Chinese American, Mexican American, and African American Trailblazers in the Struggle for Equal Educational Opportunity

By Linda Wing. Posted September 20, 2023


I am always on the lookout for books offering interesting walking routes. Recently, I discovered 41 Berkeley Walking Tours published by the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association. This guide gave me the opportunity to follow a different path on each walk and, along the way, to learn about the architectural designs of the built environment that comprises the town and the university. To my surprise, I found that the walks involved time traveling as well. That is, they feature structures and settings that were backdrops to the extraordinary lives of individuals in the past, individuals whose stories beg to be retold and remembered. On one such walk, I came upon a Queen Anne house on Russell Street that was once the residence of the remarkable Chinese American family of Joseph and Mary Tape. This is their story and its contemporary implications for Chinese American, Mexican American, and African American children’s right to equal educational opportunity.


 In 1885, the Tapes won a landmark lawsuit against the San Francisco public schools: Tape v. Hurley 66 Cal. 473. The school district had prohibited their American-born, eight-year-old daughter Mamie from enrolling in Spring Valley School based on race. The San Francisco Superior Court ruled in Mamie’s favor, citing the state constitution’s guarantee of public education to all California children and the 14th Amendment of the US Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection of the law. The San Francisco school board subsequently submitted a losing appeal to the California State Supreme Court, which affirmed the lower court’s decision. I wondered why the family had decided to leave San Francisco. Berkeley was not less susceptible to the propaganda of the Anti-Chinese Movement. When it held its first town council election, the slate of the Workingmen’s Party was victorious. “The Chinese Must Go” was the party’s slogan.

Left: Tape family house on Russell St. in 2022. Source: Zillow. Right: Tape family house in 1939. Source: Ormsby Donogh Files. BAHA Archives. Joseph and Mary Tape bought the house in 1895. It was inherited by their children when they passed away in the mid-1930s. The children sold the house in 1942.

Mary and Joseph Tape

Historian Mae Ngai, in her biography of the Tape family, called Mary and Joseph the “lucky ones.” If “luck” is “preparation meeting opportunity,” then the word fits. Through serial entrepreneurship – Joseph created and operated at least three successful businesses – the Tapes were among the first Chinese in America to attain middle-class status. Indicative of their economic position was the purchase by Joseph and Mary of a total of three houses on Russell Street in Berkeley, the one pictured above and two more, all owned by the Tapes simultaneously. That the Tapes made and enjoyed a fortune was especially extraordinary given the virulent anti-Chinese environment in which they lived. Throughout the western part of the US, state and local laws restricted the lives of Chinese while anti-Chinese riots and massacres threatened and destroyed their lives. In 1875 the Page Act was enacted by the federal government effectively ending the immigration of Chinese women. The Chinese Exclusion Act became federal law in 1882; it prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers who comprised the vast majority of Chinese in America at the time. Exclusion endured until the mid-20th century; the law was finally abolished in 1943.

The Tapes’ path to upward mobility began improbably when, as young children, they each came alone to the US from China. Mary immigrated around 1868 from somewhere near Shanghai. Arriving solo at the age of 11, she was one of only 46 females among 6,707 Chinese immigrants who arrived that year. Mary was similarly unusual among the Chinese already residing in the US. In the 1870 US Census, she was among 1,784 Chinese of her gender compared to 33,149 Chinese men.

Mary was likely trafficked by the prostitution industry as an indentured servant. Many Chinese girls who arrived in the US during the same timeframe as Mary had been sold into servitude by impoverished parents. When they became older, they were forced into prostitution by their procurers. In the 1870 census, 60 percent of the Chinese women in San Francisco were classified as prostitutes.

Within a few months of her San Francisco arrival, Mary somehow escaped her keepers. She took refuge with the Ladies Protection and Relief Society. The society consisted of middle-class white women who ran a charitable home for white children.

As a child, Mary Tape found refuge at the Ladies’ Society. Ladies’ Protection and Relief Society Bldg., Franklin St., San Francisco, 1860-70. Source: Online Archive of California.

The only child of color under the society’s protection, Mary took on the name of the assistant matron: Mary McGladery. The Chinese language disappeared from Mary’s life; she became a monolingual English speaker, reader, and writer. The society taught gentility. Accordingly, Mary learned to draw, embroider, and play the piano. In her adulthood, Mary developed into a serious ceramic artist, painter of landscapes and still life, and amateur photographer. She was particularly active in photography circles, receiving attention in the press as an expert in lantern slide photography, exhibiting her work at many shows, and winning awards. It is quite possible that Mary was San Francisco’s first known photographer who was a woman of color.

Like Mary, 11-year-old Joseph immigrated by himself to the US. He may have come on a “credit ticket,” a ticket bought with borrowed money, with the loan to be paid off in California. Joseph identified himself by his Chinese name of Jeu Dip when he arrived in San Francisco in 1864. He came from Taishan, the county from which 90 percent of 19th-century Chinese immigrants originated. Once here, Taishanese immigrants formed mutual aid associations based on family name or birthplace. Jeu Dip likely drew upon the help of his clan association to find a job. He became a houseboy for Matthew Sterling, a Scottish immigrant who was a dairy rancher on Van Ness Avenue, moving up to the position of milk wagon driver by the early 1870s.

Unlike Mary, Jeu Dip retained fluency in Chinese once he learned English. His bilingualism would become one of his primary socioeconomic assets, enabling him to network with a wide range of customers and clients, conduct complex financial transactions, and serve as a trusted go-between, e.g., as an interpreter for the Chinese consulate in San Francisco after it was established in 1878.

