Stephanie Hinnershitz: Righting Past Wrongs in Lingering Legal Codes

Stephanie Hinnershitz, A Different Shade of JusticeToday we welcome a guest post from Stephanie Hinnershitz, author of A Different Shade of Justice:  Asian American Civil Rights in the South.

From the formation of Chinese and Japanese communities in the early twentieth century through Indian hotel owners’ battles against business discrimination in the 1980s and ’90s, Stephanie Hinnershitz shows how Asian Americans organized carefully constructed legal battles that often traveled to the state and federal supreme courts. Drawing from legislative and legal records as well as oral histories, memoirs, and newspapers, A Different Shade of Justice describes a movement that ran alongside and at times intersected with the African American fight for justice, and she restores Asian Americans to the fraught legacy of civil rights in the South.

A Different Shade of Justice is available now in both print and e-book editions.


Righting Past Wrongs in Lingering Legal Codes

In recent years, debates surrounding the symbolic removal of Confederate monuments erected during the Jim Crow Era from public spaces have prompted a variety of actions and reactions from Americans. This movement, however, has not fully embraced the similar need to remove longstanding pieces of legislation that are rooted in the racial discrimination of the past. Though in many cases such laws and codes are unenforceable thanks to Supreme Court decisions, a movement to strip legal codes of lingering racist and discriminatory wording would go a long way in acknowledging this nation’s troubled past and symbolizing a step toward addressing its injustices.

Take, for example, Florida’s Constitution. Revised a number of times since its inception in 1838, its current Declaration of Rights (Section 18) contains a provision that, on the surface, seems mundane: “Foreigners who are eligible to become citizens of the United States under the provisions of the laws and treaties of the United States shall have the same rights as to the ownership, inheritance and disposition of property in the State as citizens of the State, but the Legislature shall have power to limit, regulate and prohibit the ownership, inheritance, disposition, possession and enjoyment of real estate in the State of Florida by foreigners who are not eligible to become citizens of the United States under the provisions of the laws and treaties of the United States.” Read within the larger history of anti-Asian discrimination in America the racist underpinnings of this portion of the Florida constitution become clear.

This history of anti-Asian legislation in Florida begins with Japanese migration to the U.S. during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many Japanese came to the West Coast for migrant labor or were later able to use savings to invest in land and business ventures. While white West Coast citizens responded with fear and suspicion of the new arrivals, Japanese looked to the rich soil of the South for opportunities far from the virulent anti-Asian sentiments and discrimination of California. Japanese Americans were eager to stake claim to land unsettled and generally underused in the South and rejuvenate and/or establish new crops and agricultural practices. Joseph Sakai, a Japanese man who graduated from New York University and looking for land investment opportunities, enlisted sixteen farmers and who later brought their families in 1904 to come to the newly founded Yamato Colony near Boca Raton in Florida. Within the next decade, the Yamato Colony flourished as the Japanese settlers made good use of the land, raising a variety of crops such as pineapples and tomatoes and earning a favorable reputation from their white neighbors for their thrift and hard work.

The warm relationship between white Floridians and Japanese shifted by 1913 as West Coast states ramped up their attempts to drive out Japanese and prevent further settlement with legislation that prohibited Japanese from owning land. California and Washington became the earliest states to pass specific laws prohibiting aliens ineligible for citizenship from owning and leasing property. While not mentioning Japanese specifically, the phrase “aliens ineligible for citizenship” applied directly to Japanese since Asian migrants at this time were unable to naturalize since they were not white. Southerners who had long opposed Japanese settlement became concerned that an invasion of Japanese fleeing anti-alien legislation would sweep the South

As a result, Democratic representatives in the Florida legislature, Robert Davis and Timothy Mackenzie, embraced anti-Japanese legislation and focused on amending the state constitution. During the 1925 legislative session, Davis and Mackenzie proposed Joint Resolution 750 to amend Section 18 of the constitution to formally exclude Japanese from owning property. The proposed amendment was eventually approved by ballot and formally added to the 1926 version of the Constitution and still stands today.

Time and willful ignorance have erased the history of Asian Americans in Florida and the discrimination they faced, but renewed interest in removing remnants of racial discrimination from legal documents can bring the past to the forefront and encourage a greater understanding of the challenges faced by Asian Americans as well as other groups. We should approach legislation that is outdated the same way as we do with monuments to a racist past: with an understanding of the forgotten or decidedly overlooked portions of American history and with an eye toward how removal can move us forward.


Stephanie Hinnershitz is assistant professor of history at Cleveland State University.  You can read her earlier UNC Press blog post here.