April 2013 Bar Bulletin
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Expelling the Chinese

The Founding of the King County Bar Association

By Marc Lampson


"Justice... Professionalism...Service... since 1886."

It appears on the front of every issue of the Bar Bulletin. If you noticed it, did you wonder what it meant? Seattle's social climate the year of the founding of the King County Bar Association was significant to the culture that emerged then and grew to characterize the KCBA as a strong advocate for social justice.

In 1886, there was a recession on and unemployment was high. The timber and railroad business that sustained the Pacific Northwest was down. Less like today, there were distinct classes: the early settlers and their well-off professional associates; an insurgent class of laborers and small business people, feeling very pessimistic about the promise of wealth the land had once held; and finally, a group that could serve as a scapegoat for everyone else's perceived bad luck: the Chinese.

Many of the laid-off timber or mining workers joined the nationwide agitation that began in the 1880s against Chinese immigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act had been passed by Congress in 1882. The act prohibited further immigration of the Chinese into the United States, except for a small group of ministers, scholars and merchants, and prohibited the Chinese already here from becoming U.S. citizens.

There were anti-Chinese riots throughout the West: Rock Springs, Wyoming; Newcastle, Oregon; and Black Diamond and Tacoma in Washington. Seattle's divisions also widened, with two white-citizens groups forming. One was a vigilante group, which advocated direction and deportation. The second was known as the "Law and Order" group, whose leaders advocated legal means to limit and expel the Chinese population

Lawyers were conspicuous among the leadership in both groups. George Venable Smith and Junius Rochester were vocal among the vigilantes. Judges Thomas Burke and Roger Greene were among the Law and Order advocates, concerned that vigilante action would hurt the reputation and, hence, the economic well-being of the growing city. Both groups met feverishly throughout the last months of 1885 and early 1886 - separately and, contentiously, together.

Tensions were so high that the U.S. Secretary of War issued an order for federal troops to be sent to Seattle. When they arrived, however, they treated the Chinese almost as badly as had Seattle's citizens. Though some calm was restored, the inevitable confrontation exploded on the streets.

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