During the second half of the nineteenth century, Chinese immigrants began settling in the Mississippi Delta. The 1890 Mississippi Constitution created a dual school system for whites and blacks but said nothing about the Chinese, who attended white schools in communities throughout the Delta. In 1924, however, Rosedale officials declared that Chinese children could no longer attend white schools, prompting Gong Lum, a Chinese grocer, to petition the state circuit court of Mississippi so that his American-born daughter, Martha, could attend the town’s all-white high school. Lum argued that because Martha “is not a member of the colored race nor is she of mixed blood,” she should not have to attend a black school. Moreover, because neither Rosedale nor Bolivar County operated a school for children of Chinese descent and because Lum was a taxpayer who helped to support and maintain the Rosedale high school, he contended that Martha was entitled to attend that school.
The court denied Lum’s petition on the grounds that Martha “is a member of the Mongolian or yellow race, and therefore not entitled to attend the schools provided by law in the state of Mississippi for children of the white or Caucasian race.” The trial court overturned this ruling and ordered the board of trustees and state superintendent to desist from discriminating against Martha because of her race. The defendants then appealed to the Mississippi Supreme Court, which held that the state constitution “divided the educable children into those of the pure white or Caucasian race, on the one hand, and the brown, yellow, and black races, on the other, and therefore that Martha Lum, of the Mongolian or yellow race, could not insist on being classed with the whites.”
The case then moved to the US Supreme Court, which was primarily interested in “whether a state can be said to afford a child of Chinese ancestry, born in this country and a citizen of the United States, the equal protection of the laws, by giving her the opportunity for a common school education in a school which receives only colored children of the brown, yellow or black races.” The court answered yes: excluding Martha Lum from white schools fell “within the discretion of the state in regulating its public schools, and does not conflict with the Fourteenth Amendment.”
Lum v. Rice had both immediate and long-lasting effects. A year later the Supreme Court of Mississippi cited the case Lum v. Rice in denying a mandamus plea by Joe Tin Lun, who also was of Chinese ancestry, to “compel the state superintendent of education and the teachers of the Dublin consolidated school to permit him to enroll” in an all-white school. More significantly, until Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the US Supreme Court continually cited Lum v. Rice to uphold segregation in public education.
- “Exclusion of Chinese from Mississippi Schools,” School and Society (29 September 1928)
- Gong Lum v. Rice (275 US 78 )
- James W. Loewen, The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White (1988)
- Ruthanne Lum McCunn, Chinese American Portraits: Personal Histories, 1828–1988 (1996)
- Rice v. Gong Lum (139 Miss. 760)