A Noble Cause, A Racist History

The origins of the San Francisco Public Library are made of the same elements as the origins of the city itself. We are a city marked by exponential growth of a changing population made up of immigrants from the eastern United States and from other countries around the world. Our history is one of racial and class tensions that persist to the present day. The San Francisco Free Library was born of these tensions.

White Christians in the late 1800s argued that morality and the proper training of lower classes would serve to benefit the growth of San Francisco while at the same time actively excluding Chinese San Franciscans. Beginning in the time of the Gold Rush, when the population first boomed from around 1,000 prior to 1850 to 230,000 by 1880, many Chinese immigrants were arriving in California through the port of San Francisco. Despite experiencing racism upon arrival, Chinese immigrants contributed to the building of the state through their efforts in mining, road building, and of course, their substantial work with the Central Pacific Railroad.

The discriminatory practices of the state and the companies for which they worked prevented Chinese immigrants from earning as much as their white counterparts, becoming naturalized citizens, owning land, or filing mining claims for their own protection.

In the 1850s, the California legislator passed a tax law on foreign miners that was predominantly enforced on Chinese minors. The United States Constitution reserved the right to naturalize only white immigrants, so Chinese immigrants, with prohibitively low pay and perilous working conditions, had no choice but to turn to other forms of subsistence.

One of the avenues available to Chinese immigrants for revenue during the Gold Rush and throughout the boom of San Francisco was providing laundry services to miners and later to white women residents of the city. The rates at laundries owned by Chinese immigrants were competitive, and by 1880, 240 of the 310 San Francisco laundries were Chinese owned.

After the completion of the railroad, many miners lost hope in finding wealth. Population growth was still steady despite the lack of resources, and white San Franciscans were looking for someone to blame. In this atmosphere, anti-Chinese legislation and political propaganda flourished.

Defining and Aligning with Whiteness

At the same time, Irish Catholics in San Francisco, as in the rest of the United States, were viewed as neither completely white, nor completely Christian. Considering the importance of being seen as both white and Christian in order to have rights, income, and safety at that time, many Irish Catholics were searching for ways to change how they were viewed in racial and economic terms. This was centered around their opposition to Chinese immigrants in an effort to align with the whiteness and power of Protestant leaders in the city. This came to a head in the late 1870s as nearly all San Francisco public figures shifted their support to legal Chinese exclusion.

The Influence of Denis Kearney

One of the loudest proponents of Chinese exclusion, and the building of a San Francisco Free Library, was Denis Kearney. Kearney, a self-made man, founded the Workingmen’s Party of California, promoting the slogan “The Chinese Must Go”. He spoke regularly in empty sandlots throughout the city and his speeches became increasingly pro-violence and targeted toward specific action against Chinese people.

Kearney’s continued efforts against the Chinese were sparked by the riots on July 23rd, 1887. Members of the Workingman’s Party of the United States gathered near City Hall to promote the labor movement and rights of the unemployed. There were rumors that the group planned to burn the docks of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company since it was the primary source of transport for Chinese people coming into the city.

They continued to listen to speakers until the crowd of 8,000 was joined by anti-Chinese agitators and they attacked a passing Chinese person before directing their attention to the mob destruction of Chinatown. The white rioters killed four people and caused over $100,000 in damage to Chinese owned businesses and homes, including the destruction of twenty Chinese-owned laundries.

Seemingly always present and vocal, in 1877 Kearney spoke at the first meeting at Dashaway Hall to form plans for the enactment of legislation to tax residents to fund a library. His argument for funding the library centered around the idea that “one educated boy will come nearer rectifying the Chinese problem than a legion of rioters”.

Restricted Circulation

Eventually, the library was built and formed a collection of 26,000 materials. Borrowers cards were used to circulate materials, and applicants were required to sign a printed application, signed by a witness. To be able to qualify for a card, the applicant needed a “respectable citizen” to endorse their application. Given the anti-Chinese sentiment within the population and the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, we can guess that Chinese residents and taxpayers were not given endorsements.

Finally, a Community Served

It would be well into the next century before the community had an official partnership with the institution that was born from the racism and discrimination against their group. Originally called the North Beach Branch, the name of the third Carnegie branch library in the system was finally changed to reflect the patrons it serves. Located in Chinatown, the name was changed in 1958. In 1972, the Chinese language and the Chinese American Interest collections were developed. Although racist and classist attitudes spurred the development of San Francisco’s library, it has evolved in such a way that its librarians now focus on inclusion and access for as much of the population as possible. It’s not perfect, but the library strives to rectify its past exclusionary practices—it strives to be a resource for all residents.

Do you know more about this particular history of the San Francisco Public Library? We would love to hear below!


Historical image courtesy of the UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library.

Categories: Diversity, History

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