Although the United States is commonly described as a nation of immigrants, the South has historically proven the least enticing region for foreign settlers. Mississippi is no exception.
A small number of immigrants had settled in Mississippi as early as the eighteenth century. Jews and Italians who first arrived on American shores through the port of New Orleans eventually made their way to Mississippi, where many of them worked as peddlers. These immigrants were loyal to their new homeland and fought with the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
After the war, however, many white employers complained that African Americans freed of the coercive influence of slavery had become indolent and insubordinate and lobbied for the recruitment of foreign laborers as an alternative workforce. The Mississippi state legislature responded by establishing the Department of Agriculture and Immigration in 1873. Nine years later, state politicians approved further laws designed to attract immigrant workers.
Plantation owners recruited a small number of Chinese to the Delta beginning in 1869–70. With the demise of Reconstruction and restoration of white supremacist rule, however, planters reverted to hiring African Americans. Those Chinese who abandoned the fields but remained in the area carved a niche in the local economy as grocery store owners who catered principally to black customers. Beginning in the 1880s Sicilians settled on the Gulf Coast, where they worked in truck-farming colonies or in the fishing and canning industries. Syrian and Lebanese immigrants pursued a similar economic route to Jews, starting out as peddlers before establishing themselves as store owners, and Jewish merchants became increasingly prominent on the main streets of many Mississippi communities.
But political and business leaders’ efforts to lure foreign laborers to Mississippi largely proved unsuccessful. Economist James A. Dunlevy argues that many immigrants shared an “avoidance of the South syndrome” as a consequence of five factors: (1) the region’s predominantly rural economy offered fewer and less lucrative employment prospects than the industrial North; (2) immigrants from farming backgrounds had fewer opportunities to settle their own land than were available in the West; (3) immigrants did not want to compete with African Americans in a hostile labor market; (4) the relative absence of urban centers restricted the growth of ethnic support networks; and (5) immigrants feared violent antipathy and preferred to settle in more welcoming regions.
In 1890 immigrants constituted 14.7 percent of the overall US population but only 0.98 percent of all southerners and just 0.62 percent of Mississippi residents (7,952 foreign-born persons out of a total population of 1,289,600). Only North Carolina and South Carolina had smaller shares of immigrants.
Immigrants had reason to fear that they would become the target of nativist violence. Mississippians scapegoated immigrants in times of social and economic turmoil. The economic depression of the 1890s, for example, resulted in the foreclosure of many white farms. When Jewish merchants who purchased this property rented it to black sharecroppers, resentful whites retaliated by forming themselves into vigilante groups known as White Caps. Launching a series of arson attacks, they reclaimed the land from terrorized black sharecroppers and their Jewish landlords.
Sicilians were also victims of mob violence. Late-nineteenth- and early twentieth-century stereotypes portrayed Sicilians as dangerous criminals who threatened the social order. Although nativist violence against Sicilians was more common in Louisiana, lynch mobs were also active in Mississippi. In March 1886 a mob seized Federico Villarosa from a jail in Natchez, where he was awaiting trial on a rape charge, and hanged him. A further act of lynch law occurred in July 1901 when whites in Erwin murdered Vincenzo and Giovanni Serio and wounded Salvatori Liberto. A local newspaper defended the mob’s actions on the grounds that Vincenzo Serio had been “a source of trouble to the neighborhood ever since he took up his residence.”
By the early twentieth century state leaders had abandoned their hope of recruiting an alternative labor force to African Americans. The influx of supposedly unassimilable Southern and Eastern Europeans stimulated an intense nativist reaction across the United States, and Mississippi politicians added their voices to the mounting chorus calling for immigration restrictions. Sens. Leroy Percy and John S. Williams supported literacy tests intended to limit the number of immigrants admitted. Williams believed that migrants from Southern and Eastern Europe threatened the social and political order because they had neither experience of nor the capacity for democratic government: “The ignorant man, whatever his race, coming to a country where he is not governed but becomes a part of the governing force, is dangerous.” The Mississippi Farmers’ Educational and Cooperative Union also lobbied to curtail mill owners’ recruitment of immigrant field hands because it threatened to reduce raw cotton prices.
