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Meet the Chinese-American Parents Whose Lawsuit Desegregated Schools—69 Years Before Brown v. Board of Education 

ASIAN PACIFIC AMERICAN HERITAGE MONTH SPOTLIGHT

It was the first day of school in 1884 San Francisco. Mary Tape dressed her 8-year-old daughter Mamie, put a ribbon in her hair, and the two set out for Spring Valley Primary School, the five-room wooden schoolhouse that served the Tape’s neighborhood. Mamie had been studying with a tutor, but her parents—financially successful immigrants from China—wanted a full formal education for their three American-born children. When they attempted to enroll Mamie, the school’s principal, Jennie Hurley, refused to admit her, citing a school board policy barring admission to students of Chinese descent. 

Mamie’s parents were not deterred, and their fight ultimately led to a successful State Supreme Court ruling in 1885. Tape v. Hurley struck down all board polices that barred Chinese students from California schools.

This May, which is nationally recognized as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we lift up the story of two parents whose advocacy for their own children opened the schoolhouse doors for countless more. 

The Tape Family, ca. 1884.(Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

In late 19th-century California, interest in public education was on the rise, and in 1880 the state passed legislation that entitled all children to admission to the state’s school system – ending the practice of separate schools for Black students (California Code 1662). Also spreading across California, however, was a growing anti-Chinese sentiment. Congress had just passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese immigration and naturalization for ten years.

In San Francisco, the school board repeatedly denied school registration by children of Asian descent, including the rejection of an enrollment petition signed by 1,300 “Chinese merchants and laborers.” The San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a resolution urging the school system to, “Guard well the doors of our public schools, that [the Chinese] do not enter.” The resolution said it was a matter of “self-preservation” and defense against an “invasion of Mongolian barbarism.”  

Joseph and Mary Tape first enlisted the help of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, which lodged a complaint with the school board. The board doubled down, voting to fire any principal who admitted a “Mongolian” child. The Tapes then hired a lawyer and sued Hurley and the school board for violation of the 1880 education statute, as well as of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Tapes won, and when the school board appealed, the California Supreme Court—on March 3, 1885—upheld the lower court’s ruling in Tape v. Hurley 

When the Tapes returned to Spring Valley Primary School, however, they were still denied. The school board had rushed to open a separate school for children of Chinese descent. But more and more California schools desegregated in the years immediately after Tape v. Hurley, and, when the Tapes moved to Berkeley ten years later, their children finally attended non-segregated schools.

The story of Joseph and Mary Tape is not only an important chapter in the history of Asian Pacific Americans in this country, but also another of the countless demonstrations of the power of parents as advocates for the education and health of their children and the children of their communities.