Segment from To be a Citizen?

Gain A Husband, Lose a Country

A hundred years ago, if an American woman said “I Do” and married a foreign man, then the woman lost her U.S. citizenship and took on the nationality of her husband. Nathan talks with historian Linda Kerber about the 1907 Expatriation Act, which turned this long-established custom into law, and how the statute undermines contemporary assumptions of citizenship for women.


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Brian Balogh: On today’s show, we’re going to explore the topic of citizenship. What does it mean to be an American citizen? And like Knight says, who gets to decide?

Joanne Freeman: We’ll discuss the Chinese Exclusion Act that barred Chinese living in the United States from gaining American citizenship.

Nathan Connolly: We’ll also talk about a time when women had to give up their nationality because they got married.

Brian Balogh: And later, we’ll learn how World War I was a pivotal moment in the struggle for African American equal rights.

Brian Balogh: We just heard a story about Mexican Americans who by law were US citizens, but who didn’t enjoy the same civil liberties as others.

Joanne Freeman: But what if you were living in the US and weren’t even allowed to become a citizen? What if you had to endure discrimination because of your ethnicity and were denied a chance for naturalization? That was the struggle of Chinese people living in the United States for decades.

Joanne Freeman: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was one of the first major laws regulating immigration in the United States. It barred immigration for Chinese laborers and declared the Chinese ineligible for citizenship. The statute was set to last only 10 years, but it was renewed several times in the late 19th and early 20th century, and each iteration amped up the law’s provisions. For example, in 1892 the Geary Act mandated that all Chinese living in the United States have a certificate of residence that they carry with them at all times. This was just one instance of the American government basically telling the Chinese, you are not wanted.

Mary Lui: There was a lot of fear. A lot of it was very irrational, but I would say the labor was certainly one aspect, one very, very important aspect. But a lot of it was also this concern about overall are the Chinese fit or unfit as a race to be included in the American nation.

Joanne Freeman: Mary Lui is a professor of American Studies and History at Yale University. She’s researched the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act and why it was enacted in the first place.

Mary Lui: One of the larger contextual ways to think about this is that this is also the period after the Civil War Reconstruction and already, the nation has wrestled with this question of what to do with African Americans in terms of citizenship. Having Chinese suddenly show up in the United States in this period in larger and larger numbers really alarmed politicians in terms of thinking through, here we have yet another group that we now have to decide are they fit or unfit for inclusion.

Mary Lui: Even before the Chinese Exclusion Act is passed in 1882, Chinese were deemed as racially unfit because of the provisions in the 1790 Rule of Naturalization that states very clearly in order to be eligible to be a citizen of the United States, one had to be a so-called free white person. There was a case right before 1882, the case of In re Ah Yup in 1878, where Ah Yup tried to gain citizenship by claiming that he should qualify under the free white person’s clause. It really challenged this question of what to categorize the Chinese.

Mary Lui: You can see in that decision, Ah Yup doesn’t win. He doesn’t get citizenship and free white persons is understood as not including the Chinese.

Joanne Freeman: Other court cases challenged the exclusion laws and helped shape the conversation around who gets to be an American citizen. Most famously, the case of Tape v. Hurley in 1885. It tells the story of Mary and Joseph Tape who came to San Francisco from China before the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Mary Lui: We believe they came in the 1860s. They were married in 1875 and what’s really interesting about them is that Mary was raised by missionaries. She really didn’t associate with many Chinese people from what we know of her. Whereas Joseph Tape came from China and definitely spoke Cantonese, so he blended more with the Chinese population in San Francisco of that period. We know about the Tape family because they tried to enroll their daughter, Mamie Tape, in the all-white Spring Valley School.

Mary Lui: At the time, there was actually already a Chinese school that Chinese children were told they had to go to. But because Joseph and Mary Tape were already what we would consider fully acculturated Chinese Americans in this period, they did not want to enroll their children into the Chinese school and instead chose to put them in the all-white Spring Valley School. However, the school refused to let Mamie come to the school and so the Tapes sued the school district and won. The case basically guaranteed the rights of children born to Chinese parents to a public education.

Mary Lui: However, the San Francisco School District decided to set up a separate Chinese primary school and really push for the children to go there. Basically, you’re seeing what we’ve come to know as separate but equal that happens later with the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case. But you’re seeing this being played out here in 1885 in San Francisco. Mary Tape ends up writing this scathing letter that gets published, where she really indicts the whole system of basically being racist and taking it all out on this poor … her daughter, her eight-year-old child.

Mary Lui: The anger is very, very clear in the letter in terms of her frustrations, her disappointment. She says she will never, ever, ever send her children to the Chinese school, never.

Joli Millner: To the Board of Education. 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 except that. 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 prejudiced men.

Mary Lui: The letter is very well-known and this is probably the reason why we know the Tape family the most. You can see the anger and frustration, especially for Chinese who, I think, came prior to the exclusion era and then suddenly see all these doors closing, not just for themselves but for their children.

Joanne Freeman: And then in the end, where does Mamie end up going to school?

Mary Lui: Well, despite Mary saying, “Never, never, never will I send my daughter to your school,” five days later the school actually opens. The Chinese school opens and Frank and Mamie are actually two of the first students to enroll in the school. It’s a pretty profoundly sad moment because you can certainly imagine for the Tapes who had, I’m sure, high hopes for where their children would go. Given the opportunities that they themselves had, that is Joseph and Mary, I think they probably imagined anything was possible for their American-born children. Instead, they felt the only way to give their children any kind of education was then to send them to the Chinese school.

Joanne Freeman: Wow. Wow. That’s obvious exclusion of one kind, but I’m assuming particularly in the case of the Chinese laborers, I would assume almost that there had to be some moments really that their safety was threatened.

