Black History Month: Gonglum v Rice (1927)
February is Black History Month. Throughout this month The Royal Gazette will feature people, events, places and institutions that have contributed to the shaping of African history
In this constitutional case, the United States Supreme Court, composed entirely of Bok Guey (whites), adjudged Hon Yen (Chinese) to be in the same social classification as Lo Mok (blacks).
The Supreme Court’s decision permitted the state of Mississippi to define Martha Lum as a member of the “coloured races” so that “white schools” could remain segregated. The origins of “Lotuses among the Magnolias” involved southern planters’ fears that emancipation had spoilt their newly freed slaves. The question posed by planters was whether the freed people would work without the sting of the lash.
Planters answered by recruiting Chinese labour and by 1900 the majority of coolie labour came from the “Sze Yap” or Four Counties district southwest of Canton in South China.
By the 1920s, a thriving Chinese community had developed in Mississippi, which now included school-age children. In 1924, Rosedale Consolidated High School forced Martha Gonglum, daughter of a prosperous Chinese grocer, to leave school because of her ethnicity.
The Gonglums sued but the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled, “Chinese are not white and must fall under the heading, coloured races”. On appeal to the US Supreme Court, the Gonglums listened as the high court justices agreed with the Mississippi court and stated, “similar laws [of segregation] have been enacted by Congress under its general power ... over the District of Columbia as well as by ... many of the States ... throughout the Union, both in the North and South”.
• Sources: Malik Simba, “Gonglum v Rice: The Convergence of Law, Race, and Ethnicity,” in American Mosaic: Selected Readings on America’s Multicultural Heritage, eds. Young I. Song and Eugene C. Kim; James Loewen, Lotus among the Magnolias: The Mississippi Chinese, Jackson, MI; Mississippi University Press, 1960
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