Duncan, Mississippi after the 1929 tornado, Part 3

Biloxi Daily Herald, February 27, 1929, p. 1.

Biloxi Daily Herald, February 27, 1929, p. 1.

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.



Categories: Delta, Historic Preservation


13 replies

  1. Thank for this insight into Mississippi history!


    • I was inspired by Malvaney’s efforts to document those things that sometimes are not preserved. The efforts to preserve the Chinese grocery stores’ contributions to the Delta are really gaining.


      • My mother and her sisters were the teachers at the DUNCAN SCHOOL FOR NEGROES. My cousin LeElla Fortner’s young son ran out of the school and was blown away. My uncle and others were found dead under cars, etc. as many as 8 or 10 days later. Mother often spoke of the Fong family. I was born in Duncan in 1938 – youngest in my family. In 1961, I was the first black admitted to the College of Business graduate school at THE UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE @ Knoxville. I forward this article to my sister, now 87 who is a retired nutrionist and some 20 other relatives to include Dr. Addriane Bland, associate superintendent, St. Louis, Dr. Lynn Butler, whose grandmother taught and/ or attended Duncan School. There are more than 200 relatives of Essex Anderson, 1866-1938. Destinguished Duncan Negro citizen. I was born on the WOLFE PLANTATION. Dr. Bernard Clay


        • Thank you, Dr. Clay, for adding this information about your family to the story of Duncan. The Rosenwald school at Duncan was apparently totally destroyed, as I found a 1929 photograph of the ruins on Mississippi Department of Archives and History digital archives of school photographs.The photo of the Rosenwald remains is at: http://da.mdah.ms.gov/series/schoolphotographs/series1894/mississippi/bolivar/detail/157635

          There were two other photographs of the Duncan school for Negroes, at the links: http://da.mdah.ms.gov/series/schoolphotographs/series1513/mississippi/bolivar/detail/163603 and http://da.mdah.ms.gov/series/schoolphotographs/series1513/mississippi/bolivar/detail/163608


        • Dr. Clay,
          I just stumbled onto this wonderful set of articles about Duncan today. I saw where you mentioned being born on Wolfe Plantation and felt compelled to write to you.
          My grandfather was Bob Wolfe (Robert) and with his brother Oscar, ran the Wolfe Brothers Company from Duncan. He housed several families behind their home, and I remember going with him, as a child, to talk to workers living in houses on some of their other property.

          I just wondered if that might be where you were born, and if your parents worked for them.

          I never knew about this terrible tornado. I grew up in Jackson, but spent a great deal of time in Duncan 50s-60s, mostly. Speaking of all the Chinese grocers, my grandmother shopped with the Gongs, and I remember their family. They were active at Duncan Baptist Church, I believe.

          I am trying to place the exact location of the Wolfe Brothers building. It seems it was in the middle of the block where the bank was. I recall it was white. I have a photo somewhere. I am inspired now to go find it!

          I hope you receive this note and will write back to tell me more.

          Best regards,
          Robbie Lloyd
          (I was named for my grandfather.)

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Weren’t there two Chinese grocery stores in Merigold then? I think several have been overlooked.


  3. Do you know the date?

    Princella QoD



  4. Yes! There were/are the Joe in the middle of the business thru block facing South West, the Joes I think. On the corner to the right of them, facing South east, there were Gongs. Mrs. Gong was still Buddhist, but converted to Christianity. Her husband, and Mr. Sing Gong,(Paul)_ of Duncan, MS., were brothers, The Merigold Gongs lived in an apartment over their store. There were also two Chinese groceries in Boyle, MS. Also in Rosedale, MS. Their was a Chinese Baptist Church , and probably still is, in Cleveland, MS. My father, Rev. Odis W. Henderson, Director of Missions for Bolivar County Southern Baptists from 1969 until his retirement in about 1991, was often their interim pastor, as was Rev. James Breland. Bro. Jimmy, as he was affectionately known, was the Director of the Baptist Student Union for many years by Delta State University in Cleveland, MS. He was a great favorite for an interim pastor when the Cleveland Chinese Baptist Church was between Chinese pastors. Many of the members spoke only Chinese, being elderly. Therefore, the service was preached once in Chinese, and once in English. They liked to have a Chinese Pastor who could preach in Chinese. Otherwise someone would translate along with the English sypeaking preacher. The problem was in getting and keeping a Chinese pastor. My Father twice aided them in the lengthy process of bringing a Chinese pastor over from China. The problem was, that after a few years, a large church from San Francisco would hire away their pastor! For that frustrating reason, my father finally was just called as their pastor in the 1980’s. Mr. Sing Gong (Paul), of Duncan, MS, and his family, were members of this church, which held services on Sunday afternoons. As far as I know, it’doors are still open on the East side of Cleveland, on the Walter Siller’s Highway to Ruleville, MS.


    • The Chinese Baptist Church closed about ten years ago. The building now has offices for a home health service. The cornerstone of the long-gone Chinese School which was next to the church is now in front of the Charles Capps Archive building at Delta State University. God bless.


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