In honor of Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, the following is an excerpt from Stephanie Hinnershitz’ A Different Shade of Justice: Asian American Civil Rights in the South. This book is one of five titles from a reading list we created celebrating Asian American and Asian studies; view the entire reading list here.
Because not all southern states amended their constitutions to prevent Asian Americans from owning property, resistance from Asian Americans against property rights violations assumed different forms from state to state. Sometimes the battles occurred in an official legal arena, while others were carried out on a day-to-day basis. The struggles of Asian Americans against restrictions on their property and, as a result, their economic rights and livelihood challenged these discriminatory measures.
In 1921, Texas became the first southern state to pass an anti-alien land law, but it was not entirely new and it was not directed against Asians. The Texas legislature amended its constitution in 1891 to completely prohibit alien-owned corporations from owning or leasing property and to limit to six years the amount of time that an alien or an alien-owned company could own or lease land. When the six years was up, the company was to surrender the land to either a buyer or the state government. The amendment was designed to prevent speculation in Texas land by foreign (namely Mexican) corporations, but in December 1891, the Texas Supreme Court declared the measure unconstitutional. Undeterred, the Texas legislature passed a new law one year later that placed no limitations on alien corporations and increased the number of years that alien or alien-owned companies could lease or own land from six to ten years. The 1892 law remained in effect until a new law was created in 1921 that returned to the 1891 provisions of prohibiting alien corporations from owning property in Texas and decreased the number of years that aliens or alien-owned companies could lease or own land from the original six years to five. There was no mention of aliens who were ineligible for citizenship; all aliens were considered equally undesirable when it came to property ownership in the eyes of Texas law at the time. Unlike in other southern states, the targets were not Asians but, rather, Mexican-owned mining corporations or speculators who attempted to make a profit from Texas land.
There were, however, small communities of Chinese Americans throughout Texas at the time who were directly affected by these laws. Chinese Americans first appeared in Texas in 1869 when approximately 300 Chinese men from the West came to help build a railroad from Calvert in east Texas to Dallas. The Chinese laborers entered into three-year contracts with their employers for monthly pay, but only six months later, the employers terminated the contracts because of a labor dispute over wages. Many of the Chinese laborers returned to California, but about 100 remained and settled in El Paso, San Antonio, and Houston and eventually sent for their wives and families from China. Like their brethren elsewhere in the South, the Chinese Americans of Texas made a living running groceries or laundries, family-run businesses or sole proprietorships that helped them eke out a living in some cases or comfortably attain middle-class status in others. By 1920, there were 265 Chinese Americans living in Texas.
Despite their small numbers, Chinese Americans frequently encountered problems when they attempted to purchase land or establish a business. Although there was no mention of “aliens ineligible for citizenship” in the 1921 law and all aliens were entitled to own or lease property for five years, many white Texans used the law to intimidate Chinese Americans and prevent them from settling in their towns and cities. Fred Wong, an American-born Chinese man who was twenty-one at the time, came to San Antonio with his wife and child and his immigrant father from California in 1927 in order to open a business. Wong’s father had heard that there was a small but thriving Chinese American community in San Antonio, and although he was correct, he did not take into consideration that his business opportunities would be limited as a result of his race. Wong suggested that perhaps they could do better if they went outside San Antonio, and they eventually found themselves two hours away in Corpus Christi. Once there, Wong learned of a storefront for rent that would be perfect and affordable for their grocery. Wong was appraising the building one day when local white residents heard of his intentions to open a business in their city. The locals were, to say the least, nonplussed and generally suspicious of the Wongs’ intentions. A group of Syrians had settled earlier in Corpus Christi and dominated the grocery business there, and whites “did not want Orientals to come and bring more of their kind” to create further unwanted competition. As in Louisiana and Florida, even a small number of Chinese Americans could induce alarm concerning a forthcoming Asiatic invasion. Before Wong could inquire about the property, a member of the local retail association “saw that there was a Chinese person looking around to open a store and they got wind of it, so they sent someone and contacted me if I were going to open a store there and I kind of said that I was intended to.” This did not sit well with the retail association, which replied by letting Wong know that “it was not a good idea for a Chinese to open a store in Corpus Christi.” Wong was a bit shocked but took them at their word and did not press the issue. Wong “was very green and naive” and did not realize that he had every legal right to own a store in Corpus Christi, and he signed a contract with the local retail association promising that he would not open a business in their town. Wong realized later that he “could have brought suit, but when you’re young . . . you don’t realize these things.” The Wongs relocated to Austin and were able to start a successful grocery and help the Chinese American population in the city blossom, but Texans in San Antonio were not pleased with the prospect of “Orientals” trying to establish their business nearby. Sam Handy, owner of a growing chain of local Handy Grocery Stores based in San Antonio, attempted to push the Texas legislature to pass an anti-alien land law that specifically targeted Chinese, but such a law never materialized.
Although Wong and his family did not stay in Corpus Christi, they did continue to make their home in the state of Texas. While it was clear that in many towns and cities in Texas, Chinese Americans were tolerated at best or openly intimidated using illegal measures at worst, families like the Wongs did what they could to earn a living despite the hostility. Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans across the South often defied social or even legal discrimination and racism by remaining on their land or in their stores. They may not have fully understood that there were often no teeth in the constitutional amendments in Louisiana or Florida or that the Texas law did not prevent them from owning property, so they may not have been openly defiant. However, as with other racial groups in the South who were marginalized, the everyday and mundane acts of Asian Americans amidst racism were revolutionary in their own regard, whether they led to legal change or not.
Stephanie Hinnershitz is assistant professor of history at Cleveland State University.