Special Collections finds records of first person of color at the College

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Shayna Gutcho recently found Pu-Koa Chen's photo while working in Swem Special Collections. Courtesy Photo/ wm.edu

Recently, while examining old records and archives of early international students at the College of William and Mary, Mosaic Fellow Shayna Gutcho discovered a picture of Pu-Kao Chen ’23 in the 1923 Colonial Echo. Gutcho’s discovery marks the oldest available record of a student of color at the College, and Chen is now believed to be the College’s first student of color as an international student from Shanghai, China. 

Chen’s time at the College represents an important piece of history that coincides closely with the stories of Ming Pan ’25 and Arthur Matsu ’28. Pan was previously believed to be the College’s first student of color, and Matsu was believed to be the first Asian-American student at the College. Both individuals will be highlighted in the coming centennial celebration of Asian legacies and those of other students of color in Williamsburg. Now, with the discovery of Chen’s record, these anniversaries will occur much sooner than previously expected. 

The discovery of Chen’s time here at the College exemplifies the institution’s quickly evolving history and exemplifies the abundant amount of unknown information and history that fellowships like the Mosaic Fellow and Earl Gregg Swem’s Special Collection seek to uncover. Chen played an important role carving the path for minority students at the College. 

Gutcho described the process of first coming across Chen’s picture in the 1923 yearbook and discussed what she was aiming to discover.  

“For the front lobby case, the first two exhibits that were in the glass cases as you walk into Swem had to be associated with the COLL 300 theme Movements and Migrations. … This exhibit I wanted to highlight international students,” Gutcho said. “While the Reves Center is amazing and they’re great, they’re not really in my opinion hyped up to the level they should be with essentially 60 percent of students studying abroad at some point in their collegiate career here at William and Mary. So I wanted to highlight them and try to find the first international student of non-European descent, and through all the records it came out as Ming Pan, but then I decided to look back further and I found Pu-Kao Chen.” 

Gutcho was unsure if there would be anything worth finding when she decided to look further back through the College’s yearbooks and historical records. However, her search uncovered a new narrative concerning the College’s history and the attendance of students of color.  

Jacob Hopkins ’18 works alongside Gutcho in Swem’s Special Collections, and shared what details he found regarding Chen’s time here at the College. Hopkins explained how he came across an old copy of The Flat Hat, which helped to expand upon and provide context to some of the stories present at the College contemporaneously.  

“I was looking to see if we had any other mention of Pu-Kao Chen anywhere, and this copy of The Flat Hat came out in May 1923, and it had a small article about William and Mary’s largest graduating class in history and included there is Pu-Kao Chen,” Hopkins said. “I think that’s probably significant too, that it was the largest graduating class in history at the time, and it’s also to the best of our knowledge so far the first class to include international students as well.” 

Chen’s short and descriptive biography beneath his picture in the Colonial Echo displays the attitudes towards minority students during his time at the College. It describes him as having “come from the land of ‘blue gowns’” and being a “shark in the books.” The brief biography ends by wishing Chen luck with travels back to China and encouraging him to assist with its reconstruction. Pan’s biography, which was found in a later copy of the Colonial Echo, relied on similar  language.  

Gutcho spoke on the statements these biographies made on Chen’s and Pan’s acceptance at the time, and what these old yearbooks can reveal about the culture and tensions occurring both at the College and nationally.  

“After Pu-Kao Chen, there was Ming Pan and they both graduated with Bachelors of Arts,” Gutcho said. “His bio is similar to Pu-Kao’s and both used very outdated language that we would not use today. They really highlight that they are not welcome to stay past their time here at the College.” 

Gutcho reemphasized the importance of Matsu and Pan’s overlapping times at the College, and detailed how unusual the scenario was in relation to broader social conditions in Virginia and throughout the United States.  

“It is significant that Ming Pan and Art Matsu overlapped here at William & Mary,” Gutcho shared in an email. “While there may be no record showing them interacting, two men of color attending a historically white institution during 1923 speaks volumes in itself.”

“It is significant that Ming Pan and Art Matsu overlapped here at William & Mary,” Gutcho shared in an email. “While there may be no record showing them interacting, two men of color attending a historically white institution during 1923 speaks volumes in itself.”  

Gutcho continued to describe how the legacies of Chen, Pan and Matsu build upon each other, and the importance of understanding and validating all of their stories. She mentioned the College’s troubled history with minority groups and ways to continue to progress in the future.  

“I never want to devalue Art Matsu, he is especially important because he is the first Asian-American student, but to label him as the first POC student — that’s just inaccurate,” Gutcho said. “That erases Pu-Kao Chen and that erases Ming Pan. The worst thing you can do to anyone is erase their history. William and Mary historically has not done a great job when it comes to different minority populations, and is on the path to reconciliation … so in order to fully reconcile, you have to have the full and true history.” 

Director of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Program Francis Tangloa Aguas shared why this discovery is such an important piece of the College’s story.  Aguas emphasized why students such as Chen and Matsu played an important role in defining how the College evolved in its relationship with students of color. Aguas believes that the College should continue to discover not only students like Chen, but also how exactly they were perceived by other students at the College and how they perceived them.  

“It is crucial to note that we are not necessarily interested in exceptionalism by establishing who came first but instead our focus is on discovering what it was like to be a POC student at W&M in the early days,” Aguas said in an email.  “How did the other students interact with students like Pu-Kau Chen ‘23, Ming Pan ‘25, Art Matsu ‘24, Asgnar Ali ‘52 and others during those days? How did these Asian or Asian American students feel or think about the fact that no other people of color were allowed to enroll, specifically African American students?” 

Aguas also shared how research on other early students of color in the College’s history has shown that students such as Matsu and Yamasaki were actively involved with social justice and advocacy during their time on campus. According to Aguas, these students understood the injustice so prevalent in their times, and Aguas believes it is vital to find out how they understood and thought about their own situations against the other discriminations seen for other minorities.  

“Our research on Art Matsu and Hatsuye Yamasaki ’37 shows that they were active student leaders,” Aguas said. “In fact, in the 1970s, Art Matsu wrote a scathing letter to the Alumni Association when he heard talks that the 13 Society, of which he was a member, was shut down. In the letter, Matsu spoke about how the society was a vehicle for speaking truth to power, specifically W&M’s administration Yamasaki was on the Judicial Council and the Sophomore Women’s Tribunal so she was dealing with issues of justice, so it would be important to find out what she thought of or did regarding segregation and Jim Crow laws.” 

Although the discovery of Chen’s record provides better historical context regarding students of color at the College, Hopkins still emphasizes how much more needs to be done when looking at these early students who attended the College. According to Hopkins, it is unclear how exactly Chen was viewed by his classmates or how he viewed them, but Chen remains a crucial piece of the College’s history today.  

Hopkins expressed his hopes for the College to continue uncovering its past and encouraged members of the community to seek out this information. He spoke on how the College’s history can become more inclusive and why its preservation is important.  

“I think the university archive should be a representative and inclusive space where anyone can learn the history of the College and have the right to be included in that history as well,” Hopkins said. “What I hope the student body sees is that the university values them in their time here. We want to continue to explore our history and continue to preserve the history happening right now.”

“I think the university archive should be a representative and inclusive space where anyone can learn the history of the College and have the right to be included in that history as well,” Hopkins said. “What I hope the student body sees is that the university values them in their time here. We want to continue to explore our history and continue to preserve the history happening right now.”