During the post–Civil War period, southern planters experimented with Chinese labor as an alternative to freed slaves. The experiment failed, but the Chinese immigrants remained. Many found an economic niche by opening grocery stores in black neighborhoods. The union benefited both the African Americans, who found relief from plantation-based commissaries, and the Chinese, who found new financial opportunities as merchants.
Other Chinese also came to the Mississippi Delta—some from California after having worked on the railroads, others escaping turmoil in China in the early twentieth century. As Chinese established an economic presence, family members came to join them, often to work in the grocery stores. That support system, combined with difficult political and economic conditions in China, led the number of Chinese in the Delta to grow from 183 in 1900 to 743 in 1940.
Living in the Delta was a challenge for early Chinese immigrants. Not inclined toward assimilation with the black minority and rejected by the prejudice of the white majority, the Chinese found themselves socially isolated. Many Chinese cultivated the white community, seeking social affirmation. They began sending their children to white churches and giving money to causes and programs favored by white leaders. Some anglicized their Chinese family names.
Such efforts ultimately met with some success, and the white community gradually ceased to perceive the Chinese as nonwhite and began to grant them some degree of privilege, allowing them to frequent public places from which blacks were barred. Chinese grocers improved their stores, acknowledged Jim Crow laws, and began to have white customers. In addition to business, these efforts provided Delta Chinese with increased social mobility.
In some communities, embracing the white community had the important tangential benefit of giving the Chinese access to white public schools. The Mississippi Constitution, adopted in 1890 by conservative Democrats determined to eliminate the last vestiges of Republican Reconstruction, included a clear mandate for a dual school system for whites and blacks. Since the document did not address education for Chinese, they attended white schools in communities throughout the Delta. In 1924, however, Rosedale officials declared that Chinese children could no longer attend white schools, prompting a lawsuit. The case, Lum v. Rice, ultimately reached the US Supreme Court, which upheld the Mississippi Supreme Court’s ruling denying Chinese students access to white public schools.
In response, Mississippi Chinese developed partnerships with local (usually Baptist) churches to establish mission schools. Chinese children attending these schools received instruction from a white teacher during the regular school day and supplemental instruction from Chinese tutors in the evenings. In return for their financial support, the churches required inclusion of religious instruction in the curriculum and received decision-making responsibility for the schools.
These schools provided an educational lifeline for Chinese living throughout the Delta, where few acceptable educational alternatives existed. Not only did Chinese children receive an education comparable to that of whites, but the refusal to send children to black schools provided further evidence that the Chinese deserved social acceptance.
World War II gave the Delta Chinese further opportunities to prove themselves. Some enlisted in the armed services, others engaged in rigorous fund-raising in support of the war effort, and all demonstrated their patriotism. The alliance between China and the United States against a common enemy, Japan, further cemented the bond between white and Chinese Mississippians. The enthusiasm with which the Delta Chinese embraced the war effort impressed their white neighbors.
After World War II, Chinese children in the Delta gradually began to attend white public schools, with the timeline for doing so dictated by the individual school districts. The significant increase in access to high-quality public education at both the K–12 and postsecondary levels proved a double-edged sword for Chinese families. The downside to improved education was a decrease in the willingness to take over the family grocery store and remain insulated from the outside world and an increase in the desire to pursue economic and educational opportunities elsewhere. The number of people of Chinese ancestry in the Delta peaked at about 1,200 in 1960 and declined to fewer than 1,000 by the 1990s. The 2010 census counted 3,695 people of Chinese ancestry in the state of Mississippi.
The Chinese have made valuable contributions to the quality of life in the Delta. People of Chinese descent have served as mayors, as leaders of civic clubs and churches, and in all facets of community life. Their stores and businesses have contributed significantly to the economy, and they have a strong record of philanthropic support for community causes, especially education. And when US president Bill Clinton proclaimed 26 October 1998 Chinese Veterans of World War II Day, longtime Delta resident Kenneth Gong was one of the White House honorees.
In 2012 the Mississippi Delta Chinese History Museum opened in the Capps Archive and Museum at Delta State University in Cleveland.
- Leslie Bow, Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South (2010)
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- Jackson Clarion-Ledger (9 September 1944)
- John Jung, Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton: Lives of Mississippi Delta Chinese Grocers (2009)
- James W. Loewen, The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White (1971)
- Robert Seto Quan, Lotus among the Magnolias: The Mississippi Chinese (1982)