May 6, 2013

An American Story on Display at the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum

The Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum, as Frieda Quon explains it, is a labor of love -- a project that stems from the desire of the children of Chinese immigrants in the region, like herself, to make sure that their unique history isn’t lost.

Quon, 71, an associate professor, emeritus at Delta State University, was born in Greenville, Miss., but her parents both hailed from the Canton (now known as Guangzhou) region of China. Like many other Chinese immigrants in the region at the time, her father saw a chance to make a life for himself in the United States by establishing a grocery store that would cater to plantation owners and agricultural workers in the Delta.

“That was what brought the Chinese to the area in Mississippi,” Quon says, noting that outside of New York and San Francisco, the Mississippi Delta region had one of the highest concentrations of Chinese-Americans per capita during the 1950s and ‘60s. The Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area was designated a National Treasure in 2012, and is currently the only place in the United States to hold both designations.

A group of former students at the Cleveland Chinese Mission School gathers at the plaque dedication. From left: Fee Joe, Ed Joe, Kellogg Wong, Fun Pang, J.W. Dunn (seated), Annette Joe, Vice Mayor Ted Campbell, and Bobby Moon. Credit: Gilroy and Sally Chow

Frieda Quon, who grew up in her parents’ grocery store in Greenville, Miss., poses with her grandchildren.

Quon, like many other children, grew up stocking shelves in the family store. She also went on to earn a college degree, an aspiration that many Chinese immigrant parents had for their children.

“I don’t know what it is about coming from these towns,” she says. “There’s a real connection and a pull, and we feel strongly about supporting and trying to document this past that we have.”

The museum has been in development at Delta State University in Cleveland, Miss. for about two years, and came into being through the initiative of Quon, current president Raymond Wong, and about a dozen other people. It is currently housed in the archives building at Delta State and features an exhibit of artifacts re-assembled to look like an authentic Chinese grocery, including an original set of doors from Quon’s family store. Wong hopes that eventually, the museum might be a free-standing building, “a place for research and education.”

One recent victory for the museum's board was dedicating a historic marker for the Cleveland Chinese Mission School in Cleveland, Miss., last October. The school served Chinese students during the days of segregation in the South, from 1937 until 1951, and was repurposed as the Chinese Baptist Church before being demolished in 2003.

Another goal of the museum project is to record as many oral histories as possible from the children of Chinese immigrants in the region. Wong estimates that they’ve gathered around 30 so far, all conveying different facets of the same communal story.

“This is for generations after,” says Wong, whose family ran a Chinese grocery before opening a restaurant in Greenville, of the purpose of both the oral history records and the museum. “They’re going to say, ‘How did this happen? Where did we come from?’” He hopes that by preserving a story that is both culturally distinctive and utterly American, the museum will be able to answer those questions.

The Cleveland Chinese Mission School historic marker was dedicated last October by the Mississippi Delta Heritage Museum, the city of Cleveland, Miss., and the Delta State University Archives and Museum.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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