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Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton: Lives of Mississippi Delta Chinese Grocers
Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton: Lives of Mississippi Delta Chinese Grocers
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  • Paperback
  • Feb.01.2008
  • 9780615185712
  • Yin and Yang Press

John gives an overview of the book:

The story of how a few Chinese immigrants found their way to the Mississippi River Delta in the late 1870s and earned their living with small family operated grocery stores in neighborhoods where mostly black cotton plantation workers lived. What was their status in the segregated black and white world of that time and place? How did this small group preserve their culture and ethnic identity? "Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton"is a social history of the lives of these pioneering families and the unique and valuable role they played in their communities for over a century.
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The story of how a few Chinese immigrants found their way to the Mississippi River Delta in the late 1870s and earned their living with small family operated grocery stores in neighborhoods where mostly black cotton plantation workers lived. What was their status in the segregated black and white world of that time and place? How did this small group preserve their culture and ethnic identity? "Chopsticks in the Land of Cotton"is a social history of the lives of these pioneering families and the unique and valuable role they played in their communities for over a century.

Read an excerpt »

1. Why Chinese Came To The Delta
         In the late 1860s and early 1870s, a small number of Chinese men, immigrants from the southeastern province of Guangdong, China, appeared for the first time in the Mississippi River Delta, a fertile land well suited for farming and prized for its rich source of cotton.
Where is the Delta?
Figure 1 Location of the Mississippi River Delta with detailed view on right.
The Mississippi River serves as a major part of the boundary separating the states of Mississippi and Arkansas, as Figure 1 shows.  On the Mississippi side of the river, the delta extends over 150 miles from north to south from just below Memphis southward to just above Vicksburg and about 70 miles from Greenwood on the east to Greenville on the west encompassing these counties: Bolivar, Coahoma, Leflore, Humphreys, Issaquena, Quitman, Sharkey, Sunflower, Tunica, and Washington.  The major cities and towns include Clarksdale, Cleveland, Greenville, Greenwood, Indianola, and Ruleville.
On the less populated Arkansas side of the river, there was also a rich agricultural region well suited for cotton, soybean, and wheat farming but fewer towns.  In 1870 almost all of 98 Chinese there worked as farm laborers in Arkansas County, and by 1880, most of 133 Chinese lived in Jefferson and Chicot counties in small towns like Round Pond , Altheimer, Cotton Plant , Lake Village, and Hughes,  with many working as sharecroppers on cotton plantations.
Most of the Chinese grocers lived in the larger Mississippi Delta towns such as Clarksdale, Cleveland, and Greenville. Other Chinese grocers settled in small towns, most with between 500  to 1,000 inhabitants such as Sunflower, Louise, and Boyle,.
All Delta towns were heavily populated with blacks, mostly cotton field workers.  Over 90 percent of blacks in the United States in 1900 lived in the Deep South.  Some towns like Cleveland and Greenville had as many as 70 percent black residents, and the lowest figures were around 40 percent in Clarksdale and Boyle. In the 1940s, there were 293,000 blacks in the Delta, which was three times more than the 98,000 whites. The presence of only about 500 Chinese was barely noticeable in most communities where they lived throughout the Delta among blacks and whites who together numbered almost 400,000.
Since 1960, there has been a decline in the number of Chinese from Guangdong province, the source of the original immigrants, from an estimated peak of just above 1,200. The largest Chinese community, located in Greenville, may have lasted longer but eventually its Chinese population also shrank.  Similarly, there has been a drop in the overall population of the economically impoverished Delta.  For example, the total population also showed declines or little change in the 2000 census for the largest Mississippi communities such as Greenville, Clarksdale, and Cleveland,, towns with populations ranging between 24,000 and 40,000.  
Why Did Chinese Come to the Delta?
    Why did they leave China, and what led them to come to the Delta?  Unlike the thousands of other Chinese immigrants who settled in northern California seeking gam sahn, the fabled Gold Mountain, the Chinese entering the delta certainly were not enticed by prospects of wealth contained in any mountains of cotton, the dominant crop in the region for many years. The Chinese, never more than a few hundred until well after 1920, were a distinct minority in the Delta where the black cotton pickers were three or four times as numerous as whites.
    The first Chinese immigrants from Guangdong Province started coming to the low-lying delta region bordering the Mississippi River around the middle of the 19th century.  But long before the arrival of the first Chinese immigrants into this region, it was a white-dominated society.  Prosperous white plantation owners purchased black slaves from Africa to perform the arduous labor of picking cotton by hand.  
Figure 2 What shall we do with John Chinaman? (artist unknown) Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 25, 1869, p32.

