Columbia Law School Recognizes First Asian American Graduate

Posted by on Jan 13, 2021 in Current Events, People and Culture

The late 1800s were a time of significant racial unrest in the United States.. Many Chinese Americans were among the victims of racism. This included discriminatory legislation such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited more Chinese workers from coming to the United States.

In the midst of this intolerance, a man named Hong Yen Chang made a name for himself as the first Chinese American graduate of Columbia Law School. He was also the first Chinese American to become a lawyer in the United States.

Who Was Hong Yen Chang?

Chang was born in the Chinese province of Guangdong in 1860. In 1872, he came to the United States as part of a program for academically gifted Chinese boys, called the Chinese Educational Mission. After arriving in the U.S., Chang attended Yale University and then earned a Law Degree at Columbia Law School.

But graduating from law school isn’t enough to make one a lawyer. One must also apply to pass their state’s bar exam—a qualifying test for professional lawyers. Chang applied to the New York State Bar but was rejected because he wasn’t a citizen. But he kept trying. Eventually Chang became a naturalized citizen of New York and successfully passed the exam.

From New York, Chang moved to California, where he planned to work with the Chinese American community in San Francisco. But the California State Bar refused to admit him. Chang’s case went all the way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled that he couldn’t be admitted to the state bar because the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented it.

While many Western states like California encouraged white and European settlers, Asian immigrants were never allowed to become naturalized citizens in these places. This prevented them from owning land, voting, holding certain jobs, or marrying people of other races. Chang was never admitted to the California State Bar and never permitted to practice law in the state of California.

Recognizing Chang’s Accomplishments

Although Chang never practiced law in California, he did join the Chinese Diplomatic Service. He served as a banker and later as a trainer in the Chinese navy, before passing away in 1926. But his legacy lived on.

This year, Columbia University is honoring Chang by naming their Center for Chinese Legal Studies after him. As of this week, the Center will be known as the Hong Yen Chang Center for Chinese Legal Studies.

Dig Deeper Use Internet resources to find out more about the Chinese Exclusion Act. What was the reasoning behind it? When was it repealed? Write a short paragraph about what you learn.