The History and Significance of AAPI Heritage Month

Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month honors the diverse cultures and essential contributions of the community that has played such a critical role in America’s history. Though the celebration has been recognized for over 30 years, many believe that this month may be one of the most significant observances. This past year has highlighted the long-standing discrimination and violent attacks faced by the AAPI community, leading many to emphasize how supporting the community and condemning hate is important now more than ever.

Origins of the Celebration

Today, AAPI Heritage Month celebrates the U.S.’ 23+ million Asians and Pacific Islanders, a number that has been growing rapidly since the first major wave of Asian immigration to the U.S. in the 1850s. Despite the community’s long history in the United States, its contributions have often lacked recognition.  In the spring of 1976, a single congressional staffer, Jeanie Jew, noticed this shortfall in the U.S.’ Bicentennial celebrations. 

“She thought, what are the different ways that we can promote public awareness of the contributions?” explains Claudine Cheng, former president of the OCA — Asian Pacific American Advocates, an organization Jew is a board member on.

Following the Bicentennial, Jew constructed a nationwide advocacy campaign with the assistance of Ruby Moy, Chief of Staff for New York Representative Frank Horton. In 1977, a bill was produced by Horton and others that called to designate the week of May 4, 1979, as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week. With assistance from Moy and various advocacy organizations, Jew was able to gain the support of 231 Congressional Representatives to co-sponsor the bill. It was soon passed through the House and the Senate with an overwhelming majority, and President Carter signed the joint resolution into law in 1978.

For over a decade following the bill’s signing, advocates and community organizations submitted requests to have the bill reauthorized and extended to a month-long celebration. It wasn’t until May 7, 1990, that President Bush proclaimed the month as the very first “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.” Two years afterward, Rep. Horton and numerous co-sponsors introduced legislation that would make the commemorative month an annual celebration.

The designation of AAPI Heritage month marked a critical step forward in Asian American History, one that occurred due to a national advocacy campaign sparked by Jeanie Jew’s efforts. Not only was Jew’s goal in her advocacy to commemorate Asian history representation, but also to honor her great-grandfather, M.Y. Lee, who contributed to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1800s. Lee was among 20,000 Chinese immigrants who suffered from unfair U.S. federal laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Geary Act, despite playing a critical role in the U.S.’ progress and strength. 

“It was a time of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment,” said Horton in 1992. “The revelations about Mr. Lee and the story of Asian Americans led this one woman to believe that not only should Asians understand their own heritage, but that all Americans must know about the contributions and histories of the Asian-Pacific American experience in the United States.”

AAPI heritage month is celebrated in May to honor the first known Japanese immigrant who arrived in the US in May 1843, as well as the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in May 1869. Now, the month of May is also used as a time to honor the heritages and amplify the concerns of those with origins in the East, Southeast, and the Indian subcontinent of Asia, as well as the Pacific Islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. 

The Importance of AAPI Heritage MonthOver the past year, hate crimes against Asian Americans have increased drastically since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Cal State University, San Bernadino, hate crimes against Asian Americans in major U.S. cities rose nearly 150% last year.
(will add a few concluding lines here today: hate against Asian Americans, lack of education on AAPI history, representation, extending support beyond just May)

Resources for Further Learning:

AAPI Immigration to the U.S.
The largest Asian origin groups in the U.S. today are Chinese Americans, Indian Americans, and Filipino Americans.

People v. Hall (1854)
Determined that Chinese people could not testify against white defendants.

The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882)
Prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers for 10 years. 

The Bellingham Riots (1907)
In 1907, 400-500 white men attacked the homes of South Asian Indians in Bellingham, Washington.

The Alien Land Act (1913)
Barred Asian Immigrants from owning land. 

Kala Bagai’s Arrival in the US (1915)
Kala Bagai was one of the first South Asian women to arrive in the U.S.

US v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923)
A case in which the SCOTUS determined that Thind, an Aryan man, was not eligible for naturalized US citizenship.

Japanese Internment Camps (1940s)
During World War II, about 120,000 people of Japanese descent were incarcerated in isolated concentration camps.

Advancements for Asian American Rights & Representation

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