We rightfully want to learn from history’s mistakes, but navigating the uglier results of history can often be both difficult and muddled. However, interaction with history doesn’t have to be stagnant: in Hidden Histories, Daily Bruin staffer Alexandra Ferguson will reflect on various aspects of Los Angeles’ history.
One of the largest lynchings in U.S. history didn’t happen in the South – it happened on the same ground on which Union Station stands today.
In the 1800s Los Angeles was still considered the “Wild West.” Though it was small, it was a dirty, violent city with a higher murder rate than that of New York or Chicago at the time. With a population of only about 6,000, mob and vigilante justice were commonplace in the city that only employed six police officers.
Los Angeles was small but growing, and much of this growth came from immigration. The 1800s brought a wave of immigration to the U.S. from Europe and Asia. Chinese immigration through San Francisco that began in the 1850s was immediately met with suspicion and distrust from white Americans; but, though the Chinese population took on much of the hard labor and low-paying jobs, they were still able to open businesses and establish networks to try and lift up their communities.
By 1870, the Chinese population in Los Angeles was 172, or about 3 percent of the city’s 5,728 people. More than half of the 172 Chinese people in Los Angeles lived along a single street: Calle de Los Negros. Calle de Los Negros was one of the most infamous and dangerous places in the state, with many brothels, gambling halls and saloons. The stretch of street where the 101 Freeway stands today was, at the time, labeled a “sinkhole of depravity.“
A rivalry between two powerful Chinese tongs, or group organizations, led by Yo Hing and Sam Yeun came to a conflict over the kidnapping of a woman married to one of Yeun’s men. On Oct. 23, 1871, Ah Choy, one of the workers sent from San Francisco to retrieve the woman, shot at Yo Hing while he was walking down the Calle. Both were arrested and then bailed out. That same night was spent in preparation for an open conflict between the two groups.
The next day, a shooting broke out at 4 p.m. on the Calle. Patrolman Jesus Bilderrain heard the commotion and rushed outside to find Ah Choy shot through the neck. As Bilderrain tried to separate the fighters, he was hit with bullets, causing saloon owner Robert Thompson to rush to his aid. Gunmen inside an adobe house then fatally shot Thompson.
Immediately after Thompson’s death, a report spread that a group of Chinese people were shooting at white people, which quickly attracted a huge crowd of about 500 to the street. The largely white mob surrounded the house where the unseen gunmen were shooting from. The first Chinese man to run from inside the house to the street was shot, and the second was dragged to Tomlinson’s corral at the end of the street and hanged.
The mob then began going from houses to businesses where Chinese people lived and worked, destroying their belongings, stealing their valuables and dragging some of the men and boys out into the street. Members of the mob climbed onto people’s houses, cut holes in their roofs and shot at families.
One of the first to be killed was Dr. Gene Tong, a respected doctor welcomed by both the Chinese and white communities. A local shoemaker was reported to have said, “God damn him, if you don’t put a rope around his neck, I’ll shoot him anyhow.”
As makeshift gallows were being set up at a wagon shop toward the end of the street, the owner John Goller protested and tried to stop the rioters. His cries were silenced when a member of the mob pushed a gun into his face and told him to “Dry up, you son of a bitch.” Five people were hanged at his shop. Ten more were hanged elsewhere, and at least four were shot in the street.
The mob searched for any Chinese people they could find, regardless of whether they were involved in the original gunfight. Two of those hanged were only 18 years old, and one was said to have only been in the city a few days. Only one of the victims of the lynching is thought to have been involved in the original gunfight.
In an outcry throughout the country, people called for the lawlessness of the “Wild West” to end, but it was difficult for prosecution to find perpetrators for specific murders because of the mob nature of the lynchings.
A grand jury returned only 25 indictments for the murders, but only 10 men were brought to trial, and out of those 10, only eight were ever convicted. Laws at the time prevented Asians from testifying against white people in court, and these laws in combination with suspect “legal technicalities” ensured those convicted got their charges overturned. No member of the mob was ever punished.
Not only did racist laws keep Chinese Americans and immigrants from fair trials, unfair and heavy monthly taxes were levied on Chinese people with the “Chinese police tax”. In expansionist America, both anti-Chinese and anti-immigrant sentiment was strong. White settlers and citizens believed Chinese migrants drove wages down and saw them as unassimilable, fearing for “American family values.”
Though lynchings were outlawed in Los Angeles after this, the city, hoping to attract people, quickly dropped all mention of the massacre, and soon the tragedy was nearly forgotten.
Now dubbed the Capital of Asian America, areas of Los Angeles County, like the San Gabriel Valley and Monterey Park, have the highest populations of Chinese Americans of any municipalities in the U.S. The Chinese population in California and the U.S. survived through unjust laws, unfair taxation, and hateful attacks to gain civil rights, increasing representation through advocacy efforts.
10 percent of Los Angeles’ entire population killed 10 percent of Los Angeles’ Chinese population Oct. 24,1871. The site of the massacre is where current-day Union Station is, in the historic, oldest part of Los Angeles.
A problem we face when learning about tragedies that happened nearly 150 years ago is one of empathy and connection. Making something that happened that long ago feel tangible and not just a generic part of history becomes harder when there is little to no mention of it in textbooks, or memory of it where it happened. Remembering events like these is important not only because the events happened, but because aftershocks can still be felt these many years later.
The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was the first piece of legislature to ban immigrants of a particular ethnic or national category, thus creating the concept of “illegal immigration” in America. Though this act was overturned in 1943, unconstitutional “Muslim Bans” and debates about “border security” remind us of our nation’s sordid past.