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forgotten history

Education

An 8-yr-old Chinese American girl helped desegregate schools 70 years before Brown v. Board

Mamie Tape and her parents fought the school district all the way to the California Supreme Court in 1885 and won, but that wasn't the end of the battle.

The Tape family fought for their daughter, Mamie, to be enrolled at an all-white school in San Francisco.

In 2024, the idea of racially segregated schools sounds ridiculous, but it was the standard practice for most of American history. White Americans often refused to accept their children being educated alongside children of other races and ethnicities, and lawsuits over the matter ultimately rose all the way to the Supreme Court, culminating in the famous Brown vs. Board of Educationruling.

That landmark 1954 case marked the end of legal school segregation, as the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that segregating students by race was unconstitutional, a violation of the 14th amendment.

But another segregation case reached the California Supreme Court 70 years prior, and it revolved around an 8-year-old Chinese American student named Mamie Tape.


According to History.com, Mamie's parents, Joseph and Mary Tape, had each come to the U.S. as children and had fully integrated into American life and culture. They took English names, wore Westernized clothing and lived by standard American customs. They were married in a Christian ceremony and named their three children Mamie, Emily and Frank. Joseph operated a delivery service and was a successful, well-respected businessman among both Chinese and white communities in San Francisco.

However, despite their extreme assimilation, when they tried to enroll their 8-year-old daughter in the all-white Spring Valley Primary School in 1884, Principal Jennie Hurley flat out refused to admit her.

Unsurprisingly, the school-board had a policy against admitting Chinese children. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which placed a 10-year ban on Chinese workers immigrating to the U.S., had just been passed in 1882 and anti-Chinese prejudice was commonplace. But that did not deter the Tapes from their mission to get the best education for their child.

California had passed a law in 1880 that entitled all children in the state to partake in public education. However, school boards ignored the ruling and social custom kept the schools segregated. Chinese children attended the mission-run schools in Chinatown, while white children attended their local neighborhood schools.

The Tapes wanted Mamie to attend her neighborhood school. So they fought the administration's refusal to admit their daughter by filing a lawsuit on her behalf against Hurley and the San Francisco Board of Education. The Tapes' lawyer, William Gibson, argued that not only did Hurley barring Mamie from the school violate California's existing law, but it also violated the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution—the basic argument that would eventually ban segregation nationwide in the Brown v. Board verdict.

Joseph and Mary Tate and their three children

The Tape Family

Public Domain

Tape vs. Hurley never went to the highest federal court, however, because both the Superior Court and the California Supreme Court agreed with Gibson's interpretation of the Constitution. On January 9, 1885, Superior Court Judge McGuire wrote in the court's decision, “To deny a child, born of Chinese parents in this State, entrance to the public schools would be a violation of the law of the State and the Constitution of the United States.”

Despite their success in court, that unfortunately wasn't the end of the Tapes' struggles to get Mamie into the Spring Valley school. The court's ruling did not address the "separate but equal" doctrine, which was not yet legally binding (that would come with Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896) but was the prevailing justification for segregation. The "separate but equal" idea held that segregation was okay as long as it affected all races equally. For instance, white people and non-white people could have separate drinking fountains, as long as everyone had access to a drinking fountain.

What that meant in the Tapes' case was that the San Francisco school board quickly and successfully pushed to pass a new state law authorizing the creation of separate public schools for “children of Chinese and Mongolian descent.” The new Chinese school wasn't ready yet, so the Tape still tried to enroll Mamie into the white school, but Hurley still denied her, citing there being too many students already and claiming that Mamie didn't have the required vaccinations.

Having already exhausted legal avenues, Mary Tape published a scathing letter in the Daily Alta California newspaper.

“Dear sirs,” she wrote. “Will you please to tell me! Is it a disgrace to be born a Chinese? Didn’t God make us all!!!” She railed against her daughter's treatment, saying she was more American than many people reading it. No matter how Chinese people live and dress, they are hated simply for being Chinese, she pointed out. "There is not any right or justice for them," she wrote.”

