Last year, the nation, and especially the American West, marked the 150th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. That remarkable project ushered in an era of industrial growth, communications advancements, and agricultural and settler development. It was an accomplishment made possible by centuries of violence aimed at indigenous people whose land and souls newcomers to this part of the world coveted. It was also an endeavor tied to the crisis of the Civil War—where those railroad tracks went, and what they were supposed to mean when the massive undertaking was completed, had much to do with the nation’s capitulation to war and hopes for postwar redemption in the far West.
The transcontinental railroad, particularly the western half of it, was also about Chinese workers. While we have long known of the role that Chinese men played in carrying the project forward, we have only recently begun to better understand the scale of their sacrifice and the utter harshness of the job. As many as 20,000 Chinese laborers toiled on the Central Pacific Railroad, blasting giant holes in the Sierra Nevada, forging ahead with steel and iron, dodging avalanches (when they could), struggling in the flatlands of the Great Basin. Thanks to a remarkable research project at Stanford (a university that would not exist without the Chinese labor that made Leland Stanford rich), the story of the Chinese contribution to the project is now better understood. The vast majority of those workers remain unknown to us—try as they might, the more than 100 researchers involved in the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project could find very little in the documentary record that illuminates those individual lives. But these are not lives lost to the past: the project commemorates them with dignity, if anonymity, and there is much to learn from it.
When that vast railroad construction project ended in 1869, the Chinese laborers migrated to various Chinatowns across the American and Canadian far West, living at the margins created by all manner of racialized quarantines: restrictions on jobs, discriminatory housing policies, lack of opportunity, racist laws. One of the biggest such districts was in Los Angeles, down near the L.A. River, on either side of Alameda Street. Even after the horror of the 1871 Chinese massacre there (wherein a mixed-race mob killed some 20 Chinese men and boys), after the exclusion acts of the 1880s—federal prohibitions on Chinese immigration, fostered and fomented in California—L.A.’s Chinatown remained a vibrant, polyglot neighborhood.
Come forward to the new century, to the 1920s and 1930s, and to what we must remember about our collective past. In the fall of 1924, people in an adjoining neighborhood began to fall ill. Pneumonia? Or maybe the Spanish flu back for more victims after its 1918–19 ravages? No. Plague. Bubonic and pneumonic plague both: deadly, scary, and so contagious. The disease hit the poor, mostly Mexicans in this case, people whose poverty meant that social distancing, rat and flea abatement, and public health services were not what they were elsewhere. People got sick, and they died. The disease jumped from family member to family member, from boarder to boarder, from one mourner at a wake to another, then another. As many as 40 people died before public health heroes instituted effective quarantines and knocked the disease down. It was the last major outbreak of plague in the United States.
Public health measures did not stop racism from rearing its ugly manifestations. On the contrary. The disease of rats and fleas and poverty got labeled a disease of race and ethnicity, got tagged as a Mexican disease, and the poor residents of the plague neighborhood paid the price. Out they went, houses burned, jobs lost, lives forever disrupted. Even Mexicans far from the plague and its vectors got targeted; such is the alchemy when fear catalyzes latent racism, a tried-and-true reaction in the American West.
History shows us tragic patterns here. Within a few years, Mexicans again got removed via the deportations of the Great Depression, sent back across the border even if they did not want to go, even if many of them were American citizens. It was a rehearsal for the internment of Japanese and Japanese American people in 1942.
And what of Chinatown? The irony is as glaring as it is tragic. Chinatown, home to several thousand working people, most of them Chinese (and probably many of them related to those railroad workers of the 1860s), found itself in the way of a different, 1930s-style progress of the rails. Los Angeles figured that it needed a Union Station, one that brought all the major trunk and transcontinental lines together under a single roof. Chinatown, after years of court fights and speculative real estate ventures, was chosen as the spot. In the mid-1930s, out went the Chinese and other residents of the first Chinatown of Los Angeles to make way for the city’s iconic rail station, its yards, and its tracks.
History is not prophecy. We can break the patterns it reveals. We are frightened, wary, and anxious. But we can come together; we can acknowledge that what has come before need not be the template for what is to come. Racist labels (“the Chinese virus”) spring from the same ugly impulses as spitting on and attacking people of Chinese descent. Abominations. We can respond with humanity and grace, and not let what this crisis leaves in its wake compound our fears and our falling short.
William Deverell is a professor of history at the University of Southern California and the director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. He reviewed Shadowlands: Fear and Freedom at the Oregon Standoff for Alta, Fall 2019.