[COMMUNITY] History of the Chinese in the Mississipi Delta
- Mississippi Chinese:
An Ethnic People in a Biracial Society
by Charles Reagan Wilson
A small group of Chinese immigrants came to Mississippi after the
American Civil War. In their new environment, they sought ways to
earn money and to adapt to the predominant culture of the state
while preserving their ethnic identity. They came into a society
dominated by Mississippians of British or African ancestry, and the
Chinese carved out a distinctive place within this society.
Coming to Mississippi
The Chinese first arrived during the Reconstruction period (1865-
1877). The period was a time of considerable turmoil in Mississippi
as the state adjusted after the Civil War to the end of slavery and
the defeat of the Confederacy. Tensions were high between the black
freedmen and whites. Because the labor system was unsettled,
planters recruited the Chinese as a possible replacement for the
freed African American laborers. The United States census of 1880
listed 51 Chinese in Mississippi, mostly in Washington County.
Like most Chinese immigrants to the United States, those coming to
Mississippi were mainly from the Sze Yap, a district in south China.
Sze Yap was a more commercially sophisticated area than many parts
of China at the time, with a history of contacts with foreign
traders. Immigrants were likely from peasant and artisan families.
Traditionally, young males from the area traveled far for work to
supplement the family income. The initial immigrants to Mississippi
came not to settle here, but to earn money to send home as savings
to be used when they returned to China. Once they were here, though,
others soon arrived, often with more financial resources than the
first immigrants. Few women came in this period and the men remained
socially isolated. Furthermore, the state's preoccupation with
racial issues resulted in the Chinese being classified as non-white
in a predominantly biracial Mississippi social system.
These early immigrants to the state sought, however, economic
success rather than social recognition, since they did not intend to
The Chinese soon realized that working on a plantation did not
produce economic success. They then turned to another activity
opening and running grocery stores. The first Chinese grocery store
in Mississippi likely appeared in the early 1870s. Tax records in
the early 1880s list Chinese as landowners in Rosedale, in Boliver
Wong On, a prominent early Chinese settler in the Delta, illustrates
the way immigrants became merchants. He had been born near Canton,
China, in 1844. He emigrated to California in 1860, worked on the
transcontinental railroad, and then came south for another railroad
Little is known of Wong On's early days in Mississippi, but he
probably picked cotton, became a tenant farmer on a plantation near
Leland, married a black woman, and opened a store in Stoneville. His
first grocery was probably like those of other Chinese groceries in
this period small, one-room shacks which carried only a few
basics, such as meat, corn meal, and molasses. The people who
shopped at his store were mostly poor blacks working on plantations,
relatively well-off laborers who had cash from their work draining
swamps and cutting timber in the Delta in the late 19th century, or
poorly paid manual laborers in town.
In those days, stores were not self-service and customers had to ask
for what they wanted. Merely buying a sack of corn meal was a
complicated matter the Chinese storeowners at first did not speak
English and their customers did not know Chinese. Thus, pointing at
merchandise was how transactions were handled. Other businessmen
sometimes took advantage of the Chinese, and their lack of
understanding English and the Southern legal system left them
vulnerable to exploitation. At best, storeowners were dependent on
customers with few economic resources themselves.
Chinese grocers, nonetheless, carved out a successful, distinctive
role. One reason for their success was a cohesive family system.
After they established their small businesses, these early Chinese
merchants would send back home for a young male from their family to
come and help the business succeed and to learn how to run a
business. That young relative would later perhaps use his savings,
loans from relatives, and credit from wholesale suppliers to set up
his own grocery. Hard work, experience in business operations, and a
reputation for financial integrity soon led to good credit ratings
for the Chinese merchants. For generations, grocery stores would be
passed down from father to son, and as late as the 1970s, six family
names accounted for 80 percent of the Delta Chinese population.
The Chinese also carved out a distinctive spot as a third element in
a predominantly biracial society. White Mississippians originally
classified the Chinese in the Delta on a low social par with African
Americans. They were outsiders in a racially aware state. They sold
their goods mostly to black customers, and they lived in black
neighborhoods. Blacks and whites did not, however, see Chinese as
precisely equivalent to blacks. Chinese were culturally and
linguistically quite different from Mississippi African Americans,
and their merchant status was above that of most blacks. The Chinese
grocery was, however, a welcoming place for African Americans in the
Delta: a place to sit and talk, pass the time, and even find work
from landowners who would check there for available day laborers.
