Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month
May 28, 2021
The first major wave of Asian immigrants to the United States, in the 1840’s was brought about by the Gold Rush. But even before that, in 1763 a group of Filipino’s jumped ship near New Orleans, fleeing a life of forced labor and imprisonment, during the Spanish galleon trade. They formed one of the first documented Asian American communities in North America, near New Orleans.
Unfortunately, while many Americans with ancestral ties to Asia have made significant contributions to our country’s history, most haven’t made it into textbooks. From atomic science to labor rights to the U.S. Congress; their impact has made a difference.
Chien-Shiung Wu - Chinese born physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, Ph.D. was instrumental in the 1940’s and 50’s in contributing to the development of the field of atomic science. Most remarkable was her improvement in existing technology for the detection of radiation and enrichment of uranium in large quantities; including work on the Manhattan project.
Following WWII her researched focused on beta decay, which occurs when the nucleus of one element changes into another. Wu was asked in 1956 to prove the theory on beta decay by theoretical physicists Tsung Dao Lee, Ph.D. and Chen Ning Yang, Ph.D. She did a remarkable job of proving their theory, but was not included in the 1957 Nobel Prize with Lee and Yang.
This was just one of many examples of her work being overlooked, and Wu was quoted at a symposium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1964 saying, "I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.”
Yuri Kochiyama - Another unsung hero is Japanese American Yuri Kochiyama, whose work on civil rights extended broadly to other causes including Black, Latino, Indigenous Peoples and Asian Americans. Her activism was influenced by her two years she spent in internment camps during WWII, and after the war she moved to New York City, where she and her husband (whom she met at the Jerome Relocation Center in AK), hosted weekly open houses for civil rights in their small apartment.
Kochiyama was well associated with Malcom X in the 1960s and continued the work of Black civil rights activists following his death. She and her husband campaigned for reparations and a formal government apology for Japanese Americans interned during WWII; which became a reality in 1988, when President Regan signed the Civil Liberties Act.
"She was not your typical Japanese-American person, especially a nisei [second-generation Japanese-American]," Tim Toyama, Kochiyama's second cousin, told interviewers. "She was definitely ahead of her time, and we caught up with her."
Patsy Mink - When Hawaii became a U.S. State in 1959, Patsy Mink envisioned she would run for a position in government. She is a Hawaiian born, third-generation Japanese American; and after graduating from college she applied to several medical schools, but none of them accepted her. She moved her interest to law and was accepted at the University of Chicago Law school.
Mink met her husband at school and graduated in 1951 but kept her job at the University of Chicago Law School library. A year later, having had a daughter, Gwendoyn, the family moved to Hawaii and registered for the bar exam and passed, but was unable to find a job because of her interracial marriage. Undeterred she opened her own practice and founded the Oahu Young Democrats in 1954; becoming the first Japanese-American woman to practice law in Hawaii. After Hawaii became a state, she began campaigning to be a congresswoman. Although her first attempt was not successful, she returned in 1962 and won a seat in the Hawaii State Senate.
She continued to campaign for a seat in the U.S. Congress even after the Democratic party decided to support another candidate, and in 1964, a second position was created in the U.S. House of Representatives. She won that election becoming the first Asian-American woman to serve in Congress. As a congresswoman, Mink fought for gender and racial equality, affordable childcare, bilingual education, and became a supporter of Title IX.
She was one of the authors and sponsors of the Title IX law that stated that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
As we close out Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage month, we honor the many unsung heroes and untold stories. The intricate weave that is the fabric of our United States is founded on the efforts of immigrants, activists and diversity. It’s worth mentioning, that a great number of these little-known historic figures just so happen to be women.