11 Moments From Asian American History That You Should Know

17 minute read

More than 30 years after President George H.W. Bush signed a law that designated May 1990 as the first Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, much of Asian American history remains unknown to many Americans—including many Asian Americans themselves.

Often the Asian-American history taught in classrooms is limited to a few milestones like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the incarceration of people of Japanese descent during World War II, and that abridged version rarely includes the nearly 50 other ethnic groups that make up the fastest-growing racial and ethnic group in the U.S. in the first two decades of the 21st century.

To many, the resulting lack of awareness was highlighted after the March 16 Atlanta spa shootings that left six women of Asian descent dead. The killings fit into a larger trend of violence against Asians failing to be seen or charged as a hate crime, even as leaders lamented that “racist attacks [are]…not who we are” as Americans. But in fact, while the shootings represented the peak of more than a year of increased reports of anti-Asian harassment and discrimination, the tragedy was also part of a more than 150-year-old history of anti-Asian racism and violence in the U.S.

“Students can go through their whole educational life, not hearing a single fact or historical reference to Asians in America. We need to teach how Asian Americans experience life and race in America, and how Asian Americans have stood up not just for other Asians, but for all Americans to fight against racism,” Helen Zia, a Chinese American activist and former journalist, tells TIME. “This kind of learning is essential for all of us to see the humanity of each other.”

To help fill the knowledge gap, TIME asked historians and experts on Asian American history nationwide to pick one milestone from this history that they believe should be taught in K-12 schools, and to explain how it provides context for where America is today. Here are the moments they chose.

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1765: The first Filipino Americans settle in Louisiana

As early as the year 1765 and through the 1800s, Filipino sailors, known as “Manilamen,” who worked as crew or indentured servants aboard Spanish galleons, jumped ship in the Gulf of Mexico and established the first Filipino American communities in what is now known as the continental United States of America. According to historian Marina Espina, author of Filipinos in Louisiana, by the 1880s, the Manilamen set up eight villages in the bayous of Louisiana. The Manilamen fought alongside the U.S. in the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812, built houses on stilts similar to the nipa huts of the Philippines, became fishermen who caught and “danced the shrimp” on drying platforms, established ethnic organizations, and intermarried with local Cajun and Creole families, now spanning eight to ten generations of Filipino Americans.

Emily P. Lawsin, National President of the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) and Lecturer IV in Women’s and Gender Studies, American Culture, and Asian/Pacific Islander American Studies at the University of Michigan

1854: People v. Hall determines that Chinese people cannot testify against white defendants

With hate crimes against Asian Americans skyrocketing during the pandemic, many choose the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act as a historic marker for how they are treated in the U.S. Rather, it is the notorious 1854 California Supreme Court case of People v Hall. George Hall had been convicted of murder through the testimony of three Chinese eyewitnesses. On appeal, the court disqualified the testimony. California banned specific groups (“Negros, blacks, Indians, and mullatoes”) from testifying against whites, but “Chinese” was not included. This judge became legislator by interpreting, through his convoluted logic, that the Chinese were “Indian” and/or “Black.” The opinion spewed vile racism citing the eminent threat that if Chinese people can testify against whites, they would become full equal citizens. This marks the beginning of how discrimination against Asians became the norm.

Hall got away with murder.

—Andrew Leong, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Legal Studies, Latinx and Asian American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston

Feb. 19, 1862: President Lincoln makes California’s ‘coolie trade’ ban national

The federal “Act to prohibit the ‘Coolie Trade’ by American Citizens in American Vessels” put the exclusion of Chinese immigrants at the center of debates about race, slavery, immigration and freedom at the close of the Civil War. The so-called “coolie trade” began in the 19th century and became a global system by the 1830s to circulate indentured Asian workers to plantations that enslaved Black Africans had previously labored upon. Coolies were thought of as suitable replacements to enslaved labor as the Atlantic slave trade was being dismantled. While the indenture system claimed the legitimacy of consent through a labor contract, these formalities concealed the brutal and deadly nature of trafficking workers to dangerous sites like the guano islands of Peru or exploitation in Cuba’s sugar cane plantations. The same reckless and cruel disregard for human life that characterized the Atlantic slave trade was also common in the Pacific coolie trade.

