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“Is He White or Colored?”: Chinese in Baltimore City Public Schools

Chinese American Family at Dinner, March 1958, A. Aubrey Bodine, MdHS, B502H.

Chinese American Family at Dinner, March 1958, A. Aubrey Bodine, MdHS, B502-H.

The story of race in Baltimore has traditionally been presented as a black and white issue. Particularly in discussions about the Civil Rights Era, the focus has been on the interaction between these two racial groups, with Jewish residents representing an ethnic middle ground between them.

In researching this pivotal time period in the city’s history, I was surprised to come across a 1945 Baltimore Sun article in which NAACP represetative Juanita Jackson Mitchell stated that Chinese students “are permitted to enter Polytechnic Institute, where Negroes can’t enter.”(1) How could that be so? Some might point to the stereotypes that we are exposed to today, such as the image of the quiet, academically driven, Asian-American student. However, these stereotypes were less prevalent in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many West Coast cities, most notably San Francisco, struggled with how to deal with large Chinese immigrant populations. School systems were in a particularly awkward position, as most municipalities only had provisions that addressed the segregation of “colored” or “negro” children. San Francisco’s first “Chinese School” was established in 1859, with subsequent state and city laws gradually curtailing the rights of the growing community. Asian-descended children were formally and informally segregated throughout the western states, as whites feared their exotic customs and supposed moral deficiencies. In 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the Exclusion Act, prohibiting Chinese workers from entering the country.(2)

These developments had little effect on Maryland’s tiny Asian, mostly Chinese, population. By 1900, the state’s Chinese inhabitants numbered less than 500, 426 of whom resided in Baltimore.(3) While visiting Baltimore’s public schools in 1911, Stanford University education professor Dr. Elwood P. Cubberly was surprised to encounter just a single Chinese child, whom he was told was “the only one in the schools of the city.” He remarked that “in San Francisco we have hundreds of these children and they present a most difficult problem.”(4) Fourteen years earlier, fifteen year old Hom Let had become the first Chinese student admitted to a Baltimore school.

Mrs. James Hom with abacus, March 1958, A. Aubrey Bodine, MdHS, B502-C.

Chinese immigrants began to arrive in Baltimore as early as the 1880s. The first “Chinatown” was centered around the 200 block of Marion Street, bound by Fayette Street to the south, Park Avenue to the east, Howard Street to the west, and Lexington Street to the north. Following World War I, it moved to the 300 block of Park Avenue.
Mrs. James Hom with abacus, March 1958, A. Aubrey Bodine, MdHS, B502-C.

Although hailed by The Baltimore Sun as “the first Chinese pupil to be entered in Baltimore’s Public Educational Institutions,” Hom Let’s acceptance into the Baltimore school system 1897 caused an immediate controversy.(5) The California-born boy was enrolled at Primary School Number 10 on Hollins Street—what is today James McHenry Elementary/Middle School in Old West Baltimore. According to the article, he was initially placed in the first grade, where the other boys “did not treat the new pupil as fairly as they should have done,” as they were intrigued by his “queer-looking silk trousers.” Hom Let’s admission sparked an almost immediate debate over where Chinese students would fall in the city’s binary racial environment. Several civic leaders commented on his status. Mayor Alcaeus Hooper, who did not object to his admission, cited “the intelligence of the race in mastering all studies.”(6) Others remarked that there was no specific ordinance to prevent the Chinese from attending white schools, but feared the abuse that Let might receive from his classmates. The newspaper account also included the opinions of Chinatown residents, who were happy with his placement as “negroes are seldom well liked by the Celestials [Chinese].” However there was no specific explanation as to how he was formally enrolled in the white school.

