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The Chinese workers quickly found a new purpose: to start small grocery stores that served the Black population. A handful of Chinese migrants began buying small stores with even smaller rooms in the back where they would eat and sleep. To navigate the language barrier, the Chinese would sometimes provide their Black customers with a long stick to tap their purchases. When it came time to restock their wares, they would keep at least one of each item so that when wholesalers came by, the shopkeepers could simply point to what they needed.

These stores filled a hole in the economy that most white people did not want to touch and from which Black people were largely excluded. This often gave the Chinese something of a monopoly. By 1881, just about a decade after their arrival, Chinese names began showing up on lists of landowners in the Delta. These new store owners did not have the benefits of citizenship or any rights to speak of, but they did have several economic advantages over their Black counterparts. Wholesalers, for example, were willing to extend them lines of credit to start their businesses.

Because it was practically impossible by then to bring over women from China to start families, the Mississippi Chinese remained a tiny, insular community for decades. In the early years, many of their interactions were with Black people. The Chinese lived in the Black neighborhoods and oftentimes hired Black workers. A small number of Chinese men started families with Black women, but as the Chinese community grew, those unions were ultimately discouraged by both Chinese community members and white people who would sometimes end preferential treatment once a Black person was part of the family. As some Chinese grocers accumulated wealth and began interacting more with wealthy, white society, an internal divide was drawn between the rich Chinese and a smaller, lower class who still lived among, or had entered into relationships with Black women.

“The rich Chinese won’t have much to do with the poor Chinese, and even less with the [epithet],” a white Delta businessman is quoted as saying in Loewen’s book. “Oh, they’ll take his money just like any of us will, but they won’t have anything to do with him socially.”

The wealthier Chinese may have made some inroads into white society, but for the first half of the 20th century, they still existed in a nebulous place whose contexts and restrictions were in constant flux. In 1924, Gong Lum, a grocer in the Delta town of Rosedale, tried to enroll his oldest daughter in a white school. She was rejected. Lum hired a lawyer and took the case to court. A district court found in Lum’s favor, but the Mississippi Supreme Court found that because the Chinese were not “white” they had to fall under the heading of “colored races.” This decision was upheld by the United States Supreme Court.

This setback proved to be only temporary and localized. Some smaller towns in Mississippi never barred Chinese students from attending white schools. By the early 1950s, other areas in the Delta had followed suit, educating Chinese but not Black students before Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 prohibited racial segregation in public schools. With access to white schools, the children of the Mississippi Chinese went off to college at an extremely high rate and entered relatively high-paying professional fields, including engineering and pharmaceuticals. Most would eventually move away.

There are still descendants of the original migrant workers in the Delta, some of whom run grocery stores, but for the most part, the Mississippi Chinese population has left.

The post Why a 19th-Century Plan to Replace Black Labor with Chinese Labor Failed appeared first on The News Amed.