Today's history lesson is about the Seattle-based labor activists of the 1970s--Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo.
Gene Viernes was born in Washington to a family that had immigrated to the U.S. from the Phillipines. After joining the Local 37, ILWU, Gene became close with Silme Domingo, another son of Filipino immigrants. He had grown up in Texas and gone to the University of Washington. With socially active parents, Domingo grew up involved in efforts to advocate for social and civil rights. Both of them became officers in the Cannery Workers Local 37.
On June 1, 1981, both of these men were brutally murdered. These two ambitious young activists had been very vocal in their position against the Alaskan canneries, whom they accused of discrimination and prejudice. Furthermore, they protested the unfair labor conditions and wages the workers faced, as the union president, Tony Baruso, was greedy and ignorant to the unfair conditions the seafood cannery workers faced. Because their union had a corrupt leader, Viernes and Domingo worked hard to advocate for better working conditions and labor rights. They also investigated discrimination and segregation towards Filipino-American workers at the cannery. At first, it was thought that the attacks were retributions towards the reform efforts the two activists were trying to make. Unfortunately, Viernes died at the crime scene, but Domingo survived long enough to identify the attackers as members of the Tulisan gang, a gang who ran a large gambling scheme in the Cannery Workers Union, and who Tony Baruso was accused to be affiliated with.
However, after they passed away, it became obvious that the plan was orchestrated by someone much more powerful. Someone who was pulling the strings. Officials found that it was the Marcos dictatorship who had something to benefit from the murders, and a few years later, the Committee of Justice for Domingo and Viernes sued Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos in federal court.
For those of you who don't know, Marcos was the President of the Philippines at the time--ruling as a dictator under martial law from 1972 to 1981. During this time, he kept a strong hold on media and political socialization, as well as clamping down on any opposition. He used all means necessary, including violence and oppression. It was said that Viernes and Domingo both opposed him, thus the matter became a political one.
The stands that Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo took were not only important for labor reform but were also important to expose discrimination towards Filipino-Americans in the workplace. It's important to remember the courageous actions of these young activists, and to take a stand for what you believe in.
Author: Carina Sun
As the child of immigrants, I am extremely thankful for the advancements the United States has made to make this possible. However, these advancements weren't without a fight. In the 1800s, the U.S. was in a state of yellow peril. As more and more Chinese immigrants entered the U.S. at the prospect of striking a fortune in the West Coast, the people of the United States began to worry about the economy and job stability. In 1882, President Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, forbidding anyone of this demographic from immigrating to the United States. It also excluded all Chinese nationals from being able to apply for a U.S. citizenship. In many ways, this Act was tremendously flawed. It not only perpetuated racism towards the Chinese-Americans who were already in America, it also proved a huge problem for the children of immigrants, like Wong Kim Ark.
Born in San Fransisco in 1873, Wong Kim Ark was by all definitions, a U.S. citizen born on American soil (under the clause of the 14th amendment). Both his parents were Chinese immigrants who were not U.S. citizens, so they had to move back to China. Wong continued to live in California, and would often travel between the two countries to visit his family and build a life in America. His first reentry was smooth, but upon his second reentry a few years later, he was held at the border. The United States proclaimed that because Wong was a child of Chinese citizens, he was a Chinese citizen too, no matter where he was born.
Furious with this, Wong gathered legal support and fought his way to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend his case. The debate was whether Wong's birth in the U.S. was enough to make him a citizen of the United States, and while lawyers claimed he was a Chinese national, the Supreme Court disagreed by a 6-2 vote and held that a child born in the United States is a citizen of the U.S.
As a result, Wong's triumphant case became a huge legal precedent for future cases for immigrants and citizenship eligibility. It protects the rights of groups who may be excluded and targeted for dual-citizenship. In an interview by the NPR with Wong's granddaughter, it was revealed that Wong still faced discrimination in the U.S. after he won the case, prompting him to return to China, where he passed away.
Wong's fight for the civil rights of immigrants and U.S. citizenship should not be forgotten, especially as our current administration tightens controls on immigration. The United States was built on freedom and opportunity for all, what would we be to disregard these values?
Author: Carina Sun
Like many of us, Patsy Mink was born to an ordinary family. She was a third-generation Japanese-American raised on the island of Maui in Hawaii. However, her early life wasn't easy at all. She entered high school right before the Pearl Harbor attack on Honolulu.
This made her high school years a living hell, as she struggled with xenophobia and alienation from her community. Despite these hardships, she persevered and graduated as valedictorian of her class.
