Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2021

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is honored to recognize Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2021. In 1978 the U.S. Congress officially recognized a week-long celebration, and then in 1992 expanded the commemoration to a month. The museum’s commitment to share and document the experiences and histories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders extends to every day of the year.

This year’s commemoration of APA heritage comes at a fraught and vexing moment in which people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent have experienced a resurgence of racism, prejudice, and physical violence spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent crises. Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities have been racialized as foreigners and depicted in the media and by prominent politicians as carriers of disease. While the coronavirus is new, such characterizations and attacks of AAPI communities are not. The current rhetoric of the “China virus” carries echoes of the racist discourse that emerged in the mid-1800s to depict Chinese immigrants as a threat to public health and to justify immigration restrictions and Chinese exclusion. Such rhetoric led to organized violence targeting Chinese people. Numerous cases of documented anti-Asian violence extended well into the 20th century to later include Japanese, Filipinos, Koreans, South Asians, Sikhs, and anybody who appeared to be of Asian descent. The recent shootings of six Asian women in Atlanta, Georgia, the physical attacks of elderly Asian people, and the daily threats and harms faced by AAPI, then, have a long history—one that is familiar but often conveniently forgotten.

Despite these threats and attacks, both historic and contemporary, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have shown resilience, demonstrated by the vibrant communities they have built and the myriad contributions they have made throughout American society. As part of NMAH’s commitment to bringing greater visibility to the many contributions and accomplishments of AAPI communities, the museum has launched the Asian Pacific American history topics page. There you will find exhibitions, programs, museum collections, and educational resources that reflect the diversity, richness, and dynamism of Asian Pacific American history. As AAPI communities continue to grow throughout the United States and its territories, so too will our museum offerings and the topics page.

Our curators, researchers, and education specialists will continue to work with our community partners to elevate and tell the dynamic stories of pioneering settlements in and exchanges with Northern California, Louisiana, and New England. Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. They are also geographically and linguistically diverse. Outside of locations such as Hawai’i and the West Coast, AAPI population growth can be found in the Midwest, the interior West, the South, and all along the Eastern seaboard. Of the top 10 non-English languages most often spoken at home, four originate from Asia—Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, and Korean. 

Our mission as the nation’s leading public history institution is not only to tell uplifting and complex stories but also to use history to empower people to create a just, compassionate, and equitable future. In these challenging times, it is more important than ever to stand in solidarity with AAPI communities and to stop the hate and violence. We can turn to history as one among many tools to educate, transform, and strive for social justice.

Programs and Resources

Social Studies Online: Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

May 6, 11 a.m. EDT

Join the National Museum of American History for an online exploration into key social studies topics, featuring museum resources from the Smithsonian. This episode will focus on Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. There is no pre-registration required. The program focuses on educators but is open to the general public. Videos are archived at the same link.

We Are American and We Stand Together: Asian American Resilience, Belonging, and Justice

May 15, 4 p.m. EDT

Presented with AARP and featuring treasures from the National Museum of American History, special guests discuss Asians in America—past, present, & future. 

Music for the Moment – An Asian American Offering

May 26

Featuring performances by Ruby Ibarra, Dohee Lee, MILCK, and June Millington. Check back for additional details on how to join this program.

Viral Histories: Stories of Racism, Resilience, and Resistance in Asian American Communities

Viral Histories is a collection of conversations with community leaders who combat racism while serving on the front lines. During this pandemic, Asian Americans have been experiencing increased racism and hate crimes. While these incidents of increased prejudice and violence occur today, they reflect a long history of how power, prejudice, and public health have intersected throughout American history.

During the week of May 18, 2020, an interview was released every day, followed by a live Q&A with some of the featured speakers. To watch the archived Q&A for each conversation, check the links below each video.

Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II

War Relocation Authority ID tag
ID tag worn by Bill Fuchigami while he was held at the Amache camp in Colorado.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the United States entered a war in Europe and the Pacific, the nation was overcome by shock, anger, and fear—a fear exaggerated by long-standing anti-Asian prejudice. Ten weeks later President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, under which nearly 75,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry were taken into custody. Another 45,000 Japanese nationals living in the United States (but long denied citizenship because of their race) were also incarcerated. Some forty years later, members of the Japanese American community led the nation to confront the wrong it had done—and to make it right.

Righting a Wrong is traveling the country as a touring exhibition.

Hidden Workers, Forgotten Lives

Laborer's hat
Chinese laborer’s hat, about 1900

The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was an engineering feat of human endurance, with the western leg built largely by thousands of immigrant Chinese laborers. Chinese workers found some economic opportunity but also experienced hostility, racism, violence, and legal exclusion. In America in the 1800s, Chinese workers were seen as racially inferior to white workers and were paid less and relegated to the most undesirable jobs. The growing anti-Chinese movement at the local level culminated in the passage of the 1882 Exclusion Act, the first federal law to restrict the immigration of a group of workers by the criteria of race and class, and made Chinese migrants “illegal aliens.”

This online exhibition includes objects and narratives that illustrate the history of these "hidden" workers.

Additional Resources

National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) Virtual Bookshelf comprises NEH-supported projects on the Asian-American and Pacific Islander experience. Visit the site.

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) “Standing Together Against Hate” portal provides links to exhibitions and resources from across the Smithsonian museums focusing on Asian-American and Pacific Islander voices: Visit the portal.

Another resource from APAC, Care Package is a collection of creative offerings by artists, writers, and scholars, addressing grief through vision, reflection, and healing. Visit the site.