Jeu Dip and Mary McGladery married in 1875. The couple decided for unknown reasons to adopt the family surname of “Tape.” At the same time, Jeu Dip became “Joseph,” rather fittingly from a Christian perspective, given his wife’s name Mary, although the couple were not regular churchgoers. The marriage was a turning point of another kind as well. Joseph left his job as milk wagon driver, leveraging his work contacts, experience, and savings to open a drayage company.

Joseph went into the business of transporting Chinese goods from Pacific Mail steamships to the warehouses of wholesale merchants in Chinatown. He had identified a steady market for his drayage services: The value of Chinese imports exceeded the modern equivalent of $24 million per year. Soon Joseph expanded to serve Chinese immigrants arriving on Pacific Mail steamships headed to jobs throughout the American West. As many as one thousand Chinese immigrants might arrive on a single steamship in need of Joseph’s services to transport themselves and their belongings to their initial stops, usually Chinatown or the Southern Pacific railroad station, en route to their final destinations. Joseph maximized use of his wagon fleet even further by entering the Chinese immigrant market for funerary services. His wagons took the coffins of the deceased to the cemetery, transported food and paper banners to the cemetery for the annual Qing Ming festival, and, after three years, when clan associations removed the bones for permanent interment in China, conveyed the remains to Pacific Mail ships for their trans-Pacific journey.

Joseph’s businesses flourished despite the intensity of the Anti-Chinese Movement. His wagons were attacked by hooligans as they traversed San Francisco from the docks to Chinatown. Other Chinese men were stoned, beaten, and murdered on the streets of the city, their property destroyed as well. Even as the risks and dangers of Chinese life in America grew, Joseph saw business opportunities. Upon the buyout of Pacific Mail by Southern Pacific, he became the Southern Pacific ticket agent for Chinese passengers, receiving a commission for every railroad and steamship ticket sold. When the Exclusion Act resulted in a decrease of Chinese laborers coming to the US, he focused on the travel needs of Chinese merchants and other Chinese who immigrated to this country with paperwork falsely identifying them as legal entrants.

Pacific Mail Steamship Co. “China,” “Korea,” and “Siberia.” Speed. Comfort. 1885 to 1915. Trans-Pacific Line. Source: Library of Congress.

En route to San Francisco, Chinese immigrants traveled via steerage, the only class of ticket most could afford. In this engraving can be seen many Chinese merchants who purportedly chose to travel by steerage rather than cabin class because the food in steerage was “familiar.” In general, a trans-Pacific crossing took one month. Pacific Mail Steamship “Alaska.”Harper’s Weekly Engraving, May 20, 1876. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution Libraries. Source: National Museum of American History.


At one point, Joseph became familiar with the US policy of not allowing Chinese crews working on ships docking in American ports to go ashore on leave unless they posted bonds guaranteeing their departure. The same policy pertained to the Chinese temporarily stopping in the US during international travel to another country such as Mexico or Cuba. Joseph became an agent for the customs house official responsible for the bonds. He managed all the bonds for the Pacific Mail and Toyo Kisen Kaisha steamship lines, which between them handled 95 percent of passenger traffic from China. Joseph eventually accumulated enough capital to broker bonds directly and charge a commission for each, on average, bonding 30 crewmen per month.

Pacific Mail hired all-Chinese crews for its ships and port facilities. Ship officers were “Americans or Europeans.” In this photo, crew members are handling mooring lines on a ship named Siberia. In general, 227 crew members worked aboard the Siberia. Chinese crews, 1905. Photograph by Jack London, courtesy of The Huntington Library. Source: National Museum of American History.

Joseph’s companies had monopolies on the Chinese market for drayage as well as the Chinese market for bonds. Historian Mae Ngai estimates that Joseph might have earned the equivalent of $375,000 per year from bonding alone. He was a savvy, energetic, and successful entrepreneur. Mary and he owned homes in predominantly white neighborhoods, raised four children for whom English was their native language, pursued their respective hobbies – the arts for her, hunting for him – and regularly boarded Southern Pacific trains for vacation trips.

An Uncommon Family

The Tapes were unusual. How distinctive they were is illustrated by a comparison with Wong Hoy Fun, my grandfather’s grandfather. Hoy Fun’s childhood and that of Joseph Tape were similar, but their lives diverged thereafter. Hoy Fun’s wife lived her whole life in China while Mary was one of the few 19th-century Chinese women to immigrate to the US, marry, and raise a family.

Hoy Fun and Joseph were both born in Taishan. Joseph seems to have been orphaned when he was around the age of 11, at which point he somehow managed to immigrate to the US. Hoy Fun was raised by relatives after he lost his parents at the age of nine. His extended family arranged a marriage for him when he reached the age of 20 and asked him to oversee the husbandry of the village’s water buffaloes. Nonetheless, Hoy Fun decided to immigrate to the US, leaving his wife and son behind. He arrived in 1876, the year after the Tapes married. Hoy Fun planned to send what he earned back home to support his family. He readily found employment as one of more than 1,200 Chinese men who built the Southern Pacific railroad line from Los Angeles to El Paso. In 1881, five years after the line was completed, Hoy Fun moved to San Francisco, finding work in a Chinatown laundry. During off hours, he sold lottery tickets door-to-door to boost the amount of money he could send to his family. He prioritized education for his son and sent funds to pay for his child’s schooling, deferring the expense of repairs to his family’s home. Hoy Fun’s last job in America was in Deadwood, South Dakota. His employer was a Chinatown restaurant owner. It was in Deadwood where he became addicted to opium, a legal, affordable, and easily obtainable drug. In 1901 a fortune teller advised Hoy Fun that his death was imminent. This news prompted him to return to his family in China after 25 years of separation. He was buried in Taishan by his grandson, my grandfather.

My great-great-grandfather Wong Hoy Fun lived and worked in Deadwood during the late 19th century. The Newcomers, Deadwood, South Dakota, 1878. Artist and source: Mian Situ.

