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Back in the 1880s, a defiant San Francisco laundry worker named Yick Wo challenged the legal system to protect his business. Some 115 years later, students at the school that bears his name learned about his legacy with the help of lawyers at Holland & Knight’s San Francisco offices. Associate Mark Venardi and partner Charles Coleman III helped fourth- and fifth-graders at Yick Wo Alternative Elementary School in North Beach produce a play re-enacting Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, the famous U.S. Supreme Court case that pitted a humble Chinese laundry owner against the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The upshot, said Coleman, was that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment was construed for the first time. Coleman, who wrote the play, said he became interested in the school when he drove by it, saw the name, and wondered if any of its students knew the richness of their legacy. Venardi, who was involved in Holland & Knight’s “Opening Doors For Children” program, became interested in “adopting” the school. The result was an educational device that also helped introduce the children to the performing arts. In Yick Wo’s day, the board of supervisors “were the bad guys,” said Coleman. The city refused to issue permits for more than 200 Chinese-owned laundry facilities. Yick Wo, who refused to shut down, went to jail and was there until his writ of habeas corpus was granted. He wasn’t a U.S. citizen, either, and his story “also plays out the immigrant dilemma in this country and some of the issues that plague us to this day,” said Coleman. Venardi said work on the play began after Christmas break, and continued once or twice a week until the performance last week at the San Francisco Art Institute. “Fourth graders were stagehands,” Venardi said, “and the fifth graders acted out the play.” Costumes were found, sets built by the students, and “enthusiasm kept building throughout the year,” Venardi said. The lawyers hope the play will become a yearly event, perhaps even drawing a “real” actor to volunteer time to help the students prepare.

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