‘Why would they kill me for something I didn’t do?’ The tragic story of George Stinney and one of America’s greatest miscarriages of justice.
On 16th June 1944, fourteen year old George Stinney was executed for the murder of two young girls. The youngest person executed in US in modern history, George was too small to fit into the electric chair. A bible was stacked onto the seat, so the electrodes could reach his head. Once sat down, his legs dangled from the chair. He couldn’t make out any last words, just cry. And when the guards put a mask over his head, it was too big. Slipping off once the electricity was turned on, to reveal his terrified tear strewn face. He was declared dead after eight minutes and buried in an unmarked grave.
His legacy should have been a footnote in history, only mentioned as ‘the youngest person executed’. But it wasn’t.
Because George Stinney had been innocent. The victim of a state sanctioned lynching.
George grew up in the small town of Alcolu, in South Carolina. The second oldest of five, his dad worked in the local mill. As did most of the town’s residents. Every day white and black workers would head to the mill, the black workers through one entrance, white’s through another. They’d watch the clock and wait for the whistle to blow. Then pack up their stuff and head home to opposite sides of the town’s railroad tracks. The white side and the black side.
Alcolu was segregated, but that wasn’t unusual for the time. South Carolina had long had segregation laws in place, and as recently as 1932 these had been updated to ban a black kid from attending a white school, punish inter race marriages with up to 12 months jail time, and prevent black and white workers from sharing a bathroom, with the threat of 30 days hard labour. For George, this was just how things were. It was life.
So, when on March 23rd 1944, two little white girls rode their bikes over to George and his little sister Aime, to ask where they might find some wild flowers, George knew not to engage too much. Just in case. He just shrugged and said he didn’t know. The girls nodded and went back to their wildflower hunt and George and his sister went back to grazing the family’s cows.
But the girls never came home. Betty Binnicker, 11, and Mary Thames, 7, were missing and soon the whole town was out looking for them.
George and his dad joined the search and after talking to other volunteers, it quickly became clear that both George and Aimes must have been the last people to see Betty and Mary. Suspicions were raised, but there was still hope that the girls might have just gotten lost and would turn up.
However, the girl’s bodies were soon found. They’d been beaten to death and left in a shallow ditch. The town was shocked. Things like this didn’t happen in Alcolu. They wanted answers, they wanted a swift end to this; a culprit caught and punished – now.
George, it seemed, was the obvious suspect and so on March 25th, officers came to arrest him, along with his older brother John. The police quickly let John go, but they kept George. They questioned him without the presence of a lawyer, or his parents. Sadly, there are no clear records of what went on in that integration room, we only know that George was in there, alone, for hours. And that when the officers emerged, they had a confession.
According to police, George had caught up with the girls shortly after they’d ridden away, bludgeoned them to death and dragged their bodies to a nearby shallow ditch. That was the confession; although there was one glaring issue – the confession, hadn’t been signed by George.
Still, news that George had confessed got out and a mob formed outside the jail, armed and ready to lynch him. However, they were to be disappointed. He’d already been transferred to Columbia penitentiary, far out of their reach. But that didn’t stop the angry crowd from turning on George’s family, who were forced to flee town in fear for their lives.
Despite his young age, George was banned from seeing his family. They were terrified for him – of course they were – but they knew that George had been at home at the time of the murders. He hadn’t followed the girls after they rode away, he’d stayed with his sister, then gone back home. Multiple members of the family could vouch for that – surely that meant something.
Less than a month after George was arrested, the trial began on 25 April 1944. And it was a sham.
There are no transcripts from the three hour long trial, but here is what we do know.
African Americans were banned from entering the court room, even the Stinney family weren’t allowed in. The jury was all white and it’s foreman had actually led the search party who’d found Betty and Mary’s bodies and was related to the family that owned that land.
Then there was George’s state appointed lawyer; who specialised in tax. He’d never been involved in a trial like this and it showed. The lawyer didn’t call any witnesses for the defence, despite knowing that multiple people could offer an alibi. He also didn’t cross examine prosecution witnesses, failed to mention that George hadn’t signed his confession, or that it had been obtained in dubious circumstances.
The states case was equally shaky. There was no physical evidence that could unequivocally link George to the murder. Not to mention that although the medical examination of both girls showed no sign of rape or sexual assault, the prosecution repeatedly stated that George had raped at least one of the girls.
That wasn’t all. The location where the bodies had been found, was relatively free of any blood (which was confirmed by the states witness) making it unlikely that George had murdered the girls close by and then dragged their bodies there. Not only that, but it would have been almost physically impossible for 5”1, 90-pound George, to over power both girls and then drag their bodies.