The life of my grandfather’s grandfather was typical of the lives of Chinese immigrants who lived in the US in the second half of the 19th century. They were overwhelmingly young men. Those who were married came alone, enduring separation from their wives and children in China. Those who were single generally lacked the opportunity to marry in the U.S. due to discriminatory laws. The young men labored on massive infrastructure projects that were foundational to the development of the economy of the American West, railroad systems most notably, but also endeavors such as the building of levees to transform the California Delta into arable land – accomplishments that eventually enabled California to grow into the 5th largest economy in the world. Once infrastructure jobs disappeared, men like my grandfather’s grandfather worked for fellow Chinese in Chinatown jobs. Their work ethic made them the targets of the Anti-Chinese Movement.

In contrast, Joseph and Mary Tape were immigrants without family ties in China. They were among the few who married and had children in the US. Joseph was a successful entrepreneur; Mary was a gifted amateur photographer and painter. They were proficient English speakers and comfortable members of the middle class. Yet it was the very fact that the Tapes were outliers – an acculturated, middle-class couple with children –that enabled them to become the pioneers of the Chinese American struggle for equal educational opportunity.

Tape v. Hurley 66 Cal. 473 (1885)

Mamie Tape was born in 1876, the first child of Joseph and Mary. When Mamie was eight, her parents decided to enroll her in their neighborhood public school. They lived on Green Street in a sparsely populated white neighborhood. Joseph built the family’s one-story house with a stable in the rear. Spring Valley was their local school with a building for younger children only 0.2 miles away from the Tapes’ home.

Spring Valley School opened in 1852. It was California’s first public school, uniquely emblematic of the value placed upon public education by the state upon its admission to the Union in 1850. As stated in its constitution, California’s goal was to create a system of “common schools,” parlance at the time signifying a sea change in American education, a move from independent private schools for privileged children to free schools for all children financed with public funds.

When Mary took Mamie to Spring Valley to enroll in September 1884, she did so with confidence. She had raised her daughter to be American in name, language, dress, playmates, and home life, i.e., to epitomize middle-class gentility as she had been taught by the Ladies’ Society. If she did not already know, then Mary soon learned that Mamie was also guaranteed equal educational opportunity by Section 1662 of the 1880 California Political Code:

“Every school, unless otherwise provided by law, must be open for the admission of all children between six and twenty-one years of age residing in the district.”

As such, Mary was blindsided when Jennie Hurley, the Spring Valley principal, excluded Mamie from the school. The principal was following school district policy, which, despite state law, prohibited Chinese children from attending school with white children. Had there been a segregated Chinese-only school, Hurley would have directed Mary and Mamie to it. Consistent with state law at the time, the San Francisco city schools had haphazardly operated a school for Chinese students for 12 years, mainly to teach them English. Its financial support had been erratic; in 1871, the school board closed the school.

For help gaining Mamie’s admission to attend Spring Valley, Joseph Tape went first to the Chinese consulate. Frederick Bee, the consulate’s legal counsel, was dedicated to protecting and advocating for the human rights of Chinese immigrants not only in San Francisco but throughout the American West, wherever Chinese were under siege, serving in this capacity from 1878 to 1892. Notably, Bee investigated the riot and massacre of 28 Chinese coal miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming. The mass violence took place one month before Mamie was excluded from Spring Valley. The investigative report led to President Grover Cleveland’s agreement to make partial amends by indemnifying the Chinese miners whose property was lost or damaged in the melee.

Bee lodged a protest with the school board. He wrote that Mamie’s exclusion was:

“. . . inconsistent with the treaties, Constitution and laws of the United States, especially so in this case as the child is native-born.” Not only should Mamie be admitted but also “all other Chinese children resident here who desire to enter the public schools.”

The recipient of Bee’s letter was Andrew Moulder, the San Francisco school superintendent. A Southerner born in slave-holding Washington, DC, and educated in the slave state of Virginia, Moulder had long made known his views on Chinese children. Quintessentially, he had advised school principals to urge their teachers to engage in:

“. . . active efforts to save the rising generation from contamination and pollution by a race reeking with the vices of the Orient, a race that knows neither truth, principle, modesty nor respect for our laws. The moral and physical ruin already wrought to our youth by contact with these people is fearful. Let us exhaust all peaceful methods to stop its spread.”

Left to right: Joseph, Emily, Mamie, Frank, and Mary Tape. Circa 1884-1885. Mary and Joseph’s fourth child, Gertrude, was born in 1890 after this photograph was taken. Courtesy of Jack Kim and Loni Ding. Source: BAHA.

Moulder, utterly supercilious, maintained that his attitude towards the Chinese was not race prejudiced, but instead “a question of demoralization of one high race by a lower.”

When he received Frederick Bee’s letter, Moulder immediately contacted State Superintendent William Welcker, ostensibly to ask for guidance, but most likely anticipating this response:

“. . . it is a question in my mind, whether a Federal Court has the power to condemn the State of California to undergo the expense of educating the children of the Chinese, when the presence of such foreigners is declared by the Constitution to be ‘dangerous to the well-being of the state.’”

There was no such language in the California Constitution, but that mattered not. Moulder replied to Bee using Welcker’s letter for cover:

“In conformity with the instructions contained in the State Superintendent’s letter, I must decline to admit Chinese children, resident here, into our public schools.

 The school board followed Moulder’s letter with a directive to school principals prohibiting them from admitting any “Mongolian child of schoolable age, or otherwise.” If they were to do so, they would face immediate dismissal.

Joseph and Mary Tape went to court. They hired William F. Gibson to be their lawyer.

