The Vietnamese presence in Mississippi is a relatively new phenomenon, dating to the late 1970s and early 1980s. Unlike most ethnic groups that settled in the state, the Vietnamese came as refugees from a war-torn country. Many fled in haste by boat with little money and few possessions. The harrowing voyage at sea included pirate raids, storms, and mechanical failures, and while an estimated four hundred thousand Vietnamese refugees reached to the United States, an equal number may have died at sea.
According to the 2010 census, Mississippi’s 5,387 Vietnamese Americans (0.2 percent of the population) comprised the state’s third-largest community of foreign-born residents, trailing only Mexican Americans and German Americans. People of Vietnamese heritage live throughout the state but are concentrated in metropolitan areas and especially in Jackson, Harrison, and Hancock Counties along the coast. More than half of the state’s Vietnamese population resides in Harrison County, while Jackson has the second-largest Vietnamese population, and the Hattiesburg area ranks third. Most of Mississippi’s Vietnamese people come from families that left Hai Phong in North Vietnam after the communist takeover in 1954. They migrated to Mississippi via South Vietnamese coastal cities such as Vung Tau, Phouc Tinh, Phan Thiet, Rach Gia, and Phu Quoc Island, attracted by Mississippi’s warm climate and the opportunities offered by the seafood industry.
A number of religious organizations were instrumental in sponsoring resettled refugees. An overwhelming majority of the Vietnamese who arrived were Catholic, and the Catholic Diocese of Biloxi worked through the Catholic Social Services Migration and Refugee Center to help clients find jobs, receive medical assistance, and learn English. The diocese established a Vietnamese Apostolate, including bringing in a Vietnamese priest, himself a refugee, to serve this new community. More recently, the Church of the Vietnamese Martyrs and the Van Duc Buddhist Temple have been established to serve the community’s spiritual needs.
Vietnamese came to Mississippi largely in response to the demands of the seafood industry. In 1977 Richard Gollott of Golden Gulf Coast Packing needed laborers to shuck oysters at his plant. After hearing that Vietnamese were working in New Orleans, he shuttled laborers back and forth for a week before persuading a family to move to Biloxi to work for him full time. Others soon followed. Gollott and many others credit these early Vietnamese workers with resuscitating Mississippi’s seafood industry. They did not need strong English skills to work in the plants or on the boats. They labored for long hours, saved money to build and operate their own boats, and moved to neighborhoods such as East Biloxi’s Point Cadet and Back Bay, where access to the water was easy and housing was affordable.
Not all coast natives were pleased with the influx of Vietnamese. Their arrival coincided with a stretch of poor shrimping seasons and an already crowded fishing fleet, and the Vietnamese received the brunt of the blame for the economic woes. Most of the problems stemmed from cultural and language differences. Vietnamese fishermen could not read English-language Coast Guard regulations, rigged their boats differently from American fishermen, and trawled north to south (the traditional Vietnamese practice) rather than east to west as locals did, often resulting in tangled nets. Tensions were high for a time, but church and city officials and representatives from both the Vietnamese and native Mississippian communities worked to solve the problems, and the situation gradually improved. Today Vietnamese shrimpers are no longer turned away at the docks. They participate in community events such as the annual Blessing of the Fleet and seafood festivals.
Vietnamese have integrated themselves into the community in other ways—through schools, businesses, and the gaming industry. Vietnamese-owned businesses are common, particularly in East Biloxi, where the Vietnamese population has concentrated. Dockside gambling along the Gulf Coast beginning in the early 1990s created a demand for labor and provided another opportunity for Vietnamese. However, as gaming interests moved into East Biloxi, housing prices rose, causing problems for residents. While some have moved into other business ventures, most Vietnamese have stayed in the seafood industry, usually by acquiring boats.
In August 2005 Hurricane Katrina caused particular problems for members of the coast’s Vietnamese community, most of whom lived in low-lying areas that were heavily damaged. In addition, many lost their boats. The language barrier and regulations regarding the distribution of aid complicated recovery and assistance programs. Organizations such as the National Alliance of Vietnamese American Service Agencies, Asian Americans for Change, and Boat People SOS stepped in to provide assistance such as translation services and monetary donations. In 2010, just as the Gulf Coast fishing community was recovering from Katrina, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf dealt the industry another blow. The spill resulted in the closing of Gulf fisheries for nearly a year and led to lingering—though largely unfounded—concerns about the safety of Gulf shrimp. Despite its short-term negative effect on Mississippi’s shrimp harvest, the closure of the fisheries may prove helpful in the long term, as it allowed shrimp to reproduce unimpeded. Like others in the industry, Vietnamese who have been able to withstand these setbacks may well find improved economic conditions with decreased competition and stronger fisheries.
- Harvey Arden, National Geographic (September 1981)
- Robert Nathan Gregory, “Shrimp Business Bounces Back for Some, Not Others,” http://extension.msstate.edu/news/feature-story/2015/shrimp-business-bounces-back-for-some-not-others (27 August 2015)
- Mississippi History Now website, http://mshistorynow.mdah.state.ms.us
- Rev. John Noone, From Vietnam to the Mississippi Gulf Coast (1981); “The People Within: How the Vietnamese Have Adapted to Life on the Coast” Biloxi Sun Herald (Special Issue, 1999)
- Hannah Waters, “Breaking Down the Myths and Misconceptions about the Gulf Oil Spill,” http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/clarifying-myths-and-misconceptions-about-gulf-oil-spill-180951136/?no-ist (17 April 2014)