It’s hard to properly honor Caroline Chang, who grew up in Boston’s Chinatown and became part of a critical generation of Asian Americans who fought for their community’s rights starting in the 1970s.
Her monumental contributions include launching seminal organizations such as the Asian Community Development Corporation and South Cove Community Health Center. After retiring from the federal government in 2004 ― where she spent three decades in the civil rights division of the US Department of Health and Human Services ― she went to work as the chief of staff for Sam Yoon, who in 2005 became the first Asian American elected as a Boston city councilor.
Here’s where US Representative Ayanna Pressley comes in with a bold idea: introducing a bill in Congress to rename the US Postal Service office by South Station after Chang.
This is a big deal, folks.
Of the 617 post offices in Massachusetts, only 17 have been renamed by Congress, according to the Boston Democrat. Of that, only one location honors a woman and only five honor a person of color.
The bill, which Pressley filed on Thursday, would rechristen the 25 Dorchester Ave. facility in her district as the “Caroline Chang Post Office.” If the bill passes, it would be the first postal facility and first federal building in Massachusetts to honor an Asian American figure. The post office would also be the first one to recognize a woman of color.
Chang passed away in 2018 at the age of 77. In an interview, Pressley called her a “trailblazer” and “heroic figure” — the kind that history doesn’t always remember, which makes the legislation even more important.
“Dating back to my time on the Boston City Council, I’ve been championing the need for us to have that institutional representation and parity in the form of statues and monuments,” Pressley said. “Now that I’m on the federal level, I’m taking the fight to our federal buildings as well.”
She said the bill has the support of the entire Massachusetts delegation, including Ed Markey and Elizabeth Warren, who are leading the effort in the Senate.
Given the dysfunction in Washington, it’s hard to imagine Congress agreeing on anything these days, but Pressley is optimistic. She recounted how she was able to get recognition for former Boston Bruins player Willie O’Ree, who was the first Black player in the National Hockey League.
“I think my odds are good,” she said. “I was able to get the highest honor for a civilian, the Congressional Medal of Honor, to Willie O’Ree. I’m working on a similar effort for [Celtics legend] Bill Russell.”
Some of you may be wondering if the post office Pressley is eyeing to rename is the same one that has been in the news over the years. Yes, it’s the one with a massive sorting facility that the state would like the postal service to relocate to make way for an expanded South Station. While there is no confirmed move, Pressley’s spokesman says in the event of any move, her office would work to ensure that Chang’s name remain.
The effort to honor Chang came together as Pressley sought to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. The congresswoman, who is Black, is known among communities of color for her allyship. Pressley was recently invited by US Representative Judy Chu of California, who chairs the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, to be part of that group.
Pressley never met Chang, but the congresswoman said she relied on input from leaders of the Asian American community for nominations.
“More often than not, government does not lead, it responds,” she said. “I actually think that is the greatest testament that we are doing our job effectively ... that we are not governing from top down, but that we are extending a hand in partnership.”
Among those Pressley’s office reached out to was Suzanne Lee, president emeritus of the Chinese Progressive Association, who first met Chang in the 1970s.
Lee nominated Chang, who also founded the Asian American Civic Association and Chinese Historical Society of New England. Lee said she would be tickled by the honor.
“She would probably just laugh, ‘For me?’ " Lee said. “She was very humble. She didn’t do it to get a name for herself. She did it for the love of the community.”
Chang, the oldest of four children, wasn’t the only one in her family known for giving back to the community. Her younger brother, Reggie Wong, has a park named after him in Chinatown. Wong, who died in 2011, helped found the Boston Knights Chinese Athletic Club and served as past president of the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association of New England.
Russell Eng, Chang’s nephew, said his family is thrilled about the effort to name a post office after his aunt. It’s a fitting tribute, given her long tenure as a federal employee and her dedication to making the Asian American community visible.
“It’s an honor for us,” Eng said. “We’re really proud of what Caroline has done.”
Here’s to Pressley setting a precedent. Let Chang be the first of many AAPI leaders whose names will grace our buildings and institutions.
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.