A previous post on this blog described the legal proceedings in the1920s case in which two daughters of a Mississippi Delta Chinese grocer, Jue Gong and his wife, Katherine, were removed from attending a white school in Rosedale in 1924 because Chinese were not considered caucasian. The school board was sued with a writ of mandamus to reinstate the two daughters in school on grounds of the 14th Amendment calling for equal protection. The school board reversed its decision but it was promptly overruled by the Mississippi Supreme Court. The parents obtained legal assistance and appealed the decision all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court in 1927, but to no avail, as it upheld the lower court.
Most accounts of this case of school segregation of Chinese in Mississippi have dealt only with the legal issues and proceedings, but a new book, Water Tossing Boulders, by journalist Adrienne Berard provides a richly detailed description of the social and cultural context of the Mississippi Delta in the 1920s. This well-researched study brings the people and the community to life as Berard researched the background to set the stage and analyze the complex interplay between racial discrimination against blacks, the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, the forced labor of black convicts to build levees, the floods that destroyed the cotton crop that was a mainstay of the Delta economy, how Chinese came to settle in the Delta as early as the 1870s, the intermediary status of Chinese grocery families placing them between blacks and whites, and the mass exodus of blacks from the Delta to the north to escape racism and find employment. Her book, which reads like a novel at times, makes you feel as if you were right there observing events as they unfolded from 1924-1927.
Given the economic disaster in the Delta, everyone suffered. Chinese grocers, dependent on black cotton plantation workers, lost customers in the downturn who could not afford to pay for food. One wonders, then, how Jeu Gong and Katherine were able to pay a lawyer to file a lawsuit. In fact, they could not afford to pay, but they found an unsung hero, Earl Brewer, who rose from a hard scrabble life to become the governor of Mississippi before being soundly defeated later in a bid to become a Senator. Brewer was a progressive who believed the Chinese were unfairly treated and decided to represent them pro bono.
Although the appeal to the U. S. Supreme Court in 1927 failed, probably because Brewer turned the case over to an inexperienced attorney, Berard's book provides us with a better understanding of the many interacting factors affecting race relations in the Delta. Without Brewer's advocacy on the behalf of the Gong Lum family, the case would probably never have been filed.