Many of us have passed by Yick Wo Elementary School in North Beach and wondered, “Who was Yick Wo and why did they name a school after him?” The story of Yick Wo is the story of a movement that began, as many movements have, right here in San Francisco.
During the Gold Rush days San Francisco became a place for people from all backgrounds and cultures to come and seek their fortune. While some used San Francisco as an embarking place for the gold mines up in the mountains, many others stayed in town and became entrepreneurs—opening businesses that catered to the needs of miners and San Francisco’s growing number of residents. This time of prosperity and growth had a dark side of growing tensions between blending ethnic and racial groups.
Local authorities passed and enforced laws targeting laundries owned by Chinese Americans and immigrants. Laundry owners were required to obtain a permit to continue operating their businesses, but most Chinese were denied the permit. Over 150 Chinese laundry owners were arrested for operating without a permit, while over 80 white-owned laundries were granted the permit easily.
Lee Yick had been operating laundry for over 20 years when he was jailed for refusing to pay the fine under the new laws. Joined by Wo Lee, who also had been fined after operating his laundry for over 20 years, Lee Yick fought the unjust enforcement of the laws all the way to the Supreme Court and won with a declaration that no law can target a racial group (Yick Wo V. Hopkins, 1886.) The Yick Wo case was the first time that the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause was used to strike down an unjustly enforced law. Lee Yick was not even a citizen, yet his case set a precedent and has been used to strike down other laws that are unfairly enforced, or target a racial or ethnic group, including Jim Crow laws, gender discrimination and most recently in recognition of gay marriage.
As we pass by Yick Wo, and as we look at the attacks on immigrants being perpetrated today, let’s remember the story of Lee Yick and Wo Lee—the story of civil rights fought hard and earned right here in San Francisco. Now that’s a commitment to community! #C2C
FOGG Theatre is committed to telling the story of San Francisco heroes like Yick and Wo. The school has a special place in FOGG’s heart both because of this heroic story, and also because many of our Playhouse kids attend Yick Wo Elementary.
Please support us in our endeavors by contributing to FOGG Theatre’s Bay Area storytelling. And leave a comment sharing your own little known Bay Area hero!
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