None of that mattered. The jury took just 10 minutes to announce their verdict. Guilty. Just like that, fourteen year old George Stinney was sentenced to death.
George’s lawyer didn’t file an appeal, despite the many issues with the trial, which would normally have warranted an appeal, if not a mistrial.
The Stinney family felt helpless, but they prayed for a miracle. The NAACP got involved and they rallied supporters to write to South Carolina Governer, Olin D Johnson, for clemency, for a stay of execution, for a retrial, for anything. But their pleas fell on deaf ears. With Johnson writing back:
‘It may be interesting for you to know that Stinney killed the smaller girl to rape the larger one. Then he killed the larger girl and raped her dead body. Twenty minutes later he returned and attempted to rape her again, but her body was too cold. All of this he admitted himself.’
The writing was on the wall. George Stinney was going to be executed. George himself couldn’t understand how this was happening. Asking his cellmate:
‘Why would they kill me for something I didn’t do?’.
George never stopped protesting his innocence. But just 83 days after his initial arrest, George Stinney was executed.
But George’s family never stopped seeking justice for their son and brother. In the early 2000’s they were joined in their fight by a local historian, George Friarson, as well as several lawyers who offered their help pro-bono. Together they worked to gain evidence which would show how George’s case had been mishandled, the gaping injustices and lack of evidence from his trial and to finally, get the case reopened.
In 2014 George Stinney’s case was in court once more. This time, the trial took two days. Evidence was revaluated, the alibi’s provided by George’s surviving family members included and there was a new witness, Wilfred Hunter, who’d shared a cell with George and stated that George not only professed his innocence, but that his confession had been forced by the officers interrogating him.
Finally, the verdict came in. George Stinney’s conviction was declared legally void. It had taken 70 years, but George Stinney was finally proven innocent.
This was intersting where can I find out more? Well I would definatley look at the ACLU’s campaign around race and the death penalty. Because sadly, the miscarriage of justice that happened to George Stinney, is far from alone and still prevelant today.
Hi. I hope you are well, especially in these very turbulent times.
Right now we’re standing in the middle of a turning point in history. Let’s be real, we already were, after all this is a global pandemic! But Black Lives Matter looks like it will be a movement that will create even more of an impact. A long lasting legacy that will change all of our lives, the way the law operates, the way we see the world and the way we behave towards each other. But also, it will change (and is already changing!) how we interact with history.
And as such, I think we need to talk about F Yeah History.
I’m a big believer that history education has the power to make you a better person. I know it’s made me a better person. History is essentially, just the story of people. Of us, all of us, all the good things our ancestors did and all the bad (and yes occasionally we whitewash the crap out of the bad – but I’ll get to that in a moment). Reading about history helps make you more compassionate, because it gives you insights into cultures and worlds you otherwise don’t have knowledge of. Now the bad side of that is unfortunately a lot of the history that isn’t straight or white, isn’t as easily accessible. It’s out there, but nowhere near as much as say, programmes and books on Henry VIII and his six wives. And that is a pretty big issue.
Now, I’m proud of the fact that F Yeah History bucks this trend a little bit and has a fairly healthy balance of history from all sorts of different communities. But I’ve known for a while now that it could be better. And that if it could be better, it should be better.
I’m not going to lie, it was the Black Lives Matter protests that really shot a rocket up my arse on this one, and made me realise that better representation isn’t something to go on my ‘to do list’, but a ‘need to do right now!’
So I want to commit to you that I will do better going forward. Here’s what I’ll be starting with:
There will be a set Black History section on the site
If you have been with us a long time then you’ll know for the first year or so of F Yeah’s life the writing style was a, swear every other word, kind of deal. We’ve grown up, but for the most part I have left those articles as they are.
That means that our articles on icons like Moms Mabley, Marsha P Johnson and many more, can’t be used by teachers in their classes (because who knew school boards frown upon constant swearing in educational sources!). So I’m going to be taking out the naughty words, and also updating each one with more research, information and links to where you can read more.
This will not be an overnight process (because I am a one woman show for the most part, and I want to put time and care into each), but one I’ll be working on consistently.
I’ll be posting more black history focused articles
Now I’m not scheduling this, this will not be a ‘once a month its black history day!’ kind of deal (after all, this is not Hairspray). Black history is history and not to be reserved for a special day or month. It’s always.
I will be ensuring articles focussed on this area of history are more frequent. And do let me know if there is anything specific you’d like me to cover.
The F Yeah History YouTube
In the next few weeks I’ll be posting more chatty videos, which I hope will be a chance to sit down and discuss some of the big issues in history representation that The Black Lives Matter protests have bought up. For example, the toppling of slave trader statues, the heroes vs villains culture we have in history and how we handle uncovering the racist pasts of some of history’s most beloved icons after years of whitewashing.