The Chinese were middlemen between blacks and whites, often
providing a needed contact point in a segregated society.
Chinese in the Delta attempted to maintain a certain distance from
others in society, hoping to insulate themselves from problems and
concentrate on their economic success. They experienced considerable
distance from Delta whites through their exclusion from social
organizations, country clubs, fraternal groups, recreational
activities, and most importantly, white public schools. Several
Delta cities maintained not only separate schools for blacks and
whites, but also small classes for Chinese students as well. In the
mid-1940s, Cleveland, for example, had two classrooms for Chinese
students, enrolling thirty-six students who were taught by three
teachers, including one Chinese. The Chinese worked over the years
to affiliate with the white community as much as possible because
whites held the highest social status in the Jim Crow South. Naming
patterns came to reflect this change. Chinese parents might pick
first names for their children like "Coleman" and "Patricia" to
suggest identification with whites.
Mississippi Chinese society
The desire to become identified with white society shaped the
institutions that anchored Chinese society in Mississippi.
The "tong" was a social organization that structured much Delta
Chinese social activity in the early days of settlement. But by the
1930s, the Baptist church became important for the Delta Chinese,
particularly the Chinese Baptist Church in Cleveland, and served as
a center for wedding banquets, community service projects,
fundraising activities, funerals, and other occasions that brought
the extended Chinese community together. The mission school attached
to the church provided education for the Chinese, preparing them for
identification with white society. In addition, the Chinese
community in the mid-20th century sponsored dances for college and
high school students, held summer schools, and promoted social
clubs. The Chinese in towns like Greenville kept Chinese cemeteries
separate from those of whites and blacks. Typically the cemeteries
had small, well-tended plots with high fences around them.
By the post-World War II years, the Chinese in Mississippi were
consciously seeking acculturation into American society, within a
Southern regional context. Their numbers, however, remained small
and their settlement was concentrated in the Delta. Fourteen Delta
counties accounted for over ninety percent of the Mississippi
Chinese population in 1960. The Delta had a larger Chinese
concentration than any other area of the South. At this time though,
acculturation was not complete. One college coed in this era
complained, for example, that, despite being Mississippi born and
bred, her white friends called her the Delta lotus, evoking an image
of an Asian flower. "I'm a Delta Southerner," she said, "but still a
lotus and not a magnolia."
Since the 1960s the Chinese in Mississippi have faced the decline of
their economic base as distinctive Delta groceries serving a black
clientele. Blacks now have more choices of grocery stores, including
large chain stores. Children of Chinese families often go away to
school now and often do not seek to inherit and run old businesses.
Chinese cluster more than ever in towns and move to nearby mid-south
cities, such as Jackson or Memphis. The Chinese who remain, and
newcomers who still arrive seeking economic opportunity, run Chinese
restaurants, which may serve barbecue as well as Cantonese fare.
Families often grow their gardens to have traditional Chinese
cuisine at home, using fresh bok choy, bitter melon, mustard, or
other ingredients of Chinese cooking. Families celebrate traditional
Chinese holidays, out of sight of most Mississippians, to honor
The Delta was settled by other ethnic groups as well as the Chinese.
Lebanese, Syrians, Jews, Mexicans, and Italians were all notable for
their roles there, but the Chinese had perhaps the most challenging
adjustment because they came from a culture that seemed unusual to
most other Mississippians.
Moreover, the Chinese sought economic opportunites in Mississippi at
a time that seemed unlikely to bring them success, but they filled a
distinctive economic role as merchants. They won the friendship of
the African Americans they served and the whites who came to trust
their honesty in business dealings. They were small in number and
never had the support for ethnic identity that large Chinese
communities in America had, such as access to Chinese genealogical
organizations, Chinese literature and media, Chinese theaters or
markets, or Buddhist temples.
