Denver Removes Plaque Inaccurately Describing Anti-Chinese Riot of 1880

The historical marker contained a number of falsehoods about the Mile High City’s first race riot

Unscrewing the plaque
City officials took down the plaque on August 8. City of Denver

Earlier this year, the city of Denver formally apologized for an anti-Chinese riot that took place in 1880. Now, it has also taken down an inaccurate historical marker describing the incident.

City officials, along with members of Denver’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community, removed the plaque on Monday following mounting criticism about its offensive and incomplete description of the deadly event, which is believed to have been the city’s first race riot.

Removing the plaque “eliminates a misleading narrative about Denver’s historic Chinatown that has stigmatized the Chinese people then and now,” says William Wei, a historian at the University of Colorado Boulder and a board member for Colorado Asian Pacific United (CAPU), in a statement.

Denver anti-Chinese riot plaque
Until the formal apology on April 16, Denver’s main public acknowledgment of the riot was this plaque. Wally Gobetz via Flickr under CC BY-SA 2.0

The anti-Chinese riot occurred on the night of Halloween in 1880. It started as a scuffle between two Chinese men and several white patrons at one of Denver’s saloons before snowballing into an out-of-control brawl on Wazee Street, per History Colorado. Eventually, some 3,000 white people formed a mob and began terrorizing the city’s Chinese residents. They destroyed Chinese-owned property and businesses, beat Chinese residents and ultimately killed a Chinese man named Look Young.

Members of the white mob caused $53,000 worth of property damage (about $1.5 million today), but they were never held accountable for their actions. The city’s Chinese residents were left to pick up the pieces on their own and were never compensated for the damage.

Michael Hancock, Denver’s mayor, says in a statement that removing the historical marker is “another step toward reconciliation and righting the terrible wrongs that were committed in the past against our Asian American community.”

“We had a chance to right a wrong,” Hancock tells 9News’ Jennifer Campbell-Hicks. “It’s never too late to apologize for something that’s happened.”

Denver mayor reading plaque
Michael Hancock, Denver’s mayor, read the plaque before city officials removed it. City of Denver

At some point, the city tried to acknowledge the violent riot by hanging a plaque on the exterior of a building in the Lower Downtown neighborhood, a busy, high-foot traffic area not far from Denver’s professional baseball stadium, Coors Field.

But the plaque’s text was riddled with inaccuracies and offensive statements. For starters, it described the incident as a “Chinese riot,” instead of an anti-Chinese riot. It also included the derogatory phrase “Hop Alley” to explain where the incident took place, referring to the area’s opium dens. It heralded the white people who “protected” Chinese immigrants, going so far as to include some of their names. At the same time, the plaque did not name Young, the Chinese man killed in the riot. Aisha Rousseau, Denver’s chief equity officer, described the marker as “historically inaccurate” and “harmful” in a statement.

“They’re not apt to identify the victims because that would humanize the experience, which I think they should do,” Wei told Colorado Public Radio’s Michelle P. Fulcher in 2019. “I applaud the heroes who came to their aid, but it does reflect a certain attitude that persists today. The need … to have a white savior.”

Removing Denver plaque
Taking down the plaque City of Denver

City officials say they will continue to work with neighborhood organizations and groups representing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to make Denver more inclusive. The city, along with CAPU, hopes to someday create an Asian Pacific Historic District, complete with murals, public education programming and an Asian Pacific American community museum.

“Let’s take this opportunity to capture and record the true and accurate history of the Chinese and all AAPI stories, to preserve and celebrate this proud and rich history for future generations,” says Linda Lung, a descendant of Denver’s early Chinese residents, to Rocky Mountain PBS’ Kyle Cooke and Brian Willie.