Chinese laborers in Los Angeles, circa 1905. Los Angeles Public Library

How racial tensions led to a mass lynching of Chinese people in early Los Angeles

One of the worst episodes of anti-Chinese violence in the country’s history happened in Los Angeles on Oct. 24, 1871.

A gun battle had erupted between two rival gangs in the Chinese quarter of what was then a small city of citrus groves. Accounts of what happened next are murky. But a police officer who intervened was wounded, and a white rancher was fatally shot in the chest.

The killing inflamed the racist passions of white Angelenos, many of whom harbored resentment over cheap Chinese labor.

The block where the Chinese massacre unfolded, circa 1870.

California State Library

On the night of Oct. 24, a mob armed with pistols began ransacking and looting the homes along Calle de los Negros — today a part of Los Angeles Street — where the Chinese congregated.

A correspondent for the San Francisco Bulletin provided an eyewitness account of the “devil’s carnival” that unfolded:

“Trembling, moaning, and in some instances wounded Chinese were hauled from their hiding-places, and forced into the street, where the unfortunates were instantly seized by others outside, and ropes quickly encircled their necks, and with a run they were dragged to the nearest improvised gallows at hand.”

Bodies of the massacre victims were piled in a Los Angeles jail yard in 1871.

Los Angeles Public Library

By the end of the night, an estimated 17 Chinese males had been murdered, including a boy. It was described as the largest mass lynching in the country’s history.

The massacre drew national attention and led to a grand jury investigation. Yet justice was never fully served. Prosecutors won manslaughter convictions against a handful of rioters, only to have them overturned on a technicality. Despite plenty of eyewitnesses, the defendants were never retried.

This evening, 147 years later, a commemoration will be held at Los Angeles’s Chinese American Museum. The names of those who died will be read aloud, and a moment of silence held in their memory.

This article is from the California Sun, a newsletter that delivers must-read stories to your inbox each morning . Sign up here.

Get your daily dose of the Golden State.