In the book The Mississippi Chinese Between White and Black, James W. Loewen wrote about the daily triumphs and struggles the Chinese citizens faced, explained how they overcome these obstacles, and how they evolved and adapted to life in Mississippi. The Chinese people were confronted by many challenges, but they ultimately succeeded by providing Mississippi with unique culture, sojourners, Chinese grocery stores, and retail shops.
In the time around the era when slavery ended in the United States (1865), African Americans were fighting back against caucasian plantation owners. They had fought for their lives, freedom, and their families freedom. Although they were now free, African Americans had no land, and if a person did not have any land in this time they did not have any money.
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Plantation owners hired back the African Americans to work the fields because they were in need of a job and income. The plantation owners would allow the newly freed African Americans to rent their land for housing and share a small part of their fields to grow crops. When these crops were ripened and ready for harvest, they would divide out the harvest with the plantation owners. This is called sharecropping. Sharecropping is a scheme of which the African Americans and poor caucasians would fall into. No matter how hard they worked, the sharecroppers would fall further and further into debt with the plantation owners. This is when the start of the equal rights movement occured. The plantation owners labeled African Americans as troublesome. According to James W. Loewen, author of The Mississippi Chinese, The editor of Vicksburg Times Wrote that Emancipation has spoiled African Americans, and it has carried them away from the fields of agriculture. (page 22)
African Americans were working diligently to start equal rights in America, but it seemed they had to work even harder in the deep south. Racist caucasian sharecroppers refused to be at the same economic level as African Americans, so they searched for employment elsewhere. At this time young Chinese men started migrating over to Mississippi. These Chinese men came to Mississippi at the best time possible. Plantation owners did not want to keep highoring African Americans because they were troublesome and caucasian sharecroppers were looking for new occupations, so the young Chinese men were first choice. These young Chinese men were so desperate in finding a job because they had no money for food or housing. They desperately needed income. The Chinese were also good workers, and they did not complain about how low their income was.
Another major reason for plantation owners highoring young Chinese men instead of all others was actually intended to be punishment for African Americans. Racist caucasians would refuse to higher African Americans because they were flustered by the African Americans gaining rights as United States citizens. Even though the racist caucasians thought they were just hurting the African Americans by replacing them with the Chinese, they were also hurting all races of which were lower class citizens. Rich plantation owners contemplated that if African Americans saw the rising number of number of Chinese immigrants taking their jobs they would feel intimidated by it. Plantation owners thought that the African Americans felt this way, they would go back to the way it was before they had rights. Other states saw this going on and mimicked this practice.
According to Loewen, the Mississippi census of 1880 showed that there was only fifty one Chineses that of which had taken residency in Mississippi, but soon after that number grew. Most of the Chinese that came into Mississippi were young male adults coming into the new world to make money for their families back in China. These young Chinese men admitted they were illiterate in their homeland of China. On top of them not being literate in China, they could not speak the Mandarin language only until after they left China.
The most of the young Chinese men that moved to Mississippi would work here to get enough money to return back to their homeland. When the young men would return to their homeland to get married, start a family, and then return back to the United States to work so that they could provide for their newly started families. The Chinese men would do this until they had enough money saved up so they could return to their homeland wealthy, retire, and later die on Chinese soil. This practice was named sojourning.
Even though Mississippi, as well as the most of the United States, economy benefited from the sojourners, China’s economy benefited from it also. The sojourners would earn and spend money in Mississippi, thus putting goods such as food, clothing, and other living material in higher demand. The Chinese would then send what money they had left to their families back in China. The Chinese families would have enough money to cover the cost of living, so now they can spend their money on more lavish items. For this reason, China was extremely reluctant to allow Chinese women and children go out of the country to America. They were called hostage families according to Loewen. China believed if they could hold these women and children hostage, the husbands would send money, or return back to their homeland with money.
Unfortunately, some Chinese sojourners realized they were not making enough money to afford to go back to their homeland to give their families money. This was starting to happen because the plantation owners were trapping them into sharecropping. The plantation owners started to realize that the Chinese sojourners were exceptionally effortless to manipulate and control, so they would raise the rent on the land and even constrict the amount of crops they could keep all without raising their pay.
With Chinese sharecropping sojourners not making enough money, they were beginning to search for new occupations. The Chinese sojourners started appearing as house workers and personal assistants except in Mississippi, but some found success working on shrimping rigs. These occupations were filled with African Americans. Most rich plantation owners liked having African Americans as house workers and personal assistants because they knew the english language and they were better accustomed to the culture of how things went.
According to Loewen, most Chinese in Mississippi still worked as sojourner sharecroppers, but some decided they would start small Chinese oriented grocery stores. These Chinese grocery stores mainly consisted of a single minute room stocked with an assortment of Chinese groceries. The owners of these Chinese groceries would often live inside of their stores.
The year of 1872 was a big year for the Chinese of Mississippi because this year was the first time they were appearing as landowners(page 32). After this, Chinese grocery stores started coming into sight. Chinese grocery stores were not extremely expensive to start or operate. The average cost to start a Chinese grocery store was one hundred dollars, and even as recent as the year 1940 the average cost to start was four hundred dollars (page 33). The Chinese found the Mississippi Delta was an exceptional place to open their grocery stores.
The Chinese grocery stores’ main consumers were poor African Americans of which mainly worked at nearby plantations. This was great for the African Americans because most of them did not travel far if not at all, so when they went to these tiny Chinese grocery stores they were introduced to many new things. It was a real culture shock as they experienced a new culture and learned new customs. Caucasians in Mississippi at this time had been known to have poor experiences with retail shops, and most of the time they had no inquisitiveness in wanting to operate a retail store. The Chinese had really found success in retail, even though most of them could not speak english. The majority of the Chinese grocery stores and other retail shop would have a pointer stick laying on the counter so the clientele could point to what they wanted and the store owner knew precisely what they wanted (page 49).
The Chinese people did somewhat struggle to fit in social and ethnic groups in Mississippi. When they first migrated to Mississippi, they they considered themselves to by like that African Americans that lived there, but later on in the nineteen forties they tried associating as caucasians. Of the two Chinese African American couples were most often seen. According to Loewen, up to thirty percent of Chinese couples in Mississippi were interracial with African Americans (page 135). A trend started to show with Chinese interracial couples. Being Chinese males would marry down the social ladder by marrying African American females, and Chinese females would marry up the social ladder by marrying caucasian males.
Even though the Chinese people of Mississippi were considered minorities, they formed a rather large youth group. The Chinese established a tremendously dence community. Most afternoons Chinese families would come together to talk and to play Chinese dominoes. Chinese families also enjoyed gossiping to each other about how each others’ businesses are going, and about other people. Chinese citizens participated in many activities together, such as parties, church, school, and Chinese association groups according to Loewen (page 158). This gathering of Chinese people helped teach their children the qualities and characteristics of the Chinese idiosyncratic customs and culture.
The Chinese people of Mississippi truly had unique struggles of living in this part of the world. From young determined sojourners to family oriented Chinese grocery stores and retail shops, they worked diligently to provide for their families and to fit in with other Mississippians. The Chinese of Mississippi may have started out as poor immigrants, but they climbed the socioeconomic ladder to succeed.
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