Last year, I wrote about the story of Hong Yen Chang, a Chinese immigrant and law student who received his law degree from Columbia in 1868, and who moved to California to practice law in 1890, only to be barred from admission into the California State Bar because he was “Mongoloid”. Federal law at the time prohibited anyone of Asian descent from naturalizing as citizens.
Chang was one of the country’s first Chinese American Ivy Leaguers, and he had already made history after graduating from Columbia when he fought for his right to practice law in the state of New York; he challenged the initial decision to deny him entry into the New York State Bar, and won his case before the New York Supreme Court to become the first Chinese lawyer in the United States.
However, when Chang moved to California to serve the state’s growing Chinese immigrant population — many of whom endured systemic racial discrimination under the state’s growing spate of racist anti-Asian laws coupled with prohibitions against non-Whites from testifying in their own defense in court — Chang was denied permission to take California’s State Bar Exam. Chang challenged the California State Bar in California’s Supreme Court, but that Court — unlike in New York — ruled against Chang, citing the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act as evidence that Chang was ineligible for US citizenship on the basis of his race, and a state law that barred non-citizens from practicing law in the state of California. That decision later became known as one of California’s most historically racist Supreme Court decisions.