Indeed, Mamie and the Tapes didn't see justice in their case, despite winning their legal case in court. But Tape vs. Hurley has gone down in history as a landmark case in the fight for ending segregation, one stepping stone toward true equality under the law.

Education

You may not know Gladys West, but her calculations revolutionized navigation.

She couldn't have imagined how much her calculations would affect the world.

US Air Force/Wikimedia Commons.

Dr. Gladys West is inducted into the Air Force Space and Missile Pioneers Hall of Fame, 2018.

This article originally appeared on 02.08.18


If you've never driven your car into a lake, thank Gladys West.

She is one of the mathematicians responsible for developing the global positioning system, better known as GPS.

Like many of the black women responsible for American achievements in math and science, West isn't exactly a household name. But after she mentioned her contribution in a biography she wrote for a sorority function, her community turned their attention to this local "hidden figure."


West was one of only four black employees at the Naval Proving Ground in 1956.

She accepted a position at the Dahlgren, Virginia, facility doing calculations, with her early work focusing on satellites. West also programmed early computers and examined the information that determined the precise location and elevation of satellites in space. Her data collection and calculations would ultimately aid in the development of GPS.

Employe testing the circuits on a super computer 1950s.

U.S. Census Bureau employees/Wikimedia Commons.

West and her colleagues back then probably could not have speculated just how much their calculations would affect the world.

Pretty much every "smart" device — from cellphones to fridges to dog collars — has GPS capabilities these days. The technology has changed the way we play, work, navigate, and explore our communities.

"When you're working every day, you're not thinking, 'What impact is this going to have on the world?' You're thinking, 'I've got to get this right,'" West once said in an interview with The Associated Press.

GPS, technology, community, inventors

GPS has intrigated into many of the devices we use today.

Photo by Psk Slayer on Unsplash

West would continue her work until her retirement in 1998.

After more than 40 years of calculations and complex data analysis, West retired. And following a well-earned vacation with her husband, she suffered a major stroke. But during her recovery, she worked toward returning to school and earned a doctorate. Her go-forward determination led to her regain most of her mobility, and she even survived heart surgery and cancer years later.

While she may not be as well known as other women in STEM fields, West's contribution is undeniable.

At 87, West is working on her memoir and spending time with her husband, children, and grandchildren. And according to her oldest daughter, West — despite the advent of GPS — still likes to have a paper map on hand.

Who are we to argue with greatness?

Unless you're a child, New York City resident, or UPS driver, chances are you've made a left turn in your car at least once this week.

Chances are, you didn't think too much about how you did it or why you did it that way.

You just clicked on your turn signal...

...and turned left.

GIF from United States Auto Club.


The New York State Department of Motor Vehicles instructs drivers to "try to use the left side of the intersection to help make sure that you do not interfere with traffic headed toward you that wants to turn left," as depicted in this thrilling official state government animation:

GIF from New York Department of Motor Vehicles.

Slick, smooth, and — in theory — as safe as can be.

Your Drivers Ed teacher would give you full marks for that beautifully executed maneuver.

[rebelmouse-image 19530938 dam="1" original_size="500x332" caption="GIF from "Baywatch"/NBC." expand=1]GIF from "Baywatch"/NBC.

Your great-grandfather, on the other hand, would be horrified.

[rebelmouse-image 19530939 dam="1" original_size="400x309" caption="GIF from "Are You Afraid of the Dark"/Nickelodeon." expand=1]GIF from "Are You Afraid of the Dark"/Nickelodeon.

Before 1930, if you wanted to hang a left in a medium-to-large American city, you most likely did it like so:

[rebelmouse-image 19530940 dam="1" original_size="700x284" caption="Photo via Fighting Traffic/Facebook." expand=1]Photo via Fighting Traffic/Facebook.

Instead of proceeding in an arc across the intersection, drivers carefully proceeded straight out across the center line of the road they were turning on and turned at a near-90-degree angle.

