Chinese and African American Interactions in the Late 1800s

The Chinese

"The Chinese," The Provincial Freeman, 8 December 1855, Proquest Black Abolitionist Papers, accessed 17 August 2016.

African American men competed with other ethnic groups in both political and economic spheres. In the minutes of the first California State Colored Conventions, there is a heavy emphasis on the gathering of Black wealth for multiple purposes—first and foremost to create a pool of funds with which to better the Black community. The delegates also thought it important to demonstrate the financial competence of the Black community in order to obtain equality under the law—particularly the portion of legislation that banned Black testimony in courts, which was the main subject of these early state conventions. Historian Barbara Welke speaks of gender roles in civil rights, and relates that repealing the law that banned Black testimony (as well as suffrage, the broader goal) was particularly the focus of political African American men in California[1]—which makes sense considering the weight it received in the conventions, a male dominated space. However, the fight for equality was not always a positive affair. The African American community was at odds especially with the Chinese community of California, and this rivalry manifested both in the workforce and in the political plane.

By the year 1852, the Chinese population in California was recorded as being over 3,000.[2] The interesting part about this is that this information is not a record from census report, but rather a number published in one of Frederick Douglass’ newspapers (US census data reports 2,719 “Asians” by 1860).[3] The gold rush in 1849 led to an influx of individuals looking for fortune in the West, but this was pursued in different forms for different groups. The Colored Convention minutes contain records of Black wealth, but the focus was mainly on establishing businesses and amassing real estate. The Christian Recorder also kept tabs on the occupations of the Chinese population. Though it is unclear how the Philadelphian publication obtained these records, they report 50,000 as the total number of Chinese in California by 1862, broken down as such: “mining, 30,000; farming (hired as laborers,) 1,200; trading, 2,000; leaving some 16,800 unaccounted for, and supposed to be employed in washing, ironing, and as servants.”[4] The Chinese workforce at this point was associated chiefly with the mining industry. This is also evident when examining population density—the western, ore-heavy counties had significantly higher Chinese populations than were present in the rest of California.

Based on this occupational overlap, one can easily infer that there was competition between the Chinese and African American populations of California, in terms of labor at least. According to the statistics presented in the minutes of the 1865 California convention, San Francisco had the highest Black population of any county in the state. Census records from 1860 indicate the Chinese population in San Francisco was more than double the number listed in the convention. The Christian Recorder contains a report of an ostentatious funeral held for a Chinese merchant in San Francisco, indicating the presence of affluent Chinese businessmen in the county. There was Black business here as well—San Francisco was where William Newby and Jonas Townsend’s newspaper, Mirror of the Times, was based. The national and state conventions also reflect that Black men highly valued the concept of manual labor—meaning that African Americans no doubt occupied many of the same industries as the Chinese workers. With such proximity, tensions must have occurred but opportuities for coalition also arose.

On several occasions, Black newspapers reflected their shared interests with the Chinese. At times, both African Americans and Chinese immigrants, for example, chose to navigate social inequity by adhering to concepts of respectability. This can be noted in the August 26, 1880 issue of The Christian Recorder, which contained a message of temperance that reflected the sentiments expressed in the 1855, 1856, and 1857 conventions. The Christian Recorderer reprinted a reportedly ancient Chinese text, passed along from an American missionary, listing the "evils of wine drinking."  The editors then went on to admonish readers to “Read that Chinese Indictment against wine-drinking, and then resolve to taste it not.”[5] By chosing to publish this piece, Black editors may have been finding in Chinese sources a common endorsement of temperance as part of the code of respectable conduct.

Even more telling, African Americans recognized the multi-ethnic context of their battle for civil rights by calling attention to similar racial discrimination against the Chinese in California. In December of 1855, The Provincial Freeman, published by Black emigrants to Canada, printed an endorsement of a plea for equality written by “The Chinese of California”[6] who attempted to appeal to Christianity in order to call for equal treatment of Chinese immigrants. On one hand, the article reflected "orientalist" prejudices that many African Americans shared with other native born Americans at the time.[7]   For example, the Provincial Freeman goes as far as to call the Chinese petitioners “heathen idolaters,” and "Mongolian strangers." Yet, the editors also passionately supported this "just rebuke." They reiterated the Chinese condemnation of hypocritical American Christianity and critiqued the "so-called democracy of the United States."  Overall, this article reveals the complex divisions and common causes that arose in Chinese-Black relations in the United States, and particularly in California where the two groups interacted on a daily basis.

Written by Daniel Waruingi. Taught by Sharla Fett, Hist. 213, Occidental College, Spring 2016.


[1] Barbara Y. Welke, "Rights of Passage: Gendered-Rights Consciousness and the Quest for Freedom, San Francisco, California, 1850-1870," in African American Women Confront the West, 1600-2000, edited by Quintard Taylor and Shirley Ann Wilson Moore, 73-93 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003).

[2] "There are about 3,500 Chinese in California." Frederick Douglass Paper, March 11, 1852.

[3] California 1860 Census Data, Social Explorer.

[4] "Chinese in California," The Christian Recorder, April 1, 1865.

[5] "Chinese Indictment Against Wine-Drinking," and "Read that Chinese Indictment," The Christian Recorder, August 26, 1880.

[6] "The Chinese," Provincial Freeman, December 8, 1855.

[7] "The Chinese"; Eric Gardner, Unexpected Places: Relocating Nineteenth-Century African American Literature (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2009), 107.