The issue would be officially addressed by the Baltimore city school board in March of 1898. School Commissioner John T. Foley proposed that a separate school be established for Chinese Baltimoreans, specifically for English language training. However when the plan was forwarded to the City Solicitor, he determined that any public school designation outside of “white” or “colored” was legally prohibited. The Solicitor further stated that “only the children or wards of naturalized Chinamen can attend the schools free of charge.”(7) By this time another Chinese student had joined Hom Let in the school system.(8)

The few Chinese children in Baltimore would continue to utilize the city’s white schools unmolested until 1913. That year, Benjamin Jew, a recent immigrant, was refused entry by the principal of the Number 5 Public School located at Broadway and Ashland Avenue. The principal had rejected the child specifically on “the ground that he was not white.” Benjamin was eventually accepted into the school after his Sunday school teacher—also an instructor at the public school—intervened on his behalf. Other church members also appealed to the Assistant Superintendent of Instruction Charles J. Koch. As to the child’s non-citizen status, Koch would ambiguously state that “I presume that he was sure of his ground.” Instead of further addressing that technicality, the School Board President declared that he would rather not venture an opinion as to the child’s right to attend a white school.”(9) Again it seems that local officials preferred to ignore the Chinese students’ tenuous position, barring a surge in their numbers or a public uproar from white Baltimoreans. An increase in the Chinese population became unlikely when the United States Congress further restricted immigration in 1924 by passing another Exclusion Act that permitted only the children of native born Americans to enter the country.(10)

In 1927, the federal government attempted to resolve the school issue after a Chinese family in Mississippi protested their daughter’s exclusion from the local white, public school. The Supreme Court ruled that the division was between the “pure white or Caucasian race on the one hand and the brown, yellow and black races on the other.”(11) The young Mississippi girl could either attend the colored school in Bolivar county or opt for a private option. It doesn’t appear that the verdict had any bearing on the situation in Baltimore, where the minority group’s status continued to be determined by the whims of the community or the local principal. In fact, the success of Chinese students in the city’s most prestigious public high schools soon became a subject to celebrate in the papers.

Poly Cracker, 1931, Yearbook, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Enoch Pratt Free Library: Maryland Department.

Poly Cracker, 1931, Yearbook, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Enoch Pratt Free Library: Maryland Department.

When Sec Ai Lew graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute in 1931, an article in The Baltimore Sun stated that he was “called a brilliant student by members of the faculty, liked by all of his classmates.”(12) Lew had immigrated to the city when he was six years old, though his primary education experience is not discussed in the article. The Poly Cracker yearbook from that year similarly sung the young man’s praises, asserting that “when he came to America he did not know A from Z in English, but he now puts some of the native butter-and-egg men to shame with his grammatical accuracy.”(13) That same year the newspaper noted that Lillian Chin and Ruth Oy Lee graduated from Western High School, where each participated in multiple extra-curricular clubs just as their white classmates did.(14) Neither situation was presented as a controversy, but the Chinese students were a notable curiosity. Nor did The Baltimore Sun make any mention of their opportunities as compared to those for African-Americans in the city.

Polytechnic's State Championship Soccer Team of 1931. Sec Ai Lew, bottom row, right. Poly Cracker, Yearbook, 1931, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Enoch Pratt Free Library: Maryland Department.

Polytechnic’s State Championship Soccer Team of 1931. Sec Ai Lew, bottom row, right.
Poly Cracker, Yearbook, 1931, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Enoch Pratt Free Library: Maryland Department.

As with other ethnic groups, Baltimore’s Chinese community experienced a boom during the 1940s as migrants sought to enjoy the war-time prosperity. For Leslie Chin, who emigrated from China at age ten, it meant a temporary hiatus from elementary school after his uncle pulled him out of school to work in the kitchen at “ChinaLand,” his restaurant at Eutaw and Fayette Streets. In an oral history interview conducted in 1977, Chin recalled that all the young men who would have held kitchen jobs were drafted into service, requiring school age children to fill the void. This was technically illegal, but, as Chin joked that “they had no way to find me … because I was hidden in the kitchen (laughs).”(15) He did not attend school again until after the war when he entered Baltimore City College in 1946. When asked about his experience with prejudice as a child, Chin said:

“I never had that feeling, but when I talked to other people, they had, yes (I) think prejudice is there and as I look into it, I can see. But from my personal experience, I know I didn’t, even when I finished school …When I (was) in school I had a lot of friends and I go to parties. The childhood experience with Hobines. I feel no discrimination.”

