The Archives puts records from long-ago racial discrimination online

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A late 19th century law called the Chinese Exclusion Act put a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the United States. Subsequent laws limited Chinese immigration until Congress condemned the Exclusion Act in 2012. Now the National Archives and Records Administration has digitized and put online some 2,200 Chinese Exclusion Act cases files. For how and...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

A late 19th century law called the Chinese Exclusion Act put a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers immigrating to the United States. Subsequent laws limited Chinese immigration until Congress condemned the Exclusion Act in 2012. Now the National Archives and Records Administration has digitized and put online some 2,200 Chinese Exclusion Act cases files. For how and why this came about, the director of archival operations at NARA’s Denver center, Gwen Granados.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin
And we should point out that you are in Denver now. But this all took place in Riverside, California, when you were the director out there.

Gwen Granados
Yes.

Tom Temin
Well tell us about this project, the Chinese Exclusion Act was a law and that must have resulted in immigration case loads. Is that what happened?

Gwen Granados
Correct. So there were actually a series of laws that we refer to as the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first one being in 1882, and then another one in 1892. And then 1902, made the ban on actually Chinese laborers permanent until 1943. As you can imagine, Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time, which would be USCIS now creating case files relating to the enforcement of those laws, those case files are across the National Archives system, not just in Riverside.

Tom Temin
Interesting that this law occurred after the construction and completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, which used a great deal of Chinese labor.

Gwen Granados
In fact, those two things are related in the influx in Chinese labor made nativists in the United States very nervous. And so that is what resulted in those laws being passed.

Tom Temin
And the laws sighted laborers does that mean that someone who is Chinese from China, and they could play the cello really well, for example, they would be allowed in, but if they were someone that could drive a railroad spike, they were not.

Gwen Granados
So the focus was largely on allowing merchants, people with financial investment in the United States. So merchants were exempt from those restrictions. And what we end up seeing in a lot of these case files is individuals, men, mostly trying to prove their merchant status to be able to remain in the country or to mostly to leave the country and come back.

Tom Temin
Therefore, these case files then could be ancestral documents of people now living and thriving in the United States.

Gwen Granados
Yes. And that has been historically the number one community that researchers that in these records are family historians, and Chinese community historians who want to learn a little bit about individuals.

Tom Temin
How many are there of these? Do you estimate?

Gwen Granados
Oh, I heavens I don’t actually know the total volume across NARA, but it’s going to range into the 10s of 1000s. For sure.

Tom Temin
And what form are they in before being digitized? Are they crumbling to pieces? Are they on pretty good stock?

Gwen Granados
It depends on the time period, as any archivist can tell you paper changes over time, but for the most part, they’re in pretty good condition. There’s just a lot of fasteners as a new piece of paper gets added somebody staples that in. So there’s a lot of fastener removal that we’ve had to do to digitize these. But other than that they’re in pretty good shape.

Tom Temin
And they’re stored all over the place?

Gwen Granados
Yes, they’re across the national archive system, because the INS offices were across the country. And so those came in to various locations from Boston to Riverside with a large contingent of them being in our facility near San Francisco and San Bruno, California. And a large grouping also in our Seattle office.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with Gwen Granados. She is director of archival operations at the National Archives at Denver. And how did the whole project come up in the first place? What made NARA decide, let’s do these records of this particular piece of history?

Gwen Granados
It started kind of small, there was a meeting between myself and a representative of the Chinese American Historical Society in Southern California, we just ran into each other and started to have conversations about these case files. And the Chinese American Historical Society was interested in digitizing them, and I told them that labor was the issue. We didn’t have enough staff to be able to digitize these records. And they came back to me about six months later with students in hand from California State University San Bernardino, so we were able to start digitizing.

Tom Temin
So in a sense, you got Chinese labor, to look at records about Chinese labor a century earlier.

Gwen Granados
Essentially, yes, it was definitely the descendants of these records of the people in these records that drove the digitization of the records.

Tom Temin
And I imagine the difficulty of getting them online is not digitizing you pass them through a scanner and NARA is pretty good at that. But how do you index them? When people whose names might have been rendered in Chinese characters originally could have dozens of types of spellings and transliterations into English.

Gwen Granados
Yeah, that has been and a challenge with these records over time is that the translations of names are coming largely from non-Chinese speaking immigration authorities. And so a lot of the names can be misspelled. And the researchers in these records are very familiar with that. And even within the records themselves, names changed. And there are also cultural reasons why there are different names for Chinese immigrants and Chinese citizens. So we actually have now that we’ve put them up online have created what we call a citizen archivists mission for those records and other Chinese heritage records. And people are going in and transcribing and then also adding tags. So if there are variant spellings and things like that those are getting pulled out now and people can start to search in the National Archives catalog that way.

Tom Temin
Because someone with a particular Chinese last name rendered in English, it could have been different a generation or two ago, I’m thinking of like we used to call Beijing Peking at one time, and you know, even in the American culture, the references to overseas nations and cities evolves over time.

Gwen Granados
Right, right. And a last name like Xi, you know, Xi can also be rendered as Chi and in other ways in English.

Tom Temin
For someone looking to find these, what types of learnings might they get from reading one of the records?

Gwen Granados
Well, there’s a lot of material in these records that comes out of the tendency of Immigration and Naturalization to do interrogations, there was some fraud involved with this particular law. And there were people that were trying to get around the law, and coaching people who became known as paper sons, so claiming that they were related to people that they weren’t. And when immigration kind of uncovered that this was happening, they started these really intense interrogations of individuals who were leaving the country and then coming back. And what we find in those is some very detailed descriptions of places that people had been when they were in the United States, their family relationships, their business relationships, and also information about their families and villages in China. So it really is a great way to learn not only about somebody’s individual history, but about how community develops, and about how the migration occurs from China to the United States.

Tom Temin
And just to get back to a technical point, you mentioned transcriptions, a lot of the early records and how late did they go that they were handwritten in fountain pen by the INS person?

Gwen Granados
Well, you know, luckily, for our transcribers, right around the turn of the century, the typewriter becomes incredibly important in the American office. So a lot of these are actually typewritten in a lot of them, because there were so many people going through this process, there are forms. And so the forms are printed with, you know, just names kind of written in so it’s not too, too bad. There are some of the early records that are handwritten, but for the most part, they’re typewritten.

Tom Temin
Because census records, the ones I have from my family, the most recent ones they released, maybe not now were 1940. And those were taken door to door by someone with really good penmanship. But it is written into a form.

Gwen Granados
Right, right. And 1950, by the way, is the most recent census that you can find online. So head over and do 10 more years of research if you get a chance. But yeah, because these are more case file oriented and not kind of the ad hoc, like a census going out to somebody’s home, they do tend to be a little bit more formulated.

Tom Temin
Have you had any levels of uptake? In looking at the online or any other reactions that you have to making this resource available?

Gwen Granados
Yes, we’ve had a lot of interest online. It is one of our most popular Citizen Archivist missions for involvement. And I know that that is because the community itself is very involved. And I have spoken with people who are, you know, family members of people who were putting online who are transcribing their own family’s materials and then moving on to transcribe other materials as well. And they’re sharing it with each other. And there’s just really a community around these records, which is wonderful to see.

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