Mississippi Delta Chinese

Life in Chinese Grocery Stores

Race Relations in The Delta During the Jim Crow Law Era

Hoover and Freda Lee (pictured below), who owned a grocery store in Louise, Ms. talk about the place of Chinese in the Delta in the first segment of this excellent 2002 documentary, Race: Mississippi that presents diverse and opposing viewpoints by Professors Jane Adams and D. Gorton of Southern Illinois University. [Note: the video takes a few secs. to load, so be patient]


  CLICK HERE for Background material and discussion of issues.

Race  Relations

Excerpts from "Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton," Chapter 7 

       Mississippi, like other states in the Deep South, had social institutions, customs, and practices favoring whites that had its roots in the slave origins of its black population.  By the time the Chinese began to come to the Delta in the 1870s, white superiority was already a deeply rooted aspect of Southern society.  Chinese were regarded as non-white and therefore, “colored.”  As they were not fluent in the English language and American values, they were also foreigners, and relegated to a low social status.  

       Race relations presented a delicate situation for the Chinese. They were economically dependent on the blacks that were the primary customers in most of their stores, but the Chinese wanted whites to accord them more favorable treatment than that given to blacks.  In other words, Chinese had to walk along a thin line between the black and white segments of society.  During the battle over school desegregation that arose in the 1960s, some Chinese hedged their bets, making private contributions to both the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the white segregationist Citizens’ Councils.  To be acceptable to whites, they had to distance themselves from blacks.  But being economically dependent on blacks, as well as living in black neighborhoods, they had to treat blacks better than whites did.

     The ambiguous social standing of the Chinese is aptly illustrated by the following observation about the opposing ways that Chinese were regarded by whites and blacks in their communities.

    We did have a problem with that (discrimination).  In the community where we lived we were quite accepted, but the blacks considered us as whites.  The whites considered us as non-black, but we were kind of stuck in the middle there.[1]

 Race Attitudes Between Chinese and Black

Chinese Views of Blacks. The attitudes of the Chinese toward blacks modeled the white dominance views that prevailed in Delta communities during the days of Jim Crow laws.  In the triangle of Delta races, Chinese felt they had to distance themselves from blacks if they were to be better accepted by whites.  Moreover, Chinese values on education and entrepreneurial achievements were more similar to those among whites than with blacks.

However, within the Chinese community, there were strong status differences based on interracial affiliations.  Those Chinese with a greater extent of social involvement with blacks were held in disfavor.  In particular, Chinese felt that sexual relations or marriage between any Chinese and blacks harmed the standing or acceptance of Chinese among Whites.

In the early history of the Chinese in the Delta the Chinese males often had social relationships with Negro women, and these early relationships have led to a type of social stratification within the Chinese community. This is most evident in distinguishing the rich Chinese and the poor Chinese.  The poor Chinese must associate socially with the Negro to a greater extent, and because the Negro is held in inferior status in the Delta any such associations bring disfavor to the whole Chinese community. Because of the desire of the wealthier Chinese to associate and to be identified with the white community, and because any social association by any Chinese with the Negro community is not one of the approved norms of the white community, such a stratification pattern has arisen in the Chinese community. [2]...

   Although some Delta Chinese disfavored socializing with blacks, nonetheless they generally had harmonious relationships in business dealings with them.

Black employees—general help, delivery boys, house maids — were treated well at our store.  One incident I remember well.  A white customer accused the delivery boy of driving recklessly when delivering groceries to his house.  They must have had words.  When the Chinese grocer got wind that the customer and his buddy was going to go after the delivery boy, he bought him a train ticket to leave town that very day.  We never saw him again; Chicago or Detroit was his most likely destination.[3]....

 Black Views of Chinese. Black prejudices against Chinese may have originated well before they arrived in large numbers in the Delta.  Through black publications and newspapers, China of the mid 1800s was portrayed as ridden with poverty, famine, overpopulation, and civil strife.  They conveyed an underlying resentment that stemmed from American missionaries making such great efforts in China to convert the Chinese while they ignored the plight of blacks in America.  These negative views about the Chinese influenced their unfavorable attitudes about the presence of Chinese immigrants in the delta.  Blacks formed views similar to those widely held by whites such as the belief that the Chinese, as foreigners, would never assimilate to western values and ways.[5] ....

