Grave marker’s tale of love and prejudice

In historic Sunnyside Cemetery, overlooking beautiful Ebey’s Prairie, there are hundreds of old and elaborate markers showing where the prairie’s white pioneer farmers and their families eternally rest.

The Ebeys, Coupes, Libbeys, Lovejoys, Hancocks and Engles are there, among others. And in one tranquil spot lie the early LeSourd pioneers, notably family patriarch Francis Asbury LeSourd (1843-1921), a Civil War veteran who brought his young family to Central Whidbey from the Midwest in the mid-1880s and became a successful farmer.

The LeSourds’ two-story Victorian farmhouse, built in 1892, still stands at 220 S. Ebey Road.

A small, flat, brass marker lies in the southwest corner of the LeSourd family plot at Sunnyside, quite unlike the upright granite markers of the LeSourds themselves. Inscribed on it are these simple words: “AH SOOT Born in China DIED IN 1925.”

And therein lies a fascinating tale of how a family’s abiding love for a man from China overcame the pervasive and vicious race prejudice of its day.  A tale so enduring that it still is recalled fondly by some of Francis LeSourd’s great-grandchildren — among whom are current Central Whidbey residents Al, Roger and Jim Sherman, grandsons of Francis’s son John; and Mark Bantz, grandson of Francis’s daughter Minerva (known as Minnie).

About 200 Chinese immigrants once lived in Ebey’s Prairie, mostly single men. The majority arrived between 1870 and 1900, seeking to make a living on the land. Many came to Whidbey by boat from Port Townsend, which had an active Chinese immigrant community. On the prairie, they worked as farmhands or sharecroppers for the white farmers, weeding fields and raising potatoes. Their prowess as gardeners was widely appreciated — and often essential — as the prairie’s agricultural economy developed, according to research provided by Ebey’s Landing Historical Reserve.

It’s believed that Ah Soot (whom the LeSourds knew simply as “Soot”) arrived on the prairie in 1880, at about the age of 30. How he got here is unknown. He became a sharecropper on seven and a half acres of land he rented from pioneer Ernest J. Hancock, where he grew potatoes and other crops to sell and also earned a small wage weeding fields. When Francis LeSourd bought his farmland from Hancock in the mid-1880s, Ah Soot came with it.  He lived in a small cabin within walking distance of the LeSourd family home. He never married and had no family of his own.

A tiny man always dressed in a traditional Chinese silk tunic, he became a beloved figure, especially among the LeSourd grandchildren.

In a letter she wrote to her own grandson Mark Bantz in the late 1960s, Minnie LeSourd Bantz recalled, “Old Ah Soot was a very loveable fellow and seemed just like one of our family. He was lavish with presents for all of us, especially at Chinese New Year, which was later than ours. His gifts consisted of firecrackers, candy, candied ginger, tea, silk handkerchiefs, silk scarves and a Chinese sword made of coins which hung on our wall for many years.”

As Francis LeSourd grew elderly and frail, Ah Soot took over many of the morning household chores at the “big house”: starting the fire, milking the cow, feeding the chickens, cooking the breakfast, even getting children ready for school.

But while Ah Soot became “just like one of the family” for the LeSourds, a deep racial prejudice began to brew among elements of the white population on the prairie.

According to research by the Reserve, the Chinese were resented by some of the Coupeville merchants because they kept to themselves and often didn’t spend their money in town but saved it or spent it in Seattle.

Others complained that Chinese were taking jobs from white people, especially after the economy entered a severe downturn in the mid-1890s and economic growth on Whidbey came to a standstill.

By 1900, the prejudice became so virulent that a series of anti-Chinese meetings were held at the county courthouse in Coupeville. Some of the white farmers were pressured to sign an “agreement” stating that they would not rent land to Chinese or hire them as farm laborers. It was signed on Oct. 10, 1900, publicly posted around town and printed in the local newspaper.

The effect was devastating. Some Chinese had their cabins burned or their potato storage bins dynamited by vigilantes. By the 1920s, almost all the Chinese had fled the prairie to Seattle or had returned to China. Ah Soot, by then in his 70s, was among the very few still living on the prairie, still in his own cabin, still “one of” the LeSourds.

In her letter, Minnie recalled that Ah Soot rode with the family to Francis LeSourd’s funeral in 1921 and was “one of my favorite guests” at her own wedding. As Ah Soot became ill over the next few years, Francis’s widow Mary asked him if he would like his body sent back to China when he died.

“He said no,” Minnie wrote. “He said he wanted to be buried in our cemetery lot and go ‘up sky’ with Mr. LeSourd.”

Minnie’s brother John, grandfather of the Sherman brothers, found Ah Soot dead one morning in 1925, sitting in his chair in his cabin. He was at least 75, perhaps much older.

Some in the community were angry and resistant when the LeSourds decided that Ah Soot would be buried in the family plot at Sunnyside. Non-whites could not be buried there, they insisted. The old racial prejudices arose again. Tempers flared.

But the LeSourds, particularly John, were insistent that their much-loved friend would be buried with the family, and Ah Soot became the prairie’s only early Chinese immigrant to be interred in the local cemetery. Today, his brass marker still remains and LeSourd descendants still cherish a wrinkled old photograph of the odd but generous little man their family knew well and loved.

Sometimes family ties really are strong enough to overcome our worst prejudices. Ah Soot’s tale is worth telling today, given what still happens in Ferguson, Mo., and other places.