Donaldina Cameron, 1869-1968

  • Donaldina-Cameron-WWP

Woman Category: Activism & FeminismWoman Tags: Abolitionist and SF Bay Area Women

  • HerStory

    A pioneering Presbyterian missionary abolitionist who contributed to fighting girls trade in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

    Donaldina Mackenzie Cameron was born on a sheep ranch in New Zealand to Scottish parents. The family migrated to California when Donaldina was two years old. When she was in her twenties, she was offered missionary work by the San Francisco based organization Woman’s Occidental Board of Foreign Missions. She went there to teach sewing and assist the director Margaret Culbertson. Five years later, Cameron was appointed as the superintendent of the home and served in that role for 34 years – until mandatory retirement.
    The mission home was based on the fringe of San Francisco’s Chinatown, and the main objective was to stop human trafficking from China. Cameron joined police raids, broke into brothels saving girls from prostitution and domestic slavery, fought for their custody in courts, and provided them with a home and educational programs. She was motivated by the agenda of converting the rescued girls into Christianity.
    Donaldina Cameron became a living legend, credited with helping more than 2,000 Asian women who were smuggled into the US. When she was in her seventies, the mission home was renamed in her honor as “Cameron House”. Today it acts as a community center for Chinese-Americans. Cameron died at the age of 98. California legislature Assemblywoman March Fong Eu praised her in a memorial tribute as a “distinguished Californian.”

    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She was often threatened by the criminal organizations, and called by them “The White Devil”.
    • She is also known in local history as “Chinatown’s Angry Angel”.
    • She was twice engaged but never married.
    • In 1977, artists Suzanne Lacy and Kathleen Chang created a performance under the title “The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron”. It took place on a ferry to Angel Island, the historical point of entry for Asian immigrants in the San Francisco Bay.


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    The Remarkable Story of the Women Who Fought Against THE OCCIDENTAL MISSION HOME in Chinatown SF

    Julia Flynn Siler’s new book, The White Devil’s Daughters: The Fight Against Slavery in San Francisco’s Chinatown, is a revelatory history of the trafficking of young Asian girls—a practice that flourished in San Francisco during the first century of Chinese immigration (1848–1943)—and the "safe house" on the edge of Chinatown that became a refuge for those seeking their freedom. Starting in 1874, the brick house at 920 Sacramento Street in San Francisco’s Chinatown served as a home and gateway to freedom for thousands of enslaved and vulnerable young Chinese women and girls—a pioneering “rescue mission.” Known then as the Occidental Mission Home, it survived earthquakes, fire, bubonic plague and violence directed against its occupants and supporters—a courageous group of female abolitionists who fought the slave trade in Chinese women.

    Donaldina Cameron was the indomitable leader of the home for over 37 years. In 1942, the home was renamed Cameron House, and it still serves the Asian-American community today, offering a range of social services and youth programs. With compassion and an investigative historian's sharp eyes, Siler relates how the women who ran the house defied contemporary convention and anti-Chinese prejudices. These women occasionally even broke the law by physically rescuing children from the brothels where they worked or snatching them off the ships that were smuggling them in, helping bring the exploiters to justice. Siler has also uncovered the stories of many of the girls and young women who came to the Mission and the lives they later led. Sometimes these women became part of the home's staff themselves, including Tien Wu, who became Donaldina Cameron’s translator and aide. Siler will talk about this remarkable story of an overlooked part of our history—a story that still resonates today. This is the tale of immigrants overcoming great difficulties with the aid of sympathetic Americans.

  • Photo credit - Wikipedia

  • Citations and Additional References:
    Cameron House website.
    An article on SF Gate website.