Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month was enacted into law by Congress on October 23, 1992 and signed into law by President Bush. It replaced Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week, which was first proclaimed by President Carter in 1979. It joins National Hispanic Heritage Month as one of the few designated cultural heritage or history months enacted into law by Congress. By contrast, Black History Month and Women’s History Month have never been enacted by law, but continue merely by annual Presidential proclamation.
The quest for this law began in 1976 when President Ford proclaimed February as Black History Month during the U.S. Bicentennial to recognize the contribution of African-Americans to the nation’s history and culture. Jeanie Fong-Lee Jew, a Chinese-American banker in her 30s, noticed that Asian Americans were completely left out of the Bicentennial celebrations and seemed destined to be written out of the country’s historical and cultural narrative altogether. Inspired by family stories of her grandfather, who himself worked on the Transcontinental Railroad and was killed while standing up to a white mob in Oregon in the 1890s, Ms. Jew began a crusade to establish a month to commemorate Asian/Pacific Americans’ (APA) contributions to U.S. history.
May was chosen because it marks the month when Japanese immigration to the US began (May 7, 1843) and when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed by Chinese workers (May 10, 1869).
Ms. Jew approached many people in her quest, among them:
- Jack Herrity, the chairman of the Fairfax County (Virginia) Board of Supervisors in suburban DC. Elected to his office in 1976, Mr. Herrity, recognizing the explosive growth of APA in his county, was the first senior executive official in the US to proclaim an APA Heritage Week. It would become the model for Congress.
- Congressman Frank Horton (R-NY), whose administrative assistant was her childhood schoolmate, Ruby Moy.
In the House of Representatives, Congressman Horton, who served beside the highly decorated all-Japanese-American 442nd regiment in WWII, pounced on the idea, but suggested that they had a better chance of success to propose a week, instead of a month. By that time, numerous Asian-American groups across the country, like the Japanese-American Citizens League (JACL) and the Organization for Chinese Americans (OCA), had formed a coalition in San Francisco. Joining the bandwagon were Congressmen Norman Mineta (D-CA) and Robert Matsui (D-CA). The resolution passed the House with 218 votes.
In the Senate, Daniel Inouye (D-HI), Spark Matsunaga (D-HI) and S.I. Hayakawa (R-CA) rallied for the bill, which made its way through the Senate Judiciary Committee to pass.
President Carter proclaimed on March 28, 1979 the first Asian Pacific American Heritage Week beginning on May 4, 1979.
In 1990, President Bush extended it to a full month, but it still required a Congressional resolution every year. To honor the retiring Congressman Horton in 1992, President Bush signed House Resolution 5572, cementing APA Heritage Month into perpetuity.
Ms. Jew, who later became the National President of the Organization of Chinese American Women (OCAW), finally achieved her quest to make it the law of the land.
- Full text of the Public Law: http://www.loc.gov/law/help/commemorative-observations/pdf/106%20stat%202251.pdf
- Pub. L. 102-450 (Historical resolutions): http://www.loc.gov/law/help/commemorative-observations/asian.php
- Asian American cibil rights (future post)
- Welcome to Asian American History Month
- Nominations for Asian American History Month
- Asian Americans
- What I was not taught about American history
- Welcome to White History Month!
- White History Month
- Black History Month