Civic leaders commemorate 140th anniversary of the Chinatown massacre

Vowing to keep alive the memory of Los Angeles’ first deadly race riot, two dozen political, academic and civic leaders gathered Sunday morning at the El Pueblo de Los Angles historic monument downtown to commemorate the 140th anniversary of the Chinatown massacre.  Businessman David Louie, the event’s organizer, called the October 24, 1871 massacre “the most callous act of racial violence in the city’s history.” Louie said he convened the group of elected officials, scholars and community activists mainly to revive the memory of the massacre and possibly start an effort to hold a larger annual public ceremony to memorialize the historic event. Louie is a member of the City of Los Angeles El Pueblo De Los Angeles Historical Monument Authority Commission.

William Estrada, a historian with the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, presented an overview of the massacre, which took place in the city’s original Chinatown, the area now across from Union Station.

The rioting began after a man named Robert Thompson was inadvertently shot in the crossfire between two feuding Chinese secret societies. A mob of 500 formed on Calle de los Negros (now Los Angeles Street) and roamed through Chinatown, shooting Chinese men and constructing two makeshift gallows to hang others. The death toll reached 19, all Chinese. The rioters had included a reporter for the Los Angeles Star and a Los Angeles City Councilman.

Nine men were initially prosecuted for the crimes and eight were convicted of manslaughter in Los Angeles. The California Supreme Court, in overturning the convictions, cited an 1863 law prohibiting Chinese from testifying against whites in criminal trials.

Estrada said the Los Angeles massacre became a top national news story, eclipsing the great Chicago fire, which had occurred earlier that month.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas noted the group assembled Sunday was composed of “people of various ethnicities, who understand we must never forget our history, so that we may in the future stand on much higher ground.” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas also noted the name of Los Angeles Street at the time, Calle de los Negros, reflected the racial animosity in Los Angeles at that time, which has been pervasive in the city’s history.

Along with Ridley-Thomas, Assembly Member Mike Eng, South Pasadena Mayor Mike Ten and Alhambra Board of Education member Robert Gin joined the commemoration. Suellen Cheng, curator of the El Pueblo Historical Monument and members of the Chinese American Citizens Alliance also attended the ceremony. Assembly member Mike Eng, delivering a closing prayer, told the group that social inequities like the ones underlying the 1871 massacre persist today, and were reflected in the “Occupy Los Angeles” tent city demonstration a few blocks away. Eng then read the names of the 19 who died in the massacre, and as he read each name, the bell in El Pueblo commemorating the start of the Mexican Revolution was rung for each victim.