Today in Asian American Pacific Islander Transportation History – May 9: Honoring Chinese Immigrant Railroad Labor

In a ceremony at the U.S. Labor Department headquarters in Washington, D.C., approximately 12,000 Chinese immigrant laborers were inducted into the Labor Hall of Honor for their work on the First Transcontinental Railroad during the 1860s. These laborers were the first Asian Americans to be inducted into the Hall of Labor since its establishment in 1988. The ceremony took place about 145 years after the First Transcontinental Railroad was officially completed with the driving of a golden spike into the ground at Promontory Summit, Utah.

A.J. Russell image of the celebration following the driving of the “Last Spike” at Promontory Summit, U.T., May 10, 1869.

During the ceremony, U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas E. Perez highlighted the positive contributions of those Chinese railroad workers despite the racial prejudice, low wages, poor living conditions, and social isolation that they routinely encountered. “We are not just recognizing the miles and miles of railroad track they laid, we are recognizing them as the first in a long line Asian American and Pacific Islander workers who have contributed to America’s strength and vitality,” said Perez. “That is why we are here today, to recognize the Chinese railroad workers who didn’t just build railroads, they helped build a nation.”

Others speaking at the ceremony included Norman Y. Mineta, who was the first Asian American to serve as U.S. secretary of transportation. He said, “For me, it is an honor to be here today, especially as this event ties together two incredibly important events of my life. First, as an Asian-Pacific American. Secondly, as a former secretary of transportation.” Mineta also emphasized the significance and scope of the First Transcontinental Railroad, likening that transportation project to the development of the Interstate Highway System and implementation of the Apollo spaceflight program. He asserted, “The Transcontinental Railroad was one of the largest and most dramatic examples of infrastructure ever constructed in human history.”

Mineta, who had been forced along with his family to relocate to an internment camp for Japanese Americans during World War II, also took time during his remarks to underscore the discrimination faced by the Chinese railroad workers. “When some objections were raised to hiring laborers of Chinese ancestry, the observation was made that China had built the Great Wall of China and had invented gunpowder, surely they could build the railroad,” said Mineta. “So, we are here today to celebrate the fact that they did.” Mineta added, “More importantly, I believe we are here today to celebrate what people can do when they are given the chance to show what they can do.”

Several descendants of those Chinese railroad workers likewise attended the ceremony. “We helped build this nation,” said Siu G. Wong, a great-granddaughter of one of the workers, in a post-ceremony interview with the newspaper China Daily USA. “We have a story that is worthy to be told. It should not be forgotten.”

For more information on the 2014 induction ceremony, please check out the 15 May 2014 Northwest Asian Weekly article “U.S. inducts Chinese railroad workers into Labor Hall of Honor” at http://nwasianweekly.com/2014/05/u-s-inducts-chinese-railroad-workers-labor-hall-honor/

A video of the ceremony is available at https://www.c-span.org/video/?319287-1/honoring-chinese-railroad-workers.

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