled segregated education to be unconstitutional in the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education.

Vocabulary

  • bar: To block someone from something.
  • Caucasians: White people.
  • Mr. Moulder: Superintendent of public schools in San Francisco.
  • nativists: People who believe native-born citizens should be favored over immigrants.
  • persecuted: Discriminated against because of one’s race or beliefs.
  • prejudice: Dislike of a particular group of people.
  • pretense: Act in a way to make someone else believe in something untrue.
  • segregation: The enforced separation of people of different races.
  • toddle: To walk unsteadily, or with small steps.

Discussion Questions

  • Why did the public school refuse to admit Mamie Tape? How does Mary describe her feelings about this decision in her letter? 
  • How did the California legislature respond to the Tape v. Hurley case and why is this significant? 
  • What arguments does Mary Tape make in favor of her daughter attending the local public school? 
  • Why does Mary try to prove that Mamie was more like white students than other Chinese students? What might this tell you about Mary’s relationship with her own identity as a Chinese American? 
  • How does this case reflect on American treatment of Chinese immigrants during this time period?
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Suggested Activities

  • Pair this resource with a video about the Mendez v. Westminster case, which ended school segregation in the state of California in 1947.
  • Combine this resource with the Page Act and the life story of Polly Bemis to explore the experiences of Chinese immigrants in the United States.
  • Consider how state and federal governments used laws and policies regarding education to enforce the unequal treatment of children based on race. Analyze photographs of the Carlisle Indian School. Why did the government enact these policies of school segregation?

Themes

ACTIVISM AND SOCIAL CHANGE

Source Notes
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