On the night of October 31, 1880, a fight broke out at John Asmussen’s Saloon in Denver. The scuffle, which involved two Chinese men and several of the bar’s white patrons, spilled out onto Wazee Street in a poor, majority-Chinese neighborhood that bordered the city’s red-light district.
Soon, some 3,000 white people had gathered, terrorizing Chinese residents and destroying Chinese-owned businesses and property. Despite a murder and property damage totaling more than $53,000 (the equivalent of roughly $1.5 million today), the perpetrators were never punished. Chinese businesss and property owners were never compensated for their losses, either.
Now, 142 years later, the city of Denver is formally apologizing for the incident, believed to be the Mile High City’s first race riot.
Per Rocky Mountain PBS’ Kyle Cooke, Denver mayor Michael Hancock signed a letter at an event on April 16 at the University of Colorado Denver “sincerely apologizing” to Denver’s early Chinese residents and their descendants, noting that the city contributed to “nearly a century of violence and discrimination” by way of “racial hostility and institutional inequities” toward Chinese immigrants.
In the letter, Hancock detailed various discriminatory practices and racist actions the city took toward Asian American residents throughout history, including forcing Chinese immigrants to live in a segregated area and, later, condemning and dismantling the city’s Chinatown neighborhood.
“An admission of the wrongs committed and its failure to correct them is a first step toward recognizing and honoring [Asian American and Pacific Islanders'] contributions and can contribute to racial reconciliation,” according to the letter. “It will also serve to educate those who are ignorant of this shameful chapter in Colorado’s history and hopefully bring some closure to the families whose loved ones suffered racial violence and abuse.”
Those wrongs began years before the riot. Chinese immigrants began moving to Denver in 1869, finding work on railroads, in mines and in the service industry. The city only allowed them to live in a small section of town on Wazee Street between 15th and 17th streets, an area that became known as Chinatown, then used restrictive covenants and unspoken agreements to keep them from moving elsewhere and taking on other, better-paying jobs.
Meanwhile, a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment was building across the country, including in the Centennial State. White men pushed Chinese immigrants out of Colorado mining towns like Leadville and Nederland, and, acting under the misconception that the immigrants presented a health hazard to white residents, used them as scapegoats for crimes, job losses and social ills. Newspapers like Denver’s Rocky Mountain News published anti-Chinese editorials, even going so far as to call Chinese immigrants the “Pest of the Pacific.”
Three days before the Halloween riot, the Rocky Mountain News reported on chatter about pushing Chinese immigrants out of the city; the night before, white men marched through the streets holding anti-Chinese banners.
“Denver,” writes University of Nebraska historian Mark R. Ellis in the Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, “was ready to explode.”
Explode it did. During the riot, the mob first attempted to hang a man named Look Young, then dragged him through the streets and beat him to death. The city’s understaffed police department was overwhelmed by the mob, and firefighters assigned to help stanch the violence exacerbated it by turning their hoses on the crowd. Eventually, the police jailed over 100 Chinese people for their own protection, incarcerating them until November 4.
“Chinatown is now a mass of ruins,” the Rocky Mountain News reported a few days after the riot. “Every Chinese abode in town may be said to have been destroyed.”
Nor was the riot an isolated incident. There were 153 anti-Chinese riots in the American West during the 1870s and 1880s, Ellis notes.
Colorado Asian Pacific United, an advocacy group, helped organize the letter-signing event with the city to raise awareness about the 1880 riot and Denver’s racist history. Joie Ha, who serves as the organization’s vice chair, tells NBC News’ Tat Bellamy-Walker the apology was a good first step toward acknowledging both the struggles and the contributions of Asian Americans in Colorado. According to Denverite’s Christen Aldridge, the group and the city plan to build cultural learning centers and an Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) museum.
The apology coincides with a nationwide surge of racially motivated violence and discrimination toward Asian Americans. Anti-Asian hate crimes spiked during the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 10,000 incidents occurring between March 2020 and September 2021, according to data gathered by the nonprofit Asian American-Pacific Islander Equity Alliance.
Until now, the city’s main public acknowledgement of the incident was a plaque that hangs in the city’s Lower Downtown neighborhood, not far from the city’s baseball stadium, Coors Field.
But even the plaque is problematic: It misidentifies the incident as a “Chinese riot” and, instead of focusing on the victims, names several white people who “protected” the Chinese immigrants. It also includes the phrase “Hop Alley,” a derogatory descriptor that referred to the area’s opium dens. Advocates are now pushing to have the plaque replaced.
“We’re being seen,” Ha tells NBC. “Oftentimes, Asian Americans are the invisible minority. A lot of things that go on in our community aren’t really taken seriously; they’re brushed under the rug.”