Thursday, May 28, 2015

Anti-Chinese Sentiment in Early Fullerton

Now that I’m on summer break from teaching, I’ve decided to return to my local history project, The Town I Live In: a History of Fullerton.  Yesterday and today, I spent a few hours in the Local History Room of the Fullerton Public Library, looking at microfilm of the Fullerton Tribune from the years 1893-1894.  Fullerton was a small but growing community at this time, inhabited mainly by farmers and merchants.  The local paper, edited by a man named Edgar Johnson, was probably fairly typical of small-town newspapers of that time.  A weekly paper, its slim pages were filled with national news, local gossip, advertisements, and items of local interest.  Pressing local issues included the Temperance Movement, the establishment of a local high school, incorporation as a city, lots of crop-related issues…and disturbing anti-Chinese sentiments.

In 1892, the Geary Act passed, which extended the infamous 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act for another ten years.  This act and its consequences are one of the more unpleasant aspects of American history.  Basically, what the Chinese Exclusion Act did was severely limit immigration of Chinese into America, provided for an apparatus of identification and deportation of Chinese people, denied Chinese people citizenship, and limited their rights in other nefarious ways.  Chinese exclusion was a really big deal in California, particularly, because there was a fairly large Chinese population here, in part due to the recruitment of Chinese labor to build the Central Pacific Railroad a couple decades earlier.  

In 1893, America was hit by a great economic depression, known as "The Panic of 1893," and jobs became scarce.  The Chinese Exclusion Act was seen as a way to protect the jobs of white people, at the expense of the Chinese.  It is an unfortunate fact that recent immigrants are often the first to suffer in times of economic uncertainty, both in the past, and today in America.

As I scrolled through the microfilm of the Fulllerton Tribune of 1893-1894, I noticed a running trend of articles dealing with the topic of Chinese Exclusion, all of which heartily supported it.  It’s amazing to me how, in this small newspaper, the line between news and opinion was so blurred.  Edgar Johnson was not shy about giving his views on the topic of what to do with the Chinese.  In an article from May 20, 1893, he suggested the U.S. use its war ships to transport the Chinese back to China: “What have we got all these war vessels for if they are not to transport Chinese upon?  If they will just begin moving these fellows, it won’t be very long before there be some room left for white people in this country.”

On October 7, 1893, Johnson reported that “Two Chinamen were arrested at Santa Ana Tuesday and taken to Los Angeles to go before Judge Ross on a charge of violating the Geary act by not registering within the tine prescribed by law.”  On Jan 6 of 1894, Johnson called it a “well-known fact that the Chinese do not make desirable residents in this country.”  Edgar Johnson often refers to Chinese people with the racist term "Chinamen."

On February 17, 1894, Johnson reported an event that happened in Fullerton.  Apparently a mob of 40 locals forced some Chinese workers to leave town.  This event is a disturbing precursor to the rise of the Ku Klux Klan in Fullerton in the 1920s.  Here’s a screen shot of this article and its opening paragraph:

From the Fullerton Tribune (February 17, 1894) courtesy of Launer Local History Room

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