In the long term, similar to the website, I’ll be ensuring I create more videos focussed on chapters and people from black history.
I want you to know that I’m committed to making this a better space for everyone going forward. And that also means you feeling free to call me out. I’m a person, I’ll make mistakes and I’ll learn from them when I do.
Please do let me know if there is anything else you’d like to see on the site.
As hundreds of thousands of young people across the world take to the streets making it clear that Black Lives Matter, the story of The Birmingham Children’s Crusade has never been more relevant.
Birmingham, Alabama was as Martin Luther King Jr put it, ‘the most segregated city in America.’ In 1926 the city had put in place regulated racial zoning laws, despite the Supreme Court declaring such laws unconstitutional almost a decade earlier in 1917! Birmingham was a bubble. Seemingly immune to the changes going on outside its borders. Yes, there were other cities and towns desperately clinging onto these draconian laws, but none quite like Birmingham.
If Trump was an American city, he’d be Birmingham in the early 1960’s. It didn’t matter what the countries laws were, what the supreme court said or what was unconstitutional. Birmingham was not going to change with the tide. By now the cities population was 60% white and 40% black. Yet there were no black people in high up jobs within the city, in fact the only jobs they could get were in those designated ‘black areas’ or as manual labourers. There was a clear line between the haves and the have nots and dear god there would be hell to pay if anyone tried to change that.
In the early 1940’s several black families had bought homes on the west side of Centre Street, a leafy hill in the middle of the city, which until then, had been a white area. It was a defiant move and not one without consequences. The area become known as ‘Dynamite Hill’. The KKK shot out windows, doors were burned down and at least 40 unsolved bombings (most targeted at dynamite hills residents) took place between the late 40’s and 60’s.
Imagine being a black kid growing up amidst all of that. Not only faced with the threat of violence and death, but also with the insipid day to day prejudice. You could only attend the cities fair on the night reserved for ‘Niggers and dogs.’ The unofficial confederate anthem, Dixie, played from the (ironically named) Protective Life Building every day. There was not one moment where you weren’t reminded how inherently inferior you were; the city bought the white kids new school text books, but you, well you weren’t worth that.
“We knew that as Birmingham went, so would go the South.” – Wyatt Tee Walker
In early 1963 Martin Luther King Jr and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came to Birmingham to help protestors. They launched a campaign of non-violent direct action, staging sit in’s, peaceful marches and boycotts. Knowing that even though the protestors were not using violence, the cities cops would; and in doing so they’d be inadvertently putting the cities rampant racism under a magnifying glass.
As the nation’s eyes started to turn towards Birmingham, the cities government became scared and tried to quash the campaign. In April 1963 they banned the protests and raised bail for protestors arrested to several thousand pounds (in todays money). As the campaigners rallied, the city doubled down. Even arresting Martin Luther King Jr. It was becoming harder and harder to get adults to protest, after all many were far from financially well off, could no longer afford bail and if arrested, it could mean their families had to choose between food or rent.
But there were still protestors to keep the fight alive. Birmingham’s young people. They wanted to step up to the plate, not only because if they were arrested it wouldn’t have the same financial impact on their families, but because they wanted change. They were sick of being expected to just take prejudice and the threat of violence as a fact of life. They wanted to claim their rights and reclaim their futures.
And so, The Birmingham Children’s Crusade was born.
We didn’t hate white people…We hated the system. That’s what we were protesting about.” – Janice Wesley Kelsey
Flyers were sent out and top students and high school athletes were bought on board to help recruit other kids. The cities Sixteenth Street Baptist Church became HQ for the campaign. Teenagers and children alike were taught how to be silent when arrested, to not run if faced with a snarling police dog and to stay down if a cop knocked them to the floor. They were asked to bring a toothbrush with them to the protests, as they wouldn’t be given one in jail.
They knew the risks going into this. The goal was to fill up the cities jails and to protest peacefully. They’d likely be beaten, have hoses turned on them and abuse screamed at them by white supremacists. The kids knew that they couldn’t fight back, they even had to pledge to remain nonviolent. Whatever happened to them, they couldn’t raise a hand. But they signed up anyway, with nine-year-old Audrey Faye Jenkins telling her mum ‘I want to go to jail.’
On the morning of May 2nd 1963, Audrey, along with three to four thousand children marched on the streets of Birmingham. Some went straight from Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, others met with their classmates at school before hitting the streets. Singing and praying as they went.
