SF school board to repeal old rule segregating Asian students
(Oriental School was on the site of one of Gelfand Partners’ school renovations, Gordon Lau Elementary School.)
By Jill Tucker, January 23, 2017
A century-old policy requiring Asian American students to attend an “Oriental” school is still on the books in San Francisco, a historical oversight the city’s school board intends to rectify Tuesday.
It will be a symbolic vote, said school board member Emily Murase, given that the present-day board is clearly committed to the education of all children, in a district now led by a Korean American superintendent and in a city with a Chinese American mayor.
“There was a time 110 years ago when that was not the case,” said Murase, who is co-authoring the repeal with board member Stevon Cook. “We have this really dark part of history in our school district, and it’s important to acknowledge that happened.”
The policy was passed in 1906, when anti-Asian sentiment was surging in California. For decades, the school district had balked at educating any student of Asian descent, but the state Supreme Court ruled it had to — even if in segregated schools.
The San Francisco school board took the broad hint, and mandated that students of Chinese, Korean and Japanese descent attend what was called the Oriental School in Chinatown.
A presidential intervention from Theodore Roosevelt forced the board to amend the policy and allow students of Japanese descent to attend school with whites. All other Asian American students were relegated to the Oriental School on Clay Street.
By the late 1920s, the school, renamed Commodore Stockton, was overflowing and students were allowed to attend other nearby schools.
Eventually, the forced segregation of Asian American students was relegated to history. But there’s no evidence the school board ever repealed the resolution, said local historian and documentarian Ken Maley. It is expected to do so at its meeting Tuesday night.
Wiping the policy off the books is important, even if it has long been moot, Maley said.
“There’s no hiding from the past,” he said. “You have to know where you’ve been to know where you are.”
The repeal is an opportunity to remind people that although open discrimination is a thing of the past, it’s part of San Francisco’s history, said Irene Dea Collier, a former teacher at Spring Valley Elementary and a representative of the Association of Chinese Teachers.
“We can say it’s all in the past, but unless kids know about how hard the struggle was to even have the right to attend school … they don’t appreciate what they have,” Collier said.
Collier also believes the district can do more to spread knowledge of Asian culture among its students. She said that of the 995 titles on the elementary-school reading list, just nine are about Asian Americans and 16 are about Asia.
“Although the outright segregation and feeling against Chinese have kind of disappeared, I sometimes feel that we’re not in anybody’s forefront when they think of inclusion,” Collier said. “Things have changed. Things have moved forward, but I think we can push it a little more.”