Because of this practice, racist perceptions of Asian immigration were fused with the notion of cheap, foreign, disposable labor. President Lincoln’s passage of the anti-coolie legislation codified this racist idea about Asians, even as it condemned any form of unfree labor, as would be declared in the Emancipation Proclamation in the following year.

Jason Chang, Associate Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Connecticut and author of Asian America: A Primary Source Reader.

Read more: In 1968, These Activists Coined the Term ‘Asian American’—And Helped Shape Decades of Advocacy

March 28, 1898: The Supreme Court upholds birthright citizenship in United States vs. Wong Kim Ark

Portrait Of Wong Kim Ark
Portrait of Wong Kim Ark, 1904.Getty Images

Wong Kim Ark is a Chinese American born in San Francisco to Chinese parents in 1873. When he returns from a visit to China in 1895, immigration authorities deny his re-entry, citing Chinese exclusion laws that barred Asians from both immigration and U.S. citizenship. Wong, however, asserted his right as a U.S. citizen to be permitted back into his country. Birthright citizenship is a product of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution that’s passed right after the Civil War. Originally, birthright citizenship was meant to benefit persons of African descent, and formerly enslaved African Americans in particular. But the question is whether that principle applies to all people regardless of race—and the case goes all the way to the Supreme Court. In a landmark decision in 1898, the court rules that Wong acquired citizenship at birth and therefore should be allowed entry into the U.S., since the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act doesn’t apply to him.

With the Wong Kim Ark decision, the Supreme Court upholds the principle of birthright citizenship and affirms the universality of American national identity—the idea that anyone born on U.S. soil can be American regardless of race. For Asian Americans this is particularly important because it allowed for US-born Asian Americans—the children and grandchildren of immigrants—to have U.S. citizenship during a time when foreign-born Asians were barred from naturalization on racial grounds. This would not change until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 abolished racial restrictions on U.S. citizenship once and for all.

—Jane Hong, Associate Professor of History at Occidental College and author of Opening the Gates to Asia: A Transpacific History of How America Repealed Asian Exclusion

1905-1906: Chinese businesspeople boycott American goods

In 1905, businesspeople in Shanghai and Guangzhou organized a boycott of U.S. products. At the time, the racist Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese laborers from entering the United States, but American immigration officials often turned back even those Chinese whom the law allowed in: merchants, students and diplomats. Inspired by growing Chinese nationalism, the boycott sought to change this frustrating situation.

The boycott did prompt some improvements in the treatment of Chinese immigrants but eventually fizzled in 1906. By then, however, it had inspired a wide range of young Chinese American citizens, who saw in the movement an empowering response to the racism and discrimination they faced in almost every aspect of their lives. Many now began to consider traveling to China to contribute to its future, and hundreds even enrolled in universities for advanced training in fields they saw as crucial to China’s modernization. By the 1930s, close to half of all second-generation Chinese Americans had moved to China—though most eventually returned to the United States because of World War II.

—Charlotte Brooks, author of American Exodus: Second-Generation Chinese Americans in China, 1901–1949 and professor of history at Baruch College, CUNY.

Sept. 4, 1907: The Bellingham Riots

Spurred on by the inflammatory rhetoric of the nativist Asiatic Exclusion League, hundreds of white workers swept through the coastal town of Bellingham, Wash., at night, looking for Indian immigrants. The Indians, who were laborers in Bellingham’s lumber mills, were predominantly Sikh men from Punjab. The rioters pulled Indian workers out of their bunks, set their bunkhouses on fire, stole their possessions and beat them. Some Sikh men were beaten so badly they had to be hospitalized. Local police rounded up groups of Indians as they escaped the violence, placing them in Bellingham’s City Hall and jail. The next day, the entire population of Indian immigrant lumber workers left for their own safety, walking northward across the border into Canada. This is the first known incidence of large-scale, organized anti-South Asian violence in the United States, and was part of a wave of attacks against Asian immigrants that occurred up and down the U.S. and Canadian West Coast in the early part of the 20th century. The Asiatic Exclusion League and other allied organizations, politicians and labor leaders ultimately succeeded in convincing Congress to pass the 1917 Immigration Act, banning the entry of labor migrants from Asia.

