Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Women's History Month 2018: Donaldina Cameron

Portrait of Donaldina Cameron
Yesterday, I wrote about Tye Leung Schulze, and I mentioned Donaldina Cameron, who ran the safe house to which Tye escaped when she ran away from a forced, child marriage. Donaldina dedicated her life to rescuing Chinese girls from slavery and earned the moniker "Angry Angel of Chinatown."

Donaldina came to San Francisco as a young girl. When she was young, she had little contact with the struggles of the nearby Chinese immigrant population. A family friend brought the then 23-year-old Donaldina to the Occidental Mission Home for Girls where she became a sewing teacher. Only two years later, Donaldina became the superintendent of the home.

A lack of prior experience didn't seem to matter to Donaldina or her charges. She ran the home with gusto and made daring attempts to rescue as many girls as possible from various forms of slavery, forced marriage and human trafficking. She often darted through dark alleys and climbed across rooftops to rescue girls. Her life was constantly threatened by those who profited from the girls she saved, but that didn't stop her. Donaldina was guided by her mission to save these girls as well as by a strong faith in God. She continued on with her work regardless of threat, risk or difficulty.

Because child welfare laws did not exist at the time, Donaldina often had to break the law to rescue the girls, but she preferred this tactic because it meant the girls were at least safe while she worked out the legal issues. In 1904, Donaldina and her lawyers were able to challenge the courts to provide some protection for these children. This not only aided Donaldina's work, but it also set a foundation for future child welfare laws.

Donaldina didn't stop at rescues. The Occidental Mission Home for Girls was truly a home where she mentored and taught the girls. They learned skills like sewing and cooking. Donaldina helped them on their paths as the home whether for marriage or an education. One of Donaldina's charges became the first Chinese-American women to graduate from college. Just as Tye, mentioned above, became the first Chinese-American woman to vote.

In 1934, Donaldina retired from the home. In 1942, it was renamed Cameron House, which it had been called by many for decades. Donaldina passed away in 1968. She's credited with saving over 3,000 girls, but her legacy doesn't stop there. Cameron House continues to operate and serve the Chinese women and immigrants in the San Francisco area. What began for Donaldina as a position teaching sewing became a lifelong mission to rescue girls, halt human trafficking and aid the immigrant community. This mission has had an impact that extends well beyond Donaldina's lifespan.

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