Almost immediately the arrests began. In the first day over 1000 kids were arrested. School buses were commandeered to take them to jail. Audrey was the youngest known person arrested and she spent seven days in jail; at just nine, she wasn’t even allowed to call her parents. Audrey, along with all those arrested were packed into cells, even when the jail was hundreds over it’s capacity limit.
But it didn’t stop at the arrests. As predicted police used hoses to quell the protests. The powerful jets slapping the kids to the pavement and against walls. One of those who was pinned to buildings by the cop’s hose was fourteen-year-old, Carolyn McKinstry, who said:
“It felt like the side of my face was being slapped really hard. It hurt so bad I tried to hold on to a building so it wouldn’t push me down the sidewalk, and it just flattened me against the building. It seemed like it was on me forever. When they finally turned it off I scooted around the side of the building and felt for my sweater. They had blasted a hole right through it. And then for some reason I reached up and touched my hair. It was gone, on the right side of my head. My hair, gone. I was furious and insulted.’
The pictures of this brutality became front page news across America.
Despite calls from everyone including US President John F Kennedy for the children to return to safety and stop protesting, the kids took to the streets again the next day. Even people like Carolyn, who were still injured from the day before, took up their placards.
By May 3rd Birmingham’s jails couldn’t fit any more kids. The cities Commissioner of Public Safety (again, ironic job title there), Theophilus Eugene “Bull” Connor, ordered the hoses that were fired at the protestors be ramped up to a level that could rip bark from a tree. In addition, he allowed the use of attack dogs on the child demonstrators.
And still, the Children’s Crusade would not stop.
Soon the city was on its knees. The entire country was watching and appalled. Birmingham firefighters refused orders to use their hoses on the kids anymore. Bull Connor was losing his grip and becoming ever more ferocious in his tactics against the protestors. The cities fairground was turned into a makeshift jail and Connor urged Birmingham’s white citizens who were watching the protests to come and see the ‘dogs at work’ when they were let loose on the kids. When one leader in the cities civil rights movement was injured after a hose was used against him, Connor mourned that the attack hadn’t left the man ‘carried away in a hearse.’
Meanwhile at the fairground/new jail, things were beyond bleak. One jailed protestor, then 16-year-old, Gloria Washington Lewis, recalled that she shared a cell with a girl whose arresting officer had raped her. The girl’s attacker came back to rape her again that night, getting into the cell. After Gloria and her fellow inmates fought him off, they were sent to County Jail. Nobody told her parents she’d been moved. With Gloria saying:
‘Every time somebody would get out, I’d say, ‘Call my daddy… the jail kept saying I wasn’t there.’
On May 10th local leaders from both sides made an agreement to end the protests. It was agreed that all the arrested children would be freed and that local businesses in Birmingham would de-segregate.
Despite this, things were slow to change in Birmingham. Although many businesses did comply with the new de-segregation laws, there was still an undercurrent of white supremacy, which tragically culminated in the bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the former HQ of the Childrens Crusade, in September 1963.
The KKK had laid dynamite by the church basement and set it off. Killing four girls as they changed into their choir robes – fourteen-year olds, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley and Carole Robertson, and eleven-year-old Carol Denise McNair.
Although the immediate aftermath of The Children’s Crusade was marred, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a turning point for the city and all of America. JFK had watched the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in shock. The treatment of the kids and their bravery made it clear that change across the whole country, not just Birmingham, was essential. Leading to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
It showed and continues to show, the difference that young people can make when it comes to politics and change. With The Birmingham Children’s Crusade leading the way for millions of other young changemakers. The young people that are out there right now, continueing this long fight for the government, law and society at large to realise that black lives, like every life, matters.
Sinking way too much time in New Horizons? Well don’t worry! Because it turns out you’re secretly learning, with these five surprising ACNH history easter eggs.
Did you know that Animal Crossing New Horizons is full of history Easter eggs! Some are pretty obvious *cough* Genjii and Kabuki *cough*, but others are hidden pretty deep and once you uncover them, they might change how you see villagers like Coco and Tom Nook forever! So strap in as we take a deep dive into the top 5 Animal Crossing Easter eggs.
For the next time someone tells you, ‘we would be screwed if this was WW2’
Over the last few weeks chances are you’ve heard someone say something along the lines of:
‘We’d be screwed if this was World War Two!’
‘If the snowflakes were the greatest generation, we’d be out of lockdown already!’
Or this great tweet by Lord Ashcroft
And lets be real, using the idea that society was way better in the Second World War, to back a half baked idea isn’t new. For example, during the Brexit campaign, my Facebook was awash with people pointing out that under Winston Churchill we weren’t part of the EU and that was the golden age of Britain! Which completely overlooks the idea that both the world economy and society as a whole is er, slightly different now…but I could see where they was coming from, so you know; you do you Aunt Karen and I’ll see you at the next family wedding/funeral.