Mary Lui: Yeah. This is one of the things that we definitely spend a lot of time talking about in the field of Asian American history, is the enormous amount of anti-Asian violence that occurred throughout this period in the 19th century and early 20th century. That kind of violence goes well before the Chinese Exclusions Acts are even passed. In many places in California, there’s many examples of just outright clashes and fights that break out between Chinese workers and white workers.

Mary Lui: I think you go from that where you’re talking about individual workers or groups of workers to then seeing the state, in this case, the federal government as then clearly not only not offering protection, but then is the agent of causing harm. Probably the most well-known example of that is in Rock Springs, Wyoming when Chinese miners are brutally attacked by white miners in this case where, again, Chinese end up losing their lives. They are injured. They lose their belongings, their homes. They eventually are expelled from the area of Rock Springs.

Mary Lui: I think what happens is that ordinary folks begin to think that it’s that kind of violence may actually be okay because the state had already deemed the Chinese as unacceptable and not a part of us and will never be a part of the American polity.

Joanne Freeman: We’ve talked about the Tape v. Hurley case as one case that’s really kind of challenging or testing the boundaries of the Chinese Exclusion Act. But I understand there’s also United States v. Wong Kim Ark as well that was challenging the provision. Tell us a little bit about that case.

Mary Lui: Sure. The US v. Wong Kim Ark case occurred in the late 1890s and was decided by the Supreme Court in 1898. Basically it’s the case that we have that finally settles that anyone born in the United States receives American citizenship. Until then, it’s actually somewhat unclear even though in the 14th Amendment it’s very clear. It says, “All persons born or naturalized in the United States are subject to the jurisdiction thereof or citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside.”

Mary Lui: I think the question then for Chinese because of the Exclusion Act, there was the question of well, what do you do with a group of people who’ve been deemed undesirable and not allowed to immigrate to the United States? Do they have the right of citizenship? So the story is is that Wong Kim Ark was born in San Francisco in 1873. Both of his parents were Chinese. The family took a trip to China and on return to the United States a year later in 1895, they were refused landing. The customs officials at the time refused landing on the grounds that he was of Chinese descent and thereby denied the right to enter the United States.

Mary Lui: But of course, he said, “Well, but I was born in the United States. I am a citizen.” Wong Kim Ark appealed his case and it traveled all the way up to the US Supreme Court and by the vote of six to two, the Supreme Court justices ruled in favor of Wong Kim Ark’s petition. Again, it was based on the 14th Amendment that really protected the rights of people born in the United States and their claims to citizenship. That’s the case that was indeed a victory that was very much celebrated by Chinese Americans that showed that if one’s children was born in the United States, one can claim citizenship even though the parents, the immigrant generation, would never be able to make that claim under Exclusion.

Joanne Freeman: I have to confess that as we are unraveling this story, I hear a victory and I think, Yay. Here’s an actual victory.

Mary Lui: Right. There’s an actual victory. Yes. I mean it’s very difficult because one can argue and historians have certainly argued this. While yes, Chinese Americans during the Exclusion Era could claim citizenship, one had to ask was this a full citizenship? Or was this a second-class citizenship? That is very difficult to answer because the shadow of Exclusion was indeed very, very long and it certainly didn’t protect them from race-based exclusion, from residential segregation for example. Wong Kim Ark’s descendants were trying to … If they stayed in the state of California and tried to purchase a home, let’s say, in an all-white neighborhood that happened to have restrictive covenants, they would not have been eligible despite the fact that they are clearly American citizens. These are things that are very difficult. So yes, yes, yes. I would certainly say, yay, there was a victory.

Joanne Freeman: But.

Mary Lui: But unfortunately we have to sort of take another step and think about well, what kind of victory is this because it doesn’t fully guarantee the kind of, the full citizenship that one would want.

Joanne Freeman: What do you think that these kinds of discriminatory laws that we’re talking about here, the Chinese Exclusion Act and others, what do you think they really say about American concepts of citizenship as they’re being defined and redefined and broadened and shrunk and everything else that’s going on throughout American history?

Mary Lui: I mean certainly what is so interesting is you have something as basic as the 1790 Rule of Naturalization that begins with three very clear words, free white persons. And while that might seem very evident and that there’s not much to debate there, it certainly ends up becoming something that’s debated again and again. What that tells me is that the notions of race and citizenship have to be made and remade, have to be always constructed and supported. They don’t work on their own.

Mary Lui: What that also tells me is that generations in American history have challenged those notions. Whether they’ve succeeded or not, that’s one thing. But certainly, I think it shows us just how unstable that category of white privilege and citizenship has been. That in other words, if it was stable and fixed and finite it would have just been the one Rule of Naturalization of 1790 and we would be done now. But thankfully, that is not the case and instead, we have seen the possibilities and the ways in which the law can be both a means of empowerment and social change as much as it can be a means of real, profound restriction.

Joanne Freeman: Mary Lui is professor of history and American Studies at Yale University.

View Resources

Citizenship Lesson Set

Download the Citizenship Lesson Set

The question of citizenship is one that permeates a conversation of US History. From the founding documents and their tension with the Alien and Sedition Act, to the story of enslaved Africans, Dred Scot, and the Reconstruction Amendments, and throughout US History with movements of nativism and protectionist immigration policies. As teachers we return to these themes throughout our coursework. This lesson treatment takes a closer look at the sectional crisis building from 1830 to 1860 and the impact of The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and asks students to define citizenship and inclusion for various groups.


Classroom Connections No. 1: The Chinese Exclusion Act (video)

Discussion Questions and Additional Resources for the video