House Tour Remembers Desegregation Pioneers

By DANIELLA THOMPSON Special to the Planet
Tuesday May 04, 2004

One of the highlights of the 29th annual Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association 29th Spring House Tour on Sunday, May 9, is the Tape House on Russell Street near Shattuck Avenue. It was once the home of the pioneering Tape family. 

Acclaimed Berkeley filmmaker and UC Ethnic Studies lecturer Loni Ding is currently completing a documentary called Mamie Tape and the Fight for Equality in Education, 1885–1954. Mamie Tape was an 8-year old San Francisco girl who, in 1884, was denied admission to the neighboring public school because of her Chinese descent. Mamie’s parents were Americanized Christians educated by Presbyterian missionaries. Joseph C. Tape (1852–1935) and his wife Mary McGladery (1857–1934) were born in China and came to California in 1869 and 1868, respectively. They met in San Francisco, married in 1875, and raised four children: Mamie (1876–1972), Frank (1878–1950), Emily (1880–1934), and Gertrude (1890–1947). Mr. Tape was an expressman—he had a monopoly on transporting bonded Chinese immigrants and handled large drayage contracts for wholesale merchants in Chinatown. In addition, he was the interpreter to the Imperial Consulate of China in San Francisco. 

Mary McGladery Tape, an orphan from the Shanghai area, was multi-talented and progressive to a degree rarely seen in Victorian ladies. An accomplished amateur photographer, painter, and telegrapher, she was also imbued with a strong sense of justice. She and her husband knew that restrictive school laws embedded in the California Political Code had been repealed by the state legislature in April 1880. Section 1662 of the revised Code read: 

“Every school, unless otherwise provided by law, must be open for the admission of all children between 6 and 21 years of age residing in the district; and the board of trustees, or city board of education, have power to admit adults and children not residing in the district whenever good reason exists therefor. Trustees shall have the power to exclude children of filthy and vicious habits, or children suffering from contagious or infectious diseases.” 

The Tapes sued the San Francisco Board of Education in the landmark Tape v. Hurley case, which is still cited as precedent in racial quota lawsuits. On Jan. 9, 1885, Superior Court Judge McGuire decided the case in favor of the parents, writing, “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 school board appealed the decision to the California Supreme Court. Fearing a negative ruling, School Superintendent Andrew Jackson Moulder lobbied a compliant state legislature to introduce Assembly Bill 268, which was passed under an “urgency provision.” AB 268 added the following coda to Section 1662 of the Political Code, which would not be repealed until 1947: 

“...and also 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.” 

In April 1885, Mamie Tape was again denied admission to Spring Valley School. Her mother sent an impassioned letter to the school board on April 8: 


To the Board of Education—dear sirs: I see that you are going to make all sorts of excuses to keep my child out of the Public schools. Dear sirs, Will you please to tell me! Is it a disgrace to be Born a Chinese? Didn’t God make us all!!! What right have you to bar my children out of the school because she is a chinese Decend.  


Although Mary vowed in her letter that Mamie would “never attend any of the Chinese schools of your making,” both Mamie and her brother Frank were the first pupils to appear at the Chinese Primary School, which opened on April 13, 1885. In an 1892 interview, Mary told a reporter of the San Francisco Call: “Their education in the common branches has been gained at the Chinese public school on Clay Street, and their other accomplishments by private tutors. Each of them has some accomplishment, and my eldest daughter Mamie is quite proficient on the piano.” 

Most accomplished in the family was Mary herself. According to photography historian Peter E. Palmquist, she was “a very popular member of the California Camera Club and of the amateur photography scene. Not only was she considered a fine photographic technician but she also won a number of salon awards for the artistic excellence of her photography.” Mary photographed landscapes, portraits, and still life, prepared her own plates, and made her own prints. Her photographs were exhibited at the Mechanics’ Institute. She was also a proficient painter in oil and on china. One of her painted dishes is included in the Smithsonian collections. 

Mary’s proficiency in Morse code was noted twice in newspapers of the period. In an 1889 interview, the “Chinese Edison” Wong Hong Tai deemed Mary his equal in both telegraphy and photography, adding that they regularly conversed on the telephone, “discussing science at long range.” Tai had invented a new camera, and Mary was creating extra-sensitive dry plates for capturing “trotters in motion and birds in flight.” In 1892, the Call reporter noted, “She can send and receive as well as the best operators, and keeps in constant practice by daily use of the instruments, connected with a line running from the house to some point near her husband’s place of business. […] The telegraph instrument is on a table in the dining room and its least click can be heard in any part of the house.” 

In 1895, the Tapes’ youngest daughter, Gertrude, reached school age. The family moved to Berkeley, where schools were integrated and where they were able to buy a home (in San Francisco, restrictive clauses in most property deeds barred Chinese from occupying property outside Chinatown). They bought a Victorian house on Russell Street near Shattuck Avenue, which remained in the possession of the family until 1949. The Tape house will be open on the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association’s house tour, 1-5 p.m. Sunday, May 9. Loni Ding hopes to complete her film and screen it in the Tape house during the tour.