BUT this new ‘Greatest Generation’ argument is really getting under my skin. Mainly because it is categorically and catastrophically incorrect from the beginning.
Ok so lets break this down. The main line of the argument is that the country is crumbling because people are breaking lockdown rules, hoarding and generally being very moaney. And that in the Second World War, when faced with huge lifestyle changes everyone just buckled down and did them. Which is why we won that war and are losing this one.
Here’s the thing. That didn’t happen.
Ok, lets use rationing as our first example. When rationing was announced in January 1940, The Daily Mail immediatly went on the warpath. They did side by sides of British rations vs German rations, bemoaning the amount the British were getting. They even ripped William Morrison, the Minister of Food, a new one, comparing his rationing plans to if:“Dr Goebbels were asked to help-to devise a more harmful piece of propaganda for Great Britain.”
As time went on, the majority of people got behind rationing. It wasn’t fun, but it was necessary. However, there were a minority of people who didn’t, which is why there was a thriving black market. As with breaking lock down rules, there were fines for breaking rationing and going to the black market. But people still did it. So much so that we have gone on to romanticise the black market ‘spiv’ as a loveable rogue (like Private Joe Walker in Dad’s Army)
Now lets quickly score off some of the other parts of the argument:
In WW2 nobody criticised how the government were doing things like we’re doing now – Sorry to burst your bubble, but people are people… of course they criticised the government! And often they well within their rights to!
For example, in the early stages of the war people were understandably not thrilled that Britain had equipment shortages and machinery that kept breaking. Loudly questioning why the hell the government hadn’t ensured they had stockpiles and a better equipment plan before the bussed a load of boys to the front line.
People were stronger. None of this ‘anxiety’ business! – The idea of the Blitz spirit has really been mythologised. Did those city dwellers living under constant threat of bombing keep on? Of course! But did they just merrily bounce out of bed each day after a night of bombs falling. No.
In 1941 after a series of bombings on Hull, a team of psychiatrists surveyed just over 700 people. They found that under the blitz people were drinking more, as well as experiencing extreme low moods, bouts of crying, and even loss of bladder control. Mental Health was a real issue, but it wasn’t something that was talked about to the level it is today.
Nobody would have broken the government guidelines to take a silly risk – Once again, it was a minority. But yeah no they totally did. For example, Writer Vera Brittain has talked about how young people would go party hopping during air raids, which became known as ‘Playing No Man’s Land’.
Were those who lived during The Second World War amazing people. Oh god yes! But were they perfect? No. We’re they better than todays people? Well they’ve been remembered as better, but not necessarily.
I’d be surprised if history remembers us as failures. It seems more likely this time will remembered much like the greatest generation. For people who kept going, joined together and clapped for the NHS and supported each other however they could.
So next time you see someone say we’d be screwed if this was World War Two. Well, first off, tell them the facts on that! But also remind them that just like World War Two, we’re all in this together. So maybe it’s time to stop trying to score points and instead realise that we need each other to get through this. After all, we’re stronger together.
Meet the pioneering actress, Hollywood deemed ‘Too Chinese to play Chinese’
If (like me) you’ve been binging Netflix’s new show, Hollywood, then you’ll have met Anna May Wong. The show introduces us to her as the ‘great ghost’. An early victim of ‘yellow face’ she lives alone in her lush complex, waiting for a studio call that will never come. But, Hollywood is an alternative look at history. So without to many spoilers, there is a happy ending for this Anna.
But real Anna? She didn’t get a cut print sunny ending and her story that Hollywood shows – well it’s not even half of it. Because although Hollywood does an amazing job of giving the broad strokes of who Anna May Wong was, it also takes away a lot of her autonomy and grit. This is a woman who wasn’t only a glamorous film icon turned walking lesson in racisim, but a hero whose story should be shouted about.
So, lets chat the real Anna May Wong.
Born Wong Liu Tsong (黄柳霜) in January 1905, in LA. She had the pretty standard ‘early life’ narrative for a budding starlet. One of seven kids to a pair of hardworking parents, the family lived above her dad’s laundry business, where she and her siblings were all expected to work when they weren’t at school. But a life of laundry wasn’t what she dreamed of.
As a kid she’d fallen in love with movies and decided she wanted to be an actress. By 11 she’d picked out a stage name, Anna May Wong, and was cutting class to either hang out on location shoots in China Town or spend her lunch money on Nickelodeon Movie Theatres. Going home afterwards to practice the scenes she’d just seen in the mirror for hours on end.
