The story of how a few Chinese immigrants found their way to the Mississippi River Delta in the late 1870s and earned their living with small family operated grocery stores in neighborhoods where mostly black cotton plantation workers lived
Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton
Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton
"Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton"is a social history of the lives of these pioneering families and the unique and valuable role they played in their communities for over a century. It examines their status in the segregated black and white world of that time and place and describes how the Chinese, less than 1 percent of the population in the region, managed to preserve their culture and ethnic identity. The children of the family groceries learned invaluable lessons that produced the discipline and drive to achieve remarkable levels of career success in many endeavors.
1. Why Chinese Came To The Delta
In the late 1860s and early 1870s, a small number of Chinese men, immigrants from the southeastern province of Guangdong, China, appeared for the first time in the Mississippi River Delta, a fertile land well suited for farming and prized for its rich source of cotton.
Where is the Delta?
(not included here) Figure 1 Location of the Mississippi River Delta with detailed view on right.
The Mississippi River serves as a major part of the boundary separating the states of Mississippi and Arkansas, as Figure 1 shows. On the Mississippi side of the river, the delta extends over 150 miles from north to south from just below Memphis southward to just above Vicksburg and about 70 miles from Greenwood on the east to Greenville on the west encompassing these counties: Bolivar, Coahoma, Leflore, Humphreys, Issaquena, Quitman, Sharkey, Sunflower, Tunica, and Washington. The major cities and towns include Clarksdale, Cleveland, Greenville, Greenwood, Indianola, and Ruleville.
On the less populated Arkansas side of the river, there was also a rich agricultural region well suited for cotton, soybean, and wheat farming but fewer towns. In 1870 almost all of 98 Chinese there worked as farm laborers in Arkansas County, and by 1880, most of 133 Chinese lived in Jefferson and Chicot counties in small towns like Round Pond, Altheimer, Cotton Plant, Lake Village, and Hughes, with many working as sharecroppers on cotton plantations.
Most of the Chinese grocers lived in the larger Mississippi Delta towns such as Clarksdale, Cleveland, and Greenville. Other Chinese grocers settled in small towns, most with between 500 to 1,000 inhabitants such as Sunflower, Louise, and Boyle.
All Delta towns were heavily populated with blacks, mostly cotton field workers. Over 90 percent of blacks in the United States in 1900 lived in the Deep South. Some towns like Cleveland and Greenville had as many as 70 percent black residents, and the lowest figures were around 40 percent in Clarksdale and Boyle. In the 1940s, there were 293,000 blacks in the Delta, which was three times more than the 98,000 whites. The presence of only about 500 Chinese was barely noticeable in most communities where they lived throughout the Delta among blacks and whites that together numbered almost 400,000.
Since 1960, there has been a decline in the number of Chinese from Guangdong province, the source of the original immigrants, from an estimated peak of just above 1,200. The largest Chinese community, located in Greenville, may have lasted longer but eventually its Chinese population also shrank. Similarly, there has been a drop in the overall population of the economically impoverished Delta. For example, the total population also showed declines or little change in the 2000 census for the largest Mississippi communities such as Greenville, Clarksdale, and Cleveland, towns with populations ranging between 24,000 and 40,000.
Why Did Chinese Come to the Delta?
Why did they leave China, and what led them to come to the Delta? Unlike the thousands of other Chinese immigrants who settled in northern California seeking gam sahn, the fabled Gold Mountain, the Chinese entering the delta certainly were not enticed by prospects of wealth contained in any mountains of cotton, the dominant crop in the region for many years. The Chinese, never more than a few hundred until well after 1920, were a distinct minority in the Delta where the black cotton pickers were three or four times as numerous as whites.
The first Chinese immigrants from Guangdong Province started coming to the low-lying delta region bordering the Mississippi River around the middle of the 19th century. But long before the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants into this region, it was a white-dominated society. Prosperous white plantation owners purchased black slaves from Africa to perform the arduous labor of picking cotton by hand.
(not included here) Figure 2 What shall we do with John Chinaman? (Artist unknown) Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 25, 1869, 32.
However, with the abolition of slavery in 1863, white plantation owners no longer had their large supply of cheap labor and they searched desperately for replacements for the freed slave labor. The Chinese had already established a reputation as hard working and inexpensive workers on the farms in California and in railroad construction in the west.
Some labor suppliers had been successful in recruiting Chinese immigrant laborers to work at lower cost in other parts of the country. These successes in a Belleville, New Jersey laundry, a New England shoe factory, and a Pennsylvania cutlery factory prompted Southerners to seek a similar solution as shown in Figure 2. Leaders at a Memphis Convention of cotton planters in 1869 considered a proposal to have contractors hire Chinese laborers to replace blacks to punish them for acting like free men.
