Born in San Francisco, Mamie Tape was the daughter of two Chinese immigrants who tried to enroll eight-year-old Mamie in San Francisco’s public Spring Valley School in 1884. When Mamie was turned away from the school, her parents sued the city for violating an 1880 law that guaranteed “all children . . . residing in the district” admission to public schools. A Superior Court judge ruled that “To deny a child, born of Chinese parents in this State, entrance to the public schools would be a violation of the law of the State and the Constitution of the United States.” The California Supreme Court also found in the Tapes’ favor. Mamie was denied admission again, however, ostensibly because the school was at capacity and Mamie lacked a certificate of vaccination.

In order to avoid integrating its public schools, San Francisco passed a special provision to “establish separate schools for children of Mongolian or Chinese descent. When such separate schools are established Chinese or Mongolian children must not be admitted into any other schools.” Though the Tapes had won their case, the provision prevented Mamie from attending Spring Valley, and in April 1885, she and her brother Frank became the first students of San Francisco’s Chinese Primary School.

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