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Political correctness may have run amok, but it's better than when casual racism ruled

Today it's popular to say that political correctness is destroying America, but a recently discovered set of century-old clippings offer a cautionary reminder of what our country was like without political correctness. From Oregon to South Carolina, journalists and their editors in 1906 felt free to trumpet racial epithets and outright lies, including those they printed about my American grandmother and my Chinese grandfather.

Beginning with their engagement, my grandparents' union was national news, simply because of their races. Front-page headlines ranged from the seemingly benign San Francisco Call's “Charming Miss Dolly Gives Her Hand to Len Shen Yu” to the Denver Post's virulent “Los Angeles Heiress Elopes with a Chink Editor of San Fran.”

Reporters couldn't be bothered to learn my grandfather's actual name, Liu Chengyu, instead concocting random approximations. And in true tabloid fashion, the Denver paper fabricated the notion that my grandmother was an heiress eloping with her Chinese lover.

In fact, until the 1906 San Francisco earthquake one month earlier, Dolly Trescott, then 29, had been struggling to support herself by tutoring students in English. One of them was my 30-year-old grandfather-to-be, then enrolled at UC Berkeley and the editor of a newspaper in San Francisco's Chinatown. When the quake struck, Liu Chengyu helped his tutor escape her boarding house on Jackson Street before the Great Fire engulfed it. He then protected her in the tent city for refugees that was erected on the Presidio. Homeless, and with no family other than her naturopath father in Los Angeles, Trescott understandably accepted when this wealthy son of a former Viceroy of Canton proposed marriage.

Liu was a protege of Sun Yatsen. In an ironic twist, his newspaper was an instrument of Sun's campaign to overthrow the imperial dynasty that had employed generations of Liu ancestors. My grandfather wanted to see China remade as a Western-style republic. It's not clear that my grandmother knew any more about these revolutionist activities than did the American reporters who dubbed her fiance an “embryo diplomat.” Regardless, she was prepared to go the distance to marry her “Celestial.” That alone made her fair game for the papers.

Among its many functions, political correctness applies a brake on the impulse to lie. It's tempting, when spewing venom, to gin up one's case with sensational falsehoods, but less so if you know your audience will call you out and challenge you to justify your prejudices with reason and with facts. In 1906 the citizens who would correct the record were few, but they did exist. The Presbyterian minister who married my grandparents was one.

In the continental United States at the time, all but 17 mostly northeastern states had so-called anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial marriage. And even in a state where it was allowed, finding a willing preacher was no small feat. Trescott and Liu apparently thought they could find one in Mormon Utah, so they boarded a train to Ogden, where reporters gleefully documented the local minister's refusal. The determined couple proceeded to Evanston, Wyo., where the Rev. Leon C. Hills was willing not only to wed them, but also to defend them against the public outrage that followed.

In a Wyoming Press editorial, Hills made a case for racial (although, alas, not class) tolerance that could well be leveled at those issuing screeds against immigrants today:

Some very unfair and indiscret [sic] remarks have been made by those who do not know the facts of this case. Some speak of this affair as though a Chinese “coolie” had married some white woman of doubtful character. ... Please pause until you hear some facts. This misunderstanding comes no doubt from three causes: First, from the sensational reports in the newspapers; second, it is due to a gross prejudice in this western country toward the Chinese because of labor problems; third, because some Americans have the idea that the Chinese are an inferior race.

The good reverend's appeal had little effect. In South Carolina, Charleston's News and Courier picked up on one bastardization of my grandfather's name to sneer, “Miss Dolly Trescott, a white girl, of California, has married a Chinaman whose first name is ‘Sin.' This should result in something original.”

All this notoriety made the “Celestial's Wife Wrathy,” as one headline put it. After returning to California from their wedding odyssey, my grandmother quietly rented an apartment for the two of them in a “swell” section of Berkeley, but when three neighboring families learned my grandfather's ethnicity, they went to the press and threatened to move away. My “wrathy” grandmother was now ready to issue her own statement:

Certain persons have taken it upon themselves to criticise [sic] me because I married an Oriental, but I consider that is purely my own business. ... If necessary I will put the case in the hands of a lawyer. … I will not admit that anyone can drive me out of my present domicile and will fight for my rights to the last.

As far as we know, she won the battle. In 1908, the couple's first daughter was born, without fanfare. Three years later, Sun's revolution toppled the Manchu empire, and Liu Chengyu hastened back to Shanghai to become a senator in the first Chinese republic. My grandmother followed in 1912, and for the next 24 years my grandparents remained in China, where they had three more children. (My father was the second born.)

Prejudice, from Europeans and Chinese alike, always marked their lives, but never again was it as wanton and widespread as the ugliness captured in those century-old American clippings. If today's campaign against political correctness succeeds, who can doubt that the nasty rhetoric aimed at my grandparents would pale against the vitriol of our times?

Aimee Liu's novel "Cloud Mountain" is based on her grandparents' marriage. She teaches in Goddard College's MFA program in creative writing at Port Townsend, Washington.

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A version of this article appeared in print on March 27, 2016, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "When racism was routine" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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