During the late 1840s when the California Gold Rush lured thousands of would-be miners to the West, San Francisco was a wild town of narrow alleyways, hilly streets, and an infamous section called Chinatown.
While some men like Levi Strauss made their fortunes providing needed supplies to the miners, others became corrupt–providing the men with women. These ‘women’ were actually young Chinese girls who had been sold into slavery back in China, and then shipped to California.
The average time for a Chinese girl to remain alive as a prostitute in San Francisco was six to eight years; after that they died from various health complications from sexual diseases. Many of the girls were as young as twelve.
By the 1890s a small group of Protestant women had managed to establish a safe mission house in San Francisco. The goal was to provide a haven for freed girls who had been illegally brought into the country for the purpose of permanent servitude or prostitution, but had escaped.
At the same time, far to the south, a young woman named Donaldina Cameron made a decision to leave the comfortable ranch where she lived with her family in southern California and travel to San Francisco. Her intention was to help out at the Protestant mission for a year or so.
At the safe house, she met Margaret Culbertson.
Soon after Donaldina arrived, Margaret Culbertson changed the goal; no longer would the group be content with simply running a safe house, she would conduct slave raids and free as many imprisoned Chinese girls as possible.
Young and impressionable at age twenty-five, Donaldina decided to stay and assist Margaret Culbertson in any way she could. Eighteen months later, Margaret Culbertson died, and Donaldina became her permanent replacement.
In time Donaldina earned the nickname of ‘Lo Mo’, the Chinese equivalent of ‘The Mother’. While the Chinese girls whispered the name of Lo Mo with reverence, the furious slave traders of San Francisco called her ‘The White Devil’.
It may be hard for us today to reconcile how the slave trade in San Francisco existed for over seventy years. Since slavery was once legal in China, extremely poor families would often sell off a daughter (or two) in order to gain some money. The sold girls traveled by boat to California, often lying in shipping crates designated as ‘household inventory’. Once inside San Francisco’s Chinatown, they lived under lock and key and were ‘given’ to various clients multiple times a day. Since the girls were virtually penniless and could not speak English, any hope of escape was dismal.
But Donaldina Cameron was a force. Tall for a woman, and with coppery flowing hair in her youth, she possessed a courageous streak that enabled her to carry out many an escape. Sometimes she was aided by the city police who went with her on a raid; often she was alone.
Word would reach the safe house of a particular girl being held in captivity. Since the girls were often kept behind secret panels in mazes of hallways, Donaldina had to work with speed and accuracy. She soon learned the confusing pattern of streets in Chinatown and would station herself at a particular entrance with a buggy nearby and then quickly grab the girl as she was being hustled and literally throw her into the buggy. Then Donaldina jumped into the small carriage, and off they sped.
Once when she discovered a young toddler who had been smuggled into California for the purpose of future slavery, Donaldina simply kidnapped the child when no one was watching. Then she lied to the authorities that she was involved. Knowing that if the baby was deported back to China she would be resold, Donaldina arranged for the little girl to be secretly adopted.
She dodged writs, ignored summons, and hid girls for whom warrants had been issued. More than once she had her life threatened. But she continued, because thousands of Chinese girls entered San Francisco on an annual basis and became prisoners in the crib houses of Chinatown. With Donaldina’s constant campaigning to end the slave trade, and with a new set of politicians coming into power, the slave trade was finally outlawed in San Francisco in the early 1920s.
By that time, Donaldina Cameron had rescued and educated over 3,000 Chinese girls and given them a new life.
When she died in 1968 at the age of 99, she was still called ‘Lo Mo’.
It was her badge of honor.
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~ Linda ~