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The Delta’s ethnic mix


It’s fitting that my friend Joe Dan Yee is the mayor of Lake Village.

One of the things that makes the Delta unique is the mix of cultures that occurred as people immigrated to the region back when cotton was king. There were Italians, Irish, Chinese, Jews, Lebanese, Syrians. Their cultures mixed with the rich culture of the African-Americans who had been brought to this land in bondage.

When I penned a piece a few years ago about the ethnic stew that is the Delta, one Helena native wrote: “I was raised in Helena from 1938 until our family moved to Little Rock in 1955. There was no place in Arkansas that I could have been more exposed to various cultures. I remember going to temple services as part of the Methodist Youth Fellowship. I had friends who were either Greek, Jewish, Chinese, Italian, Lebanese or Sicilian. There’s nowhere else on this planet that I would have rather grown up than in the Delta. I still miss the sweet smell of kudzu, the scent of the soil and the balmy summer mornings.”

The Southern Foodways Alliance at Ole Miss, which does a marvelous job documenting the food cultures of the South with its oral histories and much more, transcribed a series of interviews with Chinese-Americans in the Delta a few years ago. Yee, who at the time was still operating his family’s Yee’s Food Land, was one of the people interviewed.

The SFA wrote: “Chinese came to America in the late 19th century in search of the fabled Gam Sahn or Golden Mountain. When they arrived at the alluvial plains of the Mississippi Delta, all they found was backbreaking agricultural work. First introduced to the region as indentured servants by planters during Reconstruction, these early Chinese sojourners (mostly from the Guandong or Canton province) soon became disenchanted with working the fields. They moved off the plantations. Some left to go back home to China, but others stayed and opened small neighborhood grocery stores. Serving as an alternative to plantation commissaries and catering to the predominately African-American clientele, the Chinese-American grocer was a mainstay in many Delta neighborhoods well into the 20th century.

“Life in the grocery business was by no means an easy living. Early mornings and late nights were normal, as were the stresses of competition from large supermarket chains. Added to that were the stresses that they endured as immigrants navigating the complex socio-political structure of a region that historian James C. Cobb has called the most Southern place on earth. … Though the numbers of Chinese grocers diminish year by year, family stories tell an important history of immigration. They also speak to the formation of a unique food culture in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas.”

Joe Dan Yee was described at the time as someone who “bucked the trend of many second- and third-generation Delta Chinese by staying home, after his parents retired, to take over the family market.”

“Joe Dan and his siblings can speak Catonese, something his parents insisted they learn growing up,” the SFA wrote. “And twice a day you can find them all eating a hot, multicourse Chinese meal.”

Yee said: “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in New York and San Francisco, and everywhere I go they would tell my sister: ‘Bring your brother back in here. We love the Arkansas accent that he has on a Chinese accent.’ So I get a big kick out of that.”

He said Chinese restaurant owners will come to his table to hear him speak, noting that “we never heard a Chinese with a Southern accent.”

The SFA wrote: “After graduating with a degree in marketing at the University of Arkansas, Joe Dan Yee could have gone to Dallas, maybe gotten a job with a big department store there. He had already interviewed for a job and been accepted, but in the end he gave all that up to go back home to Lake Village.”

His father found his way to Dumas in the 1940s and began working in a grocery store for a man named Eugene Lee. His father later moved to Lake Village.

“Back in the early 1960s, there were at least eight to 10 (Chinese) families that were in Lake Village, and there were probably six Chinese stores on Main Street back then,” Yee said.

Many of those stores would open at 4 a.m. and remain open until midnight to serve sharecroppers and tenant farmers who were coming to town to shop.

“Lake Village was so busy you couldn’t even walk down Main Street,” Yee said.

He remembers Chinese families having cases of Chinese food shipped from San Francisco.

“You would split it up between the families and then you would divide the costs between the families,” Yee said. “That’s how they did it.”

He said his family never had strong relationships with Chinese families on the Mississippi side of the river.

“A different culture, you know,” Yee said. “It’s just like they did their thing and we did our thing. … We never got together and partied that much or associated that much with the Chinese people in Mississippi.”

By the way, his favorite Southern meal is fried chicken with mashed potatoes and cornbread. His favorite Chinese meals are pepper steak and Peking Duck.

There also was a strong Jewish influence in the Delta. My friend Raymond Abramson of Holly Grove, who serves on the Arkansas Court of Appeals, refers to himself as the last of the practicing Jewish lawyers in the Arkansas Delta. That list once included men such as Oscar Fendler of Blytheville, Kent Rubens of West Memphis, Eddie Graumann of Helena and David Solomon of Helena.

A number of the Jewish immigrants came to the Delta as traveling peddlers. Many of their descendants went on to become wealthy merchants, cotton ginners and planters. Due to a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe, the Jewish population of Arkansas grew from 1,466 in 1878 to 8,850 by the time of the Great Flood of 1927.

There were 22 Jewish-owned businesses in Helena by 1909. Helena had a Jewish mayor, Aaron Meyers, from 1878-80. In 1867, Temple Beth El was founded at Helena and Congregation Anshe Emeth was founded at Pine Bluff. Later Delta congregations were formed at Jonesboro in 1897, Newport in 1905, Dermott in 1905, Eudora in 1912, Osceola in 1913, Forrest City in 1914, Wynne in 1915, Marianna in 1920, Blytheville in 1924 and McGehee in 1947.

