In the daylight on September 3, 1885, the survivors crept down from their hiding places in the hills. Their homes burned by a white mob the night before, the surviving Chinese mine workers had no safe retreat. They scattered along the Wyoming countryside, sobbing behind brush and rocks for what they’d seen and praying for help. Their employer — the Union Pacific Railroad, for whom they dug coal to run trains — wired local stations for engineers to stop and pick up survivors along the tracks. Deposited one hundred miles away in Evanston, the scores of rescued Rock Springs miners took refuge with the community of Chinese workers there.
Back home, their houses had been looted by white citizens — including the marm who taught them English — before they were burned. In surveying the damage afterwards, company representatives found half-charred bodies of victims trapped in the burned-out company housing and mutilated corpses in the streets. A few they buried; the rest they left for dogs and other animals to pick over. Twenty-eight was the official death count. Another fifteen were wounded, and property damage ran well over a hundred thousand dollars. The survivors lost everything they’d worked, crammed eight and nine to a house to save on rent, to build — made all the more bitter that they had just purchased their monthly supplies at the company store the day before the riot. Their full provisions were lost to looters and arsonists. They had no food or supplies left to rescue from the ashes.
Afraid for their lives, they did not want to return for the remnants anyway. Instead, they appealed to the railroad for tickets to leave the territory and the two months back wages they were owed to start someplace new. The company declined. It had brought them in as cheap labor to undercut unionized white miners and was determined to retain its workforce. So, the survivors lingered in Evanston, where they acquired weapons to protect themselves in case of more attacks from the armed white mobs building elsewhere in the area. Federal troops finally arrived to preserve a tense peace, though everyone feared another massacre would erupt. Finally, the railroad relented: the 600 Chinese men were loaded into boxcars to convey them safely to San Francisco, far from the hostility of Wyoming mines. After just a short ride in the dark cars, however, the train stopped and the doors opened onto the ruins of Rock Springs.
The boxcars were the survivors’ immobile homes for the next days. Stranded against their will, the workers resisted their boss’ demanded they return to work at the mines. In the meantime, the company provided them emergency provisions and clothing, and the army provided them protection. Afraid of suffering further violence and angered at being tricked, the men held out against their employer’s wish, however. During the days, they loitered nervously; at night, they reported, they were troubled by “frightful dreams” and slept poorly. In desperation, sixty of them took off into the wilderness to make their own way. After a few days, in order to force the remaining survivors back to work, the company cut off supplies to the men. Desperate need forced them again into the mines, anxiety over potential additional violence from white residents compounding the stressful condition of their laboring. In addition to the usual fears about accidents and work hazards, they dreaded another attack from their coworkers daily.
This is how they rebuilt the “Chinatown” at Rock Springs. With a troubling cloud of fear overshadowing them, they worked the mines and restored their community. Specialty stores and services slowly re-established after new company housing provided miners stable residences and some grounding. Federal troops stayed for thirteen years to prevent more violence; their outpost situated between the segregated racial communities in town. White miners returned to work too, and no one was ever prosecuted for the murders, looting, and arson that had occurred. The Chinese workers went into the dark mines every day with whites they knew had brutally murdered their friends and neighbors. Tense productivity that served the railroad constituted the town norm, and the Asian immigrants who could neither leave nor gain legal equality as citizens thus involuntarily sacrificed to facilitate the economic boom that lured so many to the Land of Opportunity.
“They pulled the pillow-slip over my head and told me if I took it off they would shoot me. They carried me out and whipped me powerful.”
Rep. Job Stevenson asked the victim, Mervin Givens (40), if he knew his assailants. Yes, Givens swore, the men who tore the shirt off of his back and whipped him, naked, in the dark of the rainy night because he’d voted Republican were boys he’d grown up with. Rep. Philadelph Van Trump asked Givens if he’d tried to have charges brought against the men afterwards, and the witness said he did not because he was afraid for his life.
This was July of 1871. The Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States had traveled to Spartanburg, SC to take testimony from victims of the rampant terrorism in parts of the South after the Civil War. Informally known as the “Klan Hearings,” the Congressional committee took testimony from those who were victims or had knowledge of the violence taking place and of local groups known as the Ku Klux Klan.
In Atlanta, GA, Maria Carter (28) described men coming in the night to terrorize her family. They whipped her husband and held a gun to her head, threatening her while her almost three-week-old baby lay crying nearby. Afterwards, she heard them at the next house where they lashed another man and woman. The neighbors’ screams mingled with curses from their assailants, and in the morning, Carter said, the place looked like they’d been slaughtering hogs from the blood.
In six states, Congressmen and their staff members took testimony like this. The stories were harrowing and demonstrated a pervasive effort to repress black voting and intimidate former slaves to keep them from pursuing the freedoms that should come with their citizenship. Scarred emotionally and physically, the victims knew local law enforcement would not protect them; they were abandoned by the law to these terrible horrors.
The terrorists won — they drove black voters from the polls, into second class citizenship, and to a constant state of anxiety about their safety and that of their children, families, and communities. The violence did not stop with its success, however; it continued for another hundred years. Sometimes, it came at the hands of the KKK, and other times, it was various “concerned citizens” and individuals participating in lynchings or race riots or isolated acts of brutality.
Over this violent century, a legacy of fear passed from generation to generation, incorporated into the thinking and culture of black citizens. This drove them to practice behaviors that would assist their survival. Here was the opposite of rash hysteria and emotional outbursts. They practiced deference and taught their children the same. They built their own commercial and communication networks for mutual support and hid their anger and bitterness, lest it prompt more wrath. They sought solace in their churches and kept a studied, genial mask turned to the white community. They were careful, measured in response, and acutely aware of the mammoth injustice that was their daily burden — extensions, really, of their response to the horror of slavery.
The violent repression of black Americans — particularly in the south — was clandestine but not secret. From these first days of freedom, there was testimony and evidence of the cruel intimidation — and of the terror with which black Americans lived. No one could be ignorant of it. White America intentionally turned a blind eye to it, leaving their black neighbors to shoulder all the pain and misery that fear and powerlessness forced on them — and to find ways to make life fulfilling and circumvent their situations the best they could to bring some value to their menaced lives.