Still, the Chinese made new lives as Southerners and became a
notable feature of Delta society. In 1960, the United States Census
listed 1,244 Chinese in Mississippi and reported that the Delta had
more Chinese than any other part of the South. By 1970 the Chinese
population in the state had grown to 1,441. The 2000 Census reported
3,099 Chinese lived in Mississippi, out of an Asian population of
18,626 in the state.
Charles Reagan Wilson, Ph.D., is director of the Center for the
Study of Southern Culture and professor of history and Southern
studies at the University of Mississippi.
Bartel, Sandra Avril. "Lotus in the Delta." M.A. thesis, University
of Mississippi, 1993.
Carpenter, Barbara, ed. Ethnic Heritage in Mississippi. Jackson:
University Press of Mississippi, 1992.
Chan, Kit-Mui Leung. "Assimilation of the Chinese Americans in the
Mississippi Delta." M.A. thesis, Mississippi State University, 1969.
Loewn, James W. The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White.
Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, 1988, 2nd edition.
O'Brien, Robert W. "Status of the Chinese in the Mississippi Delta."
Social Forces (March 1941), pp. 386-390.
Quan, Robert Seto. "The Creation, Maintenance, and Dissolution of
Mississippi Delta Chinese Identities." Bulletin, Chinese Historical
Society of America, vol. 16 (March-June 1981).
Quan, Robert Seto. Lotus Among the Magnolias: The Mississippi
Chinese. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1982.
Rummel, George A., III. "The Delta Chinese: An Exploratory Study in
Assimilation." M.A. thesis, University of Mississippi, 1966
Chinese New Year Celebrations Abound in the South
By May Chow | AsianWeek Staff Writer
Jambalaya, crawfish pie, filé gumbo for Chinese New Year? Or dragon
dances illuminating the twilight skies along the Mississippi Delta?
For many, it's hard to believe that Asian Pacific American
communities exist outside of coastal cities like San Francisco, New
York and Los Angeles.
Chinese immigrants made their way to the Mississippi Delta shortly
after the Civil War during the Reconstruction period (1865-1877) as
replacements for the black laborers who were leaving the area at
that time. In 1880, the U.S. Census reported that there were 51
Chinese in Washington County, Miss. Many of the Chinese immigrants
were from the southern provinces of China.
The immigrants found jobs on the plantations, but soon started
opening their own businesses. The first Chinese grocery store in
Mississippi was opened sometime in the early 1870s. Tax records show
several Chinese landowners in Rosedale, in Boliver County.
At that time, the Chinese were classified having the same status as
blacks. They were excluded from social organizations, country clubs
and white public schools. The Chinese found it difficult to find a
niche in such a biracial society. Because of this, Chinese in the
Mississippi Delta distanced themselves from others in the community.
There were several schools that held small and separate classes for
Chinese students. In the mid-1940s in Cleveland, Miss., there were
two classrooms for Chinese students. The classes had 36 students,
and three teachers. One of those teachers was Chinese.
After World War II, the Delta saw an increase in Chinese immigrants.
In 1960, 14 Delta counties together made up for more than 90 percent
of the Mississippi Chinese population. The 1960 U.S. Census report
listed 1,244 Chinese in Mississippi and reported that the Delta had
more Chinese than any part of the South. By 1970, the Chinese
population grew to 1,441. In the 2000 Census, 3,099 Chinese lived in
Mississippi, out of an APA population of 18,626 in the state.
Over the years, the Chinese population moved to nearby cities such
as Jackson, Miss. and Memphis, Tenn.
The Chinese community in Memphis, Tenn. celebrated Chinese New Year
for the first time this year. The Chinese Student Association of
Memphis cooperated with local merchants and families to welcome in
the Year of the Ram on the University of Memphis campus on the
Friday before Chinese New Year.
Wang-Ying Glasglow, a spokesperson for the event, said that this was
the first time in Memphis history that the Chinese groups in Memphis
had congregated to put on such an important event.
Chinese artwork, crafts and food were displayed at the University
Center and at Rose Theater. Participants could also learn more about
the Chinese zodiac and the history of Lunar New Year. The night
ended with traditional lion dances and kung fu demonstrations.
