Alternate History Historical Fiction

Legally White: A 1908 Court Case Reversal

In January 1908, a trial in Minnesota decided whether John Svan, an outspoken activist and socialist from Finland, could become a naturalized United States citizen or not. At the time, citizenship was legally defined only for “Whites” and “Blacks.”

A district prosecutor maintained that Finnish immigrants were Mongol, or “Yellow,” and thus not eligible for citizenship due to the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Svan eventually won his court case, legally proving that Finnish people were White.

Here’s my take on what would have happened if John Svan had lost his court case to become “legally White”—only adding to the conversation of where the concept of “supremacy” is coming from if “whiteness” is purely a construct.

John Svan couldn’t explain why he wanted to be White, he just knew that he was inclined to defend this phantom color whenever the question came up. There were two colors in America—Black or White—and it was easy to tell upon arrival that you’d prefer the latter.

But now it started to look like there was a third option, expanded just for him. As the judge read the ruling declaring Finns “Yellow,” Svan looked down at his arm to see Genghis Khan’s contribution. For a second, he succumbed to the final judgment and thought he saw a yellow spot on his forearm.

“Let’s go, you goddamn China Swede,” Tom Jensen, the court officer, barked.

Svan felt the man’s hands on him and snapped out of it. The yellow was a sunbeam splitting its light through a monstrous icicle.
Minnesota was frozen.

Sami woman from Finland at Ellis Island, 1905.

Most years from November to May, the people of Eveleth would sit down out of fear of slipping on ice. But in 1907, things changed. Everyone had started to skate—Svan first in guiding the formation of the first Mesabi mining union and then petitioning to become a citizen of the United States. He was too busy to notice how far out on the ice he had gotten. And how thin it was.

Svan’s lawyer, Lee Denton, rushed up to him as Jensen forced-marched him outside towards a police wagon. “You okay, John?”

“Would you be okay, Lee?” Svan replied in his perfect but Finnish-accented English.

Denton didn’t say anything. He knew Svan was right. Now that Svan was legally Asian, he would be subject to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—which meant he now had no rights, no habeas corpus. The United States v. Ju Toy Supreme Court case in 1905 had solidified that.

Svan knew he would either be killed or deported—which was a death sentence, too. He looked around and saw other Finns being rounded up not by police, but by ordinary townspeople—townspeople with violent thoughts who had silently braided the hangman’s rope in their mouths until the bought politicians instructed them to reveal the magician’s trick. Then, the fake smiles stopped, and the mouths opened wide.

Finnish people were too similar to ignore but too strange to accept.
Karl Otto was salivating at the thought.

“We’re gonna hang you, you fucking yellow, China Swede!” Otto hollered after Svan. “We’re gonna hang you and all the other reds, too!”

Would you pick a color?! Svan screamed in his head. Am I yellow or red? The question turned introspective. He wanted to look again, catch another icicle’s light, and see what color he was now, but his hands were cuffed behind his back.

Jensen threw him into the back of the police wagon. Svan hit his head hard on the roof and felt a heat rupture in his head. Soon, a quick, cooling clot.

And it all went black.

A New York Star report on the coming influx of Finnish immigrants, early 20th century.

Ju Toy was born in San Francisco but was proudly on the run from the law. After a trip to visit family in China in 1903, Ju Toy was denied entry back into the United States. He was not an immigrant, but the Supreme Court upheld it, ruling that American citizenship requirements were up to Congress.

It was a troublesome ruling. Congress had been on a Sinophobic streak since the 1880s with the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Scott Act and, worst yet, the Geary Act—which required Asian Americans always to carry a permit that verified their citizenship.

Ju Toy remembered how freeing it was to finally burn his void permit during his first campfire somewhere in the Sierra Madres with other “Chinese fugitives.” The same fire had brought them to Minnesota after they had learned of the “Mongolian,” John Svan. They all knew Genghis Khan; they grew up with stories about a wall built to keep his kind away. But now they wondered if they could make a bridge with them in America.

Ju Toy and Svan would never know it, but about 2,000 years before, one of their ancestors made a harrowing migration. Pregnant and wrapped in golden jackal fur, a Uralic woman walked 1,100-miles out of Asia to modern-day Finland.

It was the opposite direction of her distant descendant, Genghis Khan. Something a Mesabi mine owner, Leonidas Merritt, read excitedly about late one evening as he pondered how to squash the Finnish-led unionization of his mine. It was his “aha” moment; an interpretation turned political in the late hours of the night while he read a book inspired by Charles Darwin’s half-cousin, Francis Galton: the father of eugenics.

