When Anti-Miscegenation Laws Reflected the Worst Kind of Bigotry
My grandparents’ marriage became a national ‘scandal’ because of anti-Asian hate
“Los Angeles Heiress Elopes With a Chink”
That headline still shocks me. It shouldn’t. Epithets like “chink”and “Chinaman” may have fallen from favor, but as we’ve seen throughout the past year, anti-Asian hate seethes just below America’s surface. And historically, nothing triggers racist venom like the prospect of “mongrelization.” To prevent intermarriage between the races, America kept anti-miscegenation laws on the books for three centuries, from the 1600s until 1967. When my Chinese grandfather married my white American grandmother in 1906, those laws were still in effect throughout the West, which is why my grandparents had to cross five states to legalize their union.
None of that history is new to me. I’ve spent decades writing about my father’s family, even basing my novel Cloud Mountain on this epic marriage. But until a couple years ago, when a distant relative sent me the actual news clippings about their wedding odyssey, I assumed it was a private affair. What shocks me is that racist hatred stalked and hounded them every step of the way. Newspapers from coast to coast tracked their search for a kindly minister, published updates from each stop where they were rebuffed, and lied wildly about their identities.
The truth was that my grandparents met in San Francisco, where my grandfather attended UC Berkeley and edited a pro-democracy newspaper in Chinatown. Though descended from a long line of Imperial officials, he’d dedicated himself to modernizing China on the American model. My grandmother, the daughter of wagon-train pioneers, tutored him in English. When the great San Francisco earthquake struck in 1906, my grandfather saved her life. Within days, they were engaged.
They must have thought the chaos following the earthquake would shield them from public notice while they rode the train east in search of a justice of the peace who would agree to bend the laws against miscegenation. Boy, were they…