Vivek Bald, historian and filmmaker; author of Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America

1913: California passes the Alien Land Act

In spring 1913, the California state assembly passed a bill that prohibited “aliens ineligible to citizenship” from owning agricultural land and limited their lease term to three years. Although this racial category—“aliens ineligible to citizenship”—applied to all immigrants from Asia, the architects of this bill specifically had the Japanese in mind. They worried that Japanese immigrants were achieving upwards social mobility and wished to prevent them from becoming independent land owners, a status that many California politicians wished to preserve for the future of the white working class. The passage of this bill led to a diplomatic conflict between Japan and the United States, and U.S. President Woodrow Wilson attempted to prevent the governor of California from signing the bill into law. But California decided to implement the Alien Land Act, and various Western states including Washington, Oregon and Arizona followed its lead. Japanese immigrants and their white allies contested these acts in the courts, but the Supreme Court upheld these laws in 1923. It was not until after World War II that the Supreme Court and California reversed their decisions.

—Chris Suh, Assistant Professor of History at Emory University

January 1943: The first War Relocation Authority field office opens in Chicago

Most students will learn something of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, when 112,000 people were removed from homes; lost careers, income, and savings; were confined in desolate inland camps managed by the War Relocation Authority (WRA); and suffered multigenerational trauma that lingers to this day, despite decades of community care and activism.

Less well known is the program to resettle Japanese Americans out of camps and off the West Coast during and after the war. Fumbling to reconcile the blatantly undemocratic incarceration with a war waged for democracy, officials promoted the resettlement of the incarcerated as benevolent, government-led assimilation. Despite its many ironies and hypocrisies, this interpretation motivated officials to smooth the transition for resettling Japanese American citizens and noncitizens alike. The Chicago WRA field office (one of the dozens eventually established) shows this process on the ground. Staffers waged a PR campaign to convince Chicagoans of Japanese American innocuousness; they connected resettlers to housing and jobs pre-screened for citizenship, language and racial barriers as well as skills or training. Resettlers in turn shaped the process as they themselves joined the staff and boards of these local social welfare, municipal, and funding agencies, reshaping Chicago’s social services to accommodate their specific needs. Resettlement demonstrates a paradoxical model of inclusion, useful as our country struggles for an understanding of our obligations towards resident noncitizens, detained migrants, religious minorities and others.

—Meredith Oda, Associate professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno, and author of The Gateway to the Pacific: Japanese Americans and the Remaking of San Francisco

1965-1970: Filipino Farmworkers lead the Delano Grape Strike

Ceasar Chavez, Huelga March
From left to right: United Farm Workers (UFW) officer Julio Hernandez, UFW director Larry Itliong, and Cesar Chavez at the 1966 Huelga Day march in San Francisco.Gerald L. French—Corbis/Getty Images

Successive anti-Asian immigration laws that began in the late 1800s resulted in a massive labor shortage in Hawaii and on the West Coast. However, Filipinas/os/xes could enter freely because their colonial status marked them as United States “nationals,” not aliens. Labor recruiters from the Hawaiian Sugar Planters Association flocked to the poorest parts of the Philippines for cheap labor. By the 1920s, thousands of Filipinas/os were arriving annually at West Coast ports. Many of them hoped to attend universities and bring their families out of poverty. However, the vast majority of these immigrants found that the only jobs open to them were in cannery and farm work. They were barred from citizenship, owning land, living in white neighborhoods and marrying white women.

From the 1920s-1940s, Filipino farm and cannery workers formed unions and went on strike throughout the United States. One of the leaders who came out of that movement was Larry Itliong. On Sept. 7, 1965, he led members of the Agriculture Workers Organizing Committee (AWOC), a predominantly Filipino union, to go on strike against Delano grape growers. Larry had the foresight and vision to realize that justice for farm workers could never be realized unless the two biggest groups of farm workers, Filipinas/os and Mexicans, could unify. One week later, Larry called Cesar Chavez to ask him if his organization, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), an association made up of Mexican American farmworker families, would join AWOC in the strike. This led to the joining of the two organizations, which ultimately created the United Farm Workers (UFW). The strike, which was supposed to be a short-lived worker’s action of several days, turned bloody and agonizing when the growers refused to budge. The UFW was relentless and didn’t give up. After five years, the global campaign of the Delano Grape Strike was won, and new contracts were signed in 1970.

