A depiction of a meeting of the Workingmen's Party on the sandlot opposite San Francisco City Hall. The party was formed during a recession and gave expression to the anger felt against Chinese immigrants on ... more
The first curls of smoke rose from the Beale Street Wharf as dusk was falling on the evening of July 24, 1877.
Within minutes, crowds of San Franciscans were gathering on Bryant to watch flames lick the pier, which housed coal, oil and lumber. They soon realized someone had dumped some of the 100 barrels of whale oil to ignite the fire. Quick-thinking citizens pushed the remaining barrels into the bay before they ignited.
What most hadn’t yet realized was the fire was a diversion. The real trouble was happening downtown — and soon, four men would be dead.
The 1870s were a time of great social and economic unrest in the United States. The country was several years deep into the “Long Depression,” and San Francisco was hit hard. The Bank of California failed. Unemployment was as high as 20 percent. Thousands were being fed daily by churches and charities.
Anti-Chinese sentiment was long-simmering in the city, and troubled economic times only exacerbated race hate. After completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, Chinese workers flooded the job market and more came by boat from China.
“The Chinese are unpopular because they do not vote, and because they work for low wages,” the New York Times wrote in 1877.
The 1877 San Francisco race riots started off, at least ostensibly, as a labor strike. But it didn’t take long before the “labor strike” became an overt anti-Chinese action. At one labor meeting, an organizer had to soothe the crowd, which was furious at Chinese immigrants who they felt undercut white laborers by working for less.
“Mr. D’Arcy threw a damper on the meeting by stating that this was no anti-Coolie meeting, and that they were not there for the purpose of discussing the Chinese question,” the Daily Alta reported. “He put on another blanket by saying that they had met, not for the purpose of encouraging riot and incendiarism, but to give their brother workmen in the [East Coast] their moral support.”
On July 23rd, the anti-Chinese riots started when 8,000 people gathered in the vacant “sand lot” in front of City Hall for another labor gathering. It didn’t take long before it devolved into a racist mob.
"Everything was orderly until an anti-Coolie procession pushed its way into the audience and insisted that the speakers say something about the Chinese,” historian Selig Perlman wrote in The Anti-Chinese Agitation in California. “This was refused and thereupon the crowd which had gathered on the outskirts of the meeting attacked a passing Chinaman and started the cry, 'On to Chinatown.'"
Along the way, the mob destroyed property, burned Chinese laundries and threatened all challengers. The police were next to useless.
The following morning, it became clear the rioting had only just begun. A local newspaper ran an ad placed by one of the mob organizers. “RALLY! RALLY! Great anti-coolie Mass Meeting at the New City Hall, Market street, at 8 o’clock p.m.,” the advertisement read.
In preparation for more violence that night, city officials finally began mobilizing.
“It becomes my duty as Mayor of the city and county of San Francisco to appeal to all law-abiding people to assist in preserving the peace,” Mayor A.J. Bryant wrote in an official proclamation.
Law enforcement in 1800s San Francisco was a shockingly slapdash affair. Lacking sufficient officers, police began handing out 24-hour badges to civilians. The “Committee of Public Safety,” a vigilante group that formed in times of crisis, signed up even more men with “approved weapons” to police the streets.
Violence on both sides was expected — and in the case of the police, rather gleefully welcomed.
“Yesterday the police force was supplied with a new and improved pattern of club, which is warranted to be more effective than any other instrument in the business of skull-cracking,” the San Francisco Bulletin boasted. “This beautiful piece of tough wood is double the length and weight of the old club.”
When night fell, cool and foggy, Chinatown shuttered. Theatres closed and businesses took down their signs and put up blinds, making them look like ordinary residences.
Across town, crowds of police were dealing with the diversionary Beale Street Wharf fire. There was little to be done. The entire wharf burned down, turning $500,000 of property and goods into ash.
Near City Hall, the mob was again gathering. At 8 p.m., a “well-dressed man, but evidently under the influence of liquor” started an “incendiary harangue against the Chinese” from a makeshift stage. The mob was stoked into a fury by the rumor that the steamship City of Tokio was coming into port with even more Chinese workers. Hundreds of rioters, most of them teenage boys, started up Howard Street with destruction in mind.
“The band then moved in groups down Howard Street to Second under the lead of a drunken man of gigantic stature, who rend the air with his demoniacal yells,” the Chronicle reported. “... Every Chinese house had evidently been carefully listed beforehand, for on the whole line of march and on either side of the streets there was not left a single one which was not utterly and completely sacked.”
The “hoodlums,” as they were called, ripped up the wooden sidewalks to use as battering rams. They broke into Chinese laundries to steal money and valuables. And they shot anyone who opposed them.
At 11:30 p.m., the mob arrived at a wash-house owned by Si Sow on Divisadero and Greenwich. He had recently purchased the business for $1,200 and eight men were employed there. Several rioters entered the business, spraying the interior with bullets as they did. One found 25-year-old Wong Go. After ransacking the building, the mob set it alight. Hours later, Wong Go’s body was discovered inside. He’d been shot to death and left to burn.
By the morning of the 25th, three more men were dead and $100,000 of Chinese-owned property was destroyed. But thanks to the increased police presence, and the addition of 1,000 weapon-wielding Committee of Public Safety members, the pogrom was over.
In the press, San Francisco took a beating.
“With characteristic cowardice the San Francisco mob threatened Chinese residents, and has wrecked several Chinese shops and houses,” the New York Times wrote on July 26. “… People who sack Chinese houses and stone Chinamen are not workingmen. San Francisco calls them ‘hoodlums,’ a term which includes everything that is base and mean. The hoodlum is a non-producer, loafer and bully. The hoodlum class think this is a good time to signify their hatred of law and order.” The murders of Chinese workers were some of the “most wicked and shocking crimes that ever disgraced the city,” the Chronicle lamented.
Despite the outpouring of support, the effect was only temporary. The 1877 race riots signaled the amplification of decades-long hatred toward the Bay Area’s Chinese population. Later that year, San Franciscan Denis Kearney formed the Workingmen’s Party of California, a labor organization whose rallying cry was: “The Chinese must go!" In the coming decade, they elected several members to the state legislature; their ballot reminded voters they were casting a vote “Against Chinese.”
The maelstrom of anti-Chinese sentiment culminated in 1882 when President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, halting Chinese immigration for 10 years and barring Chinese from becoming U.S. citizens.
The act wasn’t fully dismantled until 83 years later, when the Immigration Act of 1965 abolished quotas based on country of origin.
By Katie Dowd, SFGATE
By Katie Dowd, SFGATE