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Chinese Americans Were Once Forbidden to Testify in Court. A Murder Changed That

May 7, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

Yee Shun was new to Las Vegas, in New Mexico Territory, and he didn’t intend to stay long. Though he’d secured a job at a local hotel, he’d decided to move on to Albuquerque, a frontier city even more promising and bustling than 1882 Las Vegas. But first, he planned to look up a friend at a local Chinese-owned laundry.

That decision proved fatal—in more ways than one. It set the stage for one man’s murder, and another’s suicide. It also resulted in something unexpected: a legal case that overturned a longstanding practice of refusing to allow Chinese people to testify in U.S. court.

At the time Yee immigrated to the United States from China, Chinese people had few civil rights. Men from China had been immigrating since the 1840s, drawn by the country’s ample opportunities for laborers. As railroad companies competed to grow as quickly as possible, they needed a pool of cheap labor willing to take on dangerous and often backbreaking work, and Chinese immigrants fit the bill. Up to 15,000 Chinese men became railroad workers, then branched out into mining, farming, sewing, laundry, and other fields.

But though Chinese immigrants were essential to westward expansion, they were not welcomed by many white Americans, who felt threatened by enclaves of unfamiliar workers who spoke a different language, practiced a different religion and made significant contributions to both labor and business in the burgeoning West. By the 1880s, anti-Chinese sentiment reached its peak with the Chinese Exclusion Acts, a series of laws that restricted immigration from China and limited Chinese-born people’s civil rights within the U.S.

The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act suspended immigration for ten years, required Chinese people to carry documentation at all times, and refused Chinese people the ability to become naturalized citizens. “The coming of Chinese laborers to this country endangers the good order of certain localities within the territory thereof,” the Act read.

Chinese miners working alongside three white men in Aubine Ravine, California circa 1852.

Chinese people lacked another civil right: the right to testify in court in many states and territories. Laws and court cases denying them that right went back almost as far as Chinese immigration in the United States, and in states where there were no such laws, Chinese people who wanted to testify were often dismissed as liars before they even took the stand.

In 1854, …read more


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