JACKSON, Miss. (WJTV) – With May being ‘Asian American Pacific Islander’ month, there’s a story about a group of people who made significant contributions to the Mississippi Delta.
Emily Jones, the curator of the Mississippi Chinese Heritage Museum at Delta State University in Cleveland, said, “The Chinese came to the Delta to kind of fill the niche of freed labor. They worked in the fields. They were kind of brought over under the guise that they would be wealthy from doing this, be able to send money back to their families. But they realized really quickly that that was not what was going to happen. They moved from the fields into running grocery stores, small stores, and they served a black clientele and provided a buffer as well for the white populations in the Delta.”
The stores extended credit needed by sharecroppers to live all year long. They only made one payday a year. The stores were also a place where Blacks and whites came together to buy things. The stores were some of the first places where the races mingled without thinking about it.
Another part of the story is that it was a cumbersome process getting families over from China before World War II. The father could come and bring his sons as he was able. But under the Exclusion Act, it was very hard to get the wives into America. My friend from Greenville, who I went from kindergarten to high school with, Raymond Seid said that is what happened in his family. By the way, Raymond moved to Hawaii after he retired.
Seid said, “My grandfather brought my father over. He had some friends and relatives that lived in Greenville, Mississippi. So he took my father back there, and that’s where my father pretty much grew up. My father was in World Wear Two. He’s a veteran, went back to get my mother. If you’re a veteran, it was pretty easy to bring a wife back from China, so he brought her back to Greenville, Mississippi.”
Raymond’s family operated and lived at Franks store on North Shelby Street in Greenville.
The stores were everywhere in Greenville and all over the Delta, for that matter. Sometimes two or three on the same block. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when people of all races could shop anywhere, the small community stores started giving way to supermarkets. Plus the next generation, like Raymond, grew up and had professional careers and many left Mississippi, leaving the stores behind either empty or demolished.
However, the Chinese in the Delta were just the right people at just the right time; to be the buffer in a black and white world. Mississippi would not be what we know it today without the contribution of the Chinese of the Delta.
There is a documentary called ‘Far East Deep South’ that chronicles a San Francisco family discovering their roots in the Mississippi delta. Mississippi Public Broadcasting is going to air the documentary on June 15. If you want to see it now, it is online until the end of May.