The Rev. Harry Chuck can trace his family’s history at 920 Sacramento Street back to the late 19th century.
That’s when his grandmother was sold into slavery by her impoverished family in China. Her owners sent her to San Francisco but she was intercepted by immigration officials before she reached one of Chinatown’s many brothels. They brought her instead to the Presbyterian Mission Home on 920 Sacramento Street, which was established in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1874 as a refuge for vulnerable women.
Because many of the home’s residents were former prostitutes, Harry’s mother, who was born in 1900, rarely spoke of her own mother’s time there. In fact, Harry only learned about it by accident, when Mae Wong, a staffer, said to him “You are the grandson of Jern Ho,” a name given to his grandmother at the home which roughly translates to “one who has been transformed.”
When Harry mentioned that encounter to his mother, she asked how he’d heard that name. “I later learned that women who lived at the home carried the stigma of prostitution,” Harry told me one morning, as we sat together recently in 920 Sacramento Street’s sunny, wood-paneled parlor. “My mother managed to keep that secret” until that moment.
His own mother, Edna Evelyn Chan, was born in 1900. Six years later, she was among the sixty girls and women who were part of the group that safely fled San Francisco after an earthquake struck in the early morning of April 18, 1906. Firestorms soon swept through the city and firefighters used dynamite to try to battle the flames. The twelve-square-block neighborhood of Chinatown was almost entirely destroyed and its residents left homeless.
As the large group from the Mission Home moved through the city, there was an ever-present fear that traffickers would use the chaos following the disaster to try to snatch back girls and women. “We were instructed not to stop of talk to anyone as the older girls kept us moving,” Harry’s mother told him.
Led by Donaldina Cameron, the group, which included his mother, took shelter in a barn on the grounds of the San Francisco Theological Seminary in San Anselmo and then moved, for several months that summer, to a large home in San Rafael. On the steps of that home, which some of the girls called “a fairy palace,” Harry’s mother may have been among the young residents photographed that day.
Harry’s family remained connected to the home. He joined the youth program in 1947, graduated from the San Francisco Theological Seminary in 1962, and was assigned to serve as a minister at 920 Sacramento Street, now named Cameron House in honor of Donaldina. He served as its executive director for more than two decades, from 1977 to 2000, and lived in the home for much of that time.
Now, a fourth-generation member of the Chuck family – Josh Chuck – volunteers at Cameron House, and a fifth-generation, Harry’s grandson Tristan, is a volunteer and youth participant in its Friday Night Club. Meanhile, the Rev. Harry remains closely connected to it. He beautifully led a conversation on Saturday, September 21st at 920 Sacramento Street with Doreen Der-McLeod, also a former executive of Cameron House, Donaldina’s grand-niece Catherine Cameron, and myself. Thank you to all of you who came to that remarkable event.
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