Like Bee, Gibson had experience representing the interests of the Chinese, including girls who had escaped servitude and missions trying to protect them. China-born and Harvard-educated, he was the son of Methodist minister Otis Gibson, a strong and vocal advocate of equality for Chinese immigrants. William Gibson’s legal argument specified that the exclusion of Mamie violated California’s 1880 school law and the 14th Amendment of the Constitution.

Left: Andrew J. Moulder circa 1858. Source: University of California Berkeley Library, Digital Collections. Moulder was the anti-Chinese superintendent of the San Francisco city schools. Right: Frederick A. Bee, no date. Source: Frederick Bee History Project. The civil rights lawyer for the Chinese consulate, Bee protested Mamie’s exclusion from Spring Valley School.

On January 9, 1885, the Superior Court decided in favor of Mamie. It ruled that denial of her admission to Spring Valley was indeed a “violation of the law of the State and the Constitution of the United States.” The school board appealed to the California Supreme Court, but on March 3, 1885, the State Supreme Court upheld the Superior Court.

The Tapes were victorious in the courts, but there was no time for celebration. Soon there seemed little to celebrate.

In anticipation of the State Supreme Court’s decision, Moulder and the school board had lobbied the state legislature to pass AB 268. The bill was enacted in record time, on March 7, 1885, with near universal approval in both houses. AB 268 allowed the state’s public-school systems to open separate schools for “Mongolian or Chinese” children:

“The Board of Trustees, or City Board of Education, . . . shall have the power . . . to establish separate schools for children of Mongolian or Chinese descent. When such separate schools are established, Chinese or Mongolian children must not be admitted into any other schools.”

On April 7, 1885, accompanied by William Gibson, Mary attempted a second time to enroll Mamie at Spring Valley. Perhaps their goal was to beat Moulder to the punch; he had not yet opened a segregated school. Mamie was backed by two court decisions, but once again Hurley denied her admission. Following a strategy masterminded by Moulder, she contended that the school was fully enrolled and that Mamie lacked proof of vaccination. The ostensibly legitimate grounds for exclusion were designed to safeguard the school district against further legal action that might be taken by the Tapes.

Anguished and infuriated both, Mary Tape wrote to the school board the very next day:

“Will you please tell me! Is it a disgrace to be Born a Chinese? Didn’t God make us all!!! . . . It seems no matter how a Chinese may live and dress so long as you know they Chinese. Then they are hated as one. There is not any right of justice for them.”

Although she vowed not to accede to the “race prejudice men” on the school board, Mary enrolled Mamie in the Chinese Primary School when it opened on April 13, 1885. She secured admission for Mamie’s younger brother Frank as well. The school, located in Chinatown, consisted of two second-floor rooms above a grocery store. The Tape family lived some distance away. To save Mamie and Frank from a long walk and to protect them from anti-Chinese harassment, Mary and Joseph sent their children to school in one of Joseph’s wagons.

Newspapers reported on Mamie’s first day of school with Frank and four other classmates, all boys. According to the Daily Alta California:

“Mamie Tape is, perhaps, the most intelligent member of the class. She reads well from McGuffey’s second reader, and can add and subtract small numbers. . . she was gorgeously attired in American clothes, including pink stockings and a light-colored leghorn hat, provided with an ostrich plume of immense proportions.”

Around 1890, the Tapes moved to Washington Street. The house, with a small garden in the back, was situated in a predominantly white neighborhood. Mary and Joseph now had four children: Mamie, age 14, Frank, 12, Emily, 10, and newborn Gertrude. Mamie, Frank, and Emily traveled to school together. The Chinese Primary School was only a block away.

Chinese Public School Children. Circa 1890. Photographer: I.W. Taber. Courtesy of California Historical Society. Source: Online Archive of California. Mamie is in the center; Frank is to the left. Emily is not pictured. Ordinarily, the Tape children wore the same clothing as white children, but here they are wearing stylish Chinese clothes. Their schoolmates are dressed more modestly, in everyday Chinese clothing.

The original 1885 enrollment in the Chinese Primary School consisted of six students; Mamie was the only girl. By 1890, enrollment had grown to 100. Mamie and her sister Emily were two of only three girls. These small numbers of students are striking. In 1890, the approximate number of Chinese children attending mission schools was much larger: 513. Girls comprised 100 percent of the students at some mission schools. The low Chinese Primary School numbers might be attributable to Chinese parents’ lack of trust in the school system. It is also possible that the parents preferred to send their daughters to mission schools, given the history of missions providing safety and support to Chinese girls in distress.

Miss Cable’s Class of Chinese Girls. Circa 1880s. Isaiah West Taber, photographer. Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

In 1893 or 1894, the Tapes moved yet again, this time to Clay Street. The Chinese Primary School relocated to the same street around the same time. Two rooms comprised the school at its first location. An entire building was dedicated to the school’s use at its new location.

Chinese Primary School, 916 Clay, San Francisco, no date. Source: UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

In 1895, the Tape family moved from San Francisco to Berkeley. Mamie had graduated from the Chinese Primary School by then, possibly Frank too. Their younger sisters were still of primary school age.

The Phenomenon of “Both-And”

The Tapes’ lawsuit was both brave and bold. The family’s economic assets – as well as the acculturation, business acumen, work ethic, and social contacts that enabled them to garner middle-class status and enjoy many of its benefits – enabled them to undertake the risks of a lawsuit. Still, the family’s interactions with the city school system were traumatizing. The extreme hatred and unreason towards Chinese workers expressed by violence and restrictive laws of every kind had metastasized to include the stigmatization and isolation of vulnerable Chinese children in a segregated school. Mary Tape was shocked when she came face-to-face with this phenomenon.