Greenbag Yearbook, 1949, Baltimore City College. Enoch Pratt Free Library: Maryland Department.

Greenbag, 1949, Yearbook, Baltimore City College. Enoch Pratt Free Library: Maryland Department.

Living with a German-American family, the Hobines, clearly affected Chin’s acculturation process and comfort level with white classmates. He did not seem shy in his pursuits in high school, participating in sports and serving in the school’s executive board and as a homeroom president.(16) It is likely relevant that City College, like Polytechnic and Western, was a selective college preparatory school which white students chose to attend. The experience for Chinese students might have been more openly hostile at a neighborhood institution, as it was for African-Americans that integrated the zoned schools of south and southeast Baltimore following the 1954 Brown vs. Board decision.

Even after World War II, Chinese-Americans never formed a numerically significant community in Baltimore City. Considering the blatant discrimination and violence that Chinese-Americans faced in California and other western states,  integration of the city’s white public school system was relatively painless for Maryland’s Chinese students, due in large part to their small numbers. While certainly a trying experience, the childish abuse that Hom Let received in 1897 could never rival the severe hostility that African-Americans would suffer through to attend the same schools. In Baltimore, whites viewed Chinese students as a novelty or curiosity rather than the threat that larger minority groups could represent.

Even as federal restrictions have been eased and immigrant populations have established a significant presence in most major cities, Baltimore has largely maintained its bipartite racial status. Today, black and white students make up nearly 94 percent of the city’s public school system. At the beginning of the 2012 school year, students of Asian descent numbered 888, or just over one percent.(17) Despite their limited presence, Chinese students raised interesting questions for the Baltimore City Public School System, perhaps foreshadowing both white and black reactions to mid-century desegregation efforts. (David Armenti)

David Armenti is the Student Research Center Coordinator at the Maryland Historical Society.


(1) “NegroesRequestSchool Control: Seek Full Charge of Colored Education in City,” The Baltimore Sun, 16 February, 1945.

(2) Leslie Chin, History of Chinese-Americans in Baltimore (Baltimore: Greater Baltimore Chinese American Bicentennial Committee), Maryland Historical Society Library, PAM 12367.

(3) Historical Census Browser, University of Virginia Library, County-Level Results for 1900.

(4) “Investigating School System,” The Baltimore Sun, 10 March 1911.

(5) “Hom Let Goes to School,” The Baltimore Sun, 18 February, 1897.

(6) “Is He White or Colored?,” The Baltimore Sun, 19 February, 1897.

(7) “Cannot Teach the Chinese”, The Baltimore Sun, 22 March, 1898.

(8) “Harry Hom Let’s Progress”, The Baltimore Sun, 23 March, 1898.

(9) “Chinese Boy in Class”, The Baltimore Sun, 18 September, 1913.

(10) Leslie Chin, History of Chinese-Americans in Baltimore

(11) “Chinese Must Go To Colored Schools,” The Baltimore Afro-American, 26, 1927.

(12)“Chinese, Who Left Home At Age Of Six, Graduated From Poly,” The Baltimore Sun. 16 June 1931.

(13) Poly Cracker, 1931, Yearbook, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. Enoch Pratt Free Library: Maryland Department.

(14) “Two Chinese Girls Receive Diplomas,” The Baltimore Sun, 19 June, 1931; Westward Ho, 1931,Yearbook,WesternHigh School. Enoch Pratt Free Library: Maryland Department.

(15) Leslie Chin, Interview by Stephen Knipp, Maryland Historical Society, OH 8223

(16) Greenbag, 1949, Yearbook, BaltimoreCityCollege. Enoch Pratt Free Library: Maryland Department.

(17) 2012 Maryland Report Card, Baltimore City, Demographics Data Summary, Enrollment.