The event saw more than 2,000 attendees, and Shelby County Mayor
A.C. Wharton even proclaimed the first week in February as "Chinese
Week" in Memphis and Shelby County.
Rhodes College, also in Memphis, hosted a Chinese New Year
celebration in its auditorium. Other cities, including Nashville,
Springfield and West Knoxville will also hold activities
commemorating the Year of the Ram.
Most of these Chinese New Year's festivities are coordinated by APA
student organizations on college campuses. In Troy, Ala., the
Chinese Students Association at Troy State University put on its
second annual New Year's bash last week, complete with food, music
and history. Events were scheduled in Auburn, Mobile and Montgomery
In South Florida, the Organization of Chinese Americans has co-
sponsored an annual Chinese New Year Festival for 15 years. More
than 6,000 Floridians attend the celebration, which features Chinese
folk dances, a ping pong tournament and acrobats. This year, the
city of Fort Lauderdale will work with seven Chinese organizations
to sponsor the first-ever Chinese New Year Dragon Boat Festival.
With more than 250,000 APAs, Florida has the eighth largest APA
population in the nation, according to the 2000 Census. In South
Florida alone, there are more than 100,000 APAs.
Television stations in Louisiana will air special programming for
the Lunar New Year. In Lafayette, La. three documentaries about
Chinese immigration and the history of Chinese New Year will be
broadcast. Keep an eye out for celebrations in New Orleans.
Reach May Chow at mchow@...
The small Chinese population found in the Delta is descended from
farm laborers brought there from California in the 1870s. The
Chinese did not adjust well to the Mississippi plantation system,
however, and most of them became small merchants. The coastal
fishing industry has attracted Southeast Asian refugees.
Down South: Chinese Americans in Mississippi Looking to Build Museum
By Sam Chu Lin
Seventy-five passengers from across the country boarded a cruise
ship in San Pedro, Calif. in late October for a weeklong cruise to
Puerto Vallarto and other Mexican coastal cities. They had one thing
in common: They are all Chinese Americans from the Mississippi
Delta. A week earlier, a crowd of about 300 Asian Pacific Islander
American guests crowded into a Cupertino, Calif. restaurant to
celebrate the birth of a new baby at a Red Egg party. Many of these
APIAs spoke with a trace of a Southern accent that came from years
spent in small towns along the Mississippi River.
Chinese American communities are famous in coastal cities like New
York and San Francisco, but a new book and plans for a museum are
beginning to shed light on the rich history of these communities in
the deep south.
Titled Washington County, Mississippi, the coffee-table book
features several photographs of Chinese American residents taken in
the early 1930s and '40s. The book explains how early Chinese
immigrants came to the Delta after the Civil War as replacements for
the African American laborers who were leaving at that time. An
effort is underway to create a new Chinese American museum in
Greenville, Miss. to help tell that story - how in the 50 years
after the Civil War immigrants worked hard, walked a careful balance
between the white and black communities and succeeded in
establishing a vibrant presence.
Back in the Day
Students and educators at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss.
have been collecting stories from some of the "old timers" in an
attempt to build a collection of oral histories about this unique
According to Civil War historian and Delta native Shelby
Foote: "When the early Chinese came here, there was a man who drove
around town with a sign on his car saying the `Chinese should go
back to where they came from.' But they've proved to be a great
contribution to this area."
According to historians, from the 1930s through the '50s at least
one Chinese American family could be found in every little hamlet
along Route 61 from Memphis, Tenn. to Vicksburg, Miss. This is where
early Chinese laborers quickly learned working in the fields left
few opportunities for success and advancement. They saw other needs
and quickly filled them. Some of those early pioneers opened up
little grocery stores set up in the front portion of a shack and
lived in the back. They sold food and wares to farm hands and local
residents and often extended credit. At the same time, they
emphasized to their children the importance of education and fought
for that right all the way to the United States Supreme Court.
At a Red Egg Party several weeks ago at the Joy Luck Club Restaurant
in Cupertino, Calif. With the exception of Alan Wong of San
Francisco on the left everyone in this photograph was a transplant
from the Mississippi Delta. Photo by Sam Chu Lin.
