While we have talked about a number of conflicts between African Americans and Asian Americans, the history of African American and Asian American interactions go back as far as the early 20th century. University of Maryland archaeologists, digging at the home of freed slave James Holliday, reveal a forgotten story of the interactions between Filipino Immigrants and African Americans. It’s a story not only of conflict between two groups both discriminated against by larger white society, but of social interactions, accommodation and intermarriage.
After the Filipino-American war, Filipino immigrants began to migrate to coastal cities. Some of them were hired as stewards (food workers) or general laborers at the U.S. Naval Academy. To make room for these Filipinos, African Americans were fired. Back then, being a steward was one of the few acceptable jobs for Filipinos other than being an agricultural worker. When my father joined the U.S. Navy, his first job was as a “table navigator,” an ironic nickname for a steward. The Naval Academy’s preferences for Filipino workers caused conflict, as you can see from the above excerpt of an African American newspaper in 1931.
Despite the conflict, James Holliday, who was one of the first African Americans to work at the Naval Academy, had a granddaughter who married Cosme Portilla, a Filipino cook at the academy. Most Filipino immigrants were single men, and with few Filipinas allowed into the U.S. and with marriage to whites being illegal, many of them adapted and intermarried with African American and other nonwhite women. The University of Maryland archaeologists are trying to understand Filipino cultural adaption during that period.
I had never heard of this story before, and I find it interesting how African Americans and Filipino Americans, both discriminated against and pitted against each other economically, found some kind of common ground. The video above talks about the digging at the Holliday house, a fascinating story by itself, which has been occupied by the descendents of the James Holliday to this day. The archaeologists are looking for some trace of Filipino culture, but haven’t found any. I initially thought this was disturbing, but it’s not surprising considering how relatively few Filipinos were in the area at the time.
(photo credit: University of Maryland and www.afro.com)