Donaldina Cameron

Champion of Human Trafficking Victims

If you’re not from San Francisco, you may be wondering, who is Donaldina Cameron?
Before human trafficking was called by that name, it was simply called slavery. Miss Cameron fought slavery in San Francisco during the early 20th century and is credited for ending it there during her lifetime. Most of the slaves were young Chinese girls and women who were either tricked into coming to America or whose impoverished parents sold them or who were simply kidnapped.

Human trafficking was big business in San Francisco’s Chinatown. 

During the Gold Rush, tens of thousands of Chinese men came to seek their fortunes. They also came over to build the Transcontinental Railroad and stayed here instead of returning to their homeland. Laws enacted to keep the Chinese population from growing were called The Chinese Exclusion Acts. Because of these laws, most men were not allowed to bring over their wives creating a shortage of women. The problem of females brought over illegally was exacerbated by the indifferent attitude of some San Francisco’s law enforcement agencies towards illegal activities in Chinatown.

Donaldina Cameron was born in New Zealand to Scottish parents and immigrated to the United States when she was five years old. Her family settled in Southern California where she grew up. At the age of eighteen, she traveled north to San Francisco to take a job teaching sewing to the residents of 920 Sacramento Street, the Occidental Mission Home for Girls, run by the Presbyterian Church.

At the time, the Home was led by a woman named Margaret Culbertson, who mentored Donaldina in the task of liberating girls as young as five years old from a life of slavery.   

After they received calls for help, Chinese interpreters and volunteers, both male and female, would enter brothels and places known to harbor slaves in search of the victims. Sometimes they climbed fire escapes and sometimes chased slavers hiding their “merchandise” on rooftops.

Donaldina and these other brave souls risked their lives for a cause they believed God called them to do. 

After a year, Miss Culbertson fell ill and died, leaving the oversight of the Mission to Donaldina. At first reluctant to take on such a huge task, Donaldina grew to be the driving force behind the Mission’s objectives. Although, she was the “heart” of the operation, others, including the Chinese women who also worked there, were the “brain” and “hands.”

I’ve written a script about the women who fought human trafficking back then called The Angry Angels of Chinatown. Presently, the script is in development with a possible shoot date of 2023. I was drawn to this story by my interest in issues that affect women and Asians. 

The story is an evenhanded approach that shows whites and Asians working together to solve a huge problem in an era when most people did not want the Chinese in America. The “two-hander” with dual protagonists focuses on Miss Cameron and her interpreter, Anna Woo. 

Anna is a combination of two real women: a Chinese madam who sought refuge at the Mission and, Tien Wu, an interpreter who became one of Donaldina’s closest friends.

Some might think this is a typical “white savior story” but in reality, the work could not have been accomplished without the efforts of many people—whites, Chinese, men, women and children—working together for a common cause. 

As human trafficking has roared back with a vengeance today, it will take everyone working together to stem the demand for the “services” and stop those who are in control of the supply.

Carol Lee Hall

Women In Film
San Francisco Bay Area