    However, with the abolition of slavery in 1863, white plantation owners no longer had their large supply of cheap labor and they searched desperately for replacements for the freed slave labor.  The Chinese had already established a reputation as hard working and inexpensive workers on the farms in California and in railroad construction in the west.
Some labor suppliers had been successful in recruiting Chinese immigrant laborers to work at lower cost in other parts of the country.  These successes in a Belleville, New Jersey laundry, a New England shoe factory, and a Pennsylvania cutlery factory prompted Southerners to seek a similar solution as shown in Figure 2.  Leaders at a Memphis Convention of cotton planters in 1869 considered a proposal to have contractors hire Chinese laborers to replace blacks to punish them for acting like free men.
The cane field owners in Louisiana had already hired coolies who had been working in the West Indies and in Cuba.   Some Chinese laborers may have left the cane fields and drifted north into the Delta region where they found work on cotton plantations. Additional supplies of Chinese were recruited from China as well as from California to Arkansas and Mississippi to work in cotton fields in the 1870s.  Another theory, undocumented or discredited, was that Chinese came on riverboats up the Mississippi to settle and soon open groceries in several Delta towns.  
The more plausible explanation is that several sources existed.  Some Chinese in the delta may have been men who had worked on railroad construction in the region.  The Texas and the Yazoo Railroad in Mississippi had recruited Chinese to work on the railroads.  Possibly some of them stayed and found work in the region after the railroad work ended.  Another likely source were Chinese fleeing the violence and expulsion from parts of western United States to safer regions of the country.
Starting in the 1870s Chinese (as well as Italian) immigrants were recruited as farm laborers in the cotton fields of Van Buren, Lincoln, Jefferson and Pulaski and Arkansas counties, all located toward the center of the state, as part of a work force brought in by the Arkansas Valley Immigration Company.  These men, mostly from California, were to work in the field for no more than five years for which they were paid the equivalent of several months of wages and provided with transportation to Arkansas.  As many as 134 Chinese identified as farm laborers worked in Arkansas  while a smaller number appeared in the 1870 census schedules for Mississippi.  However, about a year later, plantation owners discovered that the plan was not effective, as the Chinese did not do as well as blacks did in the fields.  In addition, disputes over nonpayment to Chinese workers arose that contributed to the Chinese deciding to open their own businesses.
Still, as late as 1880, bringing Chinese labor to the South continued as the New York Times reported that a Mississippi planter acknowledged that a Chinese labor contractor had been contacted and "...probably some Chinamen will be set to work in Southern Mississippi in a few weeks."
There is no firm evidence about what happened to these men and whether they had descendants who stayed in the Mississippi River delta areas of Arkansas and Mississippi.  It is possible that some stayed while some left for other regions, but it also conceivable that all of them left, as none of their names show up a decade later in the 1880 census schedules.
Early Work of Delta Chinese
Regardless of where they came from or how they managed to arrive in the Delta, once there, how did they earn a living?  Early U. S. Census schedules from 1880 to 1910 show that Chinese in Arkansas and Mississippi operated laundries before they started grocery stores.  However, by the 1920 census, none of the Chinese in the region were listed as laundrymen.  The grocery store had become the almost exclusive occupation for the Delta Chinese.  It makes sense that laundry work would not have been in high demand in this mainly rural area.  Perhaps some laundry men, once having saved a small amount from doing laundry, may have decided it would be more profitable to open grocery stores.
The opportunity for Chinese to open grocery stores became available with the closure of plantation-owned and operated commissaries when mechanization of cotton production reduced the need for labor.  These facilities had been the main, if not the only source of food, clothing, and farming supplies to slaves, and eventually, sharecroppers who toiled in the cotton fields.
White-owned grocery stores  in the main business sections of town did not particularly welcome black customers.  The Chinese recognized the opportunity to carve an economic niche for themselves in Delta towns by filling this void.  Partnerships formed among male relatives help create a pool of shared capital called a hui that they could each, in turn draw from to allow them to open grocery stores typically located in black neighborhoods, providing convenience access for their primary sources of customers.  
Furthermore, by extending credit to black workers until they were paid they gained an advantage over white stores, which had cash and carry policies.  It was by no means an easy existence but it did afford them the opportunity to achieve some competitive advantage over white-owned stores.
Figure 3 The commissary on the Sunflower, Ms. Plantation where cotton workers obtained food and supplies.
White Supremacy in the Mississippi Delta