So far, so standard. Anna had even started to make a name for herself. After all, she was constantly hanging around film sets and begging the crews to let her take part – that’s going to get you noticed! Soon enough film crew’s soon dubbing her ‘Curious Chinese Child’. And that there is where Anna’s story becomes markedly different from every other starry-eyed starlet wannabe – she was Chinese. And in early 1900’s Hollywood that was a big deal.
This wasn’t a great time to be Chinese and living in America. Even if, like Anna May Wong, you were born into a second-generation Chinese American family. Racism was prevalent and Anna knew this all too well. At school Anna was called a ‘chink’, a classmate regularly stuck her with needles and she was jeered at in the street.
But racism doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. To understand why this was happening to Anna, we need to do a little bit of background digging.
Back in 1882 The Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law. This law aimed to stopped Chinese people from immigrating to the US and was the first (but not the last!) time America put a significant ban on people of certain ethnicities immigrated to the country. Many (mainly white) Americans believed that Chinese workers were taking their jobs, even though these workers made up just 00.2% of the population (Sorry Greg, I think you might be the problem here.)
Still, when people decide on a scape goat for their problems, they tend to stick with it, no matter the obvious facts. And when this happens, things escalate in the worst possible ways.
In 1885, white miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming, rioted against Chinese miners, who they believed had not only taken their jobs, but under the new Chinese Exclusion Act, had no right to be in America. What happened next was a massacre – at least 28 Chinese miners were murdered and over 70 homes burnt down. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Two years later in Oregon, the Hell Canyons Massacre took place. Thirty-four Chinese goldminers were murdered.
It wasn’t just out and out murder either. Around the time Anna May Wong was born, San Francisco’s China Town was in the midst of a bubonic plague outbreak. That’s right…a plague outbreak in America in the early 1900’s. Obviously the San Francisco government did everything they could to stop this…nah of course not! They denied it was happening, before eventually quarantining the neighbourhood.
All of this gives us a picture of the world Anna May Wong was born into. But it also explains why she had such an uphill battle ahead of her when it came to being a film star.
Racism was rampant and people were not going to accept a Chinese woman as a leading lady. AND YET there was a demand for ‘oriental’ films. Despite the inherent racism of The Chinese Exclusion Act, throughout the 1800’s America had developed a love for the ‘oriental’; an overly exoticized fantasy of Asian culture. These stories turned women into sex objects and played up stereotypes of opium addicts and gangsters. It was a weird juxtaposition of
‘we don’t want you here but we would like to bastardize your culture for entertainment’.
It was these ‘oriental’ films that Anna May Wong watched on location in LA’s China Town. Understandably, when she told her parents she was trying to get a gig as an extra in one of these films, they weren’t thrilled. But she was determined and when she was determined to do something…she’d do it.
At 14, Anna landed her first job, as an extra in 1919’s The Red Lantern. Her dad knew he couldn’t stop her, so instead he made sure there were male extra’s around to keep an eye on his daughter.Anna stood out in the sea of lantern holding extra’s, soon landing more work and by 1921 she was having roles written for her, with her first credited debut in Bit’s of Life.
Then at just 17 she scored a leading role, in 1922’s The Toll Of The Sea. It was a loose retelling of Madame Butterfly (but set in China) and Anna played Lotus Flower, who falls in love with an America man. The pair marry and he promises to take her to America -he doesn’t- he leaves and she gives birth to their son. Like any good fuck boy, he returns to Lotus Flower, but with his new wholesome American wife in tow. She decides to give her son to this new woman, so he can have a ‘better’ life in America and the film ends with Lotus Flower walking into the sea.
It was a typical ‘oriental’ fantasy film, but Anna stood out and was praised for her acting. She got the kind of rave reviews that normally launched a starlet to a full-fledged leading lady. But, of course, this didn’t happen for Anna.
Her next major role was as a stereotypical ‘Dragon Lady’ in 1924’s The Thief of Baghdad. Once more, Anna shone in a hit film, but again she was playing up to these oriental fantasy types. She’d now played both the naïve victim who understands that they are beneath the western ideal and the vamped up ‘exotic’ villain.
Nobody knew what to do with her next. She was a great actress and audiences liked her, but no studio was going to put her in a film that wasn’t ‘oriental’. Plus, Californian law meant that she would never be able to kiss a western actor on screen. Which effectively nixed any chances she might have had at scoring a ground-breaking lead – after all what’s a big blockbuster without that final happy ending kiss? All of this meant that for the next few years, Anna was doomed to ping back and forth between the victim and villain roles.
