Chinese Expulsion of 1885: the “Tacoma Method”


Historical events of injustice, whether personal or national, leave scars. Sometimes the scars are memories, sometimes so traumatic it seems the future will be forever dark. One of the saddest things of history, however well events are remembered, is that it often does not inform our future behavior.

On Nov. 3, 1885, in the city of my birth named Tacoma, Washington, an event happened so shameful and revolting that it became known nationally and internationally as the “Tacoma Method”. It was the ethnic cleansing of the city’s 700 Chinese residents and the destruction by fire of what was called Chinatown. Of course it did not all happen in one day, but was the tragic culmination of months and years of growing acrimony against those that were different from the majority.

Led by 27 of the most prominent citizens of Tacoma (pictured in the photo with this post), the expulsion of the Chinese immigrant laborers became known all over the world. These 27 included the Mayor at the time, Jacob Weisbach, as well as two future mayors. It was planned to the detail, with the Chinese forced to march with their belongings in wagons nine miles to a place called Lakeview, near today’s I-5 highway and Bridgeport way. From there they were put on trains and sent south to California, many ending up in San Francisco.

None of these 27 leading citizens were ever convicted, in fact they were hailed by most as heroes. There would never be a public accounting for the shameful expulsion, what one local pastor in Tacoma in the 1990’s called a “moral wound”. And wounds leave scars. The “Tacoma Method” was a culmination of anti-Chinese sentiment that had been building since the 1850’s, when more and more Chinese were brought or came to the US to help build the railroads and other work. In 1882, just four years before the expulsion in Tacoma, there was a national legislation called the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented immigrants from coming back to the US if they left to visit family back in China.

Before expulsion there is often exclusion. When we exclude others that are different than us, whether in our churches, schools or lives, we begin a journey that can result in something far worse: the complete expulsion of those that have a rightful place of belonging. This is the exact opposite of the hospitality that to a large degree makes us more beautifully human. When we exclude and ultimately expel, or perhaps never even let in, we have weakened the cords of our very humanity. We may strengthen our own sense of nationalism, or personhood, but at the cost of values much more important: the love of the stranger, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the different.

But not everyone in Tacoma that November day in 1885 was in favor of the expulsion of the Chinese. There were some, like leading citizen and iconic pioneer figure Ezra Meeker and Presbyterian Pastor W.D. McFarland, who spoke out against it. They and the others against the expulsion were smeared and attacked in the local newspapers of the time. But they had the courage to resist, though they could not stop what was to happen.

In what was a historic breakthrough recently, the diary of another leading opponent to the expulsion was donated by family to the Tacoma Historical Society. His name was John C. Weatherred, and he wrote precisely and with great grief as he witnessed a city going mad with racist hate. On Nov. 2, he writes “This whole movement has been one of violence from the start. This is one terrible town at present.” This is a wonderful find, as very little of contemporary events had been written other than the newspaper accounts which often were in favor of what was happening.

Weatherred was a leading citizen: a banker, postmaster, and civic leader. On the day of the expulsion, he writes “The Chinese driven out of Tacoma today.” And then he gives details of how it happens. On the day after, he writes “Everybody is talking about the manner in which the Chinese were driven out of Tacoma yesterday. The Tacoma News says there was no violence doing it which was a lie-because the Chinese were ordered out of their houses made to pack up and escorted out of the city. Driven out by force and violence I call it. The extreme anti-Chinese think they have done something wonderful by making them go. They acted about as a mob usually acts. I think a large majority of this town are opposed to this extreme move yet say but little. Thoroughly intimidated and bulldozed.”

We can be thankful for this man’s courageous witness to truth. We can still see today the way many of us end up “bulldozed and intimidated” and end up doing and saying nothing in the face of injustice. I am shamed that the city I grew up in, also called the “City of Destiny”, was also known for decades for its treatment of the Chinese called the “Tacoma Method”. I first became aware of this part of the city’s history when I was in my early 20’s, but don’t remember it ever being talked about or taught in my whole school education.

There were actually two Chinatowns, and both were burned down completely in the days after the expulsion. The exclusion had led to the expulsion. Thankfully it did not happen all over the US, though there would be many ugly years of oppression and exclusion ahead for Asians and other nationalities immigrating. In Tacoma in 2012 there was to some degree a reckoning and accounting for the sins of the past with the dedicating of a 3.9 acre park near Schuster Parkway, called the Chinese Reconciliation Park. The same pastor that called the expulsion a “moral wound”, David Murdoch, was instrumental in seeing it come into existence.

And of course the greatest reconciliation is in the reality of a living Chinese community in Tacoma today.

When will we learn from history that exclusion and expulsion leads only to moral wounding and dishonor? Whereas the embrace of the other, the different, the stranger, leads to moral expansion and the hospitality of the enlarged heart. I deeply hope and pray that the “Tacoma Method” never happens again, here in this city or anywhere in this nation or world. But rather that the “Tacoma Method’ would be one of inclusion, embrace, loving welcome.

But we live in a fallen world with fallen humans. We have a long way to go.

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