Caroline Chang (1940-2018)

Lawyer, Political advocate for Boston’s Chinese American community

By Mariana Brandman, Ph.D. 

A “bridge-builder” for Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood, Caroline Chang was a dedicated community advocate and a high-ranking civil servant who worked for decades on behalf of Boston’s Chinese American population. 

Caroline (Wong) Chang was born in her family’s tenement apartment on Boston’s Hudson Street in 1940. Her parents had emigrated to the US from China’s Guangdong Province. Chang’s father ran a Chinese restaurant (a novelty at the time) in North Reading, while her mother worked as a seamstress. After her father passed away when she was 15, Chang often served as a translator for her mother. She became an unofficial translator for the many non-English speakers in Boston’s Chinatown, an experience she later credited as the beginning of her long career in community service. 

A talented mathematician, Chang earned the math prize at Girls’ Latin School and went on to study mathematics at Boston University (where she also revived the Chinese Student Club and volunteered with Gamma Delta, a service-oriented sorority). After she graduated in 1962, Chang worked as a scientist in the flight test department at Avco Corp in Wilmington for eight years. She used radar and optical data to analyze the trajectories of test missiles. Chang was the first woman and the first Asian American to work in the department. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, she found that she had been the victim of unequal pay when she received an unexpected salary adjustment from Avco. While working at Avco, she married Gene Chang, an electrician. 

By the 1970s, changes to immigration law had led to massive increases in the Asian population in the US. This population growth overwhelmed existing community resources such as religious and benevolent organizations, which spurred greater activism in the Asian American community. Chang was part of this rising tide. She told the Boston Globe, “What I finally figured out was that the squeaky wheel got the oil. The whole movement of community empowerment made a lot of sense to me. It was exciting to feel you could have a say in how things happen.” 

Mayor Kevin White named Chang the manager of Chinatown’s Little City Hall in 1970, a role she held for the next four years. (It was one of 14 “Little City Halls” that Mayor White created in an effort to make city government less centralized and more responsive to neighborhood citizens.) Chang then worked as an Equal Opportunity Specialist with the Office for Civil Rights at the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in Boston. At the same time, she attended law school at night, graduating from Suffolk Law School in 1977.

In 1982, Chang became the Regional Manager for the US Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office for Civil Rights, making her the highest-ranking Asian American person in the federal government in New England at the time. 

Black and white photo of woman sitting at desk, speaking on phone.
Boston Globe photograph of Caroline Chang in 1987 by Frank O'Brien. Northeastern University Archives and Special Collections.

Chang played an instrumental role in numerous organizations devoted to Boston’s Asian American community. She worked with Greater Boston Legal Services to assist low-income residents and she served as a trustee for the Harry H. Dow Memorial Legal Assistance Fund. She also served on many boards, including the National Institute for Women of Color and the American Repertory Theater, and as president of the Asian American Forum. The numerous community organizations she helped to found are listed below. 

Chang retired from HHS in 2002, but stayed active in community affairs by serving as the Chief of Staff for Boston City Councilor Sam Yoon. Chang and her husband then moved to Las Vegas, where she volunteered with the United Way of Southern Nevada. Chang passed away on April 21, 2018. In the spring of 2023, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (D-MA-7th district) introduced a bill in Congress to rename the U.S. Post Office at South Station after Chang to honor her legacy.

Massachusetts Organizations Chang Founded/Co-founded

  • The Chinese American Civic Association (now the Asian American Civic Association) 
  • The South Cove Community Health Center
  • The Chinese Golden Age Center
  • The Asian Development Corporation 
  • The Chinese Historical Society of New England
  • The Chinese American Women Oral History Project (in partnership with the Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute)
  • The Asian American Lawyers Association of Massachusetts

Additional Resources

Bibliography