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'Race in the City of Destiny' looks at history of communities of color in Tacoma

A handbill from 1892. Three years later, Tacoma expelled all Chinese residents.
Washington State Historical Society
A handbill from 1892. Three years later, Tacoma expelled all Chinese residents.

Through a digital oral history exhibit and a series of events, University of Puget Sound professor Andrew Gomez is looking at how Tacoma’s past racial tensions influence the city today. He just received a $50,000 humanities grant from the Whiting Foundation for his project, “Race in the City of Destiny.” 

Among other things, the project examines Tacoma’s expulsion of 700 Chinese residents in November 1885. It was three years after the U.S. passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, halting immigration from China. 

At the time, violence directed against Chinese laborers was happening around the West and in the Puget Sound region. Three Chinese hop pickers were killed by a white mob in September 1885, in what is now Issaquah. That same month Chinese coal miners in Newcastle were burned out of their homes. 

In Tacoma, city leaders and the mayor planned and methodically carried out the expulsion of nearly all the Chinese living in the city. It became known nationally as the “Tacoma Method.” Gomez and his students createda website about it. Chinese merchants and workers were forced onto trains headed out of town.

At the time there was a small Chinatown along Tacoma’s waterfront. “And it was burned down a couple of days after the expulsion and so it’s actually one of the legacies of it," Gomez said. "The very invisibility of a Chinatown in Tacoma speaks to the enduring legacy of that violence."

Gomez said the narrative of race and displacement continues in Tacoma today. A current example is the Northwest Detention Center, which houses immigrants the U.S. is trying to deport. On any given day, there are more than 1,500 detainees at the detention center.

Another part of the “Race in the City of Destiny” project involves mapping changes in the historically black Hilltop neighborhood.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.