That the Tapes’ winning lawsuit did not affect the San Francisco school district’s intransigent insistence upon denying truly equal educational opportunity to Chinese children was clear. The school board had both defied and remade state law to repudiate any obligation to do so. The institution of the Chinese Primary School following the Tapes’ court victories was not a breakthrough, but a revival of the school system’s former practice of segregating Chinese children. Moreover, the school board’s views and actions went well beyond its legal purview; it passed a resolution exhorting its teachers, principals, and other employees to do “all in their power” to promote the deportation of Chinese immigrants and prevent further immigration. If the Tapes had escaped the worse elements of the Anti-Chinese Movement before, they now met it in full force, directed towards their young daughter Mamie.

Mary and Joseph’s decision to enroll Mamie in the segregated Chinese Primary School must have been excruciating. They were not backed into the decision because of the lack of other options. The Tapes had always provided their children with education at home. A tutor taught reading and arithmetic to Mamie and Frank before they were of school age, and they were learning to play musical instruments of their choice.

In addition to home education, alternatives in the form of mission schools were available to the Tapes. The Oriental Home and School, founded by Methodist missionary Otis Gibson, the father of the Tapes’ lawyer William Gibson, offered primary school education. A Baptist-run mission school was available too. Mamie’s future husband, Herman Lowe, was a student there. The Presbyterian Board of Missions likely offered education to young children as well – its primary school had been used by the school district to offer on-again, off-again segregated Chinese schooling between 1859 and 1871.

Nonetheless, the Tapes made the difficult decision to enroll Mamie in the Chinese Primary School. Perhaps they intuited what we now know is possible: schools deemed racially segregated can provide children with good teaching-and-learning.

A case in point is the Gordon Lau School, the present-day name of the Chinese Primary School. Asians comprise 88 percent of the school’s student population. The US Department of Education considers schools to be racially segregated if 75 percent or more of the students are of the same race. Under this definition, Lau is racially segregated. About 88 percent of the school’s students are socioeconomically disadvantaged, while slightly more than 60˜percent are English learners. Research studies have repeatedly found low academic achievement among students attending racially segregated schools, students from low-income households, and students from non-English language backgrounds. Yet Lau students perform well above California learning standards on state tests of mathematics and English, and relatively high percentages of those who are English learners make expected progress towards English proficiency. These are the levels of student academic performance associated with a “good” to “very good” school.

The Lau School is certainly not a perfect parallel to the Chinese Primary School. The Chinese Primary School was segregated by law; Lau is not. It is a school of choice under the school system’s policy of allowing parents throughout the city, regardless of place of residence, to select any elementary school in the city to educate their children. Lau is equitably and fairly funded whereas the Chinese Primary School was not. In 1894, the Chinese consul pointed out that the state sent $8,000 to San Francisco to finance the schooling of Chinese children but only $2,800 was spent. Despite these differences, it remains the case that, within the four walls of a classroom, a teacher can trump adverse contextual conditions with a combination of knowledge, skills, belief in the children, and respect for parents. Rose Thayer was Mamie’s Chinese Primary School teacher. She was not a member of the racially biased school system’s teaching force but was instead a Sunday School teacher of Chinese children. If Thayer was recruited from the church of Otis Gibson, an outspoken advocate of equality for Chinese immigrants, as a like-minded congregant, she might very well have provided Mamie with a fine education.

In the end, the Tapes’ decision to enroll Mamie in a segregated school may have been based on a “both-and” analysis. That Mamie’s only public school option was a segregated school was both unjust to Mamie on moral grounds and potentially beneficial to her in terms of an opportunity to learn.

The struggle for truly equal educational opportunity in San Francisco continued into the next century. In 1906, the Chinese Primary School was renamed the Oriental School when the school board ordered Japanese and Korean children to join Chinese children in schooling separate from that of white children. The Japanese government protested, pressuring President Theodore Roosevelt into negotiating the 1907 Gentlemen’s Agreement. This pact forced the school board to rescind its order to segregate Japanese schoolchildren. At the same time, the isolation of Chinese and Korean children at the Oriental School continued.

Chinese Primary Public School, January 1906. Courtesy of California Historical Society. Source: Online Archive of California.

In the 1920s, the number of Chinese children exceeded the enrollment capacity of the Oriental School. The school board’s only option was to allow the overflow of children to enroll at two nearby schools. This bureaucratic decision effectively ended the practice of segregating Chinese schoolchildren in San Francisco. Remaining codified were school system and state policies regarding the school segregation of Chinese students. At the state level, the law authorizing the school segregation of Chinese children was not repealed until 1947. In 2017 the San Francisco school board voted to rescind its 1906 resolution requiring Chinese, Japanese, and Korean children to attend the Oriental School. The decision was made 132 years after Joseph and Mary Tape won their lawsuit against the school district on behalf of eight-year-old Mamie.


The Tapes moved from San Francisco across the bay to Berkeley in 1895. They bought a newly built Queen Anne house on Russell Street near Shattuck Avenue. What attracted the Tapes to Berkeley? How did their move affect the education of their children?

Gertrude was the only Tape child entirely schooled in Berkeley. Early 1890s. Courtesy of Jack Kim. Source: BAHA.

The contrasts between San Francisco and Berkeley could hardly be greater. In 1890, the population of Berkeley was 5,101; in San Francisco, it was 298,997. By 1900, new residents such as the Tapes boosted Berkeley’s population by nearly 260 percent while San Francisco’s population grew by approximately 15 percent. Although it had exploded, Berkeley’s population remained relatively small, numbering 13,214 people. One percent of the total, 171 individuals, were Asian and Pacific Islanders, most of whom were likely Chinese. In comparison, the Chinese residents of San Francisco comprised 34 percent of the city’s total population. Their number approached 14,000, nearly equal to the entire population of Berkeley. Additionally, much of Berkeley at the time consisted of farmland. Where the Tapes lived was formerly farmland, subdivided quite recently for housing and commercial development, both of which were proceeding slowly. The Tapes had few neighbors; their home backed into a large tract of undeveloped land that remained so for decades. In contrast, urbanized San Francisco was the largest and most important population, financial, and commercial center in the American West.