Often, there was a giant cast-iron tower in the middle of the road to make sure drivers didn't cheat.

Some were pretty big. Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.

These old-timey driving rules transformed busy intersections into informal roundabouts, forcing cars to slow down so that they didn't hit pedestrians from behind.

[rebelmouse-image 19530942 dam="1" original_size="480x205" caption="GIF from "Time After Time"/Warner Bros." expand=1]GIF from "Time After Time"/Warner Bros.

Or so that, if they did, it wasn't too painful.

"There was a real struggle first of all by the urban majority against cars taking over the street, and then a sort of counter-struggle by the people who wanted to sell cars," explains Peter Norton, Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia and author of "Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City."

Norton posted the vintage left-turn instructional image, originally published in a 1919 St. Louis drivers' manual — to Facebook on July 9. While regulations were laxer in suburban and rural areas, he explains, the sharp right-angle turn was standard in nearly every major American city through the late '20s.

“That left turn rule was a real nuisance if you were a driver, but it was a real blessing if you were a walker," he says.

Early traffic laws focused mainly on protecting pedestrians from cars, which were considered a public menace.

Pedestrians on the Bowery in New York City, 1900. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

For a few blissful decades after the automobile was invented, the question of how to prevent drivers from mowing down all of midtown every day was front-of-mind for many urban policymakers.

Pedestrians, Norton explains, accounted for a whopping 75 percent of road deaths back then. City-dwellers who, unlike their country counterparts, often walked on streets were predictably pretty pissed about that.

In 1903, New York City implemented one of the first traffic ordinances in the country, which codified the right-angle left. Initially, no one knew or cared, so the following year, the city stuck a bunch of big metal towers in the middle of the intersections, which pretty well spelled things out.

A Traffic Tower keeps watch at the intersection of 42nd Street and 5th Avenue in New York City in 1925. Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images.

Some cities installed unmanned versions, dubbed "silent policemen," which instructed motorists to "keep to the right."

Drivers finally got the message, and soon, the right-angle left turn spread to virtually every city in America.

Things were pretty good for pedestrians — for a while.

In the 1920s, that changed when automobile groups banded together to impose a shiny new left turn on America's drivers.

According to Norton, a sales slump in 1922 to 1923 convinced many automakers that they'd maxed out their market potential in big cities. Few people, it seemed, wanted to drive in urban America. Parking spaces were nonexistent, traffic was slow-moving, and turning left was a time-consuming hassle. Most importantly, there were too many people on the road.

In order to attract more customers, they needed to make cities more hospitable to cars.

Thus began an effort to shift the presumed owner of the road, "from the pedestrian to the driver."

FDR Drive off-ramps in 1955. Photo by Three Lions/Getty Images.

"It was a multi-front campaign," Norton says.

The lobbying started with local groups — taxi cab companies, truck fleet operators, car dealers associations — and eventually grew to include groups like the National Automobile Chamber of Commerce, which represented most major U.S. automakers.

Car advocates initially worked to take control of the traffic engineering profession. The first national firm, the Albert Erskine Bureau for Street Traffic Research, was founded in 1925 at Harvard University, with funds from Studebaker to make recommendations to cities on how to design streets.

Driving fast, they argued, was not inherently dangerous, but something that could be safe with proper road design.

Drivers weren't responsible for road collisions. Pedestrians were.

Therefore, impeding traffic flow to give walkers an advantage at the expense of motor vehicle operators, they argued, is wasteful, inconvenient, and inefficient.

Out went the right-angle left turn.

Industry-led automotive interest groups began producing off-the-shelf traffic ordinances modeled on Los Angeles' driver-friendly 1925 traffic code, including our modern-day left turn, which was adopted by municipalities across the country.

The towering silent policemen were replaced by dome-shaped bumps called "traffic mushrooms," which could be driven over.

[rebelmouse-image 19530946 dam="1" original_size="700x465" caption="A modern "traffic mushroom" in Forbes, New South Wales. Photo by Mattinbgn/Wikimedia Commons." expand=1]A modern "traffic mushroom" in Forbes, New South Wales. Photo by Mattinbgn/Wikimedia Commons.