The cane field owners in Louisiana had already hired coolies who had been working in the West Indies and in Cuba. Some Chinese laborers may have left the cane fields and drifted north into the Delta region where they found work on cotton plantations. Additional supplies of Chinese were recruited from China as well as from California to Arkansas and Mississippi to work in cotton fields in the 1870s. Another theory, undocumented or discredited, was that Chinese came on riverboats up the Mississippi to settle and soon open groceries in several Delta towns.
The more plausible explanation is that several sources existed. Some Chinese in the Delta may have been men who had worked on railroad construction in the region. The Texas and the Yazoo Railroad in Mississippi had recruited Chinese to work on the railroads. Possibly some of them stayed and found work in the region after the railroad work ended. Another likely source were Chinese fleeing the violence and expulsion from parts of western United States to safer regions of the country.
Starting in the 1870s Chinese (as well as Italian) immigrants were recruited as farm laborers in the cotton fields of Van Buren, Lincoln, Jefferson and Pulaski and Arkansas counties, all located toward the center of the state, as part of a work force brought in by the Arkansas Valley Immigration Company. These men, mostly from California, were to work in the field for no more than five years for which they were paid the equivalent of several months of wages and provided with transportation to Arkansas. As many as 134 Chinese identified as farm laborers worked in Arkansas while a smaller number appeared in the 1870 census schedules for Mississippi. However, about a year later, plantation owners discovered that the plan was not effective, as the Chinese did not do as well as blacks did in the fields. In addition, disputes over nonpayment to Chinese workers arose that contributed to the Chinese deciding to open their own businesses.
Still, as late as 1880, bringing Chinese labor to the South continued as the New York Times reported that a Mississippi planter acknowledged that a Chinese labor contractor had been contacted and “…probably some Chinamen will be set to work in Southern Mississippi in a few weeks.”
There is no firm evidence about what happened to these men and whether they had descendants who stayed in the Mississippi River delta areas of Arkansas and Mississippi. It is possible that some stayed while some left for other regions, but it also conceivable that all of them left, as none of their names show up a decade later in the 1880 census schedules.
Early Work of Delta Chinese
Regardless of where they came from or how they managed to arrive in the Delta, once there, how did they earn a living? Early U. S. Census schedules from 1880 to 1910 show that Chinese in Arkansas and Mississippi operated laundries before they started grocery stores. However, by the 1920 census, the grocery store had essentially become the sole occupation of the Delta Chinese. It makes sense that laundry work would not have been in high demand in this mainly rural area. Perhaps some laundry men, once having saved a small amount from doing laundry, may have decided it would be more profitable to open grocery stores.
The opportunity for Chinese to open grocery stores expanded with the closure of plantation-owned and operated commissaries (See Figures 3 and 4) with the increasingly mechanized cotton production around the 1920s, which greatly reduced the need for manual labor. Until then, the plantation commissaries had been the main, if not the only source of food, clothing, and farming supplies to slaves, and eventually, sharecroppers who toiled in the cotton fields.
(not included here)Figure 3 The commissary on the Sunflower, Ms. Plantation where cotton workers obtained food and supplies.
Figure 4 Cotton pickers shop at Marcella Plantation Commissary, Mileston, Ms., 1939. Library of Congress LC-USF34- 052200-D
White-owned grocery stores in the main business sections of town did not particularly welcome black customers. The Chinese recognized the opportunity to carve an economic niche for themselves in Delta towns by filling this void. Partnerships formed among male relatives help create a pool of shared capital called a hui that they could each, in turn draw from to allow them to open grocery stores typically located in black neighborhoods, providing convenience access for their primary sources of customers.
Furthermore, by extending credit to black workers until they were paid they gained an advantage over white stores, which had cash and carry policies. It was by no means an easy existence but it did afford them the opportunity to achieve some competitive advantage over white-owned stores.
White Supremacy in the Mississippi Delta
One cannot fully comprehend how difficult the lives of the Chinese in the Delta were without an understanding of the social dynamics of black-white interactions in the region. Segregation pitted whites and blacks in a one-sided adversarial relationship in which white rules governed social conduct. Whites had preference and privilege. Whites and blacks could not co-mingle in public settings wherever people sat down as in restaurants, theatres, or schools.
Despite the abolition of slavery by Lincoln, whites still held social, economic, and political power over blacks for well beyond the middle of the next century. Most townships in the Delta region had a higher percentage of blacks than whites, but the whites controlled the way of life in the highly segregated South. Whites instituted Jim Crow laws and traditions to preserve this way of life that favored whites. Segregation of blacks and whites was staunchly enforced. Blacks and whites had separate public drinking fountains and public toilet facilities. Blacks were required to ride in the back of transit buses and in separate cars on trains. Intimidation rather than enforcement was usually sufficient to have blacks comply with these social rules.
