Tuesday, April 21, 2020

School Segregation in 1885: One Chinese-American Family's Battle

When Mary McGladery Tape came from Qing, China in 1868, she probably never dreamed she would be writing a letter of protest to the San Francisco Board of Education in April of 1885 on behalf of her daughter, Mamie:

To the Board of Education - DEAR SIRS: I see that you are going to make all sorts of excuses to keep my child out off the Public schools. Dear sirs, Will you please to tell me! Is it a disgrace to be born a Chinese? Didn’t God make us all!!! What right have you to bar my children out of the school because she is a chinese Decend…  (Published in the Alta California newspaper on April 8, 1885.)

The Tape Family: Joseph, Emily, Mamie, Frank, and Mary. {PD}
                           From Wikimedia Commons
Mary arrived as an unattended minor San Francisco at age eleven and wound up in the care of the Ladies’ Relief and Protection Agency. She took the name of the assistant matron who tended to her care, Mary McGladery. 

A few years earlier, in 1864, a twelve-year-old young man by the name of Jeu Dip traveled from Taishan. He worked very hard as a domestic servant, doing chores for a dairy farmer. Eventually, he was able to have his own business, transporting baggage and delivering goods to merchants. He grew to be respected equally in the Chinese and white communities. His delivery company and other business ventures prospered, including work as an interpreter. Mary later became an artist and amateur photographer. 

Jeu met Mary when he was making deliveries, driving a milk wagon. In 1875, They were married in a Christian ceremony. He took on the name Joseph and they changed their surname to Tape. They dressed in westernized fashion and adapted to American culture. They moved to a prosperous middle-class neighborhood among many whites and a few Chinese.

Chinese Public Primary School in San Francisco, date unknown.
{PD} Wikimedia Commons
Their oldest daughter, Mamie, was born in 1876. They paid taxes in the area and tried to register her at the local public elementary school, Spring Valley, where her playmates attended, but she was denied an education there by principal, Jennie Hurley. 

Despite legislation in 1880 saying that all children should have access public education, prejudice and distrust toward Asian immigrants led school boards to keep white and Chinese children separate, even American-born. Chinese children had to attend separate missionary-run schools in Chinatown to receive an education. 

When the Tapes turned to the Chinese Consulate for help, who appealed to the school board, and despite some members believing Mamie should be admitted, the board somehow ruled their decision lawful. After this, the Tapes hired an attorney, William Gibson, to sue the San Francisco Board of Education and Jennie Hurley on their daughter’s behalf. 

Chinese Public Primary School prior to 1906 on Clay Street in Chinatown
{PD} Wikimedia Commons
Gibson argued at the Superior Court level and even all the way to the California Supreme Court that Hurley and the board had violated the 1880 California law of equal access, Mamie’s right to equal protection under the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and the unjustness of forcing Chinese people to pay taxes in a district where their children weren’t allowed to attend school. They won in the Supreme Court, affirming the lower court’s ruling. Again, the Tapes tried to enroll Mamie at Spring Valley, but were told the classes were too full and that her vaccination records weren’t in order enough to attend. 

The San Francisco school board pushed for a state law to create separate public schools for Chinese and Mongolian children. Later, this kind of segregation was pushed in the U.S. Supreme Court decision of Plessey vs. Ferguson, from which the “separate but equal” doctrine came to be known, encouraging continued separation by color through public education. 

The school board set up the Chinese Primary School in Chinatown. Mamie and her younger brother, Frank, were its first pupils when it opened on April 13, 1885. The school is now known as Gordon J. Lau Elementary. 

Gordon J. Lau Elementary School Washington St. entrance in 2018
mliu92 from San Mateo / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)
The family eventually moved to a more diverse area with their four children, Mamie, Frank, Emily, and Gertrude. They made their new home on the western edge of Chinatown. They also had made their mark on society and were well-known and considered an exceptional Chinese-American family who had attained the American dream of middle-class success. 

The state of California maintained the position of separate, but equal schools for children of different races until 1947. Then the Mendez family challenged this law, seeking a better education for their Mexican-American children. This was seven years before the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education, declaring racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. 

Kathleen Rouser is an award-winning and multi-published author of historical Christian romanceShe is a longtime member in good standing of American Christian Fiction Writers. 

Kathleen has loved making up stories since she was a little girl and wanted to be a writer before she could even read. She’s in the grip of God’s grace and is a fan of the three Cs—cats, coffee, and chocolate.

The mother of three, who is a former homeschool instructor, mild-mannered dental assistant, and current Community Bible Study kids’ teacher, lives in Michigan with her hero and husband of thirty-some years, and two sweet cats who found a home in their empty nest.

All you have to do is look up.
This collection of five brand new romances is sure to send your heart soaring. Journey from Canada to Georgia and Colorado to Paris by way of Michigan as these couples find love is in the air. All they had to do was look up.

Flying into Love by Kathleen Rouser
Unable to say no when others need her, Talia Sampson took on her deceased aunt’s advice column and the care of her special needs niece. Then new veteran, Ben Tanner, shows up unexpected on her doorstep. Hurt many times, he wonders where home is. Talia isn’t happy finding a hot-air balloon with him, but she treasures the old journal with it. Ben hopes restoring her family’s antique will please her, until he discovers a secret that shatters his trust. And Talia hates flying. 

Will she trust God—and Ben—enough to go airborne?


  1. This is a sad story, but I'm glad that the parents persevered. Thanks for posting.

  2. Thanks for stopping by, Connie R. I appreciate that the Tape family were brave in the face of continued opposition. They took the gaff for exposing the inequality at the time, before anyone else did. I wonder if I would have persevered the way they did.