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The history of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, an annual celebration that recognizes the historical and cultural contributions of individuals and groups of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. A broad term, AAPI encompasses Asia and the Pacific islands of Melanesia which includes New Guinea, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji and the Solomon Islands, Micronesia including Marianas, Guam, Wake Island, Palau, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru and the Federated States of Micronesia, and Polynesia including New Zealand, the Hawaiian Islands, Rotuma, the Midway Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, the Cook Islands, French Polynesia and Easter Island.

AAPI Heritage Month began in 1979 as a week-long celebration and expanded to an entire month in 1990. May was chosen because it commemorates the migration of the first immigrants from Japan to the United States on May 7, 1843, and to celebrate the completion of the transcontinental railroad by more than 20,000 Asian immigrants on May 10, 1869.

Today, more than 22 million people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent live in the U.S. totaling approximately 6% of the population, representing a wealth and diversity of cultures and experiences across our country.

Today, let’s meet some notable Asian Americans from history:

Wong Kim Ark – On March 28, 1898, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision in United States v. Wong Kim Ark, holding that children born in the United States, even to parents not eligible to become citizens, were citizens themselves under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Ark was born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants who were barred from becoming U.S. citizens under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Following a trip to China, he was barred reentry to the U.S. on the grounds that the son of a Chinese national could never be a U.S. citizen. He sued the federal government, resulting in the court’s decision that the government could not deny citizenship to anyone born in the United States.

Martha and Berda Lum – At the start of the school semester in September 1924, Chinese American sisters Martha and Berda Lum were barred from attending middle school in Rosedale, Mississippi, and their exclusion resulted in a lawsuit that unsuccessfully challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine. Determined that their children would receive the best education available, their parents appealed this restriction all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Three years later, on Nov. 21, 1927, the court ruled that state’s rights and Plessey v. Ferguson applied to Asian American students.

Patsy Mink – In 1956, Patsy Mink became the first Asian American elected to Congress, and in her 12-year congressional tenure, she consistently voted for a progressive agenda. She introduced the first comprehensive Early Childhood Education Act, authored the Women’s Educational Equality Act, and played a key role in the enactment of Title IX of the Higher Education Act Amendments, which prohibited gender discrimination by federally funded institutions. This legislation has been an important factor in ensuring equity for women in all educational programs, particularly school sports.

Peter Tsai – The N95 respirator was invented by Material Scientist Peter Tsai in the 1990s and was intended for industrial use. High exposure to nanoparticles in construction materials or coal dust increased the risk of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. At the time, masks filtered particles mechanically by trapping them in fibers, but Dr. Tsai developed a material that electrostatically charged fibers that pulled in particles. The N95 respirator proved to be 10 times more efficient than other masks, with a filtering capacity of 95%. His creation was patented in 1995, and a year later the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered the mask could also block viruses and bacteria.

Flossie Wong-Staal – When AIDS became a global epidemic in the 1980s, scientists didn’t know how it was transmitted, until Dr. Flossie Wong-Staal first cloned the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in 1985, allowing researchers to identify HIV as the cause of AIDS. Her work allowed others to understand how HIV evades the immune system’s natural defense response. Dr. Wong-Staal had been studying retroviruses at the National Institutes of Health, and her discovery led the organization to develop antibody tests. Her research in HIV/AIDS was highly significant in the field of virology and immunology, which helped lay the groundwork for understanding infectious diseases such as COVID-19 today.

Ajay Bhatt – In the early 1990s, connecting a keyboard, mouse or printer to a computer required a time-consuming installation process. Computer Architect Ajay Bhatt visualized a technology that would allow devices to connect to computers similar to the way plugs fit into electrical wall outlets. With that in mind, Bhatt and his team at Intel created Universal Series Bus (USB) technology in 1994. The USB hub serves as a translator for various devices and makes it easier for computers to understand different commands. Intel made the technology open and royalty-free, and Bhatt believed they had every right to do so – even though it meant he didn’t get rich from his invention. “I don’t do these things for money,” he said.

Chin Wan Tang – Physical Chemist Chin Wan Tang was working at the Eastman Kodak Company when he and a colleague invented the organic light-emitting diode (OLED) in 1987. It produces a more vibrant display than liquid crystal displays which has long been used in televisions and computer monitors, because OLED generates all colors, provides higher contrast and does not require a backlight. Companies like Apple, Samsung and Sony now use this technology to make smartphones, TVs and tablets smaller, thinner and lighter. Dr. Tang is named on 84 patents and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2018 for his co-invention of the OLED.