Chinese Americans in the time of Jim Crow
November 11, 2015 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Shortly after the dust of the Civil War had settled, plantation owners in the Deep South tried to replace the labor of black ex-slaves with Chinese immigrants--most of whom left rather than put up with bad working conditions. Some, however, stayed in the Mississippi Delta through the end of Jim Crow, often carving out a role for themselves in the South's harsh racial climate as grocers serving primarily black communities. In fact, a historic Supreme Court case extending the reach of segregation to all non-white people took place when a Chinese family sued a local white school board. Now these grocers are dying out as their children leave the South, but groups like Southern Foodways are collecting their stories so that their contribution to Southern history can be remembered.
posted by sciatrix (14 comments total) 74 users marked this as a favorite
This is EXTRAORDINARILY relevant to my interests and research project! Through my research of the early 20th century, the lack of Chinese students in Southern universities has been, well, not stunning, but very obvious, and I wondered about the Chinese-American-community piece of the puzzle. Thank you so much for posting this!

Interesting that the industry of choice was groceries. I've been researching a Chinese student at Auburn who stuck it out there for 4 years. His classmates consistently referred to him as "Laundry", the typical profession of Chinese immigrants at the time.
posted by chainsofreedom at 9:01 AM on November 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

Thanks for this sciatrix!
posted by King Sky Prawn at 9:48 AM on November 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Thanks! I never knew about this!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:59 AM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

Thanks for this. Given that folks didn't know about what's absolutely part of my cultural heritage, a great big thumbs up for doing this work and making this post.
posted by kalessin at 10:12 AM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

This is really interesting -- thanks for all of the links!

I just listened to an episode of the podcast Backstory that was about the history of US/China relations. They had a side bit about how one Mexican town (Mexicali, I think it was) considers Chinese food to be one if its inherent local eats. It was really interesting to hear the perspectives of the Mexican customers and the Chinese restaurant owners.

It also made me confront a bias I didn't realize I had, because at first I had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea of people in Mexico going out to a Chinese restaurant. But duh, why wouldn't there be Chinese restaurant owners in Mexico? I'm still working through this and why it sounded like an oddity to me. I think it has something to do with growing up with such an American-centric education in history that the assumption is that all Chinese emigration in the 19th century was to the US -- and specifically to the West Coast of the US -- which is stupid. I'm not proud of it. These links provide a much needed augmentation to that education. :)
posted by mudpuppie at 11:10 AM on November 11, 2015 [5 favorites]

From a little further south - Finding Samuel Lowe, an episode of PRI's One With Farai, in which Farai Chideya interviews retired NBC Universal and GE executive Paula Williams Madison about her search for information about her Hakka Chinese grandfather who arrived in Jamaica near the beginning of the 20th century. Madison wrote a book of the same name and evidently there's also a documentary film?
posted by XMLicious at 11:38 AM on November 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

James Lowen, probably most famous for Lies My Teacher Told Me actually got his start researching this particular subject. The Mississippi Chinese being the result of that research.
posted by absalom at 12:11 PM on November 11, 2015

mudpuppie, that reminds me of the Chinese restaurant in Greenland.
posted by Bee'sWing at 12:58 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

Great post thank you!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:05 PM on November 11, 2015

The town I grew up in also has a long history of Chinese immigrants, starting right after the US Civil War. The Chinese were brought in as laborers in the early 1870s to expand the Augusta Canal, and some stayed after the work was finished to form one of the oldest Chinese communities in the Southeast. Like the Chinese in Mississippi Delta, many of the ones in Augusta started grocery stores and laundries. The CCBA website has an interesting history and timeline.

Anecdotally, I remember my dad telling me that our insurance agent, who was Chinese, was the wealthiest man in town, but he tried to keep it under wraps in order not to upset the established white aristocracy.
posted by ralan at 4:01 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend the fantastic documentary The Search for General Tso. It's ostensibly about the dish, its origins, and why it's probably an American invention, but watching it is also a civics lesson about the experience of Chinese immigrants here in America from the 19th Century to the present, and how—due primarily to racism and the impact of legislation like the Act to Protect Free White Labor Against Competition with Chinese Coolie Labor in California, and the federal Chinese Exclusion Act—institutionalized racism prevented Chinese immigrants from working in non-Chinese owned businesses, and caused an explosion of "Chinese" restaurants across the country. The connection between bigotry and Chinese foodways is well worth learning about. It's currently available on Netflix, if you have a subscription, or on Amazon if you don't.
posted by Toekneesan at 4:50 PM on November 11, 2015 [8 favorites]

This is a fascinating story from America’s racial history (and a well put-together post). I first heard it almost 40 years ago, when I was on what turned into a 38-state trip, writing newspaper columns from across the U.S. during America’s Bicentennial Year. During my time in Mississippi, I met a young reporter from the Vicksburg Post (who interviewed me for his own story), who turned out to be the son, and grandson, of Chinese grocery store owners. When I got home, I read Loewen's book, which absalom mentions above, and learned more.

Interesting that the industry of choice was groceries.

Blacks in the Delta were so poor they couldn’t afford such ‘luxuries’ as laundry. But everyone has to eat. Nor could they afford to run grocery stores, and white grocers didn't like selling to blacks. So in this most strictly segregated part of the nation, a niche market was available to the Chinese who, once their work on the transcontinental railroad had ended, left California because of the extreme prejudice they faced there.

Now these grocers are dying out as their children leave the South

That niche market has disappeared, and most people these days can shop in any available store. Young Chinese also have many more opportunities available to them; last I heard from the reporter who interviewed me (who graduated from the University of Southern Mississippi), he was working for a big publisher in New York City.

p.s. Speaking of prejudice, Loewen writes about the ‘non-Mississippi Chinese’ who, bitter that young Chinese in the Delta didn’t seem to know more about racial struggles elsewhere, called them ‘bananas’: “yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.”
posted by LeLiLo at 4:50 PM on November 11, 2015 [4 favorites]

Great post! This ties in really neatly with some of the research I've been doing lately on African American business in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There's so much to say about racial identity and consumer space, but for the sake of this thread I just wanted to say thanks for posting this!
posted by teponaztli at 8:25 PM on November 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

teponaztli, do you have it in you to do a similar post about that research?
posted by kalessin at 7:03 AM on November 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older The Alcohol Blackout   |   Is your "Best Boy" wearing Khaki? If not don’t YOU... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments