On May 10th of this year, the transcontinental railroad will be 145 years old. On that day in 1869, track laid by Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad companies finally connected, and insodoing created a railway that spanned 1,928 miles. For the first time in American history, it was possible to travel from coast-to-coast without sailing around the North American continent.
It is estimated that as many as 12,000 Chinese American labourers helped build the transcontinental railroad, predominantly on the West Coast. Working for a fraction of the pay of their non-Asian White counterparts, Chinese “coolie” labourers were assigned some of the most dangerous tasks, including blasting away rocks that lay in the path of the track. Unknown numbers of Chinese American men lost their lives in the course of laying the railroad. This was in part because of ongoing anti-Asian racism among the work crews; White labourers viewed their Chinese American colleagues with disdain, calling them “midgets”, “effeminate” and “monkeys”. Nonetheless, Chinese American labourers participated in the construction of virtually every railroad track on the West coast built during that era.
Yet, when the railroad was completed on May 10th, 1869, an event commemorated in a historical photograph that showed actual railroad workers crowded around the final spike as it is hammered into the ground, Chinese American labourers were left out of the photograph. They were literally erased from history.
Every year on May 10th, that historic photograph is re-created by the park officials who maintain the national park commemorating the site of the Golden Spike ceremony. And every year, park officials refuse to make any specific effort to make the Asian American community visible in the photograph recreation.
This year, acclaimed Asian American photographer and historian, Corky Lee — whose iconic black-and-white photographs have documented some of the most landmark moments in the political history of Asian America — is organizing a “flashmob” style event to correct the historic wrong of that 1869 Golden Spike Ceremony photograph.
On Saturday, May 10th at 9:30am, Corky is inviting Asian Americans to join him at the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Tremonton, Utah (group transportation is being organized from Salt Lake City). He is hoping to get at least 145 Asian Americans to join him in recreating that historic photograph, but this time with the faces of Asian America front and center!
If you are 1) Asian American, and 2) able to get to Utah on May 10th, I urge you to please come out and help him in making this important project happen! Please help challenge the erasure of Asian Americans from the history of the transcontinental railroad.
Please join (and share) this Facebook Event page to help get the word out.
And, if you are able to make it to Utah on May 10th, please contact Ze Xiao (zxiao [at] slco [dot] org), who is coordinating transportation to the Golden Spike site for Corky’s photograph.