Her start in activism was prompted by her experience at the University of Nebraska, where she saw segregation among people of color and whites. This infuriated her, and she organized a coalition to protest and lobby to end the long-intact segregation policies. A few months later, Mink moved back to Hawaii to treat an illness and pursue a degree in medical school. Unfortunately, she was not accepted because of her gender or race. She then switched her attention to law--applying to law schools on the mainland. She enrolled in the University of Chicago Law School and finished with a Juris Doctor degree. Even with this though, she found it difficult to find a job as a married, Japanese attorney. Many law firms were hesitant to hire her even after she passed the bar exam in 1953. To support herself, she moved back to Hawaii and opened her own law firm, becoming the first Japanese-American woman in Hawaii to practice law.
From there, she was on the track to politics. Mink quickly became involved in local politics in Hawaii and became the first Asian-American woman elected to the Hawaii House in 1956. From there, she ran for U.S. Congress when Hawaii became a part of the U.S., but was defeated. A few years later, she ran again for a spot in the U.S. House of Representatives and won successfully.
She was the first woman of color elected to the House--ever. And her time there did not disappoint. Mink poured her energy into focusing on issues that were always important to her, such as education and gender equality. In 1970, she became the first Democratic woman to deliver a State of the Union response. In 1971, she became the first Asian-American woman to run for president. Although she did not win, her contributions in advocacy and focus on social issues will continue to play a prominent role in U.S. politics.
Patsy Mink worked her entire life to eradicate gender and racial discrimination, which she had experienced in her early years. Although she faced countless obstacles, Patsy Takemoto Mink never stopped until she was able to speak her voice and make a change in the world. Even then, she stayed true to her morals and what she believed in.
Author: Carina Sun
Continuously advocating for revolution until her passing, Grace Lee Boggs was a feminist, climate advocate, human rights activist, and fighter for labor and civil rights. Her story demonstrates the resiliency of an Asian American female activist fighting through economic recessions, racial injustices, and social change.
Grace Lee Boggs was born in 1915 to two Chinese immigrants. She grew up in New York and by 1940, earned a doctorate in philosophy. Living through the Great Depression and finding herself in the aftermath of it, Boggs found herself in an environment with the need for change. Being turned away from numerous jobs as an Asian American, she was forced to live in a rat-infested home. Fighting for housing improvements was the entry point into the world of activism for her. She began marching and fighting for females and people of color while discovering her own political stance.
Finding herself drawn to different branches of socialist organizations, she became a part of the Johnson-Forest Tendency. As a Johnsonite she stood with the belief that power and liberation should lie with the working class. To join the growing Johnsonite community in Detroit, Boggs moved there in 1953. In Detroit, she found intellectuals that shared similar beliefs with her but also her partner in activism and husband James Boggs, a black autoworker and fellow Johnsonite.
Together, they fought for black communities’ rights and continued advocating for females and other marginalized groups. At this point they slowly departed from socialism, but their fight for change did not stop. Grace Lee Boggs joined the Great Walk to Free in Detroit, hosted Malcolm X, and even attended Save Our Sons and Daughters meetings.
She continued working in her community in Detroit and with her husband, and created the program, Detroit Summer, to bring together the community that was facing an influx of crime. Detroit Summer worked to empower youth, inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.. Through the organization, the people of Detroit created community gardens, repurposed and renovated the city, and built leaders who continued to vision through their own lives.
Even after her husband’s passing in 1993, Grace Lee Boggs did not slow down her steps to fight. She continued to be involved in fighting for change in Detroit. She wrote for newspapers, talked to civic groups and college students, and even wrote her own books. Later, she turned the second floor of her home into the Boggs Center and founded the James and Grace Lee Boggs School. There, she incorporated lessons and curriculum focused on empowering youth in Detroit through teaching community-orientated skills.
In 2015, Grace Lee Boggs, age 100, passed away. In the words of past President Barack Obama, “As the child of Chinese immigrants and as a woman, Grace learned early on that the world needed changing, and she overcame barriers to do just that. She understood the power of community organizing at its core – the importance of bringing about change and getting people involved to shape their own destiny.”
Grace Lee Boggs left a legacy as a grassroots activist, philosopher, and author. She spent her life fighting for Asian American communities, Black communities, females, and the working class. Let us take this Asian American Heritage Month to recognize the remarkable work Grace Lee Boggs has done for marginalized communities, Detroit, and America as a whole.
Author: Audrey Zhou
Remembering "The Forgotten" --The Chinese migrants who built America's first Transcontinental railroad
Over 20,000 Chinese migrants underwent back-breaking labor for over 6 years from 1863 to 1869, building a railroad that would connect the existing U.S. rail in Iowa, to the Pacific Coast. This project started out with a group of just 21 Chinese migrant workers, as they were originally deemed "too weak" to do the job.
