Mary McGladery Tape (1857-1934) was born in Shanghai and came to San Francisco at the age of 11. She was an orphan and was taken in by the Ladies’ Protection & Relief Society and quickly learned English and American culture. She took the name Mary McGladery after the woman who took care of her at the relief society.
Her husband Joseph Jeu Dip Tape (1852-1935) was an immigrant from a different part of China. They courted in English and soon married. They had a family and built a solid middle class life. In her free time, Mary was a landscape painter and photographer.
Trouble came when their American-born children were not allowed to go to public school. California law stated that all children had the right to a public education, but the Spring Valley Primary School refused to let her daughter Mamie, referred to as only “that Chinese girl” in newspaper articles, enter the building on the first day of school in 1884.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors openly spoke about the “invasion of Mongolian barbarism” and the Chinese Exclusion Act had just been passed in 1882, but Mary Tape felt her family was just as American as everyone else’s. She sued the principal of the school in Tape v. Hurley (1884). The first ruling by the state Superior Court in January of 1885 decided that Chinese parents paid school taxes and were entitled to equal protection under the law according to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution. The case was quickly appealed to the California State Supreme Court and a separate but equal school for Chinese and Chinese-American children was created in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Mary Tape wrote an impassioned open letter to the school board:
To the Board of Education—Dear Sirs: I see that you are going to make all sorts of excuses to keep my child out of the Public schools. Dear Sirs, Will you please tell me! Is it a disgrace to be Born a Chinese? Didn’t God make us all!!! What right have you to bar my child out of the school because she is [of Chinese Descent? There] is no other worldly reason that you could keep her out ….
You have expended a lot of the Public money foolishly, all because of one poor little Child….
I will let the world see sir What justice there is When it is governed by the Race of prejudice men! … I guess she is more of [an] American [than] a good many of you that is going to prevent her being Educated.
—Mrs. M. Tape, Daily Alta, April 8, 1885
Mary and her family moved to a diverse area of Chinatown so their children had access to education. In April of 1885, her two eldest children, Mamie and Frank, were the first children enrolled in the newly created Chinese Primary School. Although Mary was not able to desegregate the school district, she set an example and stood up against prejudice. Mary became an expert telegrapher and a well respected amateur photographer. She was part of the California Camera Club and won several awards for her photographs.