Collection: Chinese Exclusion Documents

By Isabella Guerra Uccelli

In 1882, the U.S. Congress passed the first legislation preventing an entire ethnic group from migrating to the United States of America. The Chinese Exclusion Act targeted Chinese labor migrants who had been arriving as early as 1849 in response to the Gold Rush. According to the New York Times, one in four miners in the 1860s was Chinese. Beyond the personal desire of quick wealth, Chinese immigrants were often brought in and forced into servant-labor by US companies and new laborers worked in large numbers building transcontinental railways. 

This act, though, was not the first act targeting Chinese immigrants. The Page Act (An Act Supplementary to the Acts in Relation to Immigration), passed in 1875, had already prevented single Chinese women from entering the US. This allowed immigration officers to prevent a Chinese woman wishing to enter the US based on the vague possibility that the woman could be a prostitute.

The tensions between white American workers and Chinese workers is illustrated by Denis Kearney’s “Our Misery and Despair” address (1878). Kearney’s address makes evident that anger towards Chinese arose from a desire to protect their rights as workers. With the Union Pacific Coal Company, the Central Pacific Railroad Company, and the Union Pacific Railroad Company abusing Chinese workers by giving them lower wages, the American workers were also affected since companies hired more Chinese to do the job for cheaper. But Kearney’s speech also highlights immense racist attitudes believing that the country should contain only one race.

The 1882 Act was followed by both the Scott Act (1888) and the Geary Act (1892), which put more restrictions on Chinese immigration. The Geary Act extended the Chinese Exclusion Act for 10 years and controlled Chinese immigration until the 1920s, when quotas were established. In 1943, the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed under the Magnuson Act but only in 2012 was a formal apology and issue of regret presented by the US congress for having passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Scott Act, and the Geary Act. In 2019, 150 years after the completion of the transcontinental railroad, Chinese railroad workers were finally recognized for their work.  

This sample of documents showcases a variety of primary sources of the time having to do with Chinese immigration. Through photographs, court cases, cartoons, newspaper articles, and legal documents, we wish to create a more accessible introduction into the history of Chinese exclusion in the US.