          Black acceptance of Chinese improved because economic competition with them was minimal, and the presence of Chinese grocery stores in black neighborhoods was a convenient resource.  In general, they also felt more welcomed in the Chinese stores than in those operated by whites.  They also appreciated that some grocers extended credit to blacks and made donations to black churches. Still, blacks felt Chinese incorporated the negative attitudes of whites toward blacks, and consequently were prejudiced against them as reflected by white customers receiving better treatment.

Race Attitudes Between Chinese and Whites

Not only were Chinese blocked from attending white schools in Mississippi until the late 1940s, they did not have access to many other white public facilities until after 1950.  White hospitals would not treat Chinese patients, for example...

    Even though Chinese were able to attend white schools by the 1950s, they still faced blatant and often more subtle forms of racism in various forms from white school children ranging from fisticuffs to taunts and ostracism.

           One respondent who preferred not to be named related how he and his brothers often faced verbal taunts from whites where they grew up and more than a few times got involved in fistfights with them. . ..

     ... Gradually relationships with white students improved and they were treated more equitably by the time they were in high school as he and an older brother, both athletically skilled, were selected for the football, baseball, and basketball teams.

             By the 1950s, Chinese and whites generally got along in school but there was one area where racial mixing was frowned upon. When members of the opposite sex became romantically involved, negative reactions of both white and Chinese communities were prevalent in the 1950s and earlier in the Delta.  White and Chinese parents felt that interracial dating and marriages were not viable, as illustrated by Robert Chow’s reflections:[9]...

Apart from physical features, which clearly distinguished Chinese from other races, many whites and blacks regarded Chinese as almost “white” because they were so assimilated into white culture and shared many of the norms and values of the dominant white group with respect to their economic, educational, and religious lives.  In contrast, however, they showed limited assimilation in terms of informal social ties with whites, as reflected by their choice of friends, dates, and spouses.[11]

Even though they have adopted the white norms and values, they still tend to put the greatest emphasis on their families and intimate primary group relations. They have their own interests and participate in white social functions in only a limited formal manner. The white community seems to accept the Chinese community more than the Chinese community accepts the white community. This social disassociation is evident in Chinese social organizations that are segregated against all but Chinese.

    Whites attributed Chinese aloofness and reserve during social interactions with them as due to a self-imposed preference to stick with their own ethnicity for social relationships. While Chinese did prefer to socialize with other Chinese because of common culture and language, they also felt that white racial prejudices against them left no choice but to maintain their social distance. From a white perspective, however, it was the Chinese who discriminated against whites rather than vice versa. 

  ... In part, these divergent views reflect Chinese cultural values of avoiding conflict and saving face. Moreover, the very small numbers of Chinese contributed to their stoical acceptance of their situation.  They knew there was no realistic way they could win any direct confrontations against the perpetrators of racial intolerance when they were so vastly outnumbered.

Housing Restrictions Against Chinese

Chinese were not allowed to buy homes in white neighborhoods in many towns until after World War II.  John Paul Quon remembered when his father tried to buy a house next to the Moorhead Baptist Church:

And he had even made earnest money, placed earnest money for it and had basically closed the deal, until he got threatening letters. And the agent eventually brought in postal investigators, and they traced that letter back to a particular person.

However, John Paul’s father had the last laugh in one transaction when he shrewdly outmaneuvered a white man who sold him a farm thinking that his father did not knew much about real estate dealings.

And, of course, it caused a shock within the community that here is a Chinese merchant buying a cotton farm.  And the seller, I'm told by other members of the community that he was licking his chops.  Because he turned around, and he took the down payment, and he held the note, thinking that my father would not be successful, and he'll get the farm back, and he'll pocket the down payment.  Except at the end of the first year, my father made a decent crop, but he paid cash for the rest of the note.  And it shocked the rest of the business community that my father had the cash… again, my father was prosperous.  It was my mother that was frugal.  She was the one that made sure that we didn't squander our money....

