Op-Ed: How African Americans and Chinese immigrants forged a community in the Delta generations ago
Six years ago, I took a fateful trip to Mississippi with my husband, Baldwin Chiu, and his family in search of his grandfather’s gravesite. As a Chinese American growing up in Diamond Bar, I had never ventured into the Deep South before this trip.
What started out as a family vacation turned into an excavation of the hidden history of not just my husband’s family, but of Chinese families in the segregated South. These discoveries greatly changed my perspective on the historical role of Asians in America.
There’s a lot of pain associated with the South. Slavery, the Civil War and segregation. These moments in history are always framed in Black and white. When Baldwin first told me that his paternal grandfather and also his great-grandfather were buried in Mississippi, I thought they would be the only Chinese in that cemetery.
Baldwin knew very little about his father’s side of the family because my father-in-law, Charles Chiu, grew up in China without his father. Little did I know that generations of Chinese lived and died in the South. Their stories have rarely been told and were excluded from the history books I read in school.
Our quest to learn more about Baldwin’s family led us to the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum in Cleveland, Miss. I was surprised to find a whole museum dedicated to the history of Chinese Americans in the middle of Mississippi.
I had no idea that there had been a significant Chinese community in that state, one also subjected to many of the Jim Crow laws used to oppress the Black community. I met Chinese Americans who, as children, were barred from attending white public schools because of their race and were sent to a one-room school for Chinese children only, with just one teacher instructing all grades from first to 12th.
I eventually found myself in the small town of Pace, where Baldwin’s family grocery store was once located, and which remains a town with a majority Black population. Like Black families in the South in the pre-civil rights era, Chinese families could not live in white neighborhoods.
Chinese immigrants were initially brought to the Mississippi Delta after the Civil War to supplement plantation labor. By the early 1900s, many Chinese lived and worked in family-run grocery stores in predominantly Black neighborhoods in farming towns like Pace. Most of their Black neighbors worked as sharecroppers.
In Pace, we were introduced to the mayor, Levon Jackson, who welcomed us into his house for some barbecued ribs he cooked himself. Mayor Jackson also introduced us to other town residents and the long, rich history of the Black and Asian communities in the Delta.
Many of the older Black residents, who lived through Jim Crow, told us that they preferred to shop at Chinese grocery stores because they were treated with respect. They could walk through the front door with dignity and not be relegated to a separate “colored” entrance. Some told me that Chinese grocery stores, like the one Baldwin’s family ran, offered goods at a lower price and extended credit to sharecroppers who were paid only once or twice a year.
The Chinese and Black families had a shared experience because both were pushed to the margins of society and had to figure out ways to survive together in a white society.
Among my father-in-law’s old family photos, we had seen one of a smiling African American man. For a long time, we weren’t able to confirm his identity, but it was clear his photo was a treasured keepsake. Recently, we learned that the man’s name was Hosey Collins and that he lived in Pace. We heard from other residents that he helped out at Baldwin’s family store. We also learned that Baldwin’s grandfather, K.C. Lou, in turn, helped out at Hosey’s farm. There was a real and strong friendship between these men.
There are lessons we can learn from every chapter of history, even the dark ones. This is just one example of shared history between communities. There are many more stories that haven’t been written about but have been experienced by those who lived it.
People talk about the importance of solidarity and genuine community. But it’s the lack of these things in recent decades that has allowed hate to rise to fatal heights. Racism hasn’t been eradicated, and tensions can exist between various communities.
Many of us don’t feel a connection to our neighbors, especially those who don’t share our heritage. But the truth is that our histories in this country are more interconnected than we realize. It just hasn’t always been shown in our history books.
In the Mississippi Delta nearly a century ago, bonds of community were formed among unlikely neighbors. We should remember those bonds so we can improve the world we live in today.
Larissa Lam is the director and co-producer, with her husband, Baldwin Chiu, of the documentary “Far East Deep South.” The film premieres on “America ReFramed” on the World Channel on May 4. @LarissaLam
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