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This Day in Labor History: September 2, 1885

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On September 2, 1885, white miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming decided to exterminate the town’s entire Chinese community. Whites killed at least 28 Chinese miners in the Rock Springs Massacre, demonstrated the power of white supremacy to the Gilded Age white working class, and is a prime example of how employers have fomented racial tension throughout much of American history.

White Americans hated the Chinese.

There isn’t really much reason to complicate the above sentence when talking about the 19th century. Its truth is indisputable. From the moment, whites crossed the deserts in search of California gold and realized, what!, there are Chinese people here! (and Mexicans and Indians and Chileans and a lot of other non-whites), they wanted to eliminate them. In California, they very quickly stole the mine claims from the Chinese and forced them do to traditional female labor in this all-male society (this is the root of the Chinese laundry and ubiquitous small-town Chinese restaurant). The Chinese, desperate to find economic opportunities not existent in their home country, still continued to come to the United States, despite the racism and violence they faced.

This led to the first successful labor movement in the American history–the working-class led movement to end Chinese immigration. This is an important point–the Chinese Exclusion Act was the culmination of a working-class movement. That 1882 act ended Chinese immigration for 10 years, but was no guarantee to the permanent dominance of white supremacy.

Of course, employers understood how they could take advantage of this racial animosity to divide their labor forces. The railroads jumped all over Chinese labor. The Central Pacific Railroad used the Chinese as nearly slave labor to build the Transcontinental Railroad, starving them when they protested over their terrible conditions. 10% of the 12,000 Chinese laborers who worked on building that railroad over the Sierra Nevada died on the job. The conditions weren’t that much better for the Chinese in Wyoming in the 1870s and 80s.

The Union Pacific Railroad, who owned a tremendous amount of western land thanks to federal handouts to entice railroad construction, first brought in the Chinese to their western Wyoming coal mines in 1875 after white labor struck over low wages. When Union Pacific broke the white union, only 50 whites were hired back to go with the 150 Chinese laborers. The numbers of Chinese miners grew over the next few years, with whites angry first that the Chinese were taking away jobs that rightfully belonged to whites and second that they took jobs for less money and worse conditions than whites would tolerate. Many of the white miners belonged to the Knights of Labor, which opposed Chinese immigration (as did most labor organizations during these years). Throughout 1885, beatings of the Chinese increased in towns throughout Wyoming. In August, miners placed notices across the western Wyoming mining camps demanding the expulsion of the Chinese.

On September 1, white miners met at night and while we don’t know exactly what happened in that meeting, it seems clear that the plans for the next day were set. The next morning, 10 members of the Knights walked up Chinese laborers in a mine and told them they had no right to work. They then beat 2 Chinese miners, 1 to death. Over the next few hours, a mob gathered in the center of town. Armed with rifles, around 150 whites marched into Chinatown.

At first, the miners gave the Chinese an hour to pack up and leave. But they got tired of waiting around. 30 minutes later, they opened fire, killing a Chinese miner named Lor Sun Kit. The Chinese panicked and began fleeing out of town in any possible direction while the whites beat, robbed, or killed everyone they could find.

Said the survivors in a report to the Chinese consulate in New York:

Whenever the mob met a Chinese they stopped him and, pointing a weapon at him, asked him if he had any revolver, and then approaching him they searched his person, robbing him of his watch or any gold or silver that he might have about him, before letting him go. Some of the rioters would let a Chinese go after depriving him of all his gold and silver, while another Chinese would be beaten with the butt ends of the weapons before being let go. Some of the rioters, when they could not stop a Chinese, would shoot him dead on the spot, and then search and rob him. Some would overtake a Chinese, throw him down and search and rob him before they would let him go. Some of the rioters would not fire their weapons, but would only use the butt ends to beat the Chinese with. Some would not beat a Chinese, but rob him of whatever he had and let him go, yelling to him to go quickly. Some, who took no part either in beating or robbing the Chinese, stood by, shouting loudly and laughing and clapping their hands

That night, nearly every building in Chinatown was burned. The majority of the dead were burned in their homes, either unable to leave because of illness or injury, or unwilling to leave and tried to hide in a cellar or some other seemingly safe place.

The survivors fled to Evanston, after being picked up by passing Union Pacific trains, but that town was no more welcoming to the Chinese than Rock Springs. The governor of Wyoming appealed to President Grover Cleveland for federal troops to quell the rioting; the latter, always willing to send in federal troops to crush organized labor (even if in this case they deserved it), obliged. Six companies of troops arrived in Rock Springs a week later to escort the Chinese back to Rock Springs where they found ashes and the unburied bodies of their friends and family, half-eaten by dogs and vultures. The Chinese just wanted out of Wyoming at this point, but Union Pacific had no interest in giving up their cheap, exploitable labor. They first asked for railroad tickets to another state and then asked for two months of back pay the company owed them. Union Pacific refused all requests. The Chinese at first refused to work, fearful for their lives, but then the company stopped feeding them, leaving them a choice of whether to work or leave Wyoming on their own.

White miners throughout Wyoming went on strike to protest the return of Chinese labor to the mines, but the strike was defeated and the Chinese remained. A few whites were arrested, but all were released in a month. No one ever faced charges for the murders.

The expulsion of Chinese laborers from workplaces and towns around the West continued through the 1890s.

On a closely related note, I sadly must mention the passing of Alexander Saxton, author of The Indispensable Enemy: Labor and the Anti-Chinese Movement in California. This powerful book opened new doors in American labor history, complicating traditional narratives of a heroic labor movement bound by democracy, noting that racial ideology was absolutely central to any understanding of working-class history. One of my critiques of the field of labor history is that, more than any other U.S. history subfield and the social movements to which they relate, many of its practitioners seek to serve the labor movement. This is often deeply problematic, as a lot of labor historians buy into the myths and grand narratives of labor’s past. Saxton helped defuse some of these myths. I also didn’t know his own personal history, which is pretty amazing.

This is the 41st post in this series. The other posts are archived here.

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