A Q&A with Adrienne Berard
In 1924, in the Mississippi Delta, thirty years before Brown v. Board of Education, a Chinese immigrant and father of three filed what would become the first U.S. Supreme Court case to challenge the constitutionality of segregation in Southern public schools. The case of Gong Lum v. Rice was lost to history until journalist Adrienne Berard, who was visiting the Delta State University archives to research her own family’s connection to the region, stumbled upon this ground-breaking case, the implications of which can still be felt today.
In Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants Led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South, Berard uncovers the story of the Lum family whose daughters, Martha and Berda, were forced out of the school they had attended through fourth grade, when it was suddenly decided that, as Chinese-Americans, the girls were “colored” and therefore no longer welcome at the newly accredited, all white school. Through meticulous research, Berard reconstructs the experience of day-to-day life for the Lum family living as outsiders in their small Mississippi town, and explores how the racial and economic climate of the time compelled further segregation in Southern schools. We caught up with Berard to ask her about her research, her personal connection to the family’s story, and how her book illuminates stark similarities to many race and class tensions that still exist today.
What drew you to the Lums’ case and why did you think their story was important to tell?
I found the Lums’ case completely by accident. I was visiting the archives at Delta State University, researching my own family history in Mississippi, and happened upon a meeting of members from the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum. The museum was just an idea at the time. The thought was that the archives would serve as a repository for the history of Chinese immigration in the Mississippi Delta. Years later, that museum now exists at Delta State, but at the time the members were just throwing around ideas about how to make it happen. I immediately sensed that there was an important piece of history in that legacy, so I spoke with Emily Jones, the head archivist at Delta State, and she set me on the course of research that would eventually become a book about the Lum family and their fight to integrate a white school in the Delta.
I spent about four years on the research. It was a real challenge to find historical records on the Lum family, because the father was an undocumented immigrant and the mother came under the capacity of a servant. Writing history about minorities and people of color, you are constantly confronted with the value system of the societies in which they lived. Some crucial records were never kept, and the accuracy of the records that exist is questionable. The racism of their time affected how their story was remembered, or in this case, not remembered. There is only one white male character who is central to the book, the Lums’ lawyer, and I had access to decades of letters, family histories, multiple biographies. I spent a lot of time pulling every detail I could from what remains of the Lum family so they would not be overshadowed by the wealth of material preserved on their lawyer.
Can you tell us about your personal connection with this story?
Personally, my family goes back at least four generations in the Mississippi Delta. My grandmother went to school in the same district as the case I explore in the book. I still have a lot of reckoning to do with my own history there. My ancestors never managed to accumulate wealth. We were what were referred to at the time as “river rats,” people who survived on whatever they could pull from the banks of the Mississippi River. My ancestors would have been in the county at the time the Lum family brought the case, but they likely would not have supported their efforts. That’s just the reality of the white working class experience in the Delta, and the South as a whole. I love my family, but we come from a legacy of racism that was intrinsic to white Southern culture.
What bearing do you think the Lum family’s case has on today’s issues?
Currently, the district Martha Lum fought to integrate in 1924 is under a federal court order to integrate its school system. The district is now in the process of fighting the federally mandated integration by proposing their own solutions. The problem is far bigger than Bolivar County, Mississippi. It’s an American problem—and I hope for the sake of this nation’s future that they are able to step up and make the district’s integration program a success.
In terms of the Lum family’s experience in America, the rhetoric surrounding immigrants today, the efforts of entire political parties to stoke a fear of immigrants, mirrors the kind of xenophobia and racism the Lum family would have experienced in the 1920s. It would be great to say that the issues brought forward by the Gong Lum v. Rice case have no relevance today, but unfortunately the case is more relevant than ever.
About the Author
Adrienne Berard is an award-winning journalist and graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. She has been the Writer-in-Residence at Delta State University in Mississippi and now resides in Williamsburg, Virginia. Follow her on Twitter at @ and visit her website.