Chinese Reconciliation Project addresses dark chapter in Tacoma's past
At 9:30 a.m. on Nov. 3, 1885, a mob of several hundred men marched through Tacoma's Chinese community, rousting its last 200 residents and herding them nine miles south to the Lake View train station, in what is now Lakewood, as policeman and sheriff's deputies looked on. After spending a cold, rainy night, many in partly open outbuildings, the Chinese were forced onto trains bound for Portland.
More than a century later, the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation, a Tacoma organization founded in 1994, is endeavoring to educate the public about those dark days in 1885 and to celebrate cutural diversity via the construction of a memorial park.
"This is the kind of thing we want to make sure is not forgotten," said Gail Yu, a Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation board member. "We have to make sure that people are made aware of this, and the purpose of the park with respect to reconciliation is to bring communities together in the spirit of cooperation and mutual respect."
Chinese workers were instrumental in the construction of the nation's transcontinental railroads in the 1860s and '70s.
By the early 1880s, however, the major railroad lines were nearing completion, and Chinese laborers were moving to the cities of the West to find other work, according to Ed Echtle, a Pacific Northwest historian specializing in Asian immigration. As other immigrant groups arrived from Europe, the competition for labor intensified. Unions began to organize unskilled workers and tapped into their aversion to the Chinese.
Anti-Chinese discrimination became federal policy in 1882 when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first U.S. immigration law designed to bar a specific nationality.
"The Chinese became kind of a scapegoat for low wages because they were charged with working for less, undercutting white labor," Echtle said. "And then in the 1880s there was an economic downturn, which sort of exacerbated things, so that the Exclusion Act was a political response to the pressure from constituents to ban unskilled Chinese labor from coming in to compete with white labor."
On Sept. 28, at an anti-Chinese rally in Seattle, it was resolved that the Chinese had to get out of Washington Territory by Nov. 1, and white-owned businesses were called upon to dismiss their Chinese employees. In Tacoma, where only a few people (Washington pioneer Ezra Meeker was one) spoke out against the agitators or defied their demands to fire their Chinese workers, about 450 Chinese boarded trains or ships or left by other means; the remaining 200 were marched out to Lake View on Nov. 4.
Historian Murray Morgan described the procession: "Teamsters cracked their whips, the wagons lurched forward. The elderly and the sick Chinese were permitted to ride. The rest trudged after the wagons, wrapped in blankets against the cold rain, duffle slung on poles over the shoulders or in laundry bags on their backs. Their sandals sucked mud; some took them off and went barefoot. Many were crying. Armed whites on horseback rode beside the refugees, herding them like cattle, and guard of club-carrying whites brought up the rear, urging on the stragglers."
They spent a miserable night, some in the station waiting room, where there was a single stove, others in freight sheds. According to Jules Alexander Karlin in a 1954 article in Pacific Historical Review, the Chinese would maintain that the ordeal drove one woman, a merchant's wife, insane, and that two of their number later died from their prolonged exposure to weather.
Two days later, arsonists set fire to the vacated Chinese shops and residences of Little Canton. Tacoma's Chinese community was effectively erased.
In 1992, community activists formed a committee to address this dark episode in Tacoma's history. Congressman Norm Dicks and State Representative Art Wang helped secure an arrangement whereby part of a National Guard site on Commencement Bay--close to where Little Canton once stood--would be converted to a reconciliation park to educate the community about the expulsion, celebrate diversity and create a venue for experiencing Chinese culture. The next year the nonprofit Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation was formed, said foundation president Theresa Pan Hosley: "That's when we started talking about reaching out to the community and doing some fund-raising."
Formal groundbreaking took place on Aug. 19, 2005, and the first phase is now under construction. When finished, the park will include a garden and a multipurpose building for community events and gatherings as well as classroom study. The project is expected to cost over $6 million.
"The best way to combat racism is through education and contact," Gail Yu noted. "We think (the park) can only bring the community together."
Visit the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation at www.crpftacoma.org.
© News Tribune