It’s May, which means it’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. You might also have seen the shorter Asian Pacific American Heritage Month used by the Library of Congress. But you might be wondering why Americans chose May to celebrate Asian and Pacific American heritage. So let’s do a brief walkthrough of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and why we chose May to celebrate it.
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month can actually be narrowed down to a single name: Jeanie Jew. She’s a former staffer at Capitol Hill, and if not for her the ball would have gotten rolling a lot later.
So where did she get the idea? Well during the US Bicentennial celebrations in 1976, she noticed a pretty distinct absence of Asian Pacific Americans. Some foundation, the United States Bicentennial was a series of celebrations starting in mid-1975 and ending on July 4, 1976 recognizing the history that led to America becoming an independent republic. Unsurprisingly, most of it revolved around the Revolution. By this time, Jew had already seen Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Week (now Hispanic Heritage Month) cemented in federal recognition.
Her family had some very personal ties to American history too; her great grandfather, M.Y. Lee, worked building the transcontinental railroad when he came to the US from China in the 1800s. He would be killed traveling to Oregon as a result of growing anti-Asian sentiments.
If you’re caught up on American racism, you remember the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which basically did what it says on the tin. It wouldn’t be repealed until 1943, but the law repealing it only allowed 105 visas to be distributed to Chinese immigrants per year. Propping all this up was also violence against Asian immigrants, take the Chinese massacre of 1871 as just one of many in a long line that led to Jeanie Jew putting her proposal for Asian Pacific Heritage Month at the desk of Congress.
In 1976, after the US Bicentennial Jew would bring Asian Pacific Heritage Month to Frank Horton (a Republican representing New York in the House). By 1978 Horton and Norman Mineta (a Democrat representing California in the House) would propose a bill declaring the week of May 4th Asian Pacific Heritage Week. Speaking of Mineta, he was the first Asian American to serve in the presidential Cabinet. He ran for Congress as a direct result of he and his family’s internment during WWII. The resolution was passed and then-president Carter signed it into law–though not as an annual event. It wouldn’t be until 1992 that then-president Bush would make Asian Pacific Heritage Month an annual celebration. You can even read a transcript of the hearing in which Horton proposed the bill that would make the celebration annual here.
Why did Jeanie Jew propose May to Horton in the 1970s, though? Well there’s a concrete answer. Well… Answers. There are two reasons. One, the first known Japanese immigrant to the US came in May 1843. Two, the transcontinental railroad was finished in May–a project in which at least 15,000 Chinese immigrants labored.