Unearthing the Filipino pioneers of Annapolis

Posted at 02/02/2013 1:20 PM

What started off as a summer archaeological expedition by University of Maryland graduate students in Annapolis has unearthed artifacts that have provided a glimpse of early Filipino settlements in the East Coast.

The migration of thousands of Filipino farm workers and laborers to Hawaii and the West Coast in the early 1900s is well-documented. PBS recently produced a documentary about how some Spanish galleon crew members jumped ship in the 1760s and formed a Filipino hamlet in the Louisiana bayous – where their descendants still live today, making them the oldest continuous settlement of Asians in America.

But little is known about the Filipinos who opted to trek east. That’s why this UMD project, led by archaeologist Mark Leone and Fil-Am graduate student Kathrina Aben, feels so exciting to me.

They have already dug up old homes in Annapolis, the seat of Maryland and home to the US Naval Academy which is where this tale starts.

Commodore George Dewey spent just a couple of hours demolishing the Spanish flotilla in Manila Bay, paving the way for US conquest of the islands. There they found an abundance of skilled manpower, recruiting Filipinos to be interns, firemen, construction workers, cooks and the innocuous stewards (a job description that would take early Filipino immigrants all the way to the White House).

Aben believes as many as 200 of them were brought to Annapolis in the early 1900s (by 1915 or 1916, she said some Filipinos actually got to study in the Naval Academy).

The Filipinos’ arrival raised tensions in the community, she revealed, because of perceptions they were out to steal jobs from Whites and that era’s other minority group, the African Americans. In fact, it was this conflict that first drew the attention of UMD researchers.

Some of those early Filipino settlers are apparently still alive and have been interviewed by the students. Aben reported that their testimonies revealed the deep racism – even violence – and discrimination they endured but also somehow overcame.

They formed clubs, opened restaurants which advertised “Hawaiian food” even though the food was unmistakably Filipino (patrons probably didn't know any better) and engaged in sports.

Many ended up marrying Black women because in the 19th to early 20th century, there weren't many Filipinas in the East and perhaps more significantly, African Americans and Filipinos faced similar discrimination from the White-dominated city. Those who refused to be tied by those restrictions, moved to other states where they could love any woman.

Another group of UMD students are conducting an archaeological dig at the home of James Holliday, a former slave who purchased the property on 99 East Street in 1850 and passed it to descendants, who’s believed to include granddaughter Eleanor Briscoe Portilla – who married Filipino cook Cosme Portilla in 1919.

The dig has revealed dressmaking supplies, toys and other relics. The excavation has already altered conventional understanding of that community, that it was upper class and white. It now appears to be more diverse, a place where Filipinos, African-Americans and Jews lived in close proximity of each other.

Aben hopes further finds could shed more light on those Filipino pioneers. “This research remains relevant and important to the Filipinos still living in Annapolis and the overall Filipino diaspora in the US.”

All the time and resources UMD is investing in this endeavor can be taken as indication of the impact these early Filipino settlers had on Annapolis and indeed on the state itself. It’s a story that’s still unraveling. But I’m just curious, where else will we find relics left behind by early Filipinos in America?