Both Finns and Mongols spoke a Uralic language, the author wrote. The Mongols were Asian people, Merritt propagandized, and so, Svan and all the socialist Finns were not White or Black. They were yellow—Asian. And consequently couldn’t be citizens of the United States.

The Naturalization Act of 1870 had a black-or-white definition of admissible citizenship colors.

Ju Toy laid in the snow on a distant hill under a skirt of conifers. He watched with binoculars as the court officer threw Svan into the back of the police wagon. He watched Svan hit his head.

Ju Toy couldn’t tell the difference between the two men.

“That guy is supposed to be Mongolian?” his friend and confidant Altan asked as if reading his mind, looking through his own pair of binoculars.

Altan was actually Mongolian, but a large, yellow paintbrush held by the government had painted him Chinese.

“A White man who’s been painted Yellow will be a lot more capable of sympathy than a Yellow man asking to be painted White.”

When the sun disappeared, and the temperature dipped well below freezing, Ju Toy, Altan, and a small company of five other Asian Americans descended on the Eveleth jail armed with pistols and knives.

They stuck to shadows and walls, scraping past buildings and occasionally feeling the tug of protruding ice catching their clothes like a ghost’s hand.

Ju Toy tried not to let his superstition show. On their way into Eveleth, the group had passed the bodies of three Finnish men hanging high from a pine tree, their frosted, distorted faces reflecting the full moon.

In the Chinese calendar, the January full moon lunation was called the Preserved Month because it was when the Great Cold came, and winter meats were preserved. But it wasn’t the preserved men that scared Ju Toy. It was what the freeze couldn’t stop.

These souls would have a reason to wander.

His Nainai had taught him all the haunting Chinese folklore growing up, about ghosts with grievances. Beings left to roam the living world in constant depression after being violently killed.

Ju Toy had initially felt like one after he lost his Supreme Court case. But the depression didn’t last. It couldn’t. When his mother clutched his hand and wept, anchoring him to his mortal obligation to “return to China,” there existed an equal opposite force from her. It took his other hand and pulled him towards the peripheries of existence—but not to death. It was the same place where other patriots existed before him; the Sierra Madres were his Valley Forge.

They just had to outlast the winter.

Affidavit, return certificate, and photograph of Chinese American Ju Toy, born in San Francisco.

Eveleth jail looked like the epitome of it, caked in frost and snow with icicles that hung down low over its entrances like some wicked carnivore’s fangs. The building had three doors. Wang Wei had scouted and picked one at dusk with his parka hood pulled so tightly that no townsperson would know if he was a human or a coyote, much less Asian.

They headed to the side door that Wang Wei picked, the snow reflecting blue under their feet and naturally drawing eyes up. The hanging tree in the distance looked capped by the North Star. In the far distance, a low, guttural cow moo echoed over the surface of the snow.

Altan paused. His Chinese comrades had grown up with stories about keeping Khan away, but Altan had grown up with stories about Khan leading the world. And how on the night Khan was born, a Mongol priest had a vision of a cow mooing the prophecy, “Heaven and earth have agreed to make Genghis Khan the lord of the nation. I’ve come to bring you the nation.”

Were they the nation? There were so many now, and they weren’t defined by land.

Ju Toy approached the door. It was still picked open. He waved the other men over and turned the knob.

Silently, they poured into the Eveleth jail.

Silently, someone killed a guard before he could yell.

Silently, the group disappeared into the building’s underbelly, descending stairs into a cavernous hole lined with bars. At the end of it, moonlit by the slit of a window was John Svan. He stood facing them, eyes glazed, and body swaying. The top of his dark blond hair was matted and red with dried blood. Frosted air poured from his mouth.

The entire cell area was warmed by one pitiful fire too far from Svan to help. He was the only prisoner.

“Mr. Svan?” Ju Toy asked rhetorically, approaching the captive socialist.

Svan stopped swaying, his light gray eyes coming to focus on Ju Toy.
Ju Toy tried again. “…Mr. Svan? Can you hear me?”

Slowly, softly, Svan spoke, sounding apologetic: “Uuchlaarai, bi angliar yaridaggui.

Altan fell over, making a noise that caused Ju Toy, Wang Wei, and the others to whip their heads and stare.

“He’s speaking Mongolian,” Altan responded in disbelief. “He says he can’t speak English, but he’s speaking Mongolian!”

To be continued…

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