Last week, Dr. Sherman Hong from Hattiesburg had a fascinating talk at First United Methodist Church in Tupelo about the Delta Chinese in the 20th century Mississippi and their struggle to find a place in society.
The son of Chinese immigrants like myself, Hong was born in Greenville and shared stories many of which I was familiar.
Hong is a few years older than me, having had a 40-year teaching career at USM and a retired professor of music.
But his stories were ones I had heard in my family for years – Chinese families’ struggle to find a place in a historically segregated society that was slow to change.
For those who don’t know, the Delta, from the early to late 20th century, held a large contingent of Chinese families. Most ran grocery stores or restaurants. As I’ve written before, Vicksburg had some two dozen Chinese-owned stores at the zenith, with my parents and uncle and aunts among them. The last of those stores closed last year.
I listened intently to Hong, who talked about how Chinese labor first arrived in the United States in the first place. Like other immigrants’ stories, it was a combination of finding cheap labor and finding opportunity.
The first wave of Chinese came during the California Gold Rush that began in 1848, followed by the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. But with their strange language and customs, the Chinese were also feared in many regards, looked upon with derision and animosity.
Those feelings grew during and after the Civil War as the economy suffered and jobs were few. Chinese were accused of lowering wages.
The Chinese Exclusion Act was a United States federal law signed by President Chester A. Arthur on May 6, 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. Building on the 1875 Page Act, which banned Chinese women from immigrating to the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act was the first law implemented to prevent all members of a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating. The act was repealed in 1943, but there was lingering sentiment.
Hong’s parents, like mine and my grandparents, found themselves in limbo of sorts. They were not white or black. Where could they go? What could they do? In the larger cities like San Franciso and New York, there were large enclaves that became Chinatowns. But not everyone could live and work there.
So they spread themselves across America, many of them finding a place in the Mississippi Delta. They often opened stores in black neighborhoods, where they were more readily accepted. But they had customers both black and white.
They extended store credit to both races, something unheard of at the time. My dad told me he delivered groceries to black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods – business was business.
You would think that by the time I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s most of the name-calling and silly gestures and questions – “do you know Kung Fu” – had gone away. Sadly not.
I could go on and on. But the struggle was real. Still, the Chinese made the most of their opportunities, like so many other immigrant groups have done and continue to do.