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Growing up in Mississippi in the '40s - '60s
by Bobby Joe Moon aka Zhou Yao Kuan



Note from the author:
"I sent these comments to my niece, Audrey Lynn Moon, Drs. Jimmy and Barbara's number two daughter who graduated from UC-Berkeley (December, '04) in Architecture/Engineering. She asked for my remarks for her Photography Project on the Moon Family. This is not your regular 'feel-good' account of life in Small Town, Mississippi, but this is reality for me as I grew up there."

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Dear Audrey,

You asked for my comments about growing up in the Mississippi Delta in the '40s, '50s and '60s, and I'd like to give you my perspective from a different angle: the political and social situation as it affected me personally and us as Chinese Americans in general.

There was no question that we were not White since while we were growing up in the store we saw Whites and Blacks and they were not like our family. What was puzzling was why we were allowed to go to public school in Boyle [Mississippi] with Whites and segregated from Blacks, but in Cleveland there was a Chinese School . . . pretty crazy! I still remember John Jr., Charlie, and Walter Wong going to the Chinese School in the early '50s while we never had to do that in Boyle.

Even funnier was that when the Chinese kids reached high school age they were allowed to attend Cleveland High School. I remember attending Chinese-led mission church services at First Baptist Church across from the courthouse until we built our own church building on Highway 8. The White lady Sunday School teachers would come so faithfully each Sunday afternoon: Mrs. H.H. Elmore and Dr. Georgia Tatum and perhaps Mrs. Elizabeth Murray in later years.

When I was ready for sixth grade in Boyle, my older sisters Sue and Lillie made a decision which had a profound effect on my life. They determined I was not going be be subjected to the very racially prejudiced sixth grade teacher that they, Roy and William had had to endure. I was sent to live with cousins Wing and Kam Joe in Cleveland in the back of their store on Chrisman Avenue in the Black neighborhood. Most of the Chinese grocery stores were located in the Black neighborhood since Blacks were more likely to do business with Chinese.

Think of the situation: We lived in the Black neighborhood for business purposes but went to school with Whites. We had to become adept at balancing between Blacks and Whites. We Chinese were allowed into both worlds, but we mainly stayed among ourselves. We were in both worlds but not of both worlds. We knew we were not to date girls of either world. We made our livelihoods from the Blacks primarily and from some Whites.

In public school we competed well with Whites: Jimmy was valedictorian of his class, William and I were honor students as well as American Legion Boys' State representatives. I was the recipient of several other awards such as the Kossman Award and the Danforth Award. When Jimmy came through the eleventh grade a few years later, they changed the rules for Boys' State participants and only allowed boys whose fathers were American Legion members . . . hmm, what's up here?

Other examples of subtle racism were, for example, when Sue was entered in the contest to sell the most new subcriptions for the local newspaper, The Bolivar Commercial -- the winner would win a new car. Needless to say, she did not win the car when, at the last minute, some mysterious subscriptions came through for the White girl winner.

In Greenville the Chinese kids were mistreated as well -- even when they earned the highest grade averages in public school they were not allowed to be named valedictorians!

Is it any wonder why all of us except Larry were born at home with the doctor always coming to the house? Chinese were not allowed to go to the hospitals until the early '50s in Cleveland and elswehere in the state.

And how about such mundane things as haircuts? I did not even get a professional haircut until I was 15 years old because I always got my haircuts from Dad or Kam Joe. Why was it that way? In the early days when Chinese came to Mississippi, the White barbers refused to cut the Chinese's hair and sent them to the Black barbershops. The Chinese chose to cut their own hair.

How about the days of having separate waiting rooms and drinking fountains for Blacks and Whites? Confusing again for us -- but we were bold enough to use the White facilities including the White section in movie theaters. What a crazy world of race and prejudices in the '40s, '50s and '60s!

Racial climate: We could sense the growing tension between Blacks and Whites as we were growing up in the late '50s and early '60s leading up to the Civil Rights Freedom Marches. Being in the White world for public schools, our parents had to donate money to the White Citizens' Council and yet try to be supportive of the Blacks from whom they were making their livelihoods. Again, this was very confusing for us. We were taught to hate the Blacks by being in the White world. We were taught that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a Communist. I thought the South was going to have a Civil War between the Blacks and Whites when Emmitt Till was lynched.

Lillie and Sue attended Delta State College (now University) with the daughters of the KKK lynchers from the Greenwood/Leflore County area. I recall when the Philadelphia Three (Chaney, Schwerner and Goodman) disappeared from the face of the earth we all knew they had been murdered in cold blood by the KKK.

How about the enrollment of the first Black at the University of Mississippi (James Meredith) in the Fall of 1961? Our White dormitory neighbors had returned from Oxford and were bragging about shooting at the National Guardsmen providing security for the historical event.

The biggest event of our generation happened when I was still at Mississippi State University -- the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The response was again crazy: When news of the shooting was announced there was whooping and hollering in jubilation by the White boys in our dormitory! I said to myself, "These people are nuts! Let me out of here!" I knew I could never live in my home state anymore and couldn't wait to graduate since it was my ticket to get out of there.

In fact, I did graduate one year early in three years with my degree in accounting. Don't get me wrong, I cherish my life growing up and getting my education in the Magnolia State, but these are but some of the events that shaped me and affected me even as an adult today. I'll always be proud to be from Mississippi, but we were intelligent enough to leave.

Audrey, I applaud you for doing this project. You and your cousins are the recipients of our Moon Family Exodus to Texas and California. Always be proud of our Moon Family!

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Read more history of the Chinese in the Deep South:
Life in a Chinese Laundry in the Deep South by John Jung


Bobby Joe Moon is a native of the Mississippi Delta, a graduate of Mississippi State University, and now resides in Houston, Texas. Don't miss reading another of his stories at USADEEPSOUTH titled Pilgrimage to China. Want to leave a comment on Bobby Joe's story? Please visit our Message Board or write Ye Editor at bethjacks@hotmail.com. Thanks!


Here's another great story at USADS about Chinese-American history:
Chinese Heart of Texas by Mel Brown



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