Cathy Wong, a long-time Delta resident, remembers living in the
black section of town in the back of a store in Hollendale, Miss.
"At school I had gone to play with a white friend," she
recounted. "When her mother took me back to the store, she was
horrified, because she had to take me back to the black part of
In contrast, Anne Fong, a retired elementary school teacher who now
lives in Anaheim, Calif., wasn't allowed to go to a public school
when she once lived in the Mississippi Delta. She went on to become
one of the state's first Chinese American women to go to college.
"I was very upset that here we were American citizens and all, and
my folks paid taxes, and we didn't get a chance to go to a public
school," she said. Then a teenager, she was so angry she confronted
the local superintendent about this issue.
¶I rode my bicycle down there and I demanded to know why we could
not go to public school," she said. But the answer was simple: In
the 1927 U.S. Supreme Court case Gong Lum vs. Rice the high court
ruled that segregated schools were a "state matter."
The local Chinese Americans didn't give up though. They sent their
children to other states, while some communities set up one-room
schoolhouses. These new residents slowly weaved themselves into the
fabric of the Deep South.
The Chinese Americans of the 1940s and '50s who lived in the
Mississippi Delta staged their own dances and parties at the local
American Legion and drove hundreds of miles to celebrate a wedding
or the birth of a baby. Since fraternities were not an option,
students at Mississippi State University formed a group called
the "Lucky Eleven" to answer that need. Even religion came in a
separate package. For many years, Chinese Americans attended what
were referred to as Chinese Missions, subsidiaries of the white
churches or their own churches. With integration, that segregated
John Paul Quon, a professor at Delta State University who now serves
on the state's CPA advisory board to the governor says, it was a
tough battle to get there.
"We were ostracized by both groups," he said. "There was a tight
rope that we had to walk. My dad contributed to both the NAACP and
the White Citizens Council, and didn't let anyone know it."
The hard work and diplomacy apparently paid off. Chinese Americans
in the Delta have served as mayors, sheriffs deputies, and in other
important government posts in the state. Audrey Sidney, who was a
high school principal, serves the state as a commissioner for
humanities and is a supporter of the idea of building a Chinese
American museum in the Delta.
Joe Yuen Company, a grocery store in Itta Bena, Miss. When Chinese
Americans sold their stores, the new owners usually retained the old
"We do have a unique story to tell here," she said. "The Chinese
worked very hard against great odds to succeed here. And they have
contributed a lot to this society."
Cathy Wong's husband Raymond hosts a daily morning television show
on the local ABC station in Greenville. He also operates a silk
screening production house that supplies sports ware to colleges and
a Chinese restaurant. Wong is also a prime mover for the Chinese
American museum the community is hoping to build.
"This is a chance for our own community and our own kids to
appreciate the sacrifices that have been made," he said.
Following the 1950s, many of the local Chinese Americans left the
state for bigger cities to seek employment where they could use
their higher education and newly learned skills.
"Many of the early Chinese chose to go to Mississippi, because of
the Tong Wars in San Francisco, Los Angeles and other Chinatowns,
but their children had to leave to find work," said Joe Ting, 90, a
former grocery store operator from Greenville. He is now retired in
Fullerton, Calif. near his two sons.
Today Chinese Americans have moved back to the Mississippi Delta for
different reasons. Wally and Don Joe went off to college and
returned to Cleveland, Miss. to open up KC's restaurant on Highway
61. It's been featured in USA Today and other national publications.
CBS News recently did a five-minute segment on the restaurant for
the CBS Sunday Morning News with Charles Osgood, and the response
has been "unbelievable" for the brothers.
"People often fly into town from hundreds of miles away in their
private planes to eat here," commented Don Joe, the wine expert of
the restaurant. He said that after the story ran, people came from
as far away as San Diego and Montreal, Canada to try the
restaurant's haute cuisine. The two brothers have been so successful
they plan to open a second high-end restaurant in Memphis, Tenn.
When the United States was building space ships to send to the moon
in the Apollo space program, Gilroy Chow of Clarksdale, Miss. left
home to help the program succeed. He has returned to the Delta and
now works for a multi-national corporation that builds huge conveyor
"I like the quiet and peace of a town like Clarksdale," he
said. "It's great living here."
