The Forgotten Chinese-American Family That Challenged Jim Crow
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the first case to challenge the constitutionality of school segregation in the South failed miserably.
By Sean Braswell
Democracy or hypocrisy? In this series, “American Hypo-cracy,” OZY looks at America’s lengthy struggle to live up to its lofty ideals by exploring some of the uglier episodes in its past that are often overlooked by the history books. Read more.
On the morning of Sept. 25, 1924, two sisters arrived for their first day of school in the small town of Rosedale, Mississippi. Martha and Berda, ages 9 and 11, were quickly summoned to the principal’s office, where they were informed that they were being expelled. Why? The Lum sisters were the daughters of Chinese immigrants, and the Rosedale school board had decided they were “colored” and could no longer attend the white school.
The Lum family, however, did not accept the school board’s decision, and decided to fight. Three decades before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, Gong Lum v. Rice was the first case challenging the constitutionality of segregation in Southern public schools to reach the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a bold challenge, striking at the heart of systemic racism in education, and it would change the course of American history … in far worse ways than anyone could have imagined.
In the years after the Civil War, the American South scrambled to replace the slave labor that had fueled its economy. One option was to staff its fields with a growing group of hardworking immigrants from China. Places like the Mississippi Delta, says Lucy M. Cohen, author of Chinese in the Post–Civil War South: A People Without a History, offered promising job opportunities to Chinese immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Nobody in the family talked about the landmark case.
Jeu Gong Lum was one of the thousands of immigrants who settled among the Mississippi Delta Chinese. He married a spirited woman named Katherine Wong and opened a grocery store next to the railroad tracks. Like other children in Rosedale, their daughters, Martha and Berda, spoke with a Southern drawl and drank Coca-Cola. But Chinese and other immigrant populations occupied an unusual place in the binary Southern society. Blacks and Chinese were often segregated into the same neighborhoods, much to the frustration of the latter. “Like every other immigrant group to arrive in America,” writes Adrienne Berard in Water Tossing Boulders, “the Chinese in Mississippi distanced themselves from Blacks in an effort to better align themselves with the white power structure.”
As such, the Lums’ decision to issue a legal challenge against that white power structure was both brave and troubling. Brave in that they knew their business could be burned, their immigration papers demanded or their store credit line cut. Troubling in that their reason for choosing to avoid Black schools was motivated, as Berard points out, by racism. “I did not want my children to attend the ‘colored’ schools,” Katherine later told a reporter, “[because] the community would have classified us as Negroes.”
The Lums landed a big-name lawyer to take their case, Earl Brewer, a former Mississippi governor who had become a political laughingstock after getting drubbed in his last election. Invoking the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of “equal protection of the laws,” Brewer argued that the girls were entitled to access the public school system regardless of their race. To the shock of almost everyone, the Lums won, at least in front of the state court judge who first heard the case. The school board appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, where Mississippi’s assistant attorney general argued that segregation existed to protect whites from all other races, including the Chinese. The court agreed. Again the Lums chose to fight, and the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear their challenge. It ruled unanimously in favor of the school board, holding that the board’s decision was “within the discretion of the state in regulating its public schools, and does not conflict with the 14th Amendment.”
The ruling wasn’t limited to the Lums or to Chinese-American children; it set a powerful nationwide precedent that states and schools had legal grounds to exclude all children of color. In short, it gave carte blanche to blanc folks all across the South. The case would prove a major hurdle for civil rights lawyers to overcome for three decades, until it was overturned in 1954 by another unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown.
During that time, large numbers of Delta Chinese families moved to more tolerant areas. The Lums eventually found a white school in Arkansas that would accept their children. Martha and Berda would graduate high school, build American bombers during World War II and watch their children attend fully integrated schools. But nobody in the family talked about the landmark case. When Berard asked one of the Lums’ granddaughters why, she responded, “Because we lost.”
Only it wasn’t just the Lum family that had lost. The entire country had.