Photo by Corky Lee.
Asian and Pacific American Heritage Month is an opportunity to look back on our collective history and culture and today signifies an especially meaningful anniversary for us at Asian Americans for Equality. It was on this day — May 16, 1974 — that AAFE’s founders led the first protest over discriminatory labor practices at Confucius Plaza. It was a groundbreaking moment in the Asian American civil rights movement, and marked the birth of AAFE.
In those days, protest was unheard of in the Chinese American community. But anger had been building in Manhattan’s Chinatown where a private firm, the DeMatteis Corp., refused to hire Asian construction workers for the 764-unit apartment building. Inspired by the African American civil rights movement, young activists with Asian Americans for Equal Employment (AAFE’s predecessor) took to the streets.
On May 16, 250 protesters entered the construction site and forced a work stoppage. Demonstrators from other Asian groups and ethnic communities soon joined and stood in solidarity against injustice..
On June 1, 1974, the New York Times wrote, “The meticulously organized protest, similar to those that have been taking place at sites in black and Puerto Rican areas for 11 years in the city, is something new to Chinatown. While residents have often complained of discrimination and short‐changing on city services, public protest has been rare.”
City Council member Margaret Chin, an AAFE founder, participated in the demonstrations. “It was new to attend a demonstration with young and old people together,” she recalled. “The group of people was really diverse, including both native- and foreign-born people, and Asian Americans of many different backgrounds, not just Chinese.” AAFE Board President Lydia Tom, another founder, remembers being arrested during the demonstrations, along with many other activists. “You had to go into the work site, actually stand in front of bulldozers and just stop work. I guess we didn’t expect to get arrested but we were. I remember seeing the police on horses coming at us. I never envisioned having to run from them.”
Several weeks after the first protest, DeMatteis Corp. relented, agreeing to hire 27 minority workers, Asians among them. It was a major victory for the community and immediately established Asian Americans for Equal Employment as an organization that people could rely on when they had nowhere else to turn.
In the aftermath of Confucius Plaza, Asian Americans for Equal Employment led more civil rights protests in Chinatown, and began advocating for residents subjected to deplorable living conditions. In 1977, the organization’s name was changed to Asian Americans for Equality to reflect the expansion beyond equal employment . In the next several years, AAFE continued expanding to address community needs and soon went on to develop its first affordable housing building in Chinatown.
Today, AAFE continues to meet our community’s needs head on. This strategy helped us grow into one of the city’s preeminent community development organizations — but we have never forgotten our activist roots. And as Board Member Wendy Takahisa noted during our 40th anniversary, “AAFE started, fundamentally, as an organization committed to social justice and that has not changed all these years. In 1974, it was a group of people getting together to fight for equality and social justice for everyone. That core mission has not changed at all.”