This year marks the 145th anniversary of the completion of the U.S. Transcontinental Railroad. The 3,200 kilometers of rail, constructed between 1863 and 1869, finally linked the eastern United States to the western part of the country.
Last week, the Chinese immigrants who worked on that railroad were honored by being registered in the U.S. Department of Labor's Hall of Honor in Washington, D.C. The more than 12,000 Chinese laborers are the first Asian-Americans to be inducted into the Hall since its creation in 1988.
At the ceremony Friday, Labor Department Deputy Secretary Chris Lu said by sharing the story of the Chinese immigrants who worked on the Transcontinental Railroad, people are reminded that the U.S. has benefited from wave after wave of industrious immigrants.
Lu said in immigrant families there’s a special place of honor for those who do things first.
“So for the community of 18 million Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders in this country, the Chinese railroad workers are part of our first,” said Lu. “They pushed open a door so that generations could follow them. The story of their successes has been missing in history for far too long and that is why we honor them today."
Chinese-American historian Connie Young Yu, who spoke at the Department of Labor Hall of Honor induction ceremony, told the story of her great-grandfather, Lee Wong Sang, who worked on the railroad. At a separate event over the weekend at the Chinese Community Church in Washington, Yu said she was honored to represent all of the railroad workers' descendants at the ceremony.
"You know it's a great celebration and we're supposed to be so excited about having the word ‘Chinese’ on the Hall of Honor,” said Yu. “But it's also a sober reminder of what happened in our history."
Sue Lee, executive director of the Chinese Historical Society of America, said the induction was the long overdue recognition the Chinese laborers on the Transcontinental Railroad deserved. She said it's emotionally important for the Chinese-American community to receive that recognition and a reminder of their pioneering history.
"The importance and the significance of those early Chinese in the face of racism and barriers and continuing discrimination throughout the time, even after the railroad work finished, they couldn't find [a] job, it was hard to settle down in communities. Chinese women weren't allowed in this country, they couldn't start families," said Lee. "So despite all that, the Chinese community survived and when immigration laws changed in 1968, this new population, our newcomers are learning about the legacy of the work of these pioneering railroad workers."
Lee said even though the Transcontinental Railroad was built 145 years ago, there are many lessons even young Chinese-Americans can take away from the stories of the railroad workers. She said the opportunities that young people have today are all thanks to the legacy of those early pioneers.
"And we hope, as the Chinese Historical Society, that young people are inspired hearing about the ceremony and that they delve into their own history because you never know, there are people even today that are discovering for the first time that their families had some connection to those early railroad workers," said Lee. "So we have our own history to piece together and to rediscover."
Russell Gong, 24, said what he has learned from the celebrations is the idea of being able to build from the passion of the railway workers.
"I think what's more exciting is the people around those individuals, that family unit, and ultimately their ancestors, are still talking about that passion and energy building," said Gong. "I think that's the exciting thing... when we, as people, create... What that really means beyond the structures that we build."
The Chinese immigrant railroad workers join a distinguished list of contributors to the field of labor in the Labor Hall of Honor. Other inductees include industrialist Henry J. Kaiser, labor leader and civil rights activist Cesar Chavez and the rescue workers who responded to the terrorist attacks in New York City on September 11, 2001.