Chinese heritage recognized in Bolivar County
by Chance Wright
Oct 26, 2012 | 4949 views | 0 0 comments | 16 16 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Chinese Exhibit
This marker, commemorating the site of Cleveland's Chinese Mission School, was unveiled on Sunday just east of the U.S. Highway 61 and Miss. Highway 8 intersection in Cleveland.
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Often referred to by Mississippians in the early 20th century as the third race, Chinese-American immigrants have played a definitive role in shaping the Delta region's rich history.

On Sunday, a large group of revelers joined in to celebrate the efforts of the Chinese immigrants who ventured to the Delta in search of economic success and a quality education for their children.

Through conjoined efforts from the Delta State University Archives and Museum, the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum, Inc., and the city of Cleveland a historical marker was placed at the site of the Cleveland Chinese Mission School.

In connection with the event, Emily Jones, director and archivist for the Delta State University Archives and Museum, opened an exhibit on the third floor of the campus' Capps Archives Building focusing on the role Chinese grocery stores played in the region's rich history.

"Because there is a dwindling number of the Chinese population here in the Delta, people don't realize that at one point there were a lot, that there was a good community of Chinese in the Delta," Jones said.

Early Chinese immigrants came to the region near the end of the civil war in search of jobs as farm laborers but once plantation owners discontinued the practice of running commissaries, many of these immigrants made the economic move to operating neighborhood grocery stores.

"The Chinese brought their culture with them when they arrived in the Mississippi Delta," Jones continued. "Although brought to work on the large farms and plantations of the Mississippi Delta initially, the Chinese discovered that the "Gold Mountain" they expected to find was not found in the fields.

"They quickly moved from field laborers to operating grocery stores. They filled that void between black and white, serving as a barrier and buffer yet never affiliating with either the white or black communities," she added.

One of the most dramatic ways this "in between" culture became quickly visible in the Delta was in education.

"It would be through their desire for quality education that most Chinese would first experience the public decision of choosing black or white," said Jones. "While most Delta towns decided on their own whether to allow the Chinese to attend the white public schools, some Chinese decided to open their own schools which is why Cleveland and Greenville both had Chinese Mission Schools."

The 1890 Mississippi Constitution had adopted many of the Jim Crow laws including that “separate schools shall be maintained for children of the white and colored races."

The constitutionality of that law was taken all the way to the United States Supreme Court, in Gong Lum vs. Rice in 1927.

The Lums filed a suit against the school district in Rosedale, which began in the circuit court of Bolivar County.

The primary concern for each party in the suit was the determination of whether Chinese citizens counted as “colored” or white. Had the framers of the 1890 Constitution been only concerned with “white” and “black” or had they intended that no non-white race be integrated into the school system with white children?

According to Jones, the Bolivar County Circuit Court ruled in favor of the Lums; however, the school officials and the state of Mississippi followed this ruling with an appeal to the Supreme Court of Mississippi.

There, the ruling was that the Lums were not entitled to attend a white school, reversing the ruling of the lower court.

"This moved the Lum’s attorneys to file an appeal with the next highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court," she said. "It was in this environment that Chief Justice William Howard Raft delivered an opinion affirming the ruling of the Mississippi Supreme Court, rejecting the notion that Chinese citizens were denied equal protection of the law by being classified among the colored races and stating that the Chinese were provided an “education equal to that offered to all, whether white, brown, yellow, or black.”

This moved the Lum’s attorneys to file an appeal with the next highest court, the U.S. Supreme Court.

It is because of this fight, which led to the Chinese raising money to build the Cleveland Mission School and why the marker was raised on the site Sunday.

The museum exhibit will be open on the third floor of the Capps Archives Building indefinitely.

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