In the mid-nineteenth century, economic and political instability in southern China, coupled with the California Gold Rush and the construction of the Trans-Pacific Railroad, drew thousands of Chinese immigrants to America. The railroad was completed in 1869, largely by Chinese workers, but during the economic slump that followed, discrimination against the Chinese grew, making it difficult for them to find jobs.
In the late 1870s, California amended its constitution, making Chinese immigrants ineligible for citizenship and therefore prohibiting anyone from hiring them. This legalized discrimination was part of a broader national sentiment; the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 limited the number of Chinese immigrants to 105 each year.
Discrimination and restrictive housing laws forced California's Chinese population to live in segregated neighborhoods, while many moved east. A small number of Chinese men who had worked on the Trans-Pacific Railroad moved to Louisiana and then Mississippi. Many of these men established families, during an era when southern states were enforcing stark racial boundaries between blacks and whites, including segregating schools by race.
In September 1924, nine-year-old Martha Lum enrolled in her local school in Rosedale, Mississippi, but that afternoon the superintendent told her she was prohibited from returning to school because she wasn't white. Her father, Gong Lum, filed a lawsuit against the school board, arguing that his family was not "colored" (which generally meant African American) and therefore Martha should be allowed to attend a white school.
The case, Gong Lum v. Rice, advanced to the United States Supreme Court. Presiding over the Court was former president William Howard Taft. In his decision, Chief Justice Taft reviewed the history of prior court decisions pertaining to education, as well as Plessy v. Ferguson. Taft affirmed the decision of the Supreme Court of Mississippi, which had ruled that Martha Lum could not be racially classified as white. As a result, Martha Lum could only attend a "colored" public school or a private school.
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