And it wasn’t only the studios that didn’t know what to do with Anna, the press didn’t either. Anna was now a certified name, so fan magazines and newspapers needed to write about her. But they had no idea how. Anna was a paradox – both American and Chinese at the same time, a fact that flummoxed the press. So much so that it was almost always what they ended up leading with in their articles on her.
The write ups weren’t much better. For example, one fan magazine wrote:
‘Anna May Wong symbolizes the eternal paradox of her ancient race…she reminds us of cruel and intricate intrigues, and, at the same time, of crooned Chinese lullabies. She brings to the screen the rare comprehension and the mysterious colors of her ivory-skinned race.”
‘Anna May Wong has never even been to China, and you might just as well know it right now. Moreover, she has seen NY’s Chinatown only from a taxi-cab, and she doesn’t wear a mandarin coat … her English is faultless. Her conversation consists of scintillating chatter that any flapper might envy. Her sense of humor is thoroughly American. She didn’t eat rice when she and I lunched together, and she distinctly impressed it upon the waiter to bring her coffee, not tea.’
Anna’s ethnicity was always the main talking point, never her acting; despite her being arguably one of the strongest actors of her day. And Anna didn’t let this slide. She regularly spoke out about how shitty casting was, saying
“Rather than real Chinese, producers prefer Hungarians, Mexicans, American Indians for Chinese roles.”
But she wasn’t going to just complain. In 1924, Anna started her own production company. She planned to cash in on the public’s interest in her ethnicity, by creating films about Chinese culture and traditional myths. However, by making these films herself, she hoped she could break some of those ‘oriental fantasy’ stereotypes. It was a canny plan and it could have been truly pioneering…if Anna’s business partner hadn’t turned out to be corrupt. Her company was sunk before it had even begun.
Anna was officially over Hollywood. In 1926 she’d had to watch on at the opening of Graumans Chinese Theatre (ironic name right there) where she’d been invited to help put in the buildings first rivet, but was barred from putting her hands and feet in the theatre’s famous walk. It didn’t matter how hard she worked or how good she was, she’d never get a fair shake in Hollywood. She was firmly pigeon holed as the ‘exotic other’ and as she put it, the actress who:
‘Died a thousand times’
Because interesting though Hollywood found her characters, the ‘exotic other’ was never allowed to live to see the end credits.
Anna wanted more. So in 1928 she packed up and set off for Europe.
European cinema was much more open to casting Anna as more than just a villain. She could get meatier roles and finally show off her acting to its true poteintial. Yes, many of her parts were at least somewhat rooted in Anna’s ethnicity, but that wasn’t all they were. In one 1933 interview, she highlighted why she felt her move away from Hollywood was so important:
“I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is nearly always the villain of the piece, and so cruel a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass. We are not like that.’
Anna didn’t just want better acting roles; she didn’t want to personify racist stereotypes anymore. By doing that, she was only feeding the narrative and making it more toxic. So she went somewhere where she could make movies that would help change people’s perceptions. It’s a ballsy move and one that’s often overlooked. And Anna did the work to ensure these films were widely viewed.
In her first talkie (1930’s, The Flame of Love), she recorded her lines in fluent French, German and English. Anna also took to the stage, appearing opposite Laurence Olivier in The Circle of Chalk, and once more showed off her German skills when she sang the title role in operetta, Tschun Tsch.
Things were going great for Anna. She might not have had the Hollywood dream she’d once hoped for, but she was making incredible work and helping break barriers whilst doing so.
It kind of makes sense then, when in 1930 Paramount called Anna, she didn’t tell them to stick it.
Paramount promised Anna that if she returned to Hollywood, they would finally give her leading roles. And, considering her success in Europe, you can see why she said yes. After all, Hollywood would have noticed how well Anna’s new pictures had performed at the box office, so maybe they were starting to rethink the kind of roles they could offer a Chinese American actress.
They were not.
Anna arrived back in Hollywood to find nothing had changed. Her first film role back was in ‘The Dragons Daughter’ where she played ‘The Dragon Lady’ type again. She co-starred with one of the only other high-profile Asian actors in Hollywood, Sessue Hayakawa. Sessue was also coming back to the studio system after a break (where like Anna he’d worked in other fields of acting so he could play less stereotypical roles) and despite being the films leads, both Sessue and Anna were paid substantially less than their white co-star, Warner Oland who appears for just over 25 minutes and is in yellow face the whole time (btw, Warner Oland basically made his entire career off of doing yellow face, so the latter isn’t really a surpirse)
What made Anna’s return even worse, was that now she was being passed over for roles, which demanded a Chinese actress, because she was
‘Too Chinese to play Chinese’
Just let that sit with you.
