A Woman to Know: Mary Tape

I will let the world see sir what justice there is when it is governed by the race of prejudice men. — Mary Tape

I will let the world see sir what justice there is when it is governed by the race of prejudice men. — Mary Tape

(image via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1868, 11-year-old Mary Tape arrived in San Francisco. She traveled from Shanghai alone and sought refuge with the Ladies’ Protection & Relief Society. There, she studied English and eventually met her husband Joseph, a milkman also recently arrived from China.

They built a middle-class life in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow, with Joseph employed as a broker and interpreter and Mary raising their four young children and working on the side as a painter and photographer.

In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in response to the roiling anti-Chinese prejudice sweeping the country. But Mary still wanted her children to attend San Francisco schools. She personally escorted her oldest daughter, Mamie, to her first day of Spring Valley Primary School — only to be turned away at the door.

Mary wrote to the school board:

Dear Sirs: I see that you are going to make all sorts of excuses to keep my child out of the Public schools.

Will you please tell me! Is it a disgrace to be Born a Chinese? Didn’t God make us all!!! What right have you to bar my child out of the school because she is [of Chinese Descent? There is no other worldly reason that you could keep her out. You have expended a lot of the Public money foolishly, all because of one poor little child …

I will let the world see sir what justice there is when it is governed by the race of prejudice men! I guess she is more American [than] a good many of you that is going to prevent her being educated.

In 1885, Mary and her husband sued the San Francisco Board of Education. Their case, Tape v. Hurley, made it all the way to the California Supreme Court, which demanded San Francisco provide education for Chinese children. The city complied, and in 1886 their daughter Mamie enrolled in a “separate but equal” segregated school for Chinese-Americans.

Seven decades after she was turned away at the school, and two decades after her death, Brown v. Board made its way to the Supreme Court.

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