According to the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities: “Congregations in Helena, Blytheville and El Dorado closed, while others struggled to survive. The Jewish population has become concentrated in a few communities like Little Rock, Hot Springs, Fayetteville and Bentonville. In 1937, 13 cities in Arkansas had more than 50 Jews. By 2006, only four did. … The only exception to this downward trend is Bentonville. In the 21st century, as Walmart has encouraged major suppliers to open offices in its corporate hometown, Bentonville has seen its Jewish population skyrocket. In 2004, a group of 30 families founded Bentonville’s first Jewish congregation.”

The Delta Jewish merchants of the late 1800s and early 1900s received their goods from wholesalers in the river cities of Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Memphis.

And then there were the Italians.

In an earlier installment in this series, I wrote about the strong Italian influence in this area of southeast Arkansas. Those interested in the subject of the Delta Italians might be interested in a couple of books written by Paul Canonici, who was born of Italian immigrant parents in Shaw, Miss. The books are titled simply Volumes I and II of “The Delta Italians.”

After being educated in the public schools at Shaw, Canonici headed to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain to study with Benedictine monks at St. Joseph Seminary in Covington, La. He obtained a master’s degree from Notre Dame and a doctorate in sociology from Mississippi State. Canonici was ordained to the priesthood in 1957 and was superintendent of Catholic schools in the state of Mississippi from 1970-83.

Groups of Italian immigrants showed up to work on the Sunnyside Plantation near Lake Village in 1895 and 1897.

Canonici says the books are “based on the premise that Italians who went to the Sunnyside Plantation, and subsequently to other plantations in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta, had similar characteristics and experiences. … Italians who settled on Delta plantations were mostly from central Italy, with a few from the northern provinces. Most were experienced farmers in a well-structured farming system called mezzadria.”

Under this system, extended families lived under one roof on land that belonged to the man known as the padrone. They shared the harvest with the owner of the land.

“They worked hard and lived simply, but generally there was sufficient food to sustain the family,” Canonici writes. “There was a saying that one might work himself to death but he did not starve to death. Their reason for leaving their native soil was to search for a better life. Many crossed the Atlantic with the intention of returning and would have returned if they had had the means.”

Canonici notes that unlike some cultures, where the men came first for several years, Italians immigrated as family units.

“Once in the Delta, the extended family maintained close ties but no longer lived and worked under the same roof,” he writes. “Most had become indebted to Delta planters before they arrived because they had been forwarded travel and living expenses. They began as tenant farmers, and although disillusioned by the living conditions they encountered, they continued to work hard.

“Italian settlers in the Delta had large families, an advantage for farmers who wanted to save money and improve their lifestyle. They formed their own social and religious communities, retained their Italian language through the first generation in America and remained faithful to their Catholic faith. They married among themselves, and there was minimal divorce.

“Once in the Delta, the Italians struggled to free themselves from debt. Those who were unable to pay off their debts sometimes escaped in the dark of night to avoid foreclosure. Families made numerous moves in search of the better life. Eventually many saved sufficient money to free themselves from tenant living. Some established themselves on their own farms, some found work in cities, a few returned to Italy. Most did eventually find the better life they sought, although not in the exact model of their dreams.”

Canonici recounts a visit to the historic Hyner Cemetery near Lake Village. It was his first visit to the cemetery, which is about six miles north of the bridge that connects Arkansas and Mississippi.

Here’s how Canonici describes the scene: “Soybean fields border the front and west sides of the cemetery. Fifty yards to the front are the road and the power lines that seem to follow the river. … Across the road, cotton fields are almost ready for picking, a reminder of the early days when these rugged, precious Italians were introduced to the crop that would be their livelihood for posterity. Occasionally a car or truck speeds by, breaking the silence of this holy place that contains the dust and bones of our brave ancestors.

“The sinking sun is surrounded by light clouds, forming a bright, flaming horizon. I am totally imbued by the spirit of Sunnyside as I brush my feet against the sandy loam dust just outside the cemetery gate and gaze on that eternal flame over the horizon. The spirit of the settlers of 1895 cries out to me from every side: ‘Come and see, come and see.’ So I walk past the historic marker, down a cotton row. The cotton stalks brush against my armpits and healthy cotton bolls slap against my legs. I think to myself, “What would they say about this crop?’ Then, as the sun sinks completely over the cotton fields of Sunnyside, I hear those voices again. Now they say, ‘Write on, write on, Paul.'”

So Canonici began writing about those who settled the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta.

“Our original settlers are dead,” he writes. “I do have some taped interviews, begun in the 1970s, of people who were children at the turn of the last century. This task should have been accomplished 30 or 40 years ago when the old-timers were still alive. Nevertheless, there will be no better time than today to start. So I begin my account this evening, standing on the dust of those courageous people who paved for us the way to that better life they sought. How sad that most of them never lived to experience the better life.”

It must be noted that Canonici was on a list of 37 Catholic priests, deacons and other ministers in Mississippi that the Diocese of Jackson identified last year as having been “credibly accused” of sexual abuse of minors.

If you’re interested in the rich cultural mix that is the Arkansas Delta, simply talk to some of those of Chinese, Jewish, Italian and Lebanese descent who have remained. They’re proud of their heritage and most are willing to regale you with family stories.

It’s time to head west. We’ll soon exit the Delta and be in the Gulf Coastal Plain for the rest of this trip across south Arkansas on Highway 82.

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