Guest post by commenter Jefe:
Note: Some of the analysis in this post came from the book “The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White” (1971, 1988) by James W. Loewen.
Chinese labourers were imported into the American South after the Civil War to replace emancipated black slaves. The plan failed. Chinese importation halted after the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) and by the late 1880s, all had left the plantations.
Some Chinese left the South, mainly moving to the growing Chinatowns in the North. The Chinese-American population plummeted by 60% in the 1880s and 1890s, but New York City’s Chinatown actually grew from 200 in 1880 to over 7,000 by 1900 and continued growing afterwards.
Of those who stayed in the South, some migrated to larger cities, such as New Orleans and found work there. Some ran businesses (e.g., laundries) across the South. And some became grocers to black sharecroppers, a new niche of the post-Reconstruction South.
Sharecroppers bought food and daily necessities from plantation commissaries. The prices were inflated to keep them in debt. By 1880 in Mississippi a few Chinese opened makeshift grocery stores with very basic items, charging less than the plantation commissary. The commissaries began to disappear.
By the early 1900s over 95% of Chinese men in the Mississippi Delta were grocers.
Several factors caused this:
- Blacks could not get credit or capital to open their own stores.
- Whites would not open stores in black neighborhoods.
- Most of the Chinese came from the same region of Guangdong province, speaking similar rural dialects and often sharing kinship ties. They could provide each other with training, credit, and access to distribution networks. Once one of them set up a store, another, perhaps a relative, could work in it, gain experience, save some money, and then open up his own store in a nearby town.
- Chinese did not share close kinship ties with their most of their customers. They did not feel obligated to extend credit or loans to their customers (unlike a potential black storeowner, who would have many sharecropper relatives in debt).
- Most did not have family and could live at their store.
By the early 1900s, a third of Chinese men in Mississippi had taken black wives, though most remained single. The Chinese Exclusion Act left Chinese males little prospect of bringing over wives from China, while anti-miscegenation laws put white and Mexican women out of reach (except for those who got themselves classified as “White”).
Mixed Chinese-black children were categorized as “Chinese” in the 1880 census; in the 1900 census, most had been reclassified as “colored”, a few as “white” (especially if their mother was part white), but none as “Chinese”.
In 1906 the San Francisco Earthquake destroyed city records, making it hard to strictly enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act. “Paper sons” and daughters began arriving from China on forged documents.
By 1910, Chinese men in the Mississippi Delta had begun taking Chinese wives and formed families. These families would later challenge the Jim Crow laws popping up across the South.
By the 1960s, mechanization had replaced hand labour. Many towns lost over half their black population in the Great Migration. Their niche livelihood was drying up, and most grocery stores shut down in the 1970s. Few remain today.
- James W. Loewen: Lies My Teacher Told Me – James Loewen wrote several books about the history of race relations in the USA, some which focus on the Deep South.
- Jim Crow
- Some numbers on Black Americans
- Interracial relationships
- Settlement of Asians in the Deep South (1763 – 1882)
- Chinese Exclusion Act
- US v Wong Kim Ark
- Paper Son
- Asian Men, Black Women
- The Great Migration
- Other references:
- “The Chinese in Mississippi: An Ethnic People in a Biracial Society“
- Chinese in Mississippi: An Ethnic People in a Biracial Society””
- “The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White” (1988, 1971) by James W. Loewen (Amazon page)
- Interview of 3rd generation Chinese-American grocer in his 60s in Arkansas (2010)