Home / General / This Day in Labor History: February 6, 1886

This Day in Labor History: February 6, 1886

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On February 6, 1886, white Knights of Labor members in Seattle started anti-Chinese riots, part of the larger racist white working class of the west coast seeking to eliminate Chinese workers from the labor market with maximum violence.

From the moment whites showed up on the west coast to mine gold in California, they were outraged over Chinese competition. They really had no idea that other races would dare to stake a claim in the United States (even if California was only just recently the U.S.) and they did not respond well. Not at all. They violently threw the Chinese off their mining claims and forced them into subservient positions of feminized labor, paving the way for the rise of the Chinese laundry and Chinese restaurant to serve American needs.

Then the California rail barons hired the Chinese to build the railroads. They treated them like animals, literally hiring cowboys to round them up and force them back on the job when they went on strike and tried to leave the Sierra Nevada to walk back to San Francisco. Thousands died building the railroad, especially in blasting tunnels, and the bosses did not care. White workers cared though. They were outraged by the competition. This led to the rise of the Workingman’s Party of California, which had Chinese exclusion as its one and only major policy platform. Soon, fear of the Chinese became a national mania among the white working class and this led to the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, the first major piece of American legislation to originate from the labor movement.

The Chinese Exclusion Act effectively ended legal Chinese migration to the United States. But it did not kick out the Chinese already in the U.S. Moreover, many Chinese would migrate to Canada or Mexico and then walk across the border into the U.S. In fact, the first iteration of the Border Patrol was founded in these years, not to stop Mexicans from crossing the border, but to stop the Chinese from sneaking over. Anti-Chinese violence did not subside after the Exclusion Act. The Knights of Labor made anti-Chinese (as well as anti-Hungarian, by which they generally meant all eastern Europeans) central to their organizing platform. Then, 1885 saw a new spasm of violence against the Chinese. In Rock Springs, Wyoming, white miners decided to eliminate the Chinese community in an orgy of racist violence.

Seattle in 1886 was another hot bed of anti-Chinese sentiment and no one was more attuned to that the union workers in the Knights of Labor. News reports ran sensational stories about massive Chinese operations to invade the nation from the Canadian border. Leading Northwesterners criticized Congress for passing the Exclusion Act but not providing the police to enforce it. And in fact, the people behind the Exclusion Act had not really thought the land border issue and so this was an unexpected response, however obvious it is to us today that this is what immigrants desperate for a better life would do. The Canadians basically didn’t care. Their government had a head tax on Chinese immigrants rather than ban them at the time and were happy to collect it on migrants not staying there.

Workers believed that with the Chinese Exclusion Act and then the Foran Act in 1885 banning contract labor that their troubles with the Chinese were over. But of course Chinese immigrants had agency of their own and continued to migrate. So for these white workers, violence was the preferred choice on how to deal with it.

Local Knights leader Daniel Cronin worked up the union members of Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland into an anti-Chinese frenzy. In truth, before this the Knights were weak in the Northwest. It literally took anti-Chinese hatred to get the union movement going in Washington and Oregon. Overnight around this issue, the Knights grew into the thousands there. And it was pogroms they had in mind. Cronin led what he called an anti-Chinese Congress in Seattle in late 1885 to gin up his pogrom program. The Knights paper in Seattle claimed the Chinese had “forfeited the protection of our laws” by being here illegally. Cronin himself was new to the city, a carpenter who had recently moved to Seattle from California, where he had imbibed deeply in anti-Chinese politics. And with this emphasis, he rose fast in Washington.

Over the next few months, pressure on the Chinese community grew. Some left, but there were about 3,000 in Washington at this time. Finally, on February 6, the Knights announced to the Chinese that if they would not leave, they would be removed by force.

The pogrom started the next day. Knights members walked into Chinese homes and demanded they pack up and leave immediately. They went so far as to hire wagons to drag all the stuff out of Chinese homes and drop it on the city’s piers. About 350 people were rounded up. The police were sympathetic to the Knights and so only ensured that no one would be killed. That in itself probably upset a lot of Knights. Of course, the Knights had not collected enough money to pay the fare of the workers they were forcing to leave and so became even more angry.

Finally, a judge, the Knights, and the police came to an agreement that the 350 people forced to move out of their homes would leave the city, but in a peaceful and organized manner. The opinions of the Chinese were irrelevant to anyone but them. This came after the 97 Chinese the Knights had raised the money for were forced off the ship and to a local court. When the Knights started to mob, the police arrested eight Knights leaders, which threatened a greater mob against the cops too. There was a brief struggle in which two militia members, called up to police the city, and three Knights were seriously injured. Finally, Governor Watson Squire declared martial law. Thirteen Knights were charged for their roles in the riot, but no jury was going to convict them.

Most of the city’s Chinese moved after this riot, not wanting to deal with the extreme racism of the Seattle working class. Over time, Chinese-Americans moved back and created a vibrant Chinatown in the early twentieth century, today called the International District, but this was years later.

I borrowed from Kornel Chang, Pacific Connections: The Making of the U.S.-Canadian Borderlands, to write this post.

This is the 469th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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