Joseph, an energetic entrepreneur, may have been attracted to Berkeley by real estate opportunities. Over time, he owned three houses on Russell Street, two of which he built, using one or two at a time as rental properties. As well, Joseph bought a vacation ranch in Hayward-Castro Valley approximately 20 miles south of Berkeley.

The Anti-Chinese Movement may have been perceived by Mary and Joseph to be muted in Berkeley. A safer environment would be more conducive to raising children and enjoying family life in general. Yet Berkeley was certainly not free of antipathy towards the Chinese. The Workingman’s Party won all the seats on the town council when Berkeley held its first elections in 1878. “The Chinese Must Go” was the inflammatory slogan that brought the party to prominence in Berkeley and throughout the state. Newspaper articles about Berkeley in the 1880s indicate that the slogan was commonly acted upon:

—The proprietors of a West Berkeley boot and shoe factory were threatened with looting and burning in 1881 unless they dismissed Chinese workers.

—In 1882 a Berkeley Chinese laundry proprietor was threatened with daily arrests unless he vacated in four days.

—In 1886 a call to the public urged unity against “coolieism” at a West Berkeley gunpowder factory (where Chinese workers were injured or killed in factory explosions in 1882, 1887, 1898, and 1905).

The threats were generally directed to the Chinese in West Berkeley, the manufacturing, industrial, and working-class area of town where most Chinese and other immigrants worked and lived. The Tapes resided in predominantly white, residential, middle-class area on the cusp of East Berkeley and may have enjoyed some immunity from face-to-face insults and threats.

Additionally, if the Tapes considered San Francisco particularly unrelenting in enacting pernicious, sweeping anti-Chinese policies and laws, then they would have been right. For example, in 1880, the San Francisco Board of Health officially declared Chinatown to be a “nuisance” – a “great reservoir of moral, social and physical pollution.” The board announced that Chinatown residents would be removed en masse in 30 days.

This cartoon from The Wasp, May 26, 1882, promoted the myth that diseases were rampant in San Francisco Chinatown. Source: FoundSF.

In 1890, the Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a measure making it illegal for any Chinese person to settle, live, or carry on business in San Francisco except in the area set aside for slaughterhouses and other businesses considered dangerous to public health and safety. Although both the 1880 and 1890 policies were eventually overturned by a combination of diplomatic actions and lawsuits undertaken by the Chinese consulate and its lawyer Frederick Bee, they are but two of a raft of 19th-century San Francisco ordinances and directives intended to isolate, restrict, remove, denigrate, and dehumanize the city’s Chinese residents. Perhaps the Tapes sought some relief in Berkeley from unremitting antipathy in San Francisco.

Or Joseph and Mary may have prioritized truly equal educational opportunity for their children. The public schools in Berkeley were not then segregated. Whites constituted more than 90 percent of the town’s population, and the Tapes bought a home in a scarcely populated, white neighborhood. Mary and Joseph enrolled Mamie’s younger sisters, Emily and Gertrude, in LeConte, a brand-new, six-room schoolhouse that opened in 1892. It was located a mere three blocks away from their home. Mamie, age 18, had graduated from the Chinese Primary School in San Francisco and chose not to go on to high school. Frank might have briefly attended Berkeley’s Commercial High School. Gertrude took typing and shorthand when she enrolled in Commercial years later. She was the only Tape child who essentially grew up in Berkeley.

Mamie, Mary, and Frank Tape. Circa 1890s. Courtesy of Jack Kim. Source: BAHA.

The elementary school where Emily and Gertrude were students was named in honor of Joseph LeConte, a naturalist and geologist on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley. He was from Georgia where he served in the Confederate Army and co-inherited with his brother a plantation with an estimated 200 enslaved people. In his 1892 book, The Race Problem in the South, LeConte wrote:

“. . . race repulsion and race antagonism is (sic). . . an instinct necessary for the preservation of the purity of the blood of the higher race” and that when Black people are “largely in excess, so that the control of the superior race is lost . . . they are rapidly relapsing into barbarism.”

LeConte’s views about the supremacy of the white race are chillingly similar in tone and content to those of Andrew Moulder. While Emily and Gertrude attended an ostensibly nonsegregated school, the unspoken culture of LeConte and the Berkeley school system might not have been dissimilar from the outright segregationist culture of the San Francisco city schools and the vehement anti-Chinese stance of the California state government. Only three years before the Tapes relocated to Berkeley, Henry Markham, the governor of California, called for Congress to reauthorize the Chinese Exclusion Act. The act was extended in the form of the 1892 Geary Act. Markham additionally supported an 1894 California constitutional amendment that grouped Chinese immigrants with idiots, the insane, the criminal, and the functionally illiterate. Together they were forever excluded from eligibility to vote in the state of California.

Over time, Berkeley evolved into a city with segregated schools. In 1963, compelled by the NAACP and CORE, the Berkeley school district undertook a study that found imbalances in the proportion of “Negro” students compared to “Caucasian and Other” students in nearly all its schools. Underpinning the demands of Black leaders was Brown v. Board of Education, the 1954 US Supreme Court decision that overturned the doctrine of “separate but equal” schools and other public facilities enunciated in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896). Chief Justice Earl Warren ruled instead that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The Berkeley school board decided to voluntarily integrate so that each school’s enrollment would consist of 40 percent “Negro” students and 60 percent “Caucasian/Other” students, proportions mirroring those of the school district’s overall student demographics. “Other,” defined as inclusive of “Orientals,” amounted to five percent of the total student population.

