For decades, the Chinese-American community has been an integral part of the Mississippi Delta, the rich farmlands south of Memphis, Tennessee.
That surprises people who don’t know the area, just as the presence of a Jewish community in the small towns does.
Now, the area’s population has shrunk because of large farms, expensive equipment, and good highways. Walmart and Amazon played their part, too.
The Chinese and Jewish communities have shrunk disproportionately, as they children have become professionals and moved to the cities. There are still vibrant Chinese-American and Jewish communities in the South, just not in the rural Delta anymore.
We are fortunate, though, to have two recent documentations of the Delta’s Chinese-American community when it was thriving.
The New York Times has just published a long piece, combining photos and text, with lots of references to Clarksdale, Greenville, Marks, and other towns.
The link to that piece is here. (I wish to thank Robert May, formerly of Clarksdale, now of Chicago, for letting me know about it.)
I have not included the fine pictures from that article here since they are copyrighted by the photographers. Take my word, they are worth viewing.
Please note: the NYT photo essay is different from the documentary film, Honor and Duty, I mention below and mentioned in an earlier ZipDialog post. Pictures from the film are the ones to the right.
UPDATE: My friend, Vernon Shelton, says that Taylor Pang, whose photograph appears in the article, was one of his students at Delta Academy in Marks.
The only additional point I would make about the NYT piece is that the headline is wrong. It says the Chinese-Americans were/are “neither black nor white.” I think that misunderstands the historical social divisions of the region, which, unlike South African apartheid, only briefly had any intermediate category. In the days of Jim Crow, there were black schools, churches, and restaurants, and there were white ones. Groceries, clothing stores, and drug stores were mixed-race. Basically, if you sat down, it was segregated. If it was recreational, it was segregated. If you stood up, it wasn’t.
The Chinese-American community were, according to the film, given an intermediate category in the 1920s and 1930s, but after that, they were clearly “white.”
That was true when I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, and I wrongly assumed it had always been so. They went to the white schools and churches, dated white classmates, went to Ole Miss long before James Meredith desegregated it, and so on.
Oddly, the families almost all owned grocery stories, just as the Jews owned clothing stores. The children of both groups became accountants, eye doctors, lawyers, and the like, rather than taking over their parents’ businesses. Many moved to Memphis, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Austin, and other cities, mostly Southern, were the opportunities and cultural life were richer.
What I learned from the film is that they were not always considered white in the Delta. Nor were they considered black. They had an intermediate position, even in law. That ended during World War II when they joined the military.
The story of how the Chinese-American community of the Delta evolved is told in a fine, new documentary film by E. Samantha Cheng, a New York news producer who stumbled on the subject. Here is a brief and very thoughtful interview with Ms. Cheng (link here), who clearly admires the people she profiled. Her film is entitled Honor and Duty: The Mississippi Delta Chinese, and I highly recommend it.