Seattle’s Embarrassing Anti-Asian History

Seattle has some awkward and shocking history.

Seattle, one of the most liberal cities in the United States, is a wonderful area in which to live. It was the first city in the country to have 70 percent of its population vaccinated for COVID-19. It is also a sanctuary city for immigrants, and was a constant thorn in the side of Trump during his brief and horrifying presidential administration. I couldn’t be more proud to live within this liberal bubble.

But just as with the rest of America, Seattle has some awkward and downright shocking history of its own. When I heard about this particular issue for the first time on NPR during my daily commute, I nearly ran off the road. But yes, this area was a bit of a white supremacist hotbed for a while, there. I am so glad I wasn’t around to witness that or I would have turned tail and headed back to Florida, where this type of violence isn’t as unexpected, unfortunately. At least I wouldn’t have to contend with the element of surprise. I’d only have to experience shock and horror. Cold comfort, indeed.

What I’m referring to is the Seattle riot of 1886. This was a shameful point in this city’s history. All riots, of course, are ugly, but this one took that to a whole new level.

According to Wikipedia, anti-Chinese sentiment was already at a very disturbing peak in the 1880’s, especially out West. People were having a tough time getting employment, so as is often the case, they went looking for a scapegoat on which to vent their frustrations. They settled on Chinese immigrants, who had been coming to this country since the California Gold Rush in the 1840s. After the gold rush, many came to the Pacific Northwest to work on the railroads and in the mines. They worked longer hours at much lower rates of pay, so they were quite popular with employers. This really rankled the whites in the labor unions.

The labor unions supported the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act which barred all Chinese immigration to the United States. (Chinese women had been banned since 1875.) This act was amended in various ways over the years, but was only fully repealed in 1943 because China became our ally against the Japanese during WWII.

Now white workers felt they only had to compete against the Chinese immigrants who were already here. Things really came to a head when Union Pacific coal mines started firing strikers and replacing them with Chinese laborers in Rock Springs, in the Wyoming territory. In September of 1885, a fight erupted and 28 Chinese were killed, and 14 injured. The rest had to flee the area as their houses were burned to the ground.

The anti-Chinese sentiment at the time was such that this massacre did not elicit any kind of governmental response until the rumor got around that the Chinese that had fled were regrouping and had armed themselves. We can’t have that, now, can we? At first, the troops deployed were only instructed to prevent a disruption of the U.S. mail. Finally, Chinese diplomats were able to convince the government to at least protect the Chinese if they experienced any further violence. Federal forces had to stick around for another 14 years. None of the rioters were ever punished.

Such was the atmosphere in the country when the Seattle riot broke out just 5 months later in February, 1886. A mob, consisting mostly of members of the local chapter of the Knights of Labor which had formed itself into a militant brotherhood, decided they were going to expel all Chinese from the city.

To backtrack a bit, the Knights of Labor, along with the mayor of Tacoma, decided that all the Chinese needed to leave by November, 1885. That did cause 150 of them to leave, but at the time there were more than 3000 Chinese in the Seattle/Tacoma area. The governor of the territory was alarmed by these expulsions, and called in federal troops. These troops, as the saying goes, stood back and stood by as tensions mounted.

On February 6, 1886, the Knights of Labor delivered an ultimatum. All Chinese needed to leave or they would be forcibly removed. The next day, the Knights started breaking into homes, forced the Chinese to pack, and brought 350 of them down to the dock where the Queen of the Pacific was waiting to haul them away.

Many other Chinese immigrants had run away, and a search ensued. The local sheriff, who was sympathetic to the Knights, did not prevent the driving of the Chinese toward the pier. He simply ensured that there was “no violence”.

The governor tried to disburse the rioters, but was promptly ignored. He then called in the federal troops. While waiting for the troops’ arrival, the Keystone Cops Knights discovered they hadn’t raised sufficient funds to ship all these Chinese off. They only had the fare for 97 of them. A U.S. Justice intervened for the 97 and required that they show up in court the next day.

The Knights tried to force the other 253 Chinese onto a train bound for Tacoma, but the sheriff, who by this time must have been coming to his senses, ordered the train to leave before the mob could get there. The next day in court the Justice informed the 97 Chinese that they had every right to stay in this country, but only 16 of them decided to do so. The rest went back to the ship. That morning, The Knights of Labor had managed to scrape up the fares for 115 more passengers, so they were stuffed in there as well and the ship set sail.

The Knights promised to raise funds for another 150 Chinese who would be shipped off at a future date. Upon seeing these 150 being escorted back to their homes, another mob formed. A battle ensued between the rioters and the militia. Two militia men and three rioters were shot. Martial law was declared. More troops were brought in. Martial law lasted for two weeks, and the troops remained for 4 months. No one was ever convicted for their violent acts.

I’d like to think that we’ve come a long way since this embarrassing stain on our history, but hate crimes still occur. There has been an backlash against local Asian-Americans since the onset of COVID-19, as if they were responsible for this pandemic. But as a bit of perspective, most well-established Chinese-American families in this city have been on this continent 50 years longer than my family has. If you look at it that way, they’re a lot more American than I am, and have just as much right to be here as I do, if not more.

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Author: The View from a Drawbridge

I have been a bridgetender since 2001, and gives me plenty of time to think and observe the world.

2 thoughts on “Seattle’s Embarrassing Anti-Asian History”

  1. Not a glowing moment in the history of labor unions either. Sad when an organization meant to be a positive force for justice and fairness is corrupted to be the opposite.

    If you dig deep enough you’ll find plenty of historic instances of violent racial injustices among even the most liberal of American cities. After all, we were built on a foundation of racial exploitation. We need to own that before we can truly progress. Sweeping it under white washed rugs hasn’t helped. Only when we’re no longer shocked, that we were and are still capable of such injustices, can we begin to accept that we still have a lot of work to do to live up to our liberal ideals and stop this degeneration. Thanks for highlighting areas we still need to work on and hope you continue to educate us further. Keep shining your light. It’s getting darker in too many areas we thought were lit.

    1. So true, Lyn! And all this push back against teaching Critical Race Theory is proof of it. It is, after all, teaching the truth about history from another perspective. Clearly people should be okay with the truth. It’s the perspective they are upset about. Because they believe everything should be viewed from a white lens. Sad. Outrageous.

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