by Jimmy Lu
In nineteenth-century San Francisco, California, Mary Tape accompanied her eight-year-old daughter Mamie—dressed in a checkered pinafore, with ribbons in her hair—to her first day at Spring Valley Primary School. When they arrived, Mamie was denied admission at the schoolhouse door because she was Chinese(ChineseAmerican.NYHistory.org). Mary and Joseph Tape took the Board of Education to court (Tape v. Hurley). The lower court ruled that “all children, regardless of race, had the right to a public-school education” –a ruling that was upheld by both state and federal courts; but the school district circumvented the ruling by establish a separate school for Chinese children in Chinatown (Yung 49). Despite Tape’s attempt to fit into white-America, her attempts to assimilate through her family’s American manners, American fashion, and Christianity, were limited because the Tapes were still viewed by the school officials as non-American.
Mary Tape presented Mamie as a well-assimilated American child to show she deserved to attend Spring Valley. In response to Mamie’s exclusion, on April 8, 1885, Mary Tape wrote a letter to the school officials, in which she states “My children don’t dress like the other Chinese. … Her playmates is all Caucasians ever since she could toddle around.” Tape points out Mamie’s American clothing and ability to socialize with other white children to show how Mamie, despite being Chinese, is just as American as her peers. However, Mamie’s non-whiteness automatically excluded her from attending Spring valley, despite the Tape family’s attempt to assimilate.
Realizing that Mamie’s Chinese appearance was a problem for the school officials, Tape references Christianity to argue for her child’s acceptance in white-Protestant America. If the Chinese were made by God and Christianity meant acceptance for the Chinese, Tape felt that Mamie deserved to attend Spring Valley. Tape wrote, “Didn’t God make us all!!! What right have you to bar my children out of the school because she is a chinese Decend.” Tape points out the hypocrisy of the white-Christian officials who lacked common sense. The officials lacked the worldwide perspective of the creation of humanity, which she believed and logically assumed that all races were equal under God. Through Christianity, Tape attempted to find a moral ground and show her commonality with the school officials despite their hypocrisy and white-supremacist actions.
Despite the Tape family’s assimilation and Christian faith, Tape reveals racist American attitudes towards the Chinese in nineteenth-century San Francisco. The Chinese, she believed, would perpetually be treated by white Americans as “different” people. Tape wrote, “It seems no matter how a Chinese may live and dress so long as you know they Chinese. Then they are hated as one. There is not any right or justice for them.” Tape admits the limitations of her family’s assimilation: no matter how hard the Chinese try to act like white-Americans by adopting Protestantism and their fashion, the Chinese will still struggle to gain acceptance as American people. Tape mentions how the Chinese are “hated as one,” and this hatred is evident by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which was intended to limit the number of Chinese from entering the United States. Despite the hostility of white Americans toward the Chinese in the United States, Tape was bold and challenged the racial injustice in a legal case that would be representative of the struggle to gain educational integration for Chinese and non-white children.
In the end Mamie and her brother Frank were the first pupils to appear at the Chinese Primary School when it opened in Chinatown on April 13, 1885 (ChineseAmerican.NYHistory.org). Tape’s battle for equal rights reveals her desire for racial acceptance and equality for Chinese Americans in San Francisco. This case shows the limitations of assimilation for the Tape family, and the reality of segregation in the United States that not only applied to Black and White people but also to people in between the black-white spectrum.
Tape, Mary. An Outspoken Woman, OAH Magazine of History, Volume 15, Issue 2, 1 January 2001, Pages 17–19, https://doi.org/10.1093/maghis/15.2.17
Yung, Judy. Unbound Voices: A Documentary History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press, 1999.
“”We Have Always Lived as Americans”.” Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion. April 07, 2015. Accessed December 20, 2017. http://chineseamerican.nyhistory.org/we-have-always-lived-as-americans/.