Learn the Untold History of the Chinese Community in the Mississippi Delta

The word “nativist” always sounds odd to me giv­en that most of those to whom it applies descend from peo­ple who arrived in North Amer­i­ca one or two hun­dred years ago to find peo­ple who had been on the con­ti­nent for many thou­sands of years. But if we were, in defi­ance of his­to­ry, to con­fer native sta­tus upon the many waves of Euro­pean immi­grants who pop­u­lat­ed the coun­try before and after the Civ­il War, then we must also grant such sta­tus to the many Chi­nese immi­grants who did so, build­ing rail­roads and busi­ness­es all over the U.S., includ­ing on the west­ern fron­tier in Mis­sis­sip­pi.

Chi­nese immi­grants first arrived in the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta after the end of slav­ery, respond­ing to cot­ton planters’ need for a new­ly exploitable work­force. Chi­nese labor­ers, says the nar­ra­tor in the Al Jazeera video above, “were cheap, dis­pos­able, and polit­i­cal­ly voice­less.” But they were, at least, paid for their work, and free to leave it, as most of them did when they could, to build their own eco­nom­ic means—largely busi­ness­es “serv­ing the black com­mu­ni­ty when the white com­mu­ni­ty wouldn’t.” In an NPR pro­file of the Delta Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ty, Melis­sa Block inter­viewed Ray­mond Wong, whose fam­i­ly arrived some­what lat­er, in the 1930s. “We were in-between,” he tells her, “We’re not black, we’re not white. So that by itself gives you some iso­la­tion.”

Pho­to by Mar­i­on Post Wolcott/Library of Con­gress

That in-between-ness also grants a good deal of invis­i­bil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­ties that don’t fit into the bina­ry pat­terns of think­ing in South­ern cul­ture and his­to­ry or the over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tions of U.S. demo­graph­ic his­to­ry in gen­er­al. As his­to­ri­an David Reimers demon­strates in his book Oth­er Immi­grants, in addi­tion to native Amerindi­ans, Euro­peans, and enslaved African peo­ple, the coun­try has been inhab­it­ed by free Black, Caribbean, Asian, and Latin Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties since the 16th cen­tu­ry and up to, and after, the harsh exclu­sion acts of the 19th cen­tu­ry. The U.S. would not be rec­og­niz­able with­out such com­mu­ni­ties. As far back as the eigh­teenth cen­tu­ry, he writes, “Penn­syl­va­nia and New York City, with their eth­ni­cal­ly diverse pop­u­la­tions, became mod­els for the Amer­i­can future, a plu­ral­ist soci­ety.”

In the South, non-Euro­pean immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties have been small­er minori­ties, like the Delta Chi­nese. Nonethe­less, as Mis­sis­sip­pi res­i­dent Frie­da Quon recalls of grow­ing up in seg­re­gat­ed Mis­sis­sip­pi, the Chi­nese immi­grants who set­tled from Mem­phis to Vicks­burg “real­ly filled a par­tic­u­lar need”—first for labor then for services—“because nobody else want­ed to do it.” Even after the com­mu­ni­ty endured many years of big­otry and legal dis­crim­i­na­tion dur­ing the exclu­sion acts, sev­er­al men dis­tin­guished them­selves among the 13,000 Chi­nese Amer­i­cans who served in the U.S. armed forces dur­ing World War II.

The 10-minute trail­er above for Hon­or and Duty, a three part doc­u­men­tary series about the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ty, begins with a brief pro­file of the almost two hun­dred Chi­nese Amer­i­can sol­diers, marines, sailors, and air­men from the region. Direc­tor E. Saman­tha Cheng made the film as part of her larg­er mis­sion to tell Asian-Amer­i­can his­to­ry, which few Amer­i­cans of any descent know very much about. In fact, she took on her mis­sion after recov­er­ing from the shock of learn­ing as an adult about the U.S.‘s Japan­ese intern­ment camps dur­ing the war, some­thing she had nev­er been taught in New York City pub­lic schools.

Cheng was sur­prised dur­ing her film­ing to meet so many Chi­nese-Amer­i­cans with molasses-thick South­ern accents. “Even their Chi­nese accent has a South­ern twang to it,” she tells NBC. That’s because, though accent alone does not a “native” make, the Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties in the Mis­sis­sip­pi Delta are, as much as any­one else in the region, South­ern­ers.

The AJ video is part of a series on 150 years of Chi­nese cul­ture and cui­sine in the U.S. See Part One, on San Fran­cis­co, here, and the Part Two, cov­ers Los Ange­les, here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Michio Kaku on Why Immi­grants Are America’s Secret Weapon: They Com­pen­sate for Our Mediocre STEM Edu­ca­tion & Keep Pros­per­i­ty Going

Albert Ein­stein Gives a Speech Prais­ing Diver­si­ty & Immi­grants’ Con­tri­bu­tions to Amer­i­ca (1939)

Ian McK­ellen Reads a Pas­sion­ate Speech by William Shake­speare, Writ­ten in Defense of Immi­grants

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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