Soon after construction started, however, the demand for labor increased, and white workers didn't want to do such hard, manual labor. And so, more Chinese immigrants were hired, as they were desperate for jobs as they came to the U.S. By 1865, over 90% of workers were Chinese migrants. They became a crucial part in the construction of the railroad, and yet, are forgotten by history books today.
By the peak of construction, over 12,000 Chinese workers were hired to work on the railroad, getting paid an average of just 26$ a month for 6 day weeks. While their salary did eventually increase to 31$-35$ per month, it fell short of the salary the whites were receiving--around 40$. Furthermore, they were forced to toil under more dangerous conditions, causing from 50-1,200 Chinese migrant deaths (although no records were kept by Central Pacific so the exact number is unclear).
Finally on June 25, 1867, they had enough. Over 5,000 Chinese workers put down their tools, went to their camp, and sat. Everyone was amazed at the sheer number of strikers, but didn't want to give in to the Chinese.
So Charles Crocker, superintendent of the Central Pacific railroad, came up with an idea. He would cut off all food supplies and starve them until the strike let up.
And it worked.
With no change, the strike was written out of history. And as the number of Chinese immigrants in the west increased, so too, did the levels of anti-Chinese sentiment. In fact, just a few years later, the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, preventing Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. at all.
When the railroad was finished, this famous photograph depicting the connection of East and West has a noticeable lack of Chinese workers. Not only this, news reports also failed to acknowledge the Chinese workers who played such a crucial role in the construction of the railroad.
151 years after the construction of the first transcontinental railroad was completed, it's still important as ever to remember the Chinese migrant workers who suffered back-breaking labor to advance the United States forward.
As May brings the peak of Covid-19, it's important to fight against the influx of xenophobic hate crimes on the Asian-American community. Little of the U.S. population know the toils of the Chinese migrants during the construction of the railroad, nor the importance of Asian immigrants during wartimes. That'a what we aim to correct.
Author: Carina Sun
Ayub Ommaya (1930-2008)
In celebration of Asian Heritage Month, I thought it would be fitting to share the story of the “Singing Neurosurgeon:” one man who not only revolutionized studies on brain injury in the United States, but shaped the future of brain cancer treatment worldwide.
I wish to share the story of Dr. Ayub Ommaya, a Pakistani-American neurosurgeon who is best known for his invention of the Ommaya reservoir. He studied medicine in Lahore, Pakistan before securing a scholarship to Balliol College at Oxford University. Dr. Ommaya then immigrated to the United States and became a U.S. citizen in 1967.
From his days at Oxford, Dr. Ommaya developed an interest in studying traumatic brain injury, and his work ultimately led to the creation of the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. His groundbreaking Ommaya reservoir, a catheter system that directly administers chemotherapy to tumor sites in the brain, is used to this day. Prior to his work, there was no effective way to deliver such treatment. In fact, the reservoir was also the prototype for all modern medical ports and is just one of Dr. Ommaya’s contributions to the scientific world amongst over 150 articles, chapters, and books he has published.
Trained in opera, Dr. Ommaya also became fondly known for singing (much to the joy of his patients) prior to and post-surgery. I can only imagine the comfort and delight he brought to what otherwise must have been a bleak and sterile environment.
Dr. Ommaya’s story is a testament to the fact that one can pursue a variety of interests and mustn't limit themselves to any one thing— He even excelled in debate and rowing (oh, and he was also champion boxer and swimmer).
This month, I hope we can all remember the “Singing Neurosurgeon,” who is just one of the many Asian-Americans who have dedicated their lives to progress in their fields in the hope of a better future.
Author: Sara Rizwan
In Honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
We are bringing you the stories of inspirational Asian Americans from history.
5/30/20 - The Exceptional Example Ronald Takaki Set
5/27/20 - The Incredible Legacy of Kalpana Chawla
5/26/20 - When Marrying a Non-American Meant Losing Your Citizenship
5/25/20 - Honoring the 442nd Infantry Regiment
5/24/20- A Glimpse at Asian-Americans in Hollywood -- Miyoshi Umeki
5/22/20 - The Oriental Schools of San Fransisco
5/21/20 - Equality For All Colors - Yick Wo v. Hopkins
5/20/20 - An End To Police Brutality: Peter Yew's Stand
5/19/20 - Finding His Form: Linsanity in 2012
5/18/20 - Internment and Injustice: Fred T. Korematsu
5/17/20 - The Courageous Stand of Gene Viernes and Silme Domingo
5/16/20 - The Unbreakable Spirit of Wong Kim Ark
5/15/20- The Admirable Perseverance of Patsy Takemoto Mink
5/13/20 - The Lasting Legacy of Grace Lee Boggs
5/12/20-Remembering "The Forgotten" -- The Chinese migrants who built America's first Transcontinental railroad
5/11/20 - The Singing Neurosurgeon: Dr. Ayub Ommaya