Alliance of Ethics & Art (AEA) is a not-for-profit 501(c)(3) corporation. We are grateful to join with others in the fight against racism,
and to seek solutions based on principles of Aesthetic Realism, the education founded by philosopher Eli Siegel.*
Corky Lee, The Transcontinental Railroad, &
“The Force of Ethics”
Historical reenactment and photo by Corky Lee
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the completion of our nation’s Transcontinental Railroad (TCR), an engineering feat considered one of the wonders of the world. From 1863 to 1869, two railroad companies—the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific—were under contract to build this railroad, which would connect the country from east to west. After the tracks were laid, two locomotives, coming from opposite directions, met at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869, changing travel, industry, and life everywhere.
Their success brought honor and prize money to the railroad
Crucial to this enormous achievement were 12,000 Chinese immigrants, who comprised 90% of the Central Pacific’s workforce. It was they who laid the tracks in the West, tracks which spanned hundreds of miles of treacherous terrain over the Sierra Mountains and across the prairies. They did this backbreaking, dangerous work by hand: chiseling granite, setting the fuses to dynamite through rock, laying track. Hundreds died. Kowtowing to racism, official accounts downplayed or completely omitted their vital contribution. These men, enduring hunger, sacrificing their health, proudly gave their all to meeting a challenge to lay over 10 miles of track in one day. Their success brought honor and prize money to the railroad (not a penny of which these men ever saw) and set a record, which still stands! Disgracefully, however, the official signpost recording this stupendous accomplishment leaves them out.
Official photograph leaves out these brave workers. Photo Credit: National Archive
Meanwhile, I am happy to report that today an important and respectful change is in motion to honor the Chinese railroad workers, which I will tell about soon.
I have learned that these two things—the effort now to tell the truth about history, and the early shameful lying—arise from two opposing drives in every person which have been explained by Eli Siegel, founder of the education Aesthetic Realism. The first is the desire for respect, which comes from our deepest desire, to like the world on an honest basis. The other is the desire for contempt: “the lessening of what is different from oneself as a means of self-increase as one sees it.” Contempt is the cause of all injustice, including racism, war, and economics based on using the work and lives of human beings for profit—something inextricably linked to the building of the railroads in America. When contempt is studied—when we oppose it wherever it 2005-2019 by Alliance of Ethics & Art (AEA). is, including in ourselves—I am convinced it will be seen that there is a greater pleasure in respect: wanting to know and be fair to the world and people.
This brings me to:
Corky Lee, Photography, and
“The Force of Ethics”
The noted photographer/photojournalist Corky Lee describes himself as an ABC from NYC—an American-born Chinese from New York City. For decades, he has been documenting the history, culture, daily lives, and contributions of Pan Asian Americans comingfrom over 40 countries—including China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, India, and Vietnam.
In 2015, I interviewed Corky Lee for “The Force of Ethics in Civil Rights” Oral History Project. I gave the project this title arising from what Eli Siegel identified as the “force of ethics” working in reality and in people throughout history. The purpose of this oral history project is to learn from and gratefully acknowledge the work of unsung pioneers of all races and faiths in the struggle for justice.
Growing up, Corky Lee was proud to learn from community elders that his ancestors built the railroad. Yet, while in junior high school in 1960, 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!
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 reenactmentof 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, and enslaved and free Africans, who built America’s railroads during and after the Civil War. What began slowly is becoming a major movement! And so, 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.”