Eventually the bumps were removed altogether. Barriers and double yellow lines that ended at the beginning of an intersection encouraged drivers to begin their left turns immediately.

The old way of hanging a left was mostly extinct by 1930 as the new, auto-friendly ordinances proved durable.

So ... is the new left turn better?

Yes. Also, no.

It's complicated.

The shift to a "car-dominant status quo," Norton explains, wasn't completely manufactured — nor entirely negative.

An L.A. motorway in 1953. Photo by L.J. Willinger/Getty Images.

As more Americans bought cars, public opinion of who should run the road really did change. The current left turn model is better and more efficient for drivers — who have to cross fewer lanes of traffic — and streets are less chaotic than they were in the early part of the 20th century.

Meanwhile, pedestrian deaths have declined markedly over the years. While walkers made up 75% of all traffic fatalities in the 1920s in some cities, by 2015, just over 5,000 pedestrians were killed by cars on the street, roughly 15% of all vehicle-related deaths.

There's a catch, of course.

While no one factor fully accounts for the decrease in pedestrian deaths, Norton believes the industry's success in making roadways completely inhospitable to walkers helps explain the trend.

Simply put, fewer people are hit because fewer people are crossing the street (or walking at all). The explosion of auto-friendly city ordinances — which, among other things, allowed drivers to make faster, more aggressive left turns — pushed people off the sidewalks and into their own vehicles.

When that happened, the nature of traffic accidents changed.

A man fixes a bent fender, 1953. Photo by Sherman/Three Lions/Getty Images.

"Very often, a person killed in a car in 1960 would have been a pedestrian a couple of decades earlier," Norton says.

We still live with that car-dominant model and the challenges that arise from it. Urban design that prioritizes drivers over walkers contributes to sprawl and, ultimately, to carbon emissions. A system engineered to facilitate auto movement also allows motor vehicle operators to avoid responsibility for sharing the street in subtle ways. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists three tips to prevent injuries and deaths from car-human collisions — all for pedestrians, including "carrying a flashlight when walking," and "wearing retro-reflective clothing."

A Minneapolis Star-Tribune analysis found that, of over 3,000 total collisions with pedestrians (including 95 fatalities) in the Twin Cities area between 2010 and 2014, only 28 drivers were charged and convicted a crime — mostly misdemeanors.

Norton says he's encouraged, however, by recent efforts to reclaim city streets and make them safe for walkers.

Pedestrians walk through New York's Times Square, 2015. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

That includes a push by groups like Transportation Alternatives to install pedestrian plazas and bike lanes and to promote bus rapid transit. It also includes Vision Zero, a safety initiative in cities across America, which aims to end traffic fatalities by upgrading road signage, lowering speed limits, and installing more traffic circles, among other things.

As a historian, Norton hopes Americans come to understand that the way we behave on the road isn't static or, necessarily, what we naturally prefer. Often, he explains, it results from hundreds of conscious decisions made over decades.

"We're surrounded by assumptions that are affecting our choices, and we don't know where those assumptions come from because we don't know our own history," he says.

Even something as mindless as hanging a left.

This article was originally published on July 14, 2017.

In the years following the bitter Civil War, a former Union general took a holiday originated by former Confederates and helped spread it across the entire country.

The holiday was Memorial Day, and the 2018 commemoration on May 28 marks the 150th anniversary of its official nationwide observance. The annual commemoration was born in the former Confederate States in 1866 and adopted by the United States in 1868. It is a holiday in which the nation honors its military dead.

Gen. John A. Logan, who headed the largest Union veterans fraternity at that time, the Grand Army of the Republic, is usually credited as being the originator of the holiday.


Civil War Union Gen. John A. Logan. Photo via the Library of Congress.

Yet when Logan established the holiday, he acknowledged its genesis among the Union's former enemies, saying, "It was not too late for the Union men of the nation to follow the example of the people of the South."