As cafes, restaurants, barbershops, schools, and churches for whites did not admit blacks, they had to start their own businesses, schools, and churches. There were separate picture show (movie) theatres for blacks and whites but some white theaters admitted blacks by creating separate seating sections for them (See Figure 5).
Figure 5 Entrance of Colored section balcony of a picture show theater, Belzoni, Ms., 1939. Library of Congress FSA/OWI COLL - E 915.
There were few work opportunities for blacks in the region and they mainly worked from dawn to dusk in the cotton fields of the delta plantations owned by whites. They lived in segregated neighborhoods in small substandard houses often in poorer condition than the one pictured in Figure 6.
(not included here)Figure 6 Typical example of sharecropper housing. Library of Congress LC-USF33- 030570-M3.
Ecology of A Delta Town
What was the physical and social nature of the Delta towns in which the Chinese lived during the 1930s and 1940s when their grocery businesses flourished? A generalized image comes from detailed descriptions of one town by a Yale University psychology professor, John Dollard. He came to live in Indianola in Sunflower County for a few months in the late 1930s to observe racial interactions in the Delta. In his book he disguised its identity by referring to the town as “Southern town” rather than using its real name. Published in 1937 originally, Caste and Class in a Southern Town became an influential ethnographic account of daily life interactions between blacks and whites in a segregated community.
Dollard gave the following description of the community life and daily routines in a typical small delta town.
Four fifths of the land of the county is tilled, most of it undoubtedly in cotton. The town has a slight excess of females over males, and of Negroes over whites. Apparently, too, it includes most of the foreign born of the county. These, observation indicates, are probably mainly Italians and Jews, with a very few Chinese. The median size of both white and Negro families is smaller in the town than in the county, but the white family remains about a full person larger than the Negro. Slightly more than 90 percent of the houses are one-family dwellings, and one cannot be sure that those with two or more families are not the overcrowded Negro cabins.
…. it is probably an average small town in a rural county devoted to a staple crop and characterized by a black belt history and psychology. We know that 70.2 percent of the southeastern region is rural and that of the 29.8 percent of the popula¬tion classed as urban, 15.2 percent lies outside of the metropolitan districts. It is in this latter group that our town falls. In type of economy it is certainly not typical of the whole south or even perhaps of the statistical mode in the southeastern region. It is rather more likely to represent an extreme of a general tendency, in some degree a relic of a by gone plantation and black belt culture. Attitudes here would certainly be different from those in towns and counties with smaller percentages of Negroes. They would likewise differ somewhat from social attitudes in metropolitan centers (Dollard, 1949, p.14-15).
In the racially segregated communities of the Deep South, blacks and whites had their own well-defined residential and business neighborhoods outside the central business district.
The small industrial section devoted to ginning cotton and pressing cottonseed is isolated at one end of the town more or less in the Negro quarter. A square block of buildings and the four streets around it make up the business district. One street has six or seven department stores, owned and run al¬most exclusively by Jews. The thirsty traveler may stop and honk before one of the three drugstores and receive courteous curb service, although the polite northerner is frequently a little abashed at delivering a vulgar toot to a southern white man. He gets used to it, however, and is glad to feel the cool shock of a “coke” in the throat while still sitting in his automobile. There is a small and very hot hotel with an adjoining restaurant… One of the streets is lined with stores serving Negroes, though very few are owned by Negroes. A single floor of one building is reserved for the few Negro professional persons in the town…
Downtown of an evening, one of the streets is densely lined with cars. The center of this activity is the movie theater, white downstairs and colored in the gallery, with separate entrances. People are great moviegoers and discussers in this town. “Bank Night” in particular is memorable with the excitement of the drawing and a very bad picture to identify it. On Saturday the movie is invariably a Western picture, for then, we are told, the rural people come to town and they like “Westerns.”
Saturday is by all odds the big day of the week. In the summer the stores are open all afternoon and evening (though closed on Thursday afternoons). The country Negroes mill through the streets and talk excitedly, buying, and enjoying the stimulation of the town crowds. The country whites are paler and less vivacious; there are not so many of them, but still a considerable number. “Rednecks,” they are called, and their necks, it is true, are red, due to open shirts and daily exposure to the sun… Sunday is a quiet day on the white side. Through open church windows one hears organ and choir music. The Negroes take Sunday solemnly, too, but there seems a little more activity on their side of the town. (Dollard, 1949, pp. 4-5)
Downtown Clarksdale, 1941
Downtown Clarksdale in 1941 (See Figure 7) retained distinct areas from the past that separated people by race as well as social class, barriers that continued for many years.
