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Corky Lee, New York's Historical Photographer and Civil Rights Advocate - A heart of gold

(1947 - 2021)    American-born Chinese from New York City.  For decades, he documented the history, culture, daily lives, and contributions of Pan Asian Americans coming from over 40 countries—including China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam.


    Growing up, Corky Lee was proud to learn from community elders that his ancestors built the railroad. Yet, while in junior high school in 1970, he was shocked to see in his school’s history text that no Chinese workers appeared in the official 1869 photograph celebrating the opening of the Transcontinental Railroad. Feeling certain that they must be there, he bought a magnifying glass to look more closely. The fact was—they were completely absent!

    I respect Corky Lee for the choice he then made: to use his disappointment and anger at this omission and the horrible racial prejudice it came from, not to be disillusioned but as a beginning point for seeking justice. This ethical choice led to something beautiful.

At that young age, he determined to set the record straight: to someday take a photograph that would represent history truly. He succeeded! After decades of research, he located descendants of many of the original Chinese railroad workers, and in 2014 brought them, mostly at his own expense, to Promontory Point, Utah, to the exact spot where the historically false 1869 photograph had been taken. And there, Corky Lee took a new one, which he titled, “Photographic Justice.” Dressed in period clothing, these descendants posed for a joyful reenactment of the 1869 opening celebration of the TCR, symbolically hammering the final Golden Spike into the track.

    Corky Lee’s 2014 reenactment photograph, and reports about it, spurred the growing interest in the contributions and rightful place in American history of Chinese immigrants and other marginalized workers. In 2017, the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association (CRWDA) was founded to tell this story, joining with other groups representing descendants of the Irishmen, Mormons, Native Americans, enslaved and free Africans who built America’s railroads during and after the Civil War. What began slowly is becoming a major movement!

  On May 10th 2019 in Utah, as thousands of people celebrate with descendants—it will be evidence of the “force of ethics” working in this world. I look forward to joining them, and I will be thinking of Eli Siegel’s great definition of history, which is “shown feeling about the past” and this sentence from his comment on the definition, which I love: “The aim of history is to make past feeling felt more, or, simply, the past felt more.”



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