His wife Sally is the town's best-known baker. According to Chow, if
there is a wedding or a large party, townspeople say, "Go see Sally!
No one can bake a better cake."
Her talents are so renouned the Smithsonian Institution in
Washington, D.C. invited her to be a guest speaker and to show off
Although much progress has taken place, there are issues that still
bother the APIA community here. Local Chinese Americans are still
angry with a New York documentary producer that branded this
community as racists in the film Mississippi Triangle.
"It's too bad those people didn't meet our grandfather," stated
Lilly Guo, a pharmacist who knows lives in Philadelphia, Pa. "When
we went to Rena Lara, Miss. this past summer to visit the place
where he ran a grocery store all alone for more than a half century,
my kids didn't want to go. They thought it would be a bore, but when
they got there, they changed their minds. Black and white people
came out to say hello. They had given him a gold watch as a going
away present. They wanted to thank him again for all the help he had
given them. We're going back next year for a reunion."
Wallace Chow, a Westminister, Calif., CPA and a former resident of
Shelby, Miss. added, "Our family has set up a special fund to help
improve education in the Mississippi Delta. This is for both blacks
and whites. The money will be used to bring in teachers to help
those schools that are struggling and are in need of more help.
Mississippi helped us to succeed, and it's time to give back
November 1, 2000
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company
Cleveland Journal: Delta Chinese Hang On to a Vanishing Way of Life
By SOMINI SENGUPTA
Rollin A. Riggs for The New York Times
Headstones in a cemetery in Greenville
are a reminder of Chinese-Americans'
long history in the Mississippi Delta.
CLEVELAND, Miss. Just off the Delta blues road, Highway 61, a
small brick church sits in a grove of oaks, next to a boarded-up two-
story building. Above the sanctuary's water-stained wooden doors
hangs a seemingly improbable sign, in English and Chinese: "Chinese
A symbol of new Asian immigration? Not quite.
The church and the dozen or so elderly worshipers who gather here,
clutching English-Chinese hymnals every Sunday are among the last
remnants of a Chinese-American community that has been in the Delta
for well over a century.
The midafternoon service is itself a reminder of what was once a
small but thriving community of Chinese grocers who served mostly
black customers: services began late in the day so the worshipers
could open their shops in the morning. The building next door is a
reminder of Chinese-American life under Jim Crow laws: until the
1940's, this, and others like it, was a school for Chinese children
who were barred from the town's whites-only schools.
Patricia Wolf, now 51, was born and reared in the back of her
family's grocery, on the corner of Chrisman and Ruby Streets.
Commerce was handled out front. Domestic life went on in the back.
Bok choy and long beans grew in the backyard.
Like many other Chinese-Americans of her generation, Mrs. Wolf lived
in many worlds as a child. She grew up in the town's black district,
but attended a white school on the other side of town. On weekends,
instead of going to school dances, she and her four siblings
attended Chinese parties.
"It was something that nobody talked about," Mrs. Wolf said. "We had
our own functions."
The fading history of the Delta Chinese is being talked about a lot
these days. One second-generation Chinese-Mississippian, John Quon,
a business professor at Delta State University here, has begun to
collect family photographs and artifacts for a proposed museum in
Greenville. Historians at Delta State are in the midst of an oral
history project on the Delta Chinese, collecting interviews for the
From the 1940's to the early 1970's, Chinese groceries dotted the
Delta, from Louise to Greenville to Merigold. Census figures show
that at its peak in 1960, there were more than 1,200 Chinese in the
12 rural counties of the Delta. Some stayed quietly with their own;
others merged into black or white Mississippi families.
Today, the experience of the Delta Chinese, who arrived in the years
immediately after the Civil War to work on the cotton plantations
and then opened groceries, offers scholars a unique window on race.
Neither black nor white in the Jim Crow South, the Chinese navigated
a confusing, sometimes inconsistent set of laws and social mores.
"The Chinese in Mississippi were a third race in a system built for
two," said James Loewen, a historian and the author of "The
Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White" (Harvard University
Press, 1971). "Neither they nor the system knew what to do about
The Chinese were central to a school segregation lawsuit considered
by some to be an important precursor to the landmark Brown vs. Board
of Education case.