 One cannot fully comprehend how difficult the lives of the Chinese in the Delta were without an understanding of the social dynamics of black-white interactions in the region.  Segregation pitted whites and blacks in a one-sided adversarial relationship in which white rules governed social conduct.  Whites had preference and privilege.  Whites and blacks could not co-mingle in public settings wherever people sat down as in restaurants, theatres, or schools.
  Despite the end of slavery, whites still held social, economic, and political power over blacks.  Most townships in the Delta region had a higher percentage of blacks than whites, but the whites had the social, political, and economic power in the highly segregated South.  Whites instituted Jim Crow laws and traditions to preserve this way of life that favored whites.  Segregation of blacks and whites was staunchly enforced.  Blacks and whites had separate public drinking fountains and public toilet facilities.  Blacks were required to ride in the back of transit buses and in separate cars on trains.  Intimidation rather than enforcement was usually sufficient to have blacks comply with these social rules.
As cafes, restaurants, barbershops, schools, and churches for whites did not admit blacks, they had to start their own businesses, schools, and churches.  There were separate picture show (movie) theatres for blacks and whites but some white theaters admitted blacks by creating separate seating sections for them (See Figure 4).
Figure 4 Entrance of Colored section balcony of a picture show theater, Belzoni, Ms., 1939.  Library of Congress FSA/OWI COLL - E 915
There were few work opportunities for blacks in the region and they mainly worked from dawn to dusk in the cotton fields of the delta plantations owned by whites.  They lived in segregated neighborhoods in small substandard houses often in poorer condition than the one pictured in Figure 5.
Figure 5 Typical example of sharecropper housing. Library of Congress LC-USF33- 030570-M3
 One imagines that without such an imbalance of power in favor of whites over blacks, the lives of the Chinese would have taken a quite different direction.  Chinese, being neither black nor white, presented a problem for both blacks and whites in determining who they were.  White supremacists simply felt if you are not white, then you are "Colored" irrespective of your culture, language, or origin.  
If Chinese had been successful laboring in the cotton fields, it would have been easier for both blacks and whites to consider them as "colored," but of a lighter shade.  However, when some white plantations began to close their own stores or commissaries (See Figure 5) where workers obtained food and other basic commodities, the Chinese seized the opportunity to redefine their place in Delta society.  No longer laborers, they became merchants by opening their small grocery stores and markets that primarily served black workers.
Figure 6 Cotton pickers shop at Marcella Plantation Commissary, Mileston, Ms., 1939.  Library of Congress LC-USF34- 052200-D
Now Chinese were not so easily defined as "colored" because their role in society became more complicated.  They were intermediaries or middlemen somewhere between black and white.  Oddly, precisely because they were neither black nor white, the Chinese were able to work effectively with blacks and whites, the groups rigidly separated by racial segregation.  The Chinese was the "perfect grocer" for the pre-Civil rights era Delta, as white merchants did not want to serve blacks.  Blacks lacked monetary resources and cultural experiences to become merchants.  Thus, the racial divide created an economically profitable niche in the Delta for the Chinese that neither blacks nor whites could assume readily in this segregated society
However, the status of the Chinese grocers did vary somewhat in different towns, depending on whether most of their customers were white or black.  When most customers were white, as for stores located in the main part of town, Chinese tended to be viewed as "inscrutable Orientals with wisdom Caucasians lacked."  But in towns where the stores served mainly blacks and were located in black neighborhoods, whites avoided their stores and the Chinese were viewed with contempt.  A leading white literary figure, William Alexander Percy, noting the abundance of Chinese storekeepers in the Delta, scornfully dismissed any contributions their presence made to the community:
They are not numerous enough to present a problem __except to     the small white store-keeper__ but in so far as what wisdom they may inherit from Lao-Tse or Confucius they fail to impart.

Chinese had more autonomy over their own economic fate than blacks did but they lacked the social power and influence that whites held.  They had to rely on their predominantly black customer base to earn their living at the same time they were seeking better acceptance and fairer treatment from white society.  To survive, Chinese had to establish good relations with blacks as well as whites, as both groups far exceeded them in numbers.

(Illustrations not included)

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Note from the author coming soon...

About John

Born in Macon, Georgia, where his immigrant parents from China, the only Chinese in the city, owned a laundry. After moving to California, he majored in psychology at U. C. Berkeley and went on to earn a Ph.D. at Northwestern University. Author of several academic textbooks,...

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