One of the most complicated issues that confronted immigrants was their position in the southern racial hierarchy, which often placed them in a liminal status between black and white. White Mississippi society considered Chinese and Sicilians to be nonwhite, resulting in their social exclusion. New immigrants often fraternized with African Americans, and immigrant merchants gained a reputation for treating black customers with courtesy and respect. In addition, some Chinese men married African American women. In other cases, however, Chinese rejected assimilation with the black minority and cultivated the white community, sending their children to white churches and giving money to causes and programs favored by white leaders. Some anglicized their Chinese family names. In some instances, such efforts gradually persuaded the white community to grant the Chinese 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.
The 1890 constitution created separate school systems for African Americans and whites but did not specify which category encompassed Chinese and Sicilian children, who consequently attended white schools in many Delta communities. In 1924, however, Rosedale officials barred Chinese children from the town’s 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.
Nevertheless, through the middle of the twentieth century, ethnic minorities generally succeeded in claiming the rights and privileges of whiteness. During the desegregation crises of the 1950s and 1960s, Citizens’ Councils actively recruited participation from members of these ethnic groups. Yet the civil rights struggle also led to a resurgence of ethnic violence. Some white supremacists believed that the black freedom struggle was a conspiracy masterminded by Jewish communists. In 1967 the Ku Klux Klan bombed Temple Beth Israel in Jackson and the home of its rabbi, Perry Nussbaum, who had supported imprisoned Freedom Riders. Less than a year later, Meridian’s Temple Beth Israel suffered a similar terrorist attack.
The decline of rural and small-town economies during the last decades of the twentieth century led to the out-migration of many ethnic minorities. Mississippi is nonetheless now experiencing one of the most significant ethnic transformations in its history. Changes to federal immigration and free trade policies have stimulated increased labor migration from Latin America. Between the 2000 and 2010 US censuses, the percentage of Mississippi’s population that was Hispanic or Latino doubled from 1.4 percent to 3.0 percent, and demographers predict that those figures will continue to grow rapidly. Moreover, those figures may underreport the true number of Latinos in Mississippi, since those who lack the proper documentation to reside in the United States may not have participated in the census. Mississippi’s Latinos have settled mostly in small towns and rural areas, where they work on farms and in poultry plants. Urban centers, especially Jackson, also have significant Latino populations. Mississippi’s Latino population is predominantly Mexican but also includes people from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and other Latin American countries.
The Mississippi Immigrants’ Rights Alliance formed in 2000 to protect and promote the interests of the state’s emerging Latino community. The alliance has scored a number of successes, most notably recovering more than one million dollars in unpaid wages for immigrant workers who helped rebuild coastal Mississippi after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Latino migration will play an increasingly profound role in redefining the economic, political, and racial dynamics of a state historically shaped by a basic division between black and white.
- Roland T. Berthoff, Journal of Southern History (August 1951)
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- James A. Dunlevy, in Research in Economic History: A Research Annual, vol. 8, ed. Paul Uselding (1982)
- James W. Loewen, The Mississippi Chinese (1971)
- Mississippi Immigrants’ Rights Alliance website, www.yourmira.org
- Raymond A. Mohl, in Other Souths: Diversity and Difference in the U.S. South, Reconstruction to Present, ed. Pippa Holloway (2008)
- Leo E. Turitz and Evelyn Turitz, Jews in Early Mississippi (1983)
- US Census Bureau, American FactFinder website, factfinder.census.gov
- Shana Walton and Barbara Carpenter, ed., Ethnic Heritage in Mississippi: The Twentieth Century (2012)
- Clive Webb, American Nineteenth-Century History (Spring 2002)