They tried to steal this American's citizenship. He fought back—and won.

Wong Kim Ark battled nativists all the way to the Supreme Court. His 1898 victory established the definition of U.S. citizenship in a landmark decision.

Wong Kim Ark

An ID photograph of Wong Kim Ark was taken prior to an 1894 voyage to China.
Tango Images/Alamy

In 1897 the 14th Amendment was barely three decades old when it was put to the test, thanks to Wong Kim Ark. Ratified in 1868 in the aftermath of the Civil War, this addition to the U.S. Constitution defines U.S. citizenship in Section 1: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” But anti-immigrant forces challenged its straightforward language. Wong sued for his rights under the 14th Amendment, and his case would go all the way to the Supreme Court.

Nativist attitudes were prevalent throughout the United States in the 19th century, and in the West they targeted Chinese immigrants. California passed a series of laws from the 1850s through the 1870s discriminating against Chinese residents; at the federal level, laws were introduced trying to exclude Chinese immigrants from entering the country. Some even passed Congress but were vetoed by President Rutherford B. Hayes, who was trying to balance foreign relations and domestic politics.

(The bloody history of anti-Asian violence in the West.)

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