Cities and towns across America have for more than a century claimed to be the birthplace of Memorial Day.

But I and my co-author Daniel Bellware have sifted through the myths and half-truths and uncovered the authentic story of how this holiday came into being.

During 1866, the first year Memorial Day was observed in the South, a feature of the holiday emerged that made awareness, admiration and eventually imitation of it spread quickly to the North.

During the inaugural Memorial Day observances in Columbus, Georgia, many Southern participants — especially women — decorated graves of Confederate soldiers as well as those of their former enemies who fought for the Union.

Shortly after those first Memorial Day observances all across the South, newspaper coverage in the North was highly favorable to the ex-Confederates.

"The action of the ladies on this occasion, in burying whatever animosities or ill-feeling may have been engendered in the late war towards those who fought against them, is worthy of all praise and commendation," wrote one paper.

On May 9, 1866, the Cleveland Daily Leader lauded the Southern women during their first Memorial Day.

"The act was as beautiful as it was unselfish, and will be appreciated in the North."

The New York Commercial Advertiser, recognizing the magnanimous deeds of the women of Columbus, echoed the sentiment. "Let this incident, touching and beautiful as it is, impart to our Washington authorities a lesson in conciliation."

To be sure, this sentiment was not unanimous. There were many in both parts of the U.S. who had no interest in conciliation.

But as a result of one of these news reports, Francis Miles Finch, a Northern judge, academic and poet, wrote a poem titled "The Blue and the Gray." Finch's poem quickly became part of the American literary canon. He explained what inspired him to write it:

"It struck me that the South was holding out a friendly hand, and that it was our duty, not only as conquerors, but as men and their fellow citizens of the nation, to grasp it."

Finch's poem seemed to extend a full pardon to the South: "They banish our anger forever when they laurel the graves of our dead" was one of the lines.

Almost immediately, the poem circulated across America in books, magazines and newspapers. By the end of the 19th century, school children everywhere were required to memorize Finch's poem.

[rebelmouse-image 19398143 dam="1" original_size="237x305" caption="Not just poems: Sheet music written to commemorate Memorial Day in 1870. Image via the Library of Congress." expand=1]Not just poems: Sheet music written to commemorate Memorial Day in 1870. Image via the Library of Congress.

As Finch's poem circulated the country, the Southern Memorial Day holiday became a familiar phenomenon throughout America.

Logan was aware of the forgiving sentiments of people like Finch. When Logan's order establishing Memorial Day was published in various newspapers in May 1868, Finch's poem was sometimes appended to the order.

It was not long before Northerners decided that they would not only adopt the Southern custom of Memorial Day, but also the Southern custom of "burying the hatchet."

A group of Union veterans explained their intentions in a letter to the Philadelphia Evening Telegraph on May 28, 1869:

"Wishing to bury forever the harsh feelings engendered by the war, Post 19 has decided not to pass by the graves of the Confederates sleeping in our lines, but divide each year between the blue and the grey the first floral offerings of a common country. We have no powerless foes. Post 19 thinks of the Southern dead only as brave men."

Other reports of reciprocal magnanimity circulated in the North, including the gesture of a 10-year-old who made a wreath of flowers and sent it to the overseer of the holiday, a Col. Leaming in Lafayette, Indiana, with the following note attached, published in The New Hampshire Patriot on July 15, 1868:

"Will you please put this wreath upon some rebel soldier’s grave? My dear papa is buried at Andersonville, (Georgia) and perhaps some little girl will be kind enough to put a few flowers upon his grave."

Although not known by many today, the early evolution of the Memorial Day holiday was a manifestation of Abraham Lincoln's hope for reconciliation between North and South.

Lincoln's wish was that there be "malice toward none" and "charity for all." These wishes were clearly fulfilled in the magnanimous actions of citizens on both sides, who extended an olive branch during those very first Memorial Day observances.

This story originally appeared on The Conversation and is printed here with permission.