This series by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.
In honor of Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month, PBS is airing this week a compelling and vital new five-part documentary, Asian Americans. This examination of the longstanding, multi-faceted histories of the Asian-American community (across many different nationalities and cultures) could not come at a more important moment, as xenophobic and racist associations of COVID-19 with China have led to a dramatic spike in harassment and hate crimes targeting Asian Americans.
Such prejudice and violence are driven by equally longstanding collective narratives of Asian Americans not only as carriers of disease, but also as fundamentally outside of and foreign to “American” identity. Even a prominently progressive American figure like Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan wrote, as part of his famous dissent to the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) decision, that Chinese Americans were “a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States” (contrasting that idea with his support for African-American equality under the law). In a public lecture two years later, he went even further, arguing that “this is a race utterly foreign to us and never will assimilate with us.”
In that late 19th century era of Chinese-American exclusion, such racist and xenophobic sentiments were given voice not only in governmental and legal documents, but also in violent gatherings of white supremacist protesters and agitators. Yet in one of the most prominent sites for these angry and divisive gatherings, a sandlot in California, we can also find a far more inclusive and inspiring vision.
As anti-Chinese sentiment became a dominant social and political perspective in the 1870s, one of its leading proponents was an Irish-American businessman, labor activist, and demagogue named Denis Kearney (1847-1907). Born in County Cork, Ireland, Kearney left home at the age of 11 and sailed the globe for a decade on clipper ships, working his way up from cabin boy to first mate before finally settling in the U.S. in 1868. Over the next decade, he married a fellow Irish immigrant (Mary Ann Leary), started a family, and established a successful delivery business in San Francisco, but it was his evolving labor and anti-immigration activism that would earn him national attention.
Kearney’s activism began with a focus on labor, including specific opposition to a city monopoly on hauling and broader support for workers’ rights; to that end he helped found in 1877 a new political party, the Workingmen’s Party of California. But he became especially famous for his fiery rhetoric, often delivered at an outdoor San Francisco space known as “The Sandlot.” In speeches that often lasted as long as two hours, delivered to thousands of angry workingmen, Kearney attacked opposition politicians, advocated for violence if their demands were not met, and, more and more over time, identified Chinese Americans as the community’s true adversary (leading the era’s anti-Chinese narratives to be frequently called “Kearneyism” and “Sandlotism”).
Kearney’s oratory quickly gained national prominence, and a February 1878 Sandlot speech reprinted in the Indianapolis Times exemplifies his incendiary, violent, and anti-Chinese rhetoric. “Do not believe those who call us savages, rioters, incendiaries, and outlaws. We seek our ends calmly, rationally, at the ballot box,” he argues, but he adds, “We shall arm. We shall meet fraud and falsehood with defiance, and force with force, if need be…We are men, and propose to live like men in this free land, without the contamination of slave labor, or die like men, if need be, in asserting the rights of our race, our country, and our families.” And he concludes, “California must be all American or all Chinese. We are resolved that it shall be American, and are prepared to make it so.”
Kearney ended most of his speeches with the repeated phrase “The Chinese Must Go,” which became likewise a campaign slogan for the Workingmen’s Party of California. Profoundly influenced by these social and political developments, over the next decade-and-a-half Congress would pass the Chinese Exclusion Act and follow-up laws like the Scott and Geary Acts, measures designed not just to limit future Chinese immigration but also to destroy the nation’s existing, sizeable Chinese American community. They did not succeed at doing so, but these laws and policies did drastically affect all Chinese Americans, as illustrated by the story of a baseball team and another California sandlot.
While anti-Chinese sentiment developed across the 1870s, so too did the story of a very different American community, the Hartford (CT) Chinese Educational Mission (CEM). Opened in 1872 by Yung Wing (1828-1912), the Chinese American diplomat, activist, and educator, the CEM brought 120 Chinese young men to the United States to study at New England preparatory schools and colleges, live with American families and communities, and, in Yung’s words from his 1909 autobiography My Life in China and America, “grow in knowledge and stature under New England influence.”
One product of that influence was the Chinese Educational Mission baseball team. Known officially as the Orientals but usually referred to by their preferred name, the Celestials, the team featured CEM students who had been star athletes at Yale (among other college squads). In the mid-1870s the Celestials joined one of the era’s new semi-pro baseball leagues, making quite a name for themselves on that New England regional circuit. In a chapter from his 1939 autobiography, the prominent literary scholar William Lyon Phelps, a high school and Yale classmate of many of the students, describes the team’s strengths and successes at length, noting for example of its star pitcher Wu Yangzeng, that “he was a great pitcher, impossible to hit.”
The period’s rising anti-Chinese sentiment led the U.S. government to break promises to support the Chinese Educational Mission, and in 1881 the school was closed and most of the students forced to leave the U.S. But before they disbanded, the Celestials experienced a final, symbolic moment on a California sandlot. The departing CEM students traveled to San Francisco in the summer of 1881 to take a steamship away from their adopted home and back to China. While they awaited that departure, a local Oakland baseball team challenged the Celestials to a game. It’s unclear whether that challenge represented bad or good sportsmanship, an extension of anti-Chinese sentiment or a brief respite from such divisions and discriminations. In any case, as CEM student Wen Bing Chung would later write, “the Oakland men imagined that they were going to have a walk-over with the Chinese.” But the Celestials rose to this almost unimaginable moment and won their final game by a score of 11–8, per a September 4, 1881, story in the San Francisco Chronicle.
The battle between exclusionary and inclusive definitions of American identity has always been with us, but is never more significant than in times of national emergency and trauma. In such moments, we desperately need to remember the stories captured in the PBS documentary — and embodied by the California sandlots that reflect the worst and best of America, in the late 19th century and in 2020.
Featured image: The baseball players of the Chinese Education Mission, 1878 (Thomas La Fargue Papers, MASC, Washington State University Libraries. Used with permission.)