Mapping Asian American history in the nation’s capital

Union Market

Union Market, formerly Florida Market, has been supplying food products to DC businesses and residents since 1931.

“Asians really started coming in there and setting up retail and wholesale businesses in the 1970s,” said Sojin Kim, curator at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. “The first Korean company to enter there was when Sang Oh Choi and his brothers founded ‘Sam Wang Produce,’ which became one of the largest wholesalers in the city in the 1980s.”

From the 1970s to the 1990s, Kim said most of Union Market’s owners were Asian immigrants.

“They were serving the entire city, both with produce and products that Asian retailers or restaurants might want, but also with where street vendors can buy trinkets and souvenirs,” he said.

Washon Ye’s Tombstone

Washon Ye is believed to be the first Korean to be born in the United States on October 12, 1890, according to curators.

He was the son of Ye Cha Yun, the fourth minister of the Korean Legation in DC.

“He was born in October 1890 and was baptized at the Church of the Covenant at N Street and Connecticut Avenue,” Kim said. “They named him Washon specifically because he was born in Washington, DC, so he was named after the city in which he was born.”

Sadly, the boy died when he was two months old, “and is buried in Oakhill Cemetery in Georgetown.”

Ted Gong, executive director of the 1882 Foundation, said Chinese exclusion laws enacted in 1882 prohibited Chinese people from immigrating to the United States and prohibited them from obtaining citizenship.

The Korean experience was similar, Gong said, so Washon Ye’s role was significant: “The first generations came, settled, tried to survive here and produce a next generation.”

First Korean church

“Many, but not all, Korean immigrants who have come to the United States are Christians,” Kim said. “And many of the paths to immigration for Koreans came through relationships with American missionaries or Christian educators.”

In 1950, several dozen Koreans in D.C. “decided they wanted to get together and form a congregation so they could provide support and prayer to each other during the Korean War,” Kim said.

It was unclear where the congregation would meet.

“The Foundry Methodist Church, although most of these people are Presbyterian, welcomed them to use one of the church chapels on 16th Street from 1951 to 1978,” Kim said.

It later became the Korean United Methodist Church of Greater Washington, which is now headquartered in McLean, Virginia, according to the map’s curators.

Rank 99 in the Congressional Cemetery

The Congressional Cemetery, at 18th and E Streets SE, near the Anacostia River, was the final resting place for a wide variety of Americans, including Civil War soldiers from both the North and South, approximately 100 U.S. senators and representatives , Dolly Madison and the director of the FBI. J. Edgar Hoover.

Between 1896 and 1938, nearly 100 Chinese residents were buried in field 99 of the Congressional Cemetery, according to the plaque currently located there.

Ted Gong of the 1882 Project said it was not because of segregation. At first, most Chinese immigrants to the United States were single, Gong said.

When a Chinese immigrant died in the United States, it was considered an obligation to send the remains of their loved ones back to their hometown, where the family, clan, or territorial association could continue traditional rites.

“The tradition at that time was that if you died in the United States, your family or territorial association would exhume you after about 10 years,” Gong said. “Their bones would be collected in the prescribed manner and sent back to their village of origin.”

There are no bones of Chinese immigrants left in Congressional Cemetery, although there are cenotaphs (monuments to people buried elsewhere), along with the plaque describing Range 99.

In the building of the Leong Chinese Merchants Association

While most are familiar with DC’s current Chinatown on H Street NW, many don’t realize that it is not the district’s first Chinatown.

In 1851, the first documented Chinese person recorded an address on Pennsylvania Avenue. His name was Chiang Kai. Over the next few decades, DC’s original Chinatown was established along Pennsylvania Avenue near Third Street NW.

“When the Federal Triangle was being developed in the late 1930s, Chinese merchants and other people there had to relocate,” Gong said.

The preeminent Chinese Benevolent Association of DC was called “On Leong Tong.” It provided legal and social services and functioned as a board of trade.

The merchants’ association moved to the On Leong Building on H Street NW in 1857.

“Other people, seeing this leading organization move to this area of ​​H Street, followed, and that’s where we established today’s Chinatown,” Gong said.

The “Finding Asian American History in Washington, DC” tour is one of 59 listed on the DC Historic Sites page, curated by the DC Preservation League.

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Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a general assignment reporter at WTOP since 1997. He says he looks forward to coming to work every day, even if it means waking up at 3:30 a.m.