Can you even imagine?! Not only that, but because (apparently) all Chinese actresses were to Chinese to portray Chinese people, these roles went to white actresses who were given yellow face. To top it all, magazines like Photoplay even ran features praising the actresses and the make up artists for pulling off the look:
But there was hope on the horizon. In 1935 It was announced that MGM would be making a film of best selling book, The Good Earth. The book is based in northern china and tells the story of a young farmer, Wang Lung, and his wife, O-Lan. The couple are living on the brink of famine, on land that they only have through O-Lan’s hard work and smarts. Yet things keep getting worse. Their older daughter is disabled thanks to poor nutrition and O-Lan kills their newborn daughter, unable to feed another mouth. And that’s just the first act! It’s an incredibly tragic drama and any adaptation would need the best actress possible to play the multifaceted O-Lan.
Anna knew this was her part. She’d been publicly campaigning for the role since the book came out in 1931 and not only was she the most prominent Chinese actress working in Hollywood, but she’d shown time and time again that she had the acting chops to pull this off.
So obviously MGM cast white German actress, Luise Rainer. Instead offering Anna the role of Lotus, a courtesan who breaks up the marriage of O-Lan and Wang Lung. Disgusted, Anna refused the part, which instead went to white Austrian actress, Tilly Losch. Luise won the 1937 best actress Oscar for her role as O-Lan and Anna was left with the words ‘Too Chinese’ swirling round and round her head.
In 1936 Anna decided to go on a tour of China. For years she’d been called ‘too chinese’ but she’d never actually been to the country. Now she wanted to change that.
It’s often reported that Anna’s trip to China was a rousing success. It wasn’t. The Chinese press had never been kind to Anna’s acting in overly exoticized pictures and taking parts that emphasised western stereotypes of Chinese women as sex objects. Headlining pieces:
‘Paramount Utilizes Anna May Wong to Produce Picture to Disgrace China’
And going on to say, ‘Although she is deficient in artistic portrayal, she has done more than enough to disgrace the Chinese race’. It was another blow, but this is Anna May Wong we’re talking about. She didn’t give up. Whilst in China she arranged newsrell footage of her travels, putting them together in a documentary, My China. This was both a way to showcase what China was actually like and a middle finger up at MGM and The Good Earth.
Still, Anna was under contract with Paramount, so she had to go back to Hollywood. There she made her way through a succession of B Movies, playing the same characters she always had. Though the films didn’t get good reviews, Anna consistently did. However, of course, that didn’t mean she’d ever get any better roles offered to her.
Yet again, Anna was stuck doing the same stereotypical BS. But that didn’t mean she couldn’t use her voice.
During the Second World War Anna spoke out and asked for America to do more to help China. She took part in two Anti Japense propaganda films (donating her salaries to the United China war relief effort) before retiring from films in 1942, so she could dedicate herself full time to raising money and support.
She’d run Chinese war bond rallies, sign autographs in return for donations and auctioned off her enviable wardrobe. In 1943, The Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed (to an extent) a move which many credited Anna for helping with. Time magazine writing:
‘Her speaking was so effective in US congress that some credit her with the repeal of Chinese exclusion laws’
Anna eventually went back to acting, though to a lesser extent. There were less jobs for her now, although in 1951 she became the first Asian-American actor to lead a TV show, with detective drama, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.
After the show wrapped, Anna’s health started to fail. She still worked, but was getting progressively sicker. In 1961 Anna died in her sleep of a heart attack, aged just 56.
Over the years Our understanding of Anna May Wong has changed, in the past she was often dubbed a puppet of the Hollywood system who demeaned her heritage, she is now seen as a pioneer (ironically, the opposite has happened to actors like Hattie McDaniel…)
Still though, the most frequent way Anna’s story is told, is as a cautionary tale. With ‘Yellow Face’ still way to prevalent (in the past few years Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson have both taken on parts originally written as characters of Asian heritage). And although the message of – dear white actors, stop being dicks- is important, it shouldn’t be the only thing we remember her for.
Anna May Wong was an incredible woman, who worked within an abhorrently shitty system. Yet, she still came up with ways to do what she loved – act. All while breaking down barriers and opening doors for those that came after her. Now that’s a true Hollywood legend.
From a Roman philosopher proclaiming periods as poison to the middle ages belief they could kill men, the history of periods is one we need to discuss!
Ok, so why are we talking about the history of periods? Well, because we don’t. Which when you think about it is kind of wild. After all, periods have been a thing since erm…people. So with that in mind lets delve into the messy and myraid history of periods.
Now there is way to much infomation to fit into a ten minute video (trust me I tried!) but luckily there is an amazing sqaud of academics doing research into the history of periods and thier work is definatley a must read. I’ve popped some of my favourites below (plus the works cited in the video):