American Portraits

Lee Yick: Equal Justice Under Law

In this lesson, students will consider the actions of Lee Yick regarding the injustices of a discriminatory city ordinance in San Francisco. They will consider ways in which they can promote or fight for justice in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.


Lee Yick walked down Dupont Street in San Francisco during the first week of July 1885. A Chinese national who had come to the city in 1861 to work, Yick had operated a successful laundry service for twenty-two years. He strode purposefully toward the entrance, just a few doors down at Number 318. It seemed like just any other day at work—yet Yick knew he was about to break the law….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you promote justice for yourself and others?

Virtue Defined

Justice is the capacity to determine and preserve our common rights.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will consider the actions of Lee Yick regarding the injustices of a discriminatory city ordinance in San Francisco. They will consider ways in which they can promote or fight for justice in their own lives.


  • Students will evaluate the injustices resulting from discriminatory laws and their enforcement in the United States.
  • Students will analyze an 1886 Supreme Court decision that supported civil rights against the discriminatory enforcement of law.
  • Students will analyze methods by which they can promote justice in their own lives.
  • Students will apply their knowledge of justice to their own lives.


As the United States economy took a downward turn in the 1870s, anti-Chinese attitudes grew. Repeatedly, Chinese immigrants were criticized for failing to assimilate into American culture. They were also accused of taking jobs away from more qualified whites. Many believed they took advantage of economic opportunities in the United States, only to return to China with their earnings.

Lee Yick was a Chinese immigrant who operated a laundry in San Francisco. Employment for immigrants was severely restricted in the city. Drawn initially by the Gold Rush and then later by the building of the transcontinental railroad, most immigrants were manual laborers. They helped build railroads, worked in the fields, made clothes in garment factories, operated laundries, rolled cigars, and repaired shoes. White men considered cleaning and pressing clothes to be “women’s work.” Therefore, men like Yick provided this service to their mostly white customers.


  • Assimilate
  • Gold Rush
  • Ordinance
  • Summarily
  • Valid
  • Petition
  • Selective enforcement
  • Jurisdiction
  • Equal protection of the laws
  • Unanimous
  • Landmark decision
  • Litigation

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was Lee Yick’s role in the civil rights movement? By fighting for justice decades before the nation’s focus on racial equality in the 1950s, how was Yick’s effort important?
  • What was Lee Yick’s purpose for challenging San Francisco’s unequally enforced city ordinance?
  • Why did Yick think it was important to challenge the system?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Ancheta, Angelo N. Race, Rights, and the Asian American Experience. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998.
  • “Chinese Immigration and the Chinese in the United States.” National Archives and Records Administration.
  • Cole, David. No Equal Justice: Race and Class in the American Criminal Justice System. New York: New Press, 1999.
  • McClain, Charles. In Search of Equality: The Chinese Struggle against Discrimination in Nineteenth-Century America. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
  • McClain, Charles, ed. Chinese Immigrants and American Law. New York: Garland, 1994.
  • “The Strange Case of the Chinese Laundry.” Freedom: A History of Us. 2002. Picture History and Educational Broadcasting Corporation.

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