Gong Lum v. Rice (1927) Chinese School Segregation Before Ole Miss Blocked James Meredith (1962)

Long before Mississippi governor Ross Barnett stood in the doorway to block the admission of James Meredith half a century ago in 1962 as the first African American student to enroll at Ole Miss, Chinese in the Delta faced similar barriers. Back in the fall of 1924 the Rosedale, MS. school administration denied admission of Chinese children to the local elementary school. Gong Lum, a local Chinese merchant, filed a lawsuit on behalf of his two daughters, Berda and Martha, against this ruling. He was initially successful, but the Supreme Court of Mississippi in 1925, and the U. S. Supreme Court in 1927 upheld the decision to deny Chinese admission to whites-only public schools. The family portrait below in 1920 before the girls were old enough to attend school shows Berda in the lower left and Martha near the center.
Photograph Courtesy of Carolyn Hong Chan.

Although the Lum sisters were dismissed from the school on the first day of the fall term in 1924, they had actually, despite the Mississippi law, been attending the school during the previous year, and possibly earlier since they were in the 3rd grade. A recently discovered photograph of a 3rd-4th grade class at Rosedale school, dated April 16, 1924, was posted on Facebook by Linda Gatewood Bassie. The two Chinese girls in the bottom left were identified as Berda and Martha by Carolyn Hong Chan, a relative who grew up in the area. Moreover, the photograph shows another Chinese girl on the right side and two older Chinese boys in the upper left top row. (It might seem odd to have such wide age differences in the same class, but some Chinese children were recent immigrants and not fluent in English) Even though the attendance of these 5 Chinese was in violation of Mississippi law that restricted white schools to caucasians, in practice, different local authorities varied in their adherence to the law and it was not uncommon for some towns to accept Chinese children while a nearby town might not. Gong Lum may have lost the legal battle, but he did realize his goal of his children attending white schools by moving his family across the river to Elaine, Arkansas, where they were admitted.

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