Immigrants of Yesteryear

Fighting for a living wage or just fighting to live?
Fighting for a living wage or just fighting to live?

Rock Springs, Wyoming 1885. A massacre that killed 28-50 Chinese miners seems a pretty solid case of racism–but no. Life and the hearts of men are never that simple.

The  ideal of masculinity in the late 19th century was on a collision course with a new corporate manhood. One claimed a man to be an independent contractor with decision-making rights. The other believed the people who paid the wages had the say.

Then came the Chinese, willing to work for next to nothing and willing to undercut the wages of everybody else (incidentally the white miners were also immigrants from all over Europe).

For some years they worked side by side in uneasy and unaddressed tension. They slept on different sides of this coal town built solely to fuel the railroad while the railroad fueled the hostility. The Knights of Labor fighting for the working men loathed the Chinese. Everyone’s wages were cut or kept low. A living wage was defined differently by the Europeans who planned to stay in the US and set about having families and the Chinese who were willing to live six men to a room in hopes of having enough money to go home one day back to wives and children in China. As long as the Chinese took lower pay more Chinese would be hired and white jobs lost.

At the time it was illegal to hire illegal new Chinese workers, but no one knew who was legal or illegal. In the workers’ minds the Union Pacific robbed them of their manhood every time they hired a “coolie” (a low skilled indentured worker).

And then it happened. An argument over room assignments (in mines there are rooms) turned violent. Different accounts blame one side or the other for the first shovel or pick to the face but soon all hell broke loose. Miners gathered and spontaneously went mad on the streets of the little Chinatown of Rock Springs, shooting, maiming and butchering men they’d worked with for years. Setting fires to the houses and to the small savings within the wooden structures, men released a crazy rage.

Men who worked for family, now set upon humans for blood. What good could come of it? Imagine killing someone and then going home to your family. But were they racist? Or were they union men against a population who didn’t respect the value of manhood and undermined it by their very presence?

Is there freedom in settling for just above nothing if at home in China you have nothing? What does freedom mean when it comes to wages? Are the owners free? Are the workers? Do unions or even communist dictatorships work? Corruption, corruption. The railroads were corrupt and broke. They cut wages and hired desperate foreign people while some insiders skimmed money all along the ride.

The whites who made a ghost town of Chinatown were never charged. People all over the West felt the same uneasy way about the Chinese. They took but didn’t give back, some said though the lawmakers made it impossible for them to really call the US home. Miners in a quickly moving train of corporate, unknowable power turned on the ones settling for scraps.

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