Boomtown, 1870s: 'The Chinese Must Go!'

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Detail from a Harper's Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast, published in 1871 amid continuing agitation in California to bar Chinese immigrants. Here, Nast lists some of the most common charges lodged against arriving Chinese. Columbia, personification of the national ideal, tells an anti-Chinese mob, 'Hands off, gentlemen! America means fair play for all men.'  (Library of Congress)

Second of two parts

Part 1: Boomtown, 1870s: A Decade of Bonanza, Bust and Unbridled Racism

In July 1877, the nation's attention was focused on a railroad strike that spread through much of the East and led to bloody clashes between workers and troops in Pittsburgh, Baltimore and elsewhere.

On July 23, 1877, leaders of San Francisco's unions called a mass meeting to support the Eastern strikers, who were fighting for measures like an eight-hour workday. A huge crowd descended on the meeting place, a vacant lot at the corner of Grove and Larkin streets, the site of today's San Francisco Public Library. Many in the throng soon showed they had more local complaints on their mind than what was happening in Pittsburgh.

James D'Arcy, who had helped create a national Workingmen's Party, was elected to run the meeting. The Daily Alta California gives the flavor of the gathering as it got underway.

Mr. D'Arcy threw a damper on the meeting by stating that this was no anti-Coolie meeting, and that they were not there for the purpose of discussing the Chinese question. He put on another blanket by saying that they had met, not for the purpose of encouraging riot and incendiarism, but to give their brother workmen in the East their moral support. He then took up the eight-hour question, but did not speak long, as the crowd were impatient for novelty. ...

"Talk about the Chinamen;" "Give us the Coolie business," and other shouts from all over the ground put an end to his discourse.

Soon, hundreds of people broke away from the crowd, led by what the Alta called "the hoodlum element" -- hoodlum being a term coined in San Francisco in 1866 that had come, by 1877, to denote gangs that frequently attacked Chinese residents of the city.

The mob charged through the center of the city, attacking more than a dozen Chinese homes and businesses, mostly laundries. The violence continued for three nights and spread south of Market to the waterfront, into the Mission and out to the Western Addition.

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Rioters targeted more Chinese homes and businesses and threatened establishments that employed Chinese workers. Leaders of the mob warned they would burn down a woolen mill and wharves owned by the Pacific Mail Steamship Co., a line that carried thousands of immigrants from China to San Francisco. Rioters succeeded in burning down another wharf, as well as nearby lumberyards and outbuildings, and skirmished with the city's small police force.

The unrest, which threatened to spread to the East Bay, was alarming enough to local officials that Gov. William Irwin called for military help, which came in the form of two square-rigged warships, the USS Pensacola and USS Lackawanna, which stood offshore in case they were needed to put down the riots. The Army also issued 2,000 rifles and ammunition to be used by a civilian Committee of Safety that had been hastily formed to help contain the violence.

The climax of the July riots was a battle on the slopes of Rincon Hill between rock-throwing rioters and members of the committee, many armed with pick handles. Several people died over the course of the disturbances and dozens were injured.

But this spasm of violence had a more lasting impact than the psychic and physical toll taken on the city. It created a movement determined to settle "the Chinese question" once and for all, on the one hand, and to redress workers' grievances with the wealthy, on the other.

The movement, which took the name the Workingmen's Party of California, gained momentum immediately after the July unrest, thanks largely to an Irish immigrant freight hauler who proved to be a compelling street orator.

Denis Kearney, a native of County Cork, had a successful draying business and in the mid-1870s had become an avid member of a local debating society.

Denis Kearney, Irish immigrant, street orator and leader of the Workingmen's Party of California.
Denis Kearney, Irish immigrant, street orator and leader of the Workingmen's Party of California. (Bancroft Library)

San Francisco journalist and political economist Henry George recalled Kearney as "a man of strict temperance in all except speech."

