In the concluding edition of the aftermath of the 1929 Duncan tornado (see Part 1 and Part 2 for the history of the effects of the tornado and the rebuilding efforts), this week, I focus on a family, a child, and a unique culture that has contributed to the Mississippi Delta and beyond. What is barely mentioned in the historic newspaper accounts of the death toll from the tornado that destroyed much of Duncan that February afternoon more than 86 years ago is who those people were. In the Fong family, who operated the Fong Chinese grocery store in Duncan, all but a 4 year old boy, William Joe Fong, perished. Joe Fong and his other children died in the tornado, and Quan Shee Fong died not long after in a Memphis hospital from injuries sustained. She was buried alongside her husband and children in the Greenville Chinese cemetery.
William Joe survived because he had hidden under a counter, clutching a piece of candy. He reported in Journey of William Joe Fong that he was found with broken arms and legs, still clutching the candy. He was cared for by many Chinese families in the area and lived for a short while in Chicago. When he returned to Mississippi still a child, he said of it,
Mississippi was a different world. It was small, confining, slow paced, and a lot of prejudice.
He left the family with whom he was living to attend the Chinese School when it was built in Cleveland, and from there to a military academy before joining the Navy. Using his GI bill, he attended the University of Mississippi, and on July 8, 1952, he earned his license to practice pharmacy after his graduation from the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy. He was the second Chinese pharmacist to practice in the Mississippi Delta. He worked in a number of southern towns, and in 1963 he left for California when he discovered he had an aunt in San Francisco. He remained in California, married and had two sons, and continued to practice pharmacy until just before his death in 2007.
Fong said on weekends while in school, he would go back to Cleveland to help Jack Wong in his grocery store.
…the Delta Chinese were few in number, dispersed across the Delta towns, and engaged almost exclusively in running small family general grocery stores…the Delta Chinese managed to preserve their cultural values and traditions…raise their children and contribute to their communities. Their history is unique…as the Chinese grocery stores have almost vanished from the landscape…(Mississippi Delta Chinese, Chinese Grocery Stores)
For example, in 1946, Delta Chinese grocery stores were identified in Alligator (Harn Lee Company), Belzoni (John Woo Company, Lin Yen Company), Charleston (Far East Company, Gong Company), Clarksdale (Goodflower Grocery, H. W. Nucy, Joe Eagle Company, Han You Company, Wing Hing Company, Wing’s Cash Store), Cleveland ( J. M. Wong, Joe Tong Grocery, Joe Brothers, T. C. Ling Grocery, The Med. Stores, Cleveland Grocery) and in Duncan (Paul Au Grocery on Main Street, Sing Gong Company, and Joe Den Company).
Though historically the Chinese had settled primarily in the Delta, including Bolivar County as early as 1870 census, by 2010, that had significantly changed (Woo, Green, & Holley, 2011, The University of Mississippi Center for Population Studies). By the 2010 census, the top five counties with highest numbers of Chinese were in primarily urban counties–Madison, DeSoto, Harrison, and Hinds, and the “micropolitan” Oktibbeha county.
You can also read more about Chinese grocers in the Delta, including some of those still in business, at the Southern Foodways Alliance, and the history of Chinese in Mississippi including their original locationin Bolivar County at Mississippi Department of Archives and History Mississippi Archeology Trails.