Los Angeles observes 150 years since one of the largest lynchings in American history

A century and a half after a violent race riot in Los Angeles’ Chinatown terrorized the city’s Chinese American community, area schools and organizations are calling attention to the 1871 massacre, which they consider a “forgotten history.”

In observance of the 150th anniversary Sunday, local groups have been commemorating the race riot, which resulted in the murder of roughly 20 Chinese Americans — among the largest mass lynchings in American history. The organizations hosted a livestream performance and a K-12 teacher training workshop on the riot last week.

An estimated 500 white and Latino men and boys participated, after white police officers got involved in a dispute in Chinatown. About 10 percent of the area’s Chinese population were killed that day.

“Remembering both the accomplishments and achievements of different groups in society is as important as remembering the tragedies,” Karen Umemoto, director of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA, one of the universities involved, told NBC Asian America. “That can help us figure out what it is we need to put in place as a society so that we can all thrive equally.”

Hao Huang, a music professor at Scripps College (which is also participating), who produced a podcast on the topic, “Blood on Gold Mountain,” said that the tragedy began with an argument between Chinese crime organizations.

One reason these associations emerged was "because there was regular violence by non-Chinese toward Chinese,” Huang said. “There was sort of a demand for protection rackets, who kind of started to victimize the people who they were supposed to protect.”

The dispute began when a Chinese woman who had been arranged to be married to an older merchant ran off with a younger man, Huang said. Both men belonged to the associations. When a shootout ensued, white police officers responded to the scene. In the chaos, a civilian, saloon owner Robert Thompson, was killed. A police officer, Jesus Bilderrain, was also injured.

“Both of them shot first … but once Robert Thompson was killed, then all hell broke loose because people were running around saying ‘the Chinamen are killing white people by wholesale,’” Huang said. “It was very opportunistic violence.”

In addition to lynchings, many white residents looted Chinatown, stealing roughly $1.5 million of property in current dollars, money the immigrants could not afford to lose, Huang said.

"The Chinese arrived here because ironically they called California 'Gold Mountain,'” Huang said. “They did not find gold. They found death. And it really took only two hours to kill at least 20 of them.”

Huang emphasized that though about 20 bodies were found, there could have been more deaths that went undiscovered. But of the hundreds who were involved in the killings and destruction, not a single person was held accountable. The few who were arrested were released on a technicality, and ultimately no one would serve a prison sentence. Chinatown had been burned down and was never rebuilt, and the newspapers that documented the day claimed that it was “what the Chinese deserved” because it began as a dispute within the community.

Huang explained that in the late 1800s, Los Angeles had not yet developed into the metropolitan center it is today. The town was small and its Chinese American community, largely made up of immigrants who were brought over to work on the transcontinental railroad, amounted to about 200 in the entire L.A. region. About half lived in the city’s segregated area along what was known as the Calle de los Negros, where Chinatown sat.

“It was basically a very rough neighborhood. Many, many dozens of people were killed every year there,” Huang said. “It was definitely a place where no one wanted to live, and that’s where they put the Chinese.”

The environment was difficult for Chinese immigrants, who often worked for sub-standard wages in industries like food service, laundry and other forms of hard labor, Huang said.

Ellen Wu, an associate professor of history at Indiana University Bloomington, explained that at the time, the West was a hotbed of anti-Chinese sentiment. Many white Americans ascribed to the idea of “manifest destiny,” the belief that expansion across the continent was justified and that they were the ones entitled to the bounty of the American West, she said. It was also a period when slavery had been abolished and American industrialism was on the rise, while opportunities for white people to own their own farms and work for themselves were simultaneously on the decline. White people increasingly found themselves having to earn wages by working for others, she said.

“Very quickly white workers start to basically come to a consensus that Chinese workers are different in a threatening way,” Wu said. “And a big part of that assumption, that they’re threatening, is that they are our new embodiment of unfree labor.”

Against such a backdrop, racial tensions in California were palpable, experts said, and the state would become notorious for the burnings of Chinatowns and other enclaves up and down its coast. The massacre in Los Angeles, however, was one of the first acts of mass violence and terrorism toward the Chinese American community of that era.

About a decade later, the country would implement the Chinese Exclusion Act, which put a 10-year moratorium on any Chinese labor immigration, the first legislation in the U.S. that discriminated by ethnicity.

Huang said the effects of such events were felt for years afterward, likely contributing to generational trauma and shaping the way in which many Asian Americans chose to deal with racism.

“I was told by my parents, don’t stick out, don’t make trouble. Because there is a terror that we’re different enough. You don’t need to make things worse by drawing attention to yourself,” he said. “We have a history to show that we have been targeted time and time again.”

Through events held in conjunction with the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, the UCLA Asia Pacific Center, the Chinese American Museum and Scripps College, the groups hope to keep the discussion over such racial tensions alive. And while some opponents of ethnic studies claim that discussions over these topics will only aggravate divisions in the country, Umemoto argued that such work is particularly inclusive, incorporating the histories of communities that have long been made invisible.

“We can be critical of the things that have taken place in history without necessarily blaming the ancestors of those who may have perpetrated certain justices,” Umemoto said. “There’s an ethos that those of us in ethnic studies have followed, which is that we’re teaching about the full lives of people of color in this country and Indigenous peoples in this country so that we could develop that historical empathy for one another.”