The degree of segregation in Berkeley was illustrated by “Negro” children comprising 1.3 percent of the Oxford School population in East Berkeley, colloquially called “the hills,” and 98.3 percent at Lincoln School in West Berkeley, informally called “the flats.” In 1968, the Berkeley school system desegregated by instituting two-way bussing of 3,500 black and white children out of a total student population of 9,000. In general, black children who lived in West Berkeley were bussed to schools in East Berkeley while white children who lived in East Berkeley were bussed to schools in West Berkeley. Prior to bussing, “Negro” students were 36.5 percent of the students at Emily and Gertrude’s alma mater, LeConte. After desegregation, 44 percent of LeConte’s enrollment consisted of “Negro” students.

Chinese and other Asians were essentially invisible to the Berkeley school board when it decided to desegregate its schools. However, one factor that led to school segregation in Berkeley had “Mongolians” in full sight.

Beginning in the early 1900s – when the Tapes moved to Berkeley – racial covenants were included in the deeds of new houses, notably in East Berkeley neighborhoods such as Claremont and Northbrae that were developed by the real estate firm of Mason-McDuffie. Persons of “African or Mongolian descent” were excluded from purchasing the houses. A Mason-McDuffie covenant from 1905 specified:

“If prior to the first day of January 1930 any person of African or Mongolian descent shall be allowed to purchase or lease said property or any part thereof, then this conveyance shall be and become void.”

The covenant indicates Mason-McDuffie’s attempt to control the racial composition of its neighborhood developments for 25 years. According to Charles Wollenberg, author of Berkeley: A City in History, the result of racial covenants was that most Black and Asian residents lived in West Berkeley south of Dwight Way and west of Grove (now known as Martin Luther King Way). The Tapes bought a home prior to the advent of racial covenants, yet their house was located in this same general area, south of Dwight Way and west of Shattuck, two blocks east of Grove.

Duncan McDuffie, the founder of Mason-McDuffie, was the foremost champion of racial covenants and single-family zoning. His leadership resulted in the city of Berkeley becoming the first in the country to institute single-family zoning in 1916. The neighborhoods with racial covenants overlapped neighborhoods that became single-family zoned. Irrespective of racial covenants, single-family-zoned neighborhoods tended to be whiter and wealthier than neighborhoods zoned for multiple-family housing.

In 1934, the segregating effects of single-family zoning and racial covenants in Berkeley were accentuated by the use of maps rolled out to 200 cities by the federal Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC). The maps used colors and grades to indicate HOLC’s assessments of future trends in property values. The assessments appear to be race-based, not market-based. For example, to describe a Blue:Grade A:Best area, HOLC indicated: “infiltration of undesirables” is “very remote” . . . there are no ”Negroes” or “foreign-born” populations. To depict “Detrimental Influences,” HOLC warned: “Predominance of Negroes and Orientals.”

Home Owners’ Loan Corporation Map of Berkeley. Grades and colors denote the risk of making loans to home buyers. Source: Berkeleyside. “Definitely Declining” describes the area where the Tapes resided.

The Tapes’ home was located in an area identified as Yellow:Grade C:Definitely Declining. Most of West Berkeley was colored red, i.e., redlined. Redlining signified that the area was off-limits for government-backed home mortgages issued by HOLC and the Federal Housing Administration. Banks generally followed a similar blanket policy of refusing to lend money for the purchase of homes in “hazardous” West Berkeley. Black Berkeleyans tended to live in West Berkeley due to the high incidence of racial covenants in East Berkeley as well as single-family zoning.

Once Berkeley’s neighborhoods became racially segregated, the public schools were destined to become racially segregated schools. This is the case because the school system assigned students to schools based on their neighborhood of residence. Neighborhood school assignment systems were the norm among school systems across the country. They are face neutral but often result in racially disparate outcomes. In Berkeley, East Berkeley was dominated by predominantly white neighborhoods while West Berkeley was the location of neighborhoods where Black and Asian residents tended to live. Consequently, the neighborhood-based student assignment policy resulted in racially segregated schools.

In 2017, LeConte, the school attended by Emily and Gertrude, underwent another transformation when it was renamed in honor of Sylvia Mendez. The Mendez family won a 1946 lawsuit against the Westminster Elementary School District of Orange County et al. for refusing to admit Sylvia based on her Mexican ancestry. The family was directed to enroll their daughter in a separate school for Mexican children. The superintendent of one of the defending school districts stated that Mexicans were “intellectually, culturally, and morally inferior to European Americans.” His views are direct descendants of those articulated by LeConte’s former namesake, Joseph LeConte, at the turn of the century, as well as those stated by San Francisco school superintendent Andrew Moulder in the 19th century.

In ruling for Sylvia Mendez, a US district court, later affirmed by the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, declared that separate schools for Mexican children are not equal under the 14th Amendment and further that:

“A paramount prerequisite in the American system of public education is social equality. It must be open to all children by unified school association regardless of lineage.”

Ironically, children of Mexican ancestry were not seen as such by the Berkeley school board when it desegregated Sylvia Mendez School, then known as LeConte. Mexican children appear to have been presumed “white,” although Mexicans can be of any race.

Sylvia Mendez School. The photo has no date. Source: Sylvia Mendez School PTA.

In the end, the Tapes might have moved to Berkeley for reasons similar to those of other middle-class San Franciscans at the time. Berkeley was emerging as a desirable suburb of San Francisco, attractive because of its growing housing stock, new schools like Le Conte that were built to address the population increase, sunnier and warmer weather, unobstructed wide-angle views of the Golden Gate, and an easy 35-minute commute to the city. Joseph and Mary could catch an Oakland-bound electric streetcar from a Shattuck Avenue stop a block away from their home. From Oakland, they could take a ferry to San Francisco, Joseph to manage his businesses and Mary to participate in California Camera Club activities, meet friends, and visit Mamie and her husband Herman who married and settled in San Francisco in 1897.

