Two AAPI Families’ Fights for Education Equity in the United States

Diversity, Racial Justice / /
AAPI Families - A picture of the Tape Family. Joseph Tape, Emily Tape, Mamie Tape, Frank Tape, and Mary Tape, circa 1884.

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Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) activists have a longstanding history of expressing solidarity with global civil rights and liberation movements. Through activists, we’ve seen substantial changes in our nation’s history. However, a crucial component in movements is not only the leaders and activists we become acquainted with, but the litigation challenging the status quo. Today, we are sharing two cases involving AAPI families and education equity.

Before Brown v. Board determined school segregation to be unconstitutional, there was Tape v. Hurley.

Tape v. Hurley

California. September 1884. Joseph and Mary Tape attempt to enroll their eight-year-old daughter, Mamie Tape, in a primary school in San Francisco. The affluent Tapes lived in a primarily white neighborhood and hoped to enroll their daughter in their neighborhood school. However, court-backed racism hindered their attempts to enroll Mamie.

When the Tape’s tried to enroll Mamie in their neighborhood school (Spring Valley Primary School) the Principal, Jennie Hurley, touted a school board anti-Chinese policy to prevent them from enrolling her. 

When they filed a lawsuit against Hurley and the San Francisco School Board, they won. However, the fight was far from over.

The Tape’s, who migrated to the US as young children, were prepared to continue fighting for what was right.

The school district was ultimately able to keep Mamie out of Spring Valley Primary School. San Francisco opened schools for Chinese students only, and administrators continued to find legal loopholes to prevent Mamie from enrolling.

While Mamie Tape never attended Spring Valley Primary School, more and more Chinese children were able to attend white schools in San Francisco. 

The San Francisco school system was finally integrated in 1971, nearly two centuries after the Tape’s first challenged it. However, discriminatory practices still limited Chinese students’ educations.

The Tape’s unwillingness to fold to Spring Valley’s racist policies helped set the stage for other litigation that fought against discriminatory education.

Lau v. Nichols

California. January 1974. All classes in San Francisco schools were taught exclusively in English. Despite this, less than half of Chinese students received supplemental English instruction. This left many students, including Kinney Kinmon Lau, struggling in the classroom.

The Lau’s—immigrants from Hong Kong—were approached by lawyer Edward H. Steinman to get involved in a class-action suit against the San Francisco Unified School District. Kinney’s mother Kam Wai Lau agreed to join the legal battle after teachers at her son’s school told her “she had to do something for herself” when she complained about the language barriers.

The Lau’s—along with 13 other plaintiffs—sued the district for a violation of the 14th Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision that San Francisco schools’ language policy violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It stated that federally funded school systems were responsible for resolving language deficiencies. 

Although the history of education equity rarely highlights the Lau’s story, it remains a key turning point for English as a Second Language (ESL) students. It established the precedent that schools provide some form of bilingual instruction or supplemental English to support non-English speaking students.

Progress Made by AAPI Families: Implications for Today

The Tape and Lau cases remind us of the power of parent and family voices. Both legal battles started with a parent wanting a better education for their child. The Tape’s wanted desegregated schools, and the Lau’s wanted better support for non-English speaking students. While their primary motivation was their children, the Tape and Lau families’ courage impacted thousands of Chinese students in the San Francisco area. Their cases also established precedents that impacted equal education in the United States as a whole.

This is just a glimpse into the story of AAPI families and education equity. As AAPI Heritage Month is coming to an end, we want to continue to celebrate these everyday heroes and the impact of their legacies on us today. 


Learn more about Tape v. Hurley and Lau v. Nichols by clicking the hyperlinks.

Check out the Possip blog for more AAPI Heritage Month posts.

Blog by Addy Somerville, Possip Social Media & Marketing Intern, and Customer Experience and Support Team Member, Jasmine Blue.