 Hiring Discrimination Against Chinese

Chinese saw improved white attitudes toward them after World War II.  Many young Chinese American men from the Delta had served in the military, which earned the respect of whites.  Many young Chinese focused improving themselves through education entered college and earned degrees. Still, there were obstacles that the Chinese faced. They still faced discrimination in many areas including access to many forms of employment.  For example, in the 1950s several Chinese women reported being victims of school policies against hiring Chinese.  Even though they had earned Mississippi State University and University of Mississippi college degrees, they still found that racial discrimination, often subtle rather than blatant, limited them to working in grocery stores.

Audrey Sidney related her personal encounter with blatant racial prejudice against hiring Chinese when she sought a teaching job in Greenville in 1956.

I applied for a job at the Greenville Public School , because that was where we were going to live.  He (husband) had some job offers, but he decided to stay in Greenville and go into [the electronic] business with his brother.  I applied for a job when I came to Greenville and asked for an interview.  I had an interview with the superintendent [Greenville Public Schools], Mr. Koonce.  He told me that only Caucasians could teach in the white public schools in Greenville.  So he did not offer me a job.  Of course, this was like a “slap in the face” to me, because I had not had that kind of treatment in growing up.  Or maybe it would have good if I would have had that kind of treatment so it wouldn’t hit so hard.  I am the kind of person that always wanted to work.  I enjoy working, I enjoy meeting people, and I enjoy doing something.  Staying at home is not my life.  I don’t get joy out of cleaning, mopping floors, cleaning bathrooms, or doing the dishes.  Anyway, so I couldn’t get a job teaching in the public school, which was my major in college.  I got a job at the Greenville Air Force Base.  I worked out there in ’57 and ‘58. [15]

 Annette Joe described her similar encounter with racism in hiring when she applied for a teaching job in Jackson around 1957:

…That is the best paying place in Mississippi. I went over there.  It happened that the superintendent of the schools was interviewing.  I went in and said hello.  He was nice enough.

 Then he said, “Well I am sorry to tell you we just don’t have anything at the schools at all.”  I said, “Sir I just came from an interview department. He said you have tons of vacancies.  I said I think I am qualified.  I had lots more.  I went to Delta State every summer.  My year was the first year that they were required a teacher’s certificate.  So I got a performance degree, which didn’t include all of the psychology and all the biology and stuff that you have to take for the teacher’s license.  I took all of those things. I think that I am very qualified.”

He said that it has nothing to do with your qualification.  Well, I want you to tell me why there is not a job.  He said well, we don’t have a place for you.  He said I am not ever going to hire anybody like you.  I said, “Well… how am I?”

He said,  “Well, you are Chinese. I will never hire you to teach in Jackson.”[16]

 Tri-Ethnic Relationships

Most discussions of race relations in the Delta examine races in pairs such as black-white, Chinese-black, or Chinese-white. The analysis of how Chinese dealt with blacks and whites when interacting with each separately is valid in its own right but tells an incomplete story.  Race matters become much more complicated when considering the tri-ethnic aspects of many Delta communities.[17]  How Chinese behaved toward blacks and whites was not based solely on their attitudes toward each of these groups whenever members of all three groups were present.  Thus, if Chinese were too cordial toward blacks, their acceptance by whites might be jeopardized.  And since most of the Chinese grocers relied heavily on black customers, they risked creating black resentment if they fully embraced white attitudes and values.  Chinese tried to strike a middle ground as they had to convince whites that they were not too cozy with blacks at the same time they had to persuade blacks that they did not whole heartedly endorse white attitudes and values.

    Social class and economic status was intertwined with race and ethnicity in the Delta as whites, not blacks, held social power.  Chinese acceptance by whites was necessary for them to improve their social status, a goal that was achieved by distancing themselves from blacks except for business transactions.  It was not the case that Chinese did not have prejudices against other races, black or white. However, these sentiments were accentuated in the highly segregated society of the time and place.  To escape racial discrimination from whites, Chinese had to ignore, or even add to, prejudicial treatment that blacks suffered.[18] [19]

Chinese And Civil Rights Activism

The Chinese were in a precarious situation during the civil rights activism of the late 1950s and 1960s, often caught between the proverbial ‘rock and hard place.’  On one hand, they stood to benefit in the long run from better treatment of minorities.  The older generation, long accustomed to passive acceptance and fatalistic views of their status in the Delta, did not participate in political activism.  Being a very small minority, usually less than one tenth of one percent of the population, it was dangerous for the Chinese to get actively involved because they were caught between their black customers and the white power establishment, which often involved redneck and Klu Klux Klan elements.  They feared repercussions and discouraged their young adult children from getting involved in social political activities.

