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Celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Every May, the achievements and historical and cultural contributions made by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are honored during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Celebrate the lives, legacies, and heritage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders with your students using these historical tidbits, resources, and lesson plan ideas.

The Origin of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

Seeing a great need to recognize Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders nationally, Representative Frank Horton of New York introduced a resolution in Congress to establish the first ten days of May as Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week in 1977. His bill didn’t pass; undeterred, he submitted a new resolution the following year. Joint Resolution 1007 was passed first by the House, then the Senate, and ultimately was signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

It wasn’t until 1990 that the week-long commemoration was expanded to a month. May was designated Asian Pacific American Heritage Month to coincide with the date the first Japanese immigrant, Manjiro Nakahama, arrived in the United States on May 7, 1843. Another factor in Congress’ decision to observe May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is the anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad on May 10, 1869.

Manjiro Nakahama

At just 14 years old, Manjiro Nakahama came to the U.S. aboard an American whaling ship on May 7, 1843. The ship’s captain, William Whitfield, rescued Manjiro and his crew after their fishing boat wrecked 300 miles away from their village in Usa, Japan. Captain Whitfield adopted Manjiro and brought him to his hometown of Fairhaven, Massachusetts.

Over the next decade, Manjiro voyaged on whaling ships and panned for gold in the California Gold Rush to afford passage back to Japan. After years of earning and saving money for the fare, Manjiro arrived in Nakahama, Japan, in 1852. Shortly after his arrival, Manjiro was asked to give an account of his life in America to Lord Yamanouchi. Impressed by Manjiro’s bravery and experiences, Lord Yamanouchi bestowed the rank of samurai to Manjiro and the honor of choosing a last name. He picked Nakahama, the name of his birthplace.

Manjiro later became a translator, diplomat, an author, and an English and navigation professor. You can teach your students about his incredible life using this reproducible timeline and by visiting the Whitfield-Manjiro Friendship Society’s website.

Transcontinental Railroad Workers

The final spike in the Transcontinental Railroad was hammered on May 10, 1869, signaling the end of years-worth of back-breaking labor, much of which was done by Chinese railroad workers. Thousands of Chinese workers labored in dangerous conditions, including mining tunnels, using explosives, and logging. Paid only $31–$35 a month, these laborers earned significantly (about 30-50%) less than the white railroad workers they worked alongside.

The Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project by Standford University provides an in-depth look into the people's lives whose work connected the Central Pacific Railroads and the Union Pacific Railroads. Their teacher resources include free lesson plans for high school instruction that cover the history of Chinese immigration to the U.S. and videos of interviews with the descendants of the Chinese railroad workers.

Chinese railroad workers greatly impacted westward expansion by making it possible for Americans — and the Hawaiian Royal Family — to travel across the U.S. by train. We remember and honor the lives of those who laid the tracks that connected the East and West Coasts to make a cross-country trek feasible. Because of their work on the Transcontinental Railroad, Queen Kapi’olani of Hawaii traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1887 as an ambassador.

Queen Kapi’olani

Queen Kapi’olani and King Kalākaua ruled the Hawaiian Kingdom from 1874 until his death in 1891. During her seventeen-year reign as Queen Consort (someone with the title and status of “queen” without having political authority), she founded the Kapi’olani Maternity Home for mothers and their children to receive healthcare. She was also an ambassador to the United States, and she was the guest-of-honor at President Grover Cleveland’s White House State Dinner in 1887. During this visit, she donated her personal wa’a (canoe) to the Smithsonian as a sign of friendship between the two nations.

Following the death of King Kalākaua in 1891, the succession of the throne went to his sister, Princess Lili’uokalani. Dowager Queen Kapi’olani lived the remainder of her life in Waikiki, Hawaii, until her passing in 1899. Queen Kapi’olani is remembered for her philanthropic work to improve women’s healthcare and provide accessible education to all Hawaiians. Her life’s work is memorialized in the Kapi’olani Medical Center for Women and Children and the Kapi’olani Community College in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Queen Lili’uokalani

Queen Lili’uokalani reigned from 1891 until the unlawful overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom Government by the U.S. in 1893. She was the first — and last — ruling queen of Hawaii, but her legacy reaches far beyond her title. She was a gifted composer who wrote over 160 pieces of music, a humanitarian who worked to improve the lives of her people, and a fighter who sought to restore her government.

In 1895, Queen Lili’uokalani was arrested and accused of being involved in the “1895 Counter-Revolution in Hawaii” after weapons were unearthed in the garden at her personal residence, Washington Place. She was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to one year of house arrest in the ‘Iolani Palace. During this time, she abdicated her throne in exchange for the release of her imprisoned supporters. After one year at ‘Iolani Palace, she returned to Washington Place, where she lived until her passing in 1917.

Students can learn more about Queen Kapi’olani and Queen Lili’uokalani in this online exhibit by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, which includes photographs, artifacts, a virtual tour of ‘Iolani Palace, and videos. The Smithsonian’s Learning Together is also a great resource of primary sources about Queens Kapi’olani and Lili’uokalani. These articles about the overthrow of the Hawaiian government and the U.S. occupation of Hawaii provide additional information for middle and high school students.

Additional Resources on Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

The impact made by these notable people — and by all who came before us — is worth celebrating and learning about every day! Continue teaching your students about the heritage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders beyond May with these lesson plans and activities.

For more resources and books related to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, be sure to check out our Asian American and Pacific Islanders titles.


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