Before the troubles of July 1877, George said, Kearney "was noticeable not merely for the bitter vulgarity of his attacks upon all forms of religion ... but for the venom with which he abused the working classes, and took on every occasion what passed for the capitalistic side."

Paradoxically, too, given his soon-to-become-familiar habit of suggesting mob violence as a social cure-all and his tireless vilification of California's Chinese, Kearney had joined the Committee of Safety and taken to the street to help quell the anti-Chinese riots.

But that was July. By early October, Kearney had reversed his course and rhetoric, had taken control of the Workingmen's Party -- and had begun attracting thousands to regular Sunday rallies at the sandlot across the street from City Hall.

Under Kearney's leadership, the party adopted a platform that certainly sounded radical: Throw the rich and powerful out of office, break up monopoly land holdings, redistribute wealth through heavy taxes, and "provide decently for the poor and unfortunate, the weak, the helpless, and especially the young , because the country is rich enough to do so, and religion, humanity, and patriotism demand that we should do so."

And just as important, the party was bent on throwing the Chinese out of California.

More attention-getting than the Workingmen's principles was Kearney's style in calling for immediate drastic action to attain the party's goals.

His rallying cry was, "The Chinese must go!" He warned that San Francisco would burn if conditions for workers did not improve. He called on his followers to arm themselves with muskets and ammunition. His regular prescription for enemies, either opponents within the party or class enemies like millionaires, judges or government officials, was hanging.

Faced with the likelihood that state lawmakers might pass a bill aimed at curbing incitement to riot, Kearney responded, "If the members of the Legislature overstep the limits of decency, then I say, 'Hemp! Hemp! Hemp!' This is the battle cry of freedom!"

In late October 1877, Kearney led a march to Nob Hill where, as we've seen, some of the city's wealthiest men had built their mansions. The procession's specific destination was the home of Charles Crocker, one of the Big Four who had built and profited immensely from the Central Pacific Railroad.

Crocker had built his mansion on a block bounded by California, Sacramento, Taylor and Jones street. He wanted to own the entire block, but one neighbor, an undertaker named Nicholas Yung, held out for a higher price.

"The undertaker wanted more than the nabob was willing to give," Henry George wrote, "and the latter cut short the negotiation by inclosing the undertaker’s house on three sides with an immense board fence, probably the highest on the Pacific coast, if not in the world. This veritable coffin ... is one of the most striking features of the hill."

Denis Kearney addresses crowd on Nob Hill, October 1877.
Denis Kearney addresses crowd on Nob Hill, October 1877. (FoundSF)

About 2,000 marchers accompanied Kearney to the heights, where they set a bonfire in the street as he inveighed against the wealthy and warned about the consequences to the railroad millionaires if they did not fire their Chinese workers. He and others declared they'd give Crocker a month to take down the 30-foot-high fence around Yung's home or they'd be back to tear it down themselves.

That gathering was enough to spur demands for the arrest of Kearney and other Workingmen's Party leaders for using incendiary language. And Kearney and others were arrested, not just once, but several times. The charges didn't stick, and, far from suppressing Kearney, the arrests provoked outrage and won his movement wider sympathy.

The Workingmen became a force in Bay Area politics, winning a seat in the state Senate in early 1878 and electing officials in San Francisco, Oakland and Alameda. The party's rise coincided with a statewide election for delegates to a convention called to write a new state constitution. The Kearneyites won virtually all the seats contested in San Francisco. But in the Sacramento convention, outnumbered by Republicans and Democrats who had joined forces against them, the Workingmen's Party failed to effect any of the reforms in taxes, lands or employment conditions that their movement had promoted.

The party's delegates did, however, get a chance to enshrine the demands of the anti-Chinese movement in a new section of the state Constitution.

A committee appointed to consider "the Chinese question" returned with a nine-point proposal that would give the Legislature the power to bar further Chinese immigration to California and to eject any Chinese it found undesirable. The proposal would bar Chinese from  all public employment, make them ineligible to receive licenses for any trade or business, and strip corporations of their state charters if they employed Chinese workers.