In the fall of 1924, a Chinese grocer named Gong Lum filed the
lawsuit after his daughter was barred from the whites-only public
school in the western Delta town of Rosedale. The case ultimately
went to the United States Supreme Court, which upheld Mississippi's
longstanding policy "to preserve the white schools for members of
the Caucasian race alone."
If the Delta Chinese sometimes fell through the cracks of
segregation, those who started families outside the Chinese fold
fell away from the community. With immigration laws making it
extremely difficult for Chinese men to bring their wives to the
United States, it was not uncommon for a Chinese man in the Delta to
have a common-law wife, either black or white.
Even now, Mrs. Wolf wonders what happened to those who, like her,
found love outside their own community. "I see people who I think I
could be kin to, but I'm afraid to ask," she said. "I think a lot of
it was going on both black and white. We're all human."
Long after her siblings left, Mrs. Wolf stayed on. Today, she runs a
pharmacy with her husband, Otto, who is white. She still plays piano
at the church. The old Chinese groceries are mostly gone, but every
now and then, Mrs. Wolf sees a new Chinese face in town, like the
family that runs the Chinese takeout on U.S. 61. She feels little
kinship with them, she says. She pops into their restaurant when she
is too tired to cook, or when she wants to offer authentic Chinese
food to a guest.
"They look like us but that's about it," she said. "We don't have
much in common."
And yet to speak to some of the surviving Delta Chinese is to be
struck by their quest to remain, well, Chinese. Frances Wong's
cluttered little house just outside town is a virtual museum of
Chinese tchotchkes: an ornately carved Chinese screen she picked up
at a yard sale once, red silk screens of Chinese calligraphy on the
walls, a Chinese-English Bible. Born and reared in Louise, Mrs. Wong
spent much of her life behind the counter of the Wong Foo Market
that she and her husband ran on Chrisman Street. Now 75, Mrs. Wong
has spent her retirement nest egg on six trips to China.
"Don't get me wrong " I'm an American," Mrs. Wong said. "I'm proud
to be an American."
"But no matter where I go," and here she poked herself in the
cheeks, "I'm still going to be Chinese."
Welcome to Canton, MS, a friendly, small southern town that serves
as the county seat of Madison county.
Named for fourth President James Madison, the 23rd county in
Mississippi was created in 1823 out of Yazoo and Hinds Counties. It
incorporated lands between the Pearl and Big Black Rivers where
General Andrew Jackson met with the Choctaw Chieftain, Pushmataha.
That meeting resulted in the 1820 Treaty of Doak's Stand.
This area attracted large numbers of settlers from Virginia and the
Carolinas who came to farm the lush, rolling hills, and fertile soil.
and Madison County
In 1833 the Madison County Board of Police (a governing body similar
to today's supervisors) appointed surveyor John B. Peyton to select
a geographical center for a new county seat and to lay it out in
blocks. In 1834, 40 acres of land belonging to Killis and Margaret
Walton were deeded to the county for $100. The land was divided into
square parcels with the plot nearest the center reserved for the
In 1834, the town was legally incorporated and boasted a population
of 400. The first recorded ordinance made it a misdemeanor to gallop
horse, mare, or mule on any street or alley.
By 1838, Canton boasted two banks, two hotels, ten dry goods stores,
a drug store, three groceries, a bakery, a tin shop, three tailor
shops, and two watchmakers. The public buildings were a courthouse,
jail, church and a female academy. The town enjoyed notoriety for
having as visitors the celebrated original Siamese twins, Chang and
Eng, who ordered two custom suits from Perlinsky's Tailor Shop.
There are two stories concerning the naming of Canton, and both
attribute the name to Chinese origin. One states that Canton,
Mississippi, is the exact opposite side of the world as Canton,
China, and was thus named. The other story states the daughter of a
Chinese family died in the area and the sympathetic community named
the town for the family. There is really no more proof for one over
the other; it's just which one you wish to believe.
