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Mississippi Delta Chinese and School

midsections of the country. When

Segregation: Gong Lum v. Rice, 1924.

Chinese in Mississippi began to have

By John Jung

families, parents sent their children to

‘Separate schools shall be maintained for children of the white and colored races.’ Mississippi State Constitution, 1890, Section 207.

white public schools despite school segregation because they had better funding than colored schools. White

Mississippi made no specific

opposition was minimal as Chinese were

provision for schooling of Chinese

successful merchants and held higher

children because it defined anyone who

social standing relative to blacks in their

was not a member of the white or

communities.1

Caucasian race as belonging to the

In 1924, however, school authorities

colored race. In 1890, when Mississippi

in Rosedale denied admission of two

established segregated schools, Chinese

Chinese sisters, Berda and Martha Lum,

children were largely unaffected simply

to the local white high school on the

because there were few, if any, Chinese

grounds that Chinese were not members

children in the state then, largely due to

of the white or Caucasian race.2

the restrictions on Chinese immigration

Gong Lum, their father, was a

to the United States under the 1882

successful grocery store owner who was

Chinese Exclusion Act.

well-respected in the community. A

However, over time, more Chinese

local law firm acted on a pro bono basis

already in the U. S., especially those in

to file a writ of mandamus on behalf of

western states, sought to escape the

Martha Lum, the younger sister, to the

violence they suffered by moving to the

local court to demand that the school


board allow her to attend the white

petition that Martha Lum was not

school. They argued that as the district

colored, and not of ‘mixed blood,’ but

did not provide schools specifically for

‘pure Chinese,’ was an attempt to

Chinese, the white school was the only

reassure white concerns on this issue.

one in the district available for her. To

The lower court granted the

require her to attend the colored school,

petition, which required that the Board

which was inferior to the white school,

of Trustees admit Martha Lum to the

would deny her rights under the Equal

white school. However, in 1925 the

Protection Clause of the Fourteenth

Supreme Court of Mississippi reversed

Amendment.

the lower court's decision on the grounds

An unstated reason for white opposition to Chinese attending white

that Martha Lum was not white or of the Caucasian race.3

schools was probably the concern that some Chinese children were of mixed Chinese and black parentage. It was a widely believed that due to the earlier lack of Chinese women in the Delta, some Chinese men had fathered children with colored women. Thus, if children of mixed Chinese and black racial blood attended white schools, they would have, in effect, “desegregated” the public schools. The emphatic declaration in the

Gong Lum then appealed the Mississippi Supreme Court's ruling to


the Supreme Court of the United States,

Determined to obtain better

but without success. In 1927, Chief

schooling for his children, Gong Lum

Justice William Howard Taft wrote the

moved his family across the river to

opinion that affirmed the Mississippi

Arkansas where Chinese could attend

Supreme Court's ruling. It maintained

white schools. Other Chinese rejected

that Martha Lum was entitled to have, in

colored schools and sent their children to

its words, “the benefit of the colored

other states, hired tutors, or sent them to

public schools in her district.”

private schools.5

Otherwise, “she may go to a private school but not at state expense.” 4

The adverse ruling was more honored in the breach than in the observance as many local communities had favorable attitudes toward the Chinese and readily accepted their children into white public schools.

The U. S. Supreme Court maintained that it was within the discretion of Mississippi to regulate its public schools, and that excluding Chinese from white schools did not conflict with the Equal Protection of the Law Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Impact on Chinese-Colored Interactions The school ruling against the Chinese had other effects than where their children received their education. One long-term consequence involved Chinese attitudes toward blacks. Chinese realized that negative views of whites toward them stemmed in part from the cordial relations that many Chinese had


with blacks, the customers for many of

Starting in Rosedale in 1928, they

their grocery stores. Consequently, the

reached out to the Chinese by first

Chinese believed that better acceptance

offering English instruction and then

by whites would have to come at the cost

Bible classes. During the 1930s mission

of clearer separation from blacks.

schools were opened to provide

They made stringent efforts to

education to Chinese children so they

distance themselves socially from

would not have to attend colored

blacks, ostracizing any Chinese who did

schools.

not comply. Those with mixed Chinese

By the early 1940s, white attitudes

and black parentage were shunned by

toward Chinese improved considerably.

Chinese as well as by blacks.6

Church schools for Chinese closed as

Chinese Begin to Embrace Christianity

gradually white public schools in many

A second important effect of school segregation was that it increased Chinese

towns no longer excluded Chinese. 7 By then, Baptist churches had filled

involvement and acceptance of the

the gap with Chinese mission schools for

Christian religion. Prior to immigrating,

over a decade that gave them the

most Chinese were not deeply involved

education was unavailable to them in

in religious practices, especially

public schools. In return, Baptist

Christian ones. In the wake of school

churches reaped the benefits of gaining

segregation against Chinese, Baptist

many converts and devout adherents to

churches in several larger Delta towns

Christianity including Chinese from the

saw an opportunity for attracting

older generation as well as their children

Chinese to attend their religious services.

and future generations.


Conclusion It would not be for another decade

References Lim de Sanchez, S. “Crafting A Delta

before school segregation against blacks

Chinese Community: Education and

was outlawed by the landmark ruling of

Acculturation in Twentieth-Century

Brown v Board of Education by the U.

Southern Baptist Mission Schools,”

S. Supreme Court in 1954 that “separate

History of Education Quarterly, 2003,

but equal schools” were inherently

43, 74-90.

unequal.8

Loewen, J. W. The Mississippi Chinese:

Gong Lum v Rice did not directly

Between Black and White, Cambridge

challenge the legitimacy of school

MA.: Harvard University Press, 1971.

segregation. It ignored that issue, one

McCunn, R. L. “Arlee Hen and Black

that was too firmly entrenched to be

Chinese.” Chinese American Portraits,

successfully challenged in that era by

San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1988,

anyone, let alone by a group with little

pp. 78-87.

political power as the Chinese. Their

O’Brien, R. W. “Status of Chinese in the

case dealt only with the validity of the

Mississippi Delta.” Social Forces, 1943,

classification of Chinese as colored.

19, 386-390.

Even though they lost their case, it was,

Rhee, J. “In Black and White: Chinese in

however, part of the groundwork that led

the Mississippi Delta,” 1994 Journal of

to the eventual overturning of school

Supreme Court History, 117-132.

segregation in America.

  1

O’Brien, 1943 “Status of Chinese,”. Rhee, 1994, “In Black and White,” p. 122 suggested that the impending accreditation for the Rosedale school may have prompted officials to enforce school segregation.

2


3

Rice v. Gong Lum, 139 Miss. 760, 104 So. 105. Gong Lum v Rice, 275 U.S. 78 (1927) 5 Loewen, “The Mississippi Chinese,” p. 68; Rhee, “In Black and White,” p. 126. 6 McCunn, “Chinese American Portaits.” p. 87 noted that Arlee Hen, a daughter of a Chinese grocer and black mother, could not be buried in the Chinese cemetery. 7 Lim de Sanchez, Crafting A Delta Chinese Community, p. 81-87. 8 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 74 S. Ct. 686, 98 L. Ed. 873 (1954). 4


Mississippi Delta Chinese and School Segregation