By the mid-1890s, Joseph’s enterprises were doing better than ever. He could certainly afford to relocate his family to a place he and Mary perceived as offering a higher quality of life. To the Tapes, moving to a newly built house in Berkeley on Russell Street might have signified a step up in social status, from middle class to upper middle class. The nonsegregated schooling of Emily and Gertrude was likely part of the draw to Berkeley, but not the main or only impetus. Similar to Mamie and Frank, the two girls knew how to read and do arithmetic before their first day of school. They had been home tutored, an advantage accorded all four Tape children due to their parents’ middle-class values, income, and wealth. Moreover, the culture of Berkeley schools was likely rooted in the biases of the Anti-Chinese Movement that were entrenched in state policies, practices, and social norms. The Tapes moved to Berkeley at the right time in terms of the availability of new housing, before the institutionalization of racial covenants and single-family zoning, and well before redlining set in. They also moved to the right place, the borderland between West and East Berkeley where class and racial divisions were blurred.

Joseph and Mary lived in Berkeley on Russell Street for the rest of their lives – 39 years. At one time or another, their daughters Emily and Gertrude and their respective spouses resided on Russell Street too, close by their parents.

In Pursuit of Equal Educational Opportunity

In legal parlance, the school segregation faced by the Tapes in 1885, the Mendezes in 1946, and the Browns in 1954 is called de jure, required by law. The Berkeley case of segregation is called de facto, existent in fact, but not required by law. The extraordinary efforts of the Tapes, Mendezes, and Browns culminated in the US Supreme Court decision in Brown rendering de jure forms of school segregation unconstitutional. De jure school segregation systems were subsequently dismantled despite massive resistance.

The Problem We All Live With, a painting by Norman Rockwell, 1963, was published in Look on January 14, 1964. Source: The Kennedy Center. This painting depicts Ruby Bridges, the first child to attend a New Orleans school in 1960 after a federal court ordered the city school system to desegregate. Ruby walked to school under the protection of US marshals. She spent her kindergarten year alone in the classroom because white parents had withdrawn their children to oppose integration.

By definition, de facto forms of racially segregated schools have no direct association with any laws or policies that can be legally overturned as a remedy. In the 1960s, the Berkeley school board recognized that housing policies enacted in the past by private real estate developers and city and federal governments had resulted in racially segregated neighborhoods. Racially segregated neighborhoods had, in turn, led to racially segregated schools because school assignments were based on students’ neighborhoods. The Berkeley school system attempted to offset the racial impact of external housing policies by bussing Black and white students to schools outside their neighborhoods in order to achieve Black-white parity in every school. Berkeley’s present-day student assignment system has essentially the same aim: to populate every school with the same degree of student socioeconomic and multiracial diversity. In 1968 and now, the Berkeley school system succeeded in demographically balancing the student populations of its schools. At the same time, the school system’s record of outcomes has consistently shown a large achievement gap between white and Black students. A Stanford study of data from 2009 to 2016 found that the gap in those years was one of the largest in the country, second only to that of the District of Columbia. Additionally, there is an achievement gap between Berkeley’s white and Asian students and between its white and Latino students. It seems that Berkeley reliably ensures that every student has an equal opportunity to enroll in schools with similar demographic diversity, but not an equal opportunity to learn and achieve when they get there.

Racial achievement gaps are not unique to Berkeley. They are more the norm. What would it take for every school system to reliably offer all students equal opportunities to learn and achieve? Offering us insights are the stories of the Tapes, Mendezes, and Browns. The Chinese American Tape family, the Mexican American Mendez family, and the African American Brown family are all of a piece. All three families dived into what John Lewis called “good trouble, necessary trouble” on behalf of their young daughters. In undertaking such consequential action, the parents all showed remarkable devotion to their children, as well as true belief in the promise of public schooling – public schooling that puts all children on an equal playing field with respect to the joy of learning, using the power of the mind and imagination, and thriving over the course of a lifetime. The experiences of the Tapes, Mendezes, and Browns together emphasize the critical importance of children’s 14thAmendment right to equal protection of the law, a fundamental right that enabled the families to challenge unjust educational provisions accorded their children in state constitutions and local school policies. While the families faced barriers specific to their racial and ethnic backgrounds, lived in different contexts of time and place, and experienced varying degrees of success, they all fought for a common cause. In their beliefs, goals, and actions, the Tapes, the Mendezes, and the Browns wove together the destinies of Chinese American, Mexican American, and African American children. The work of these 19th– and 20th-century families was to gain, one family of color at a time, their children’s right to equal access to the same schools as white children. In the 21st century and beyond, the work of racially diverse families is to fight in solidarity for all children’s right to equal opportunity to learn and achieve.


In 2022, the Berkeley City Council voted to abolish its single-family zoning policy originally enacted in the early 1900s. The implementation plan is completed but not yet implemented. Meanwhile, the gentrification of West Berkeley has pushed some families out of the city entirely. In 1968, Black children were about 40 percent of the city’s students. In 2022-23, they were 12 percent of the student population.


Author’s Bio: A fifth-generation Chinese American, Linda Wing worked for 50 years to empower invisible, disenfranchised and underrepresented students by advancing equitable and excellent education at the PreK12 and postsecondary levels. She had the unique opportunity to pursue these goals in school systems and universities throughout the U.S. — the Bay Area, the Inland Empire, the South Side of Chicago, and Boston. Linda is glad to be back in the Bay where, as a beginning high school teacher, she joined Asian American parents to develop an Asian American Studies curriculum and gained their trust to teach their children Asian American History and Literature.


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