The black, or Negro as it was called then, business district, consisted of a few square blocks centered on the corner of Fourth and Issaquena. All the black-owned businesses in Clarksdale, as well as those owned by a few Jewish, Italian, and Chinese families were located in this section. Clarksdale had a few immigrants, not always welcome by either blacks or whites, consisting of “about twenty-five or thirty families of Jewish storekeepers . . . a few Greeks . . . a few Syrian families . . . and a few Chinamen engaged in laundries . . . and some dope on the side.”
(not included here)Figure 7 Map of white and black business and residential sections, Clarksdale, Ms., 1941. Notice the social class distinction between residential areas for upper middle, middle class, and poor for whites and Negro vs. poor Negro for blacks.
Another observer noted:
This part of town contained Clarksdale’s only black hotel, the Savoy theater, a single furniture store, three gas stations, a host of jukes and cafés and beer parlors, barbershops, beauty parlors, groceries, and a funeral parlor. The two largest black churches stood directly across the street from the Dipsy Doodle, a favorite hangout for plantation blacks in the ’30s who came to town on Saturday nights to dance, eat tamales, drink beer, and listen to the blues on the juke’s Seabird, as they called the bright new Seeburg jukebox that sat in the middle of the floor.
As in other Delta communities, both the race and social class of individuals determined where people lived in Clarksdale.
“Upper-middle-class whites lived on the other side of town, across the Sunflower River, whose bridge provided a direct route to the downtown shopping area with its banks, post office, and library. Black working class and day laborers lived in the Roundyard, a neighborhood just off the Negro business district that centered on a small area separated from white downtown by the railroad tracks that ran through the center of Clarksdale. The middle class of the Brickyard did not normally approve of the Roundyard’s ways.”
(not included here)Figure 8 Black cotton pickers selling to buyer, Belzoni, Ms. Library of Congress LC-USF33- 030660-M4.
Figure 8 shows black cotton pickers congregating as they waited to sell their cotton to a buyer on a Saturday in Belzoni in the Negro section of town. This scene was similar to gatherings in other cotton towns like Clarksdale, Lexington, Greenville, or Cleveland.
How The Chinese Fit in A Black-White Society
One imagines that without such an imbalance of power in favor of whites over blacks, the lives of the Chinese immigrants to the region would have taken a quite different direction. Chinese, being neither black nor white, presented a problem for both blacks and whites in determining who they were. White supremacists simply felt if you are not white, then you are “Colored” irrespective of your culture, language, or origin. Although Chinese occupied a low social status, they were not mistreated as badly as blacks were in the Delta.
If Chinese had been successful laboring in the cotton fields, it would have been easier for both blacks and whites to consider them as “colored people,” but of a lighter shade. However, the Chinese seized the opportunity to redefine their place in Delta society shortly after their arrival by establishing their presence as businessmen in small grocery stores. No longer farm laborers, they were merchants in a business that initially served primarily black workers.
Chinese were no longer so easily classified as “colored” because their role in society became more complicated. They were intermediaries or middlemen situated somewhere between black and white. Oddly, it was precisely because they were neither black nor white that the Chinese were able to work effectively with blacks and whites, groups that were rigidly separated by a long history of racial segregation throughout the South. The Chinese proved to be the “perfect grocer” for the pre-Civil rights era Delta society, as white merchants did not want to serve blacks. Blacks themselves lacked monetary resources and cultural experiences to become merchants. Thus, the racial divide in the Delta created a vacuum that provided a viable economic niche for the Chinese that neither blacks nor whites could readily assume in this segregated society.
However, the status of the Chinese grocers did vary somewhat in different towns, depending on whether most of their customers were white or black. When most customers were white, as was the case for stores located in the main business section of town, Chinese tended to be viewed as “inscrutable Orientals with wisdom Caucasians lacked.” But where the stores were located in black neighborhoods and served mainly black customers, whites avoided their stores and viewed the Chinese with contempt.
A leading white literary figure in the region, William Alexander Percy, in noting the abundance of Chinese storekeepers in the Delta, scornfully dismissed any contributions their presence made to the community:
They are not numerous enough to present a problem __except to the small white store-keeper__ but in so far as what wisdom they may inherit from Lao-Tse or Confucius they fail to impart.
Chinese had more autonomy over their own economic fate than blacks did but they lacked the social power and influence that whites held. They had to rely on their predominantly black customer base to earn their living at the same time they were seeking better acceptance and fairer treatment from white society. To survive, Chinese had to establish good relations with blacks as well as whites, as both groups far exceeded them in numbers.