Mary Tape’s Story 

“It seems no matter how a Chinese may live and dress so long as you know they are Chinese. Then they are hated as one. There is not any right or justice for them.” –Mary Tape

Mary Tape was born near Shanghai, China and emigrated to San Francisco in 1868. She is best known for her efforts to desegregate California’s public schools in the 1880s, seven decades before the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision established that segregation in schools was unconstitutional. In the 1880s, widespread anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States, and on the West Coast in particular, led to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which remained in effect until 1943. The California Constitution at the time went so far as to declare Chinese citizens to be “dangerous to the well-being of the state.” Under state law, children of Chinese descent were forbidden from attending public school. When Tape brought her daughter to school for the first time, in the fall of 1884, they were not permitted to enter. Tape sued the San Francisco School District, challenging the city to offer public education to all Asian children. Although the Tapes won their lawsuits for equal treatment in the California Supreme Court, the San Francisco Board of Education created a separate school for Chinese students. Years later, seeking less discrimination, the ability to send their youngest child to integrated schools, and the legal right to purchase property outside of San Fransisco’s Chinatown, the Tape family relocated to Berkeley, California. In addition to her activism and raising four children, Mary Tape was an amateur photographer.

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Books and Secondary sources

Ngai, Mae. The Lucky Ones: One Family and the Extraordinary Invention of Chinese America. Princeton University Press, 2012. 

Chang, Iris. The Chinese in America: A Narrative History. Penguin, 2004.  

Online Resources 

Kamiya, Gary. “How Chinese Americans won the right to attend SF schools.” SF Chronicle,  April 29, 2017,

Thompson, Daniella. “The Tapes of Russell Street: An accomplished family of school desegregation pioneers.” Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association, April 30, 2004,

 Pruitt, Sarah. “The 8-Year-Old Chinese-American Girl Who Helped Desegregate Schools—in 1885.” History, May 13, 2019, 

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