Yick Wo laundry in San Francisco
US Supreme Court ruling in Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 1886 Though the law itself be fair on its face and impartial in appearance, yet, if it is applied and administered by public authority with an evil eye and an unequal hand, so as practically to make unjust and illegal discriminations between persons in similar circumstances, material to their rights, the denial of equal justice is still within the prohibition of the Constitution. … The discrimination is, therefore, illegal, and the public administration which enforces it is a denial of the equal protection of the laws and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The imprisonment of the petitioners is, therefore, illegal, and they must be discharged. The judgment of the Supreme Court of California in the case of Yick Wo, and that of the Circuit Court of the United States for the District of California in the case of Wo Lee, are severally reversed, and the cases remanded, each to the proper court, with directions to discharge the petitioners from custody and imprisonment. Lee Yick immigrated to San Francisco in 1861 and opened the Yick Wo laundry. He operated the laundry for 22 years from the same wooden building and had a certification from fire and health officials that his laundry was safe. But he was arrested and fined for violating a local ordinance that required special approval to operate a wooden laundry. Although the ordinance did not specifically include the word Chinese, it obviously targeted the Chinese wooden laundries. In 1883, a superior court judge upheld the city ordinance and Lee Yick was kept incarcerated. Yick’s attorneys took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled that the law outlawing wooden laundries was unequally enforced against Chinese laundrymen in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Questions of inquiry: 1. This US Supreme Court ruling was in 1886, a few decades after the Fourteenth Amendment was passed. How did the amendment, enacted to ensure the citizenship rights of formerly enslaved African Americans, affect the rights of Chinese immigrants? 2. How would a judge determine whether a law specifically targeted one ethnic or racial group, if that group is not mentioned in the text of the law? 3. How did the organizations within the Chinese community — based on profession and village origin — provide the ability to challenge unfair laws?
Many Chinese immigrants who came to California during the Gold Rush period opened laundries in San Francisco. They were subjected to numerous laws meant to harass them and drive them from the city. These included laws that imposed fees on laundries that did not use horse-drawn vehicles (most Chinese carried the finished laundries on poles), a “Chinese Police Tax,” and a queue ordinance that required jail inmates to cut off their queues, the long braids that were culturally significant to Chinese men. The Chinese community organized to challenge these laws, by necessity hiring white lawyers. Immigrant Lee Yick operated the Yick Wo laundry for 22 years from the same wooden building and had a certification from fire and health officials that his laundry was safe. In 1883, a superior court judge upheld a city ordinance limiting wooden laundries, aimed at closing down the Chinese laundries. Lee Yick’s attorneys took the case all the way to the US Supreme Court, which ruled in 1886 that the law outlawing wooden laundries was unequally enforced against Chinese laundrymen in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Despite this landmark ruling, this collection of insidious laws had a deeper political impact: The national Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 severely limited Chinese immigration to the United States. That law was the first immigration ban naming a specific ethnic group. Chinese immigrants were not allowed to become US citizens until 1952.
Filed Jan. 22. 1886
In the Supreme Court of the State of California.
In re YICK WO, on habeas corpus, No. 20, 126, in bank.
Exhibit 1 for respondent.
CHINESE LAUNDRY HOUSE of Yick Wo
At No. 349 Third street, San Francisco, as seen from the South