Tweet thread by Beth Lew-Williams, professor of History at Princeton, 4/12/19


When profs @Stanford launched an investigation of Chinese railroad workers on the Central Pacific, I thought this might bring a reckoning akin to the slavery and justice projects at other universities. Under the direction of profs Gordon H. Chang and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, however, it became both more and less. It flourished into a 7-year transnational, interdisciplinary collaboration, a website, public history events, and two books.


But the larger project of recovering the experiences of Chinese RR workers—so important and necessary—dwarfed the question of Leland Stanford’s role and the University’s obligations. And the truth is there are no easy answers. As CA governor, Leland Stanford declared the Chinese “an inferior race,” calling for a “country settled by free white men.” As president of the CPRR, however, he turned to Chinese labor in desperation and justified his choice, describing the Chinese as “quiet” & “industrious.”


As many as 20,000 Chinese worked on the CPRR, tunneling through the Sierras. They earned less than white men and did more hazardous work. When they struck for higher wages in 1867, the CPRR cut off their supplies and starved them out. Both literally and figuratively, Chinese workers built Stanford University. First their backbreaking labor on the railroad built Stanford’s vast wealth. Then they helped to construct the university itself, including planting every tree on the iconic Palm Drive. 50 Chinese served the Stanfords in their private Palo Alto home, fed them & nursed them through illness. The Stanfords grew fond of their Chinese servants & gave gifts to a chosen few. At the same time, Leland Stanford championed Chinese Restriction & Exclusion as a US senator, working to end Chinese migration. He denounced anti-Chinese violence in CA, but gave into vigilantes’ demands to lay off workers.


Just before he died in 1892, Stanford had second thoughts. “One time I had some fears of the Chinese overrunning the country, but for some years I have had none,” he said. “We need the Chinese here to work… I don’t know what we would do without them.” Faint praise, indeed. It feels easier to condemn slavery, and universities’ ties to it, than to condemn this blend of racism/nativism. Perhaps it’s easier to agree, in retrospect, that slavery was immoral, than it is to contemplate, in the present day, the ethics of immigrant labor exploitation.