This was the beginning of our town now molded by 169 years of
history into its present distinctive character. It was an early
farming center with cotton fields worked by many slaves - a fact
that later caused the area to be the only county outside the Delta
with blacks outnumbering whites four to one. Some of its affluent
citizens built beautiful antebellum homes. It became a big railroad,
lumber and saloon center. Battered by two Union invasions in the
Civil War, challenged by the financial and political chaos of the
Reconstruction, decimated by the yellow fever epidemic of 1870,
rocked economically by the collapse of the lumber industry in the
Depression of the Thirties, torn by racial strife in the 1960's, our
town has survived to remain a friendly, progressive community. It is
still appreciative of its colorful past and proud to share the humor
and the romance of its distinctive Southern personality.
The very center and glory of our town is the beautiful Greek Revival
Courthouse. Members of the local Masonic Order laid the cornerstone
in July, 1855. The Board of Police paid $26,428 for it, as well as
$65 per month to a commissioner to supervise proper construction - a
magnificent sum at that time. The brick used were salvaged from the
old Courthouse that had been condemned in 1840 because of the
deterioration of the mortar. The new Courthouse was the scene of a
huge Fourth of July celebration in 1857 but was not legally accepted
until 1858. The beautiful iron fence was added later at a cost of
The Courthouse has also served as a gathering place to welcome the
railroad, send soldiers off to war, as a Court of Justice, the seat
of county offices, a polling place, an early library, a theater, and
a hospital during the yellow fever epidemic.
The happenings within the Courthouse walls have reflected the
humorous, chivalrous, hardheaded, hospitable personalities who have
given the South its distinctive character. During reconstruction,
there was so much ballot box stuffing and tension that when Election
Day threatened to become bloody, a group of officials dispersed a
gathering crowd by climbing into the dome and shooting down rocks
with sling shots.
The legal chambers within the Courthouse have witnessed many fiery
trails, several of which resulted in duels between lawyers. When
dueling had been outlawed in the state, Judge Calhoun and Judge
Bowers, respecting the law, traveled together to Vicksburg and
crossed the river into Louisiana to settle a court quarrel with
pistols. Neither man was injured; it was simply a matter of honor.
In 1994-1995 a new Courthouse was built one block north of the
Square and the beautiful old Courthouse underwent a $2,000,000
renovation. The 1855 cornerstone was opened and re-laid by the
Masonic Order. The first floor is currently home to the Madison
County Economic Development Authority, and the old courtroom, on the
second floor, is currently not in use to the public.
The Courthouse Square
In 1982, the Canton Courthouse Historic Square District was
officially entered in the National Register of Historic Places and
declared one of the three best examples in the State of Mississippi.
The Courthouse Square, still the focus of exciting activities, is
the bi-annual venue for the nationally famous Canton Flea Market
Arts & Crafts Show. The Market attracts up to 100,000 visitors
annually from across the United States and beyond.
It is estimated that over $20,000,000 in public and private funding
has been invested in the Canton Square District, including the new
and old Courthouses.
In recent years, the beauty, uniqueness, and preservation efforts of
our Courthouse Square and Historic District, with its beautiful
homes, have drawn the attention of Hollywood. Canton has been the
location site for five feature films beginning in 1995 with John
Grisham's A Time To Kill. This was quickly followed by Willie
Morris' My Dog Skip, The Rising Place (an independent film by Tom
Rice of Jackson, MS), the Coen Brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou?
and Eudora Welty's The Ponder Heart for PBS Masterpiece Theatre.
Many advertising agencies have chosen Canton as the location for
commercial and corporate shoots, and PBS again chose the town for a
segment of a six hour blues documentary on blues great Skip James.
This will air in 2003.
With the location site of the Nissan Automotive Plant one mile south
of the city, proposed plans for the Mississippi Film Complex, and
the continued efforts toward preservation by the community, Canton's
future is well-assured.
Family-owned shops are around the Square with items such as arts and
crafts, gifts, clothing, jewelry, furniture, and antiques. All are
very friendly and offer free gift-wrapping!
For Additional information contact the
CANTON CONVENTION & VISITORS BUREAU & FILM OFFICE
147 North Union Street · PO Box 53 · Canton, MS 39046
TOLL FREE 800.844.3369 · PHONE 601.859.1307