The intensity of racial tensions rapidly increased with each new development. In 1962, James Meredith was the first African American student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. His presence required the intervention of federal troops to restore order when violence broke out at the campus.  Frieda Quon, then an Ole Miss undergraduate, vividly recalled the crisis, and described the reactions of the Chinese students:

On the weekend he arrived, our peaceful campus became a war zone.  National Guard troops were everywhere. As students we didn’t know what we should do; we were scared to go anywhere.  The American Chinese boys were in the dormitory facing the student union where much the action was; outsiders came on campus to protest, which resulted in tear gas being used for crowd control.  It was pandemonium; John Quon took all of the Chinese girls home.   After a few days we returned. Upon entering the campus, the National Guard required student identification and inspected the inside of our car and trunk for contraband. At the cafeteria only plastic utensils, dishes, cups were allowed.  Meredith had to be escorted to classes with guards; he literally had to have protection 24/7.  This event would change Ole Miss and Mississippi forever. [20]

The rampant uprising of blacks against segregation was often indiscriminate, and not limited to destruction of white businesses.  Chinese grocery stores, located usually in black neighborhoods, also suffered from black violence in the wake of the civil disturbances of the 1960s. These actions led some older Chinese to sell their businesses, or retire, and move out of the Delta to avoid the dangers to life and limb. ...

White grocers were always white. Chinese, however, were once in approximately the same position as blacks, were once brothers in oppression. Now, however, they have been allowed to join white institutions, move into white neighborhoods, and send their children to white schools, and they have lost no time in taking advantages of these opportunities…In addition, it is sadly ironic that the most visible result of the black liberation movement in the Delta has been the elevation of the Chinese to near-white status, leaving blacks more alone in their oppression.[22]

Although the Chinese did eventually benefit from the civil rights struggle, they were mainly passive spectators, partly because they were such a small minority.  They also hesitated to be overtly involved, trapped between their sympathies with their oppressed black customers and their fear of antagonizing powerful white organizations that could harm their businesses.

Racial Tolerance and Diversity

 In a society with a long tradition of racial segregation, it is easy to overlook instances of racial harmony and acceptance. On the positive side, other whites that were more tolerant and accepting of Chinese circumvented some barriers facing Chinese by acting as intermediaries for them in buying homes in white areas.

Penny Gong described the situation her family faced with housing discrimination as late as the 1960s:

In 1967, we tried to buy a house so that I could go to school at Clarksdale High School. We met much opposition.  There was some people who were rather ugly to my parents, but those same people turned out to be some of our very best friends after we got to know them.

...  Buddy Ellis was a judge in Clarksdale, and he was a very good friend of my father’s.  He bought our first house for us, and he signed the house over.  He used my father’s money to buy the house, and then he signed the house over to my father.  After we moved in, our neighbors were just ignorant of the fact that we weren’t different. [23]

 Not all areas in the Delta were rigidly segregated by ethnic and race barriers. There were a few mixed ethnic neighborhoods where the residents enjoyed amiable and cordial relationships with each other. In many towns, most Chinese grocery stores were located in black neighborhoods where many of the playmates of their children, aside from siblings, were black. In other towns, where their store was located in the white downtown business section, their playmates were more likely to be white children.

I lived in a neighborhood where there was a mixture of cultures. There were Blacks, Whites, Jews, Lebanese, Irish, Mexicans, Native American, Indians, French, German, Italian and Chinese. My mom and dad ran the neighborhood store that fed all the people. Everyone got along, and we trusted and depended on each other.

  ...One of my brothers shared Kibee, a Lebanese food with the Mike Kattawar family, who was our next door neighbor. Louise Dorsey, a Black lady, who lived across the street from the store, would cook some neck bones with turnip greens and cornbread. She would bring some to the store for us to eat. [24]

While situations like these may have been rare, that they can exist gives testimony to the power of positive interpersonal contact in transcending the negative stereotypes of racial prejudice and discrimination and offers hope for a more equalitarian society.



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