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  • Writer's pictureBruce Boyce

Separate But Equal

Updated: May 15, 2022

"Children of High Class" (c. 1900) - California Historical Society

We have always lived as Americans, and our children have been brought up to consider themselves as such.

—Mary Tape, 1892

In 1896, the Supreme Court handed down one of its most infamous decisions. With Plessy v. Ferguson, the court essentially codified the principle of separate but equal. The case arose when Homer Plessy challenged a Louisiana law that established separate railway cars for blacks and whites. Plessy was considered of mixed race, but he had a greater percentage of white heritage than black. Under the law, though, he was viewed as being black. He refused to sit in the black only car claiming it violated the 14th Amendment. The court ruled against Plessy and reasoned that the 14th Amendment was not meant to enforce social equality. As long as a law was a reasonable use of a state's police power and not used to oppress a particular race, segregation was legal. Nearly a decade prior to this landmark case, a lesser-known but no less significant case was decided in the State of California. This time it did not involve blacks, but Chinese.

Mary Tape arrived in America in 1868 at the age of 11 from Shanghai, China. Intended for a life of prostitution, she was rescued from the brothel by the missionaries at the Ladies' Protection and Relief Society Society in San Francisco. It was here that Mary learned English and assimilated into American culture. She took the last name McGladery after an assistant matron at the Relief Society. While still living at the Relief Society, Mary met her husband Joseph Tape. Joseph, born Chew Diep of Taishan, came to America when he was 12 in 1864. He was hired to deliver milk for a local dairy farm. The Relief Society was on his delivery route. Since they originated from different regions of China, Joseph and Mary conducted their courtship in English. They were wed in 1875.

The Tape Family - 1884

After their marriage, Joseph ventured into business for himself as a drayman. He obtained lucrative contracts from Chinese merchants in Chinatown to transport cargo to and from the harbor. The Tape's settled in the Cow Hollow section of the city and started a family. Their first child Mamie was born in 1876. Right from the start, the couple wanted their children to be American. The family spoke excellent English. They wore American clothing. They had Western names and followed Western customs. They had become Christians, and outside of his business, they had little connection with Chinatown. Most of all, they wanted their children to go to an American school.

Unfortunately for the Tapes, the 1870s saw a rising tide of anti-Chinese sentiment. Chinese immigration began in earnest during the California gold rush years, and many Chinese worked on large scale projects such as the transcontinental railroad. The post-Civil War economic downturn soured Americans on the Chinese. The Chinese immigrants were accused of taking jobs from hard-working American laborers. (At one point, the Chinese made up nearly a quarter of California's labor force.) A headline in the San Francisco Chronicle declared "The Chinese Invasion! They Are Coming, 900,000 Strong!" (August 27, 1873).

Under pressure, the United States government took a series of anti-immigration actions that culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The act prohibited the immigration of Chinese workers into America. The exceptions were diplomats, teachers, students, merchants, and travelers and these groups had to get certified by the Chinese government. The act was to last ten years and was renewed for another ten years in 1892 through the Geary Act. It became permanent in 1902. (It was repealed in 1943). Under the Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants could not become naturalized citizens.

Joseph Tape had become a successful and highly regarded businessman. The family lived in a predominately white neighborhood. It was natural for Mary Tape to feel they were as American as anyone else. In 1880, California state law required that every child have access to public education. Yet the San Francisco school board had a long history of denying access to Chinese children. Despite the odds, Mary Tape was determined to have her children go to an American school. In 1884, when Mamie was eight years old, Mary decided to enroll her daughter in the local school. On the first day of school, Mary dressed Mamie in a checkered pinafore and tied ribbons in her hair. She accompanied her daughter to the Spring Valley Primary school. Jennie Hurley, the principal, deferred the decision of admitting Mamie to the Superintendent of Schools, Andrew Jackson Moulder. Moulder was a well known Southern racist and as the former state superintendent was instrumental in enacting many of the anti-Chinese school laws (many of which were repealed by the early 1880s). He denied Mamie Tape admission to Spring Valley Primary. Undeterred, Mary Tape brought the school board to court.

The case of Tape v Hurley went before the Superior Court of California. The question before the court was do children born in America to Chinese parents have the same rights as US citizens. In January 1885, the court decided in favor of the Tapes. The court said the school board violated the 1880 state law as well as the 14th Amendment. It argued "to deny a child, born of Chinese parents in this State, entrance to the public schools would be a violation of the law of the State and the Constitution of the United States.”

Moulder, the school board, and the public in general were outraged by the court's decision. The school board still refused to admit Mamie, and they appealed the decision to the California Supreme Court. The state's highest court, however, upheld the lower court ruling. The school board was now placed in a difficult position. Given public sentiment, it would be political suicide to comply with the court. It meant jail if they didn't. Superintendent Moulder found a loophole. The court had not said anything about a "separate but equal" Chinese school.

To that end, Moulder contacted his friends at the state legislature and implored them to expedite the passage of bills authorizing the creation of separate schools for "children of Chinese and Mongolian descent.” He warned the legislators that without the law “I have every reason to believe that some of our classes will be inundated with Mongolians. Trouble will follow.” The law was swiftly enacted.

At the beginning of April, Mary Tape once more tried to enroll Mamie at Spring Valley Primary. The new Chinese school was not ready to accept students yet. Principal Hurley stalled. She claimed the school was overcrowded and that Mamie did not have the proper vaccination certificates. Mary was livid and wrote a public letter to the school board:

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 tell me! Is it a disgrace to be Born a Chinese? Didn’t God make us all!!! What right have you to bar my child out of the school because she is [of Chinese Descent? There] is no other worldly reason that you could keep her out ….

You have expended a lot of the Public money foolishly, all because of one poor little Child….

I will let the world see sir What justice there is When it is governed by the Race of prejudice men! … I guess she is more of [an] American [than] a good many of you that is going to prevent her being Educated.

—Mrs. M. Tape, Daily Alta, April 8, 1885.

The Chinese Primary School

On April 13th, the Chinese Primary School opened. Mamie and her younger brother Frank were the first students to arrive. Other Chinese students transferred from mission schools. A decade later, the Tapes would move to Berkeley across the bay. Here, the children were able to attend non-segregated schools.

For the Tapes, it must have felt like a hollow victory in the end. As historian Mae Ngai writes in her book The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America, “the school board had been forced to elevate Chinese to the same status as African Americans and Indians”. An extremely lowly one. But progress, no matter how small, is still progress. Yet the California state legislature enshrined into law, ten years before Plessy v Ferguson, the notion of separate but equal schools. This principle would not be overturned until Brown v Board of Education.

Tape Family c. 1911

Whether it be Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American, the US has always had a troubled relationship with race. It is by understanding our flawed history that we hopefully strive to move forward and create a better society. There were those who struggled against the status quo, such as the Tapes. People who never lost sight of the ideals we Americans purport to uphold. That all people should be treated fairly and equally regardless of who they are.


Further reading

"How Chinese Americans Won Right to Attend SF Schools": San Francisco Chronicle, April 29, 2017

"The Tapes of Russel Street": Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association

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