Chinese residents of Sierra County, California, 1894.
Chinese residents of Sierra County, California, 1894. (Courtesy, California HIstorical Society)

The Chinese would be prohibited from owning or leasing real estate, would be barred from fishing in state waters and would no longer have the right to bring lawsuits in state courts. The committee also suggested denying anyone who hired a Chinese worker the right to vote, disqualifying anyone who hired a Chinese worker from holding public office and disbarring any lawyer who represented a Chinese client.

As historian Charles McClain remarks, even though most delegates were all for some sort of anti-Chinese language in the new constitution, they thought the committee's proposal went too far. By a vote of 104-17, the convention adopted a toned-down version, incorporated into the state's highest charter as Article XIX when the document was approved by voters in 1879.

Article XIX, titled simply "Chinese," preserved two of the major provisions put forward in the convention: that no private corporation could employ Chinese workers and the ban on public employment for the Chinese. The laws enacting these provisions were swiftly struck down in federal courts that ruled they violated the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection, infringed on rights due to Chinese immigrants under treaty and trampled upon corporate rights.

The new constitution marked the zenith of what had been dubbed Kearneyism. A convention resolution to thank Kearney for his service to the anti-Chinese cause was voted down. By 1881, Kearney was described in San Francisco as "a spent rocket" and had left the city for a brief, unremarkable career in New York City politics.

That did not end the era of anti-Chinese activism or legislation, of course. State and local governments continued to pass new laws to harass and hinder Chinese residents, many of which were unenforceable or were found to violate the U.S. Constitution. And then Congress weighed in, responding to the continuing anti-Asian agitation by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882.

The measure succeeded, at least in the short run, in achieving what decades of California's hostility, bluster and unconstitutional lawmaking could not: Although it never stopped immigration from China entirely, it slowed it down dramatically and, for the first time since the Gold Rush, led to a decline in the Chinese population in both San Francisco and the entire state by 1900.

That was a cause of celebration, of course, for those who had tried for decades to keep Chinese immigrants out of California. Soon, though, they were complaining the law wasn't tough enough -- that its exemptions were too lax and that it was too easy for those seeking to emigrate from China to cross into the United States from Canada.

Among Chinese in the United States, the law was an occasion to question the loudly propounded ideals of their adopted country.

"In your Declaration of Independence it is asserted that all men are born free and equal, and it is understood by the civilized world that the United States of America is a free country," wrote Boston tea merchant Wong Ar Chong during congressional debates over exclusion. "But I fear there is a backward step being taken by the government."

The epilogue?

Charles Crocker's fence, on Sacramento Street, near the summit of Nob Hill, stood until 1904, long after both the railroad baron and his stubborn neighbor were dead.

Denis Kearney died in 1907, having long since vanished from the political scene.

Despite having been essentially ruled unconstitutional, Article XIX was part of the California Constitution until 1952, when voters repealed it.

The Chinese Exclusion Act remained in force until 1943, when it was repealed in the interest of making amends to China, a U.S. ally in World War II.

The Comstock bonanzas turned into a popular TV western that somehow left out all the nasty details of mining skulduggery and stock manipulation.

The city went on, of course, recovering its prosperity, growing relentlessly, moving toward its reckoning with calamity, and unfolding decade by decade into this place we think we know.

And the Chinese in California?

Well, there's someone named Mayor Lee at City Hall, a short stroll from where Kearney and his ilk bawled, "The Chinese must go!" Just across the bay in Berkeley, there is little doubt which of the state's diverse ethnic groups is most successful at the nation's premier public university. Immigrants from China still seek a California dream and contribute in ways that couldn't have been imagined in the 19th century.

Whatever you think all those developments say about the Bay Area we live in today, whether you see this place as booming or busted, you can't help but take at least a little delight in how this piece of history has turned out.

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Curious about the boom/bust cycle that is reshaping the Bay Area? Check out our Boomtown series.