—Dawn Bohulano Mabalon, Associate Professor, History, San Francisco State University; Gayle Romasanta, Founder and Writer, Bridge and Delta Publishing; Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales, Professor, Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University

June 19, 1982: The killing of Vincent Chin

In the late 1970s and early ’80s there was a global oil crisis that drove the U.S. economy into a recession and led to the collapse of the auto industry. The American manufacturing sector blamed Japan for that. In this climate of anti-Asian hate—one that is eerily similar to today—a Chinese American named Vincent Chin was killed in Detroit because he looked Japanese. This is part of a historical pattern in which Asian Americans are attacked whenever there is a crisis in America.

His killers, who are white, never spent a day in jail. The judge said, “These are not the kind of men you sent to jail.” But Vincent’s family was denied the right to speak up and say he was a good man who had a whole life ahead of him and was about to celebrate his wedding. In fact, he was killed on the night of his bachelor party. Anybody who was Asian knew that they could be killed like Vincent Chin, and their killers would be let off scot-free. When the killers of Vincent Chin were given probation, Asian Americans across the country came together in a national civil rights movement with Detroit as its unlikely center. Prior to that, there was no mass movement uniting Americans of East Asian, South Asian or South East Asian descent.

This movement contributed to the passing of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act that eventually expanded the notion of who is protected by federal civil rights law, and the idea that all people in America should be protected against hate violence. It not only brought Asian Americans together to fight for justice. The Vincent Chin case was a landmark moment where people of all different Asian backgrounds came together with other Americans from other races to fight racism, to stand up for justice and to make an impact that affects all Americans.

—Helen Zia, Chinese American activist, former journalist and author of Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People

Read more: Violence Against Asian Americans Is on the Rise—But It’s Part of a Long History

March 28, 1983: Chol Soo Lee’s release from San Quentin’s Death Row

Supporters  of Chol Soo Lee at the Hall of Justice. He is, serving time in prison for a Chinatown murder , will get a new trial,  August 9, 1982  Photo ran 08/10/1982, p.5
Supporters of Chol Soo Lee at the Hall of Justice in San Francisco on Aug. 9, 1982.Jerry Telfer—San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

In June 1974, Chol Soo Lee, a young Korean immigrant, was wrongfully convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for a San Francisco Chinatown murder. While serving his life sentence in state prison, Lee was convicted and sentenced to death in May 1979 on a first-degree murder charge for defending himself during an armed prison-yard assault by an Aryan Brotherhood gang member. Two years earlier in 1977, Sacramento Union investigative reporter K.W. Lee began to shed light on a problematic police investigation and subsequent trial for the San Francisco Chinatown murder. His investigative series generated widespread support for a remarkable grassroots social movement, known as the Free Chol Soo Lee movement, which brought together diverse groups of immigrant and American-born Asians in a common cause of justice and freedom for Lee. The efforts of the Free Chol Soo Lee movement eventually led to a retrial of the San Francisco Chinatown murder case, in which a jury acquitted Lee in September 1982. Despite this acquittal, Lee remained on Death Row in San Quentin due to his first-degree murder conviction for the prison-yard killing, which was also set for a retrial. However, faced with the prospect of high legal expenses and the uncertainty of yet another trial, Lee agreed to a downgraded second-degree murder charge without admission of guilt in the deadly prison-yard altercation and was released from San Quentin’s Death Row on March 28, 1983, based on time served.

There are many reasons why this pivotal movement has been largely forgotten, but one is that the life of Chol Soo Lee, who unexpectedly passed away in 2014, problematizes idealized norms of moral virtue often expected of those who are symbols of racial justice movements, especially as Lee continued to experience significant trauma after serving nearly ten years in state prison. Yet, the Free Chol Soo Lee movement also highlights the politicization and empowerment of young people who formed the backbone of this incredible pan-Asian movement. Many of these young activists went on to distinguished public service careers guided by an enduring vision of social change and justice. The history of the Free Chol Soo Lee movement thus provides us with valuable lessons in imagining new and different possibilities for our present and future, particularly in relation to contemporary social movements, coalition building, and the criminal justice system in the United States.

—Richard S. Kim, Professor of Asian American Studies at UC Davis

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com