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Reverse racist 1890 license denial – students demand

In 1890, the California state bar denied admission to a qualified applicant, already licensed in New York, solely because he was Chinese. Today, students at the University of California at Davis are seeking to admit Yale-trained Hong Yen Chang to the state bar posthumously.

Chang immigrated to the United States at age 12 as a result of the Chinese Educational Mission, a program that brought 120 Chinese students to the United States to receive a Western education. He was considered a “bright young man” and graduated from Columbia College in 1886. A change in state law in 1887 allowed him to be successfully admitted to the New York Bar in 1887.  Though an 1882 federal law barred him from gaining citizenship, he was able to become a well-respected lawyer in New York.

However, upon relocating to San Francisco in 1890, he found his admission to the California Bar denied. In its rejection, the Supreme Court cited the federal Chinese Exclusion Act in addition to a California law that directly prohibited noncitizens from the practice of law. As a result, Chang never practiced law again before his death in Berkeley in 1926.

Though California has never licensed a lawyer posthumously, other states, such as Pennsylvania and Washington State, do have precedent in the case of individuals barred due to racial or ethnic discrimination.

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