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Silverton students examine the town’s untold stories

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The past came alive for students at Silverton School in Colorado as they explored racial tensions in their town and state that relegated Chinese and Japanese immigrants to second-class citizenship during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Learn more about their experiences below, in this article by Durango Herald writer Ryan Simonovich:

On a Monday night in May 1902, Silverton’s Chinese residents were chased out of town, in an event the newspaper called a “murderous attack.”

They were forced out of town and made to walk south along the railroad tracks, Mark Esper, editor of the Silverton Standard & the Miner, said recently.

There is no record of how many people died or who they were, however, some old newspaper articles provide a few details about the incident, Esper said.

Understanding different cultures

Recently, fourth- and fifth-graders at the Silverton School learned about the history of Chinese residents in Silverton, as well as a variety of cultures.

“I really want the students to develop an understanding of the various cultures that have played a role in our state’s history, and we kind of talk about that in terms of opportunities and challenges,” said Silverton School teacher Whitney Gaskill. 

Silverton School teacher Whitney Gaskill talks with fifth-graders Karley Ortega, left, and Regina Ramirez, about the history of Chinese residents in Silverton before heading out to locate an area where Chinese residents would have gardened.

Silverton School teacher Whitney Gaskill talks with fifth-graders Karley Ortega, left, and Regina Ramirez, about the history of Chinese residents in Silverton before heading out to locate an area where Chinese residents would have gardened. Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

In April, the class took a weeklong road trip to visit sites around Colorado. Students visited Camp Amache in Granada, a Japanese internment camp during World War II and the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site. 

“Their job is really now to be in Silverton and figure out what stories aren’t being told here and figure out how they’re going to tell it,” Gaskill said. 

Discrimination against Chinese immigrants is an example of stories that have not often been told. 

To better tell Silverton’s story, the students have been writing letters to the History Colorado Center museum to request artifacts be sent to the town’s museum in Silverton. They are also planting a garden with Chinese vegetables, like the immigrants used to do in Silverton.

About half of Gaskill’s class is learning English as a second language, she said. 

“I only think that makes it more relevant to be digging into some of these topics,” she said. 

Tensions in town

Chinese immigrants probably arrived in Silverton in the 1880s, Esper said. They worked in the lumber and restaurant businesses, and as general laborers.

They operated restaurants with low prices, so there was a notion that they were undercutting white business owners. 

During the Gilded Age, from the 1870s to about 1900, laborers were not making a lot of money. This can partially explain why there was anger toward the Chinese, Esper said. 

The Chinese did not mine much in Silverton, he said, but they did work in the mines in other locations throughout the West. 

White miners did not like the Chinese miners because they were willing to work longer hours for less pay, said Andrew Gulliford, professor of history at Fort Lewis College. 

The whole town of Silverton was unionized, and the labor unions voted that the Chinese must go, Esper said. 

At the time, The Standard agreed with the unions that the Chinese residents should go, but afterward, the newspaper said that what occurred had gone too far. 

Similar events were occurring across the West, including a massacre in 1885, killing 28 Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming. A riot in 1880 killed one Chinese person in Denver’s Chinatown, and in 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act limited Chinese immigration. 

Who is telling the story?A strategy to teach about diversity is to celebrate cultures of the children within the classroom, said Di Ann Ryter, assistant professor of teacher education at FLC. 

Ryter said that it is important to think about whose perspective history is being taught from. For example, is the story being told from the perspective of marginalized groups or from the perspective of white men?

The Silverton students learned that Chinese residents were not allowed to be buried in the Silverton Cemetery, Gaskill said. 

A marker in the Silverton Cemetery honors Chinese residents who were buried outside of central area of the cemetery. Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file

Gulliford said that there was additional discrimination at the Silverton Cemetery, such as Catholics and Protestants being buried in separate areas. 

An important lesson for children, he said, is to realize that racism and discrimination extended all the way to when people were dead. 

Teachers should not shy away from talking about current events in a way that is age-appropriate, Ryter said. 

Gaskill said the class does not focus a lot on current events, but it is important for students to make those connections. She says that it is pertinent that students study the history of discrimination to understand current issues. 

The United States has a history of anti-immigration, and there is currently an anti-immigrant sentiment in the country. In 2017, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven countries. In addition, Trump has repeatedly called to build a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. 

“Dealing with these issues are the things that allow our students to be productive and hopefully active citizens when they grow up,” Gaskill said. “As they grow older, they will see that those same issues are continuing to play out in certain ways.” 

As part of their lessons, students performed a historical fiction play for an exhibit opening this week at the San Juan County Historical Society Museum.