Yick Wo is a familiar name, or at least it should be to every law student. The case of Yick Wo v. Hopkins has been cited more than 150 times before the Supreme Court.

This laundryman's challenge of a San Francisco ordinance went all the way to the highest court in the land and established that the 14th Amendment meant that all persons had the right to equal protection under the law.

In the 1880s, Chinese immigrants were blamed for taking away scarce jobs from white laborers. There was a campaign to get rid of the Chinese and send them back to China.

The Board of Supervisors took note of this. After all, it was a political body. White laborers had the vote. The Chinese immigrants did not.

On May 26, 1880, the supervisors passed Ordinance 156, saying persons could not operate a laundry in a wooden building without a permit from the board.

At the time the city had 320 laundries, 310 of them in wooden buildings. The Chinese owned more than 200 of them.

Yick Wo had been washing clothes in his laundry for 22 years. He had a valid license issued by the Board of Fire Wardens. He also had been inspected by the health department, and his facility had passed every time.

When the new ordinance went into effect he applied for a permit and was turned down. He continued to wash clothes and was arrested by police Chief Hopkins and fined $10 by the court.

Yick Wo refused to pay and was put in jail. He sued for a writ of habeas corpus.


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While the Chinese couldn't vote, they realized that there were laws that protected them and there was a treaty between the United States and China, which had been violated.

The laundrymen organized a guild, the Fung Hing Hong. It hired three of the best attorneys in the area, Hall McAllister, D.L. Smoot and C.L. Van Schaick.

Wo Lee, another laundryman, also sued. The state Supreme Court and the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the two. The cases were bundled together and sent to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Every time the laundrymen's attorneys appeared in any court, they pointed out that the supervisors denied permits to all 200 Chinese laundries that applied and granted permits to all 80 laundries owned by white persons.

It took six years, but finally, on May 11, 1886, the Alta California was able to report that the laundrymen had won their case.

"The Supreme Court holds the ordinance to be discriminating against the Chinese and is therefore illegal and a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution." It was a unanimous vote. Supreme Court Justice T. Stanley Matthews writing the opinion for the court said the ordinance had been applied arbitrarily without reason and while the San Francisco ordinance appeared to be race neutral on its face it was administrated with "an evil eye and unequal hand."

Days Gone By appears on Sundays. Contact Nilda Rego at nildarego@comcast.net.