By Hilary Corrigan
Triplicate staff writer
In January 1886, Del Norte County leaders called a meeting to draft a legal way to drive out the local Chinese population.
The outcome would force the county's hundreds of Chinese residents and workers onto boats and wagons headed for San Francisco and Oregon in the following weeks. Similar expulsions would take place up and down the West coast.
Next week in Humboldt County, author Jean Pfaelzer, a University of Delaware English and American studies professor who studied at Humboldt State University, will focus on the Northcoast's participation. In Eureka, Arcata and Ferndale, Pfaelzer will read from her new book, "Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans."
"This brutal and systematic ethnic cleansing' of Chinese Americans in California and the Pacific Northwest in the second half of the 19th Century is a shocking and virtually unexplored chapter of American history," states a Random House description of the book.
Crescent City's expulsion followed one in Eureka a few days earlier that rounded up Chinese residents and sent them to San Francisco by boat.
The story remains well-known along the Northcoast, but not elsewhere, agreed Humboldt State history professor Delores McBroome. And while Pfaelzer's book brings attention to that local history, it also connects the region to other communities in the West that carried out similar expulsions meaning that Eureka and Crescent City are not isolated episodes in racial fights against the Chinese.
The West's white settlers expected Chinese immigrants, known as hard workers, to take jobs at mills, gold mines, road and railroad construction projects. Labor organizers drummed up support to expel the Chinese on the Northcoast and would prompt similar moves in Tacoma, Wash., and Rock Springs, Wyoming.
"You don't have these kind of expulsions in New York's Chinatown," McBroome said of the western episodes.
The expulsions followed a killing of a Humboldt County politician in Eureka, blamed on a Chinese man, and complaints of prostitution and drug use in Chinese neighborhoods.
But Eureka High School social studies teacher Ron Perry points to the expulsions as coordinated actions against the Chinese, rather than random, heat-of-the-moment outbursts.
"This was really kind of staged and planned," said Perry, who has researched the issue for a master's thesis. "It shows that labor unions were protecting their own."
Warts and all'
Connecting the Northcoast expulsions to other incidents against the nation's Chinese immigrants can clarify American history, according to Perry.
"If it's isolated, it's less important," Perry said, pointing to 31 California communities that kicked out Chinese residents during the late 1800s. "I think it's important for us to look at our history, warts and all."
Ads in Del Norte County publications at the time touted businesses that refused to hire Chinese people. Perry has come across 1886 materials from Humboldt County's chamber of commerce and business leaders promoting the county's scenery, climate, homes and lack of Chinese residents.
"We were advertising ourselves that way," Perry said. "The only county in the state containing no China men. We were pretty proud of that fact."
McBroome expects Pfaelzer's book to help explain that period of time in America, especially with its use of local oral histories.
"I think that's an important element in her book that has been missing," McBroome said, adding that Pfaelzer's writing style will also lure readers. "The non-historian, the layperson will enjoy it tremendously."
To McBroome, the region's expulsions show a pattern of discrimination against Chinese, an agenda that labor union officials promoted.
"They made it a respectable thing to exclude the Chinese and disregard their civil liberties," McBroome said.
Those discrimination patterns have repeated themselves. McBroome pointed to Japanese internment camps in the U.S. during World War II.
"We really need to see this not as an isolated event. We really need to see this as a pattern in the West," McBroome said. "And learn from that."
McBroome pointed to current fears about economic displacement, including jobs and resources.
"We face similar instances today with immigration," McBroome said. "It's really important to look at what's fueling the animosity."
"The issues of immigrant labor and how they should be treated and what we should do about it it's interesting that these issues don't go away," Perry said. "Maybe it's a conundrum we're always going to face."
But citizens can study historical events to see how discrimination patterns and frenzies form, he said.
"The whole story of America is one centered around immigration," Perry said.
Author Jean Pfaelzer, a University of Delaware English and American studies professor who studied at Humboldt State University, will read from her new book next week. "Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans," details how Crescent City and Eureka residents forced Chinese people to leave their communities.
June 14: Humboldt County Historical Society, 703
8th St., Eureka, at 4 p.m.
June 15: Northtown Books, 957 H St., Arcata, at 7
June 16: Humboldt County Library, 1313 3rd St.,
Eureka, at 2 p.m.
June 17: Ferndale City Hall, Main Street, Ferndale, at 1 p.m.