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By Joyska Nunez-Medina
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. According to the 2020 census, 178,683 people in Tennessee reported themselves as Asian alone or in combination. This was a 58% increase from 2010. The history of Asian immigration to the area begins in the 1870s, when Chinese people settled in Memphis, building businesses and lives in the Delta. But only a few years prior, southern landowners and businessmen established the roots of a doomed plan to contract Chinese laborers to work farmland.
On December 25, 1868, Reconstruction President Andrew Johnson issued a proclamation extending “a full pardon and amnesty” to all who supported the Confederacy. With pardons granted, former Confederate officials, military officers, large landowners, and businessmen in the South were free to rebuild their lives after the Civil War.
Across the South, Black Americans began taking steps toward making the most of their emancipation by rebuilding families separated during slavery, creating new institutions like churches, pushing to exert more control over their work, and participating in politics. Large landowners, many of them former enslavers, had to come to terms with the fact that Black people were now free, were no longer property, and were no longer subservient. In the years after the Civil War, large landowners and businessmen deliberated on what to do with this issue and still hold on to their power. They reasoned that in order to make Black people productive once more, competition needed to be introduced to the South.
The Proposed Solution
Chinese people lived in the United States beginning in the 1830s, but major emigration from China began in the 1850s. Thousands of people from around the world headed to California and other gold-rich areas for the gold rush. Initially, many Chinese people came to the U.S. to escape political instability and to make money to send home with the intention of going back to China. Over time, many chose to stay and reside in the U.S. Chinese aid associations, restaurants, markets, and other Chinese-owned businesses were established in San Francisco and other major cities. As the number of Chinese people increased, so did anti-Chinese sentiment.
In a time of great change, there is a fear of the unfamiliar. With a language and culture so vastly different, animosity against Chinese people grew. Because of the role Chinese aid societies played in quickly finding jobs for new immigrants, many believed that these societies were fronts for bringing enslaved Chinese people into California. With slavery banned in California before the Civil War, newspapers and politicians pushed this belief to the public in efforts to make further Chinese immigration illegal and to expel all of the current Chinese. Though these accusations were false, this perception of the Chinese laborer as enslaved persisted in the years that followed.
Many Chinese individuals who wanted to work as miners experienced so much violence and discrimination that they were forced to seek work in other fields like railroads. Employment was found on the construction of the Transatlantic Railroad, beginning in 1863. The railroad company commissioned to construct the railroads from California to the East, the Central Pacific Railroad, hired thousands of Chinese laborers for the project. These laborers made up a majority of the workforce. Their labor was commended by the company as efficient. They were also much cheaper to hire than white men. These attributes interested those looking to bring Chinese laborers to the South.
Chinese men made up a majority of the workforce constructing the Transcontinental Railroad from the West to where it met up with the Eastern construction team in Promontory, Utah. (Courtesy of UC Berkley, Bancroft Library)
As early as 1865, the Memphis Daily Appeal, a newspaper with a broad reach in the Mississippi Delta, began suggesting the importation of Chinese laborers to the South. As a prominent, Democratic newspaper, the Appeal proclaimed the benefits of bringing Chinese laborers to the South and attempted to soothe any worries about bringing in foreigners. Concerns arose over the prejudiced reports of Chinese people as “miscreants” and “heathens.” Proponents spoke of them as dedicated workers and “never idle,” as they spend their spare time making things.
The Memphis Chamber of Commerce decided to bring together delegates from across the South to discuss the possibility of contracting Chinese laborers. On July 13, 1869, 500 businessmen and large landowners from across the Mississippi Delta met for three days at the Greenlaw Opera House in Memphis, Tennessee.
A clipping of Memphis Daily Appeal’s report on the first day of the convention, July 14, 1869.
The meeting was dubbed the Chinese Labor Convention. It hosted several notable former Confederates, such as Isham G. Harris (the governor of Tennessee when the state seceded from the Union), Gideon J. Pillow (Confederate Brigadier General), and J.W. Clapp (Confederate treasury agent). The goal of the convention was to find, “the best and cheapest means of securing Chinese laborers.” The first day’s schedule consisted of the election of Harris as the chairman of the convention and proceeded with discussions. During the convention, the Appeal published detailed accounts of what was happening at the meeting. Supplemental related articles were published in the same issues. These articles provided views in support, disapproval, or provided more context to the discussion. The debate was alive across the city.
Former governor of Tennessee Isham G. Harris (Tennessee State Museum collection, 76.43) and Confederate Brigadier General Gideon J. Pillow (Tennessee Encyclopedia). After the Civil War, the two men established a law firm in Memphis.
The delegates decided to form a joint-stock company, or corporation, that quickly assisted in bringing in immigrant laborers. Pillow, the head of the committee to form the company, “proposed that once the company was organized it would send agents to procure Chinese laborers in San Francisco.” By the end of the third day, the various committees discussed choosing the “most appropriate” Chinese laborers from the agricultural regions of China and how they planned on getting them to the South. Deemed the Mississippi Valley Immigration Company (MVIC), it already had several stock investments, most notably from Confederate General and owner of the Selma, Marion, and Memphis Railroad, Nathan Bedford Forrest. The MVIC collected approximately $60,000 in stocks by the end of the convention. Despite the growing hope the convention mustered, anti-Chinese sentiment was increasing steadily across the U.S.
In the final months of 1869, the Appeal and other publications in support of Chinese laborers being brought to the South called for investors. They also countered the negative stereotypes associated with Chinese immigrants. Claims of “heathenism” among the Chinese influencing others were countered by the belief that the Christian faith would prevail. Poor white farmers and labor managers believed Chinese people would displace them. The Appeal reassured them that Chinese people would find their place as tools for the South and that they would uplift the poor white worker.
In another instance, the Appeal published the opinion of a Chinese American merchant living in Chicago, Choy Chew. Chew was quoted advising fellow Chinese people against heading South for work saying, “You see they had slavery in the South, and now they want coolie labor to take its place!” He went further to recommend that Chinese merchants visit the South to report on their thoughts of the region. No comment from the Appeal editors was included in this case. Those and many other arguments were raised against Chinese people being brought to the South.
In December of 1869, Tennessee’s Thirty-sixth General Assembly incorporated the Mississippi Valley Immigration Company with one stipulation. The act stated, “That nothing in this act shall be so construed as to authorize the importation of Chinese into Tennessee by said company.” After three months of deliberation, the legislature decided to prevent the immigration of Chinese laborers by the MVIC. Ultimately, large landowners in Tennessee and other regions of the South resorted to a legal arrangement called sharecropping. Under this system, farmers rented land and paid landowners with a share of their crops. Many families who were sharecroppers had to make purchases on credit at local stores for basic needs further limiting the profits they could earn from their work. During the late 1800s, this system increasingly trapped many Black and white sharecroppers in terrible cycles of debt and poverty. This system remained commonplace in the South till the mid-20th century.
This Memphis Daily Appeal article published November 28, 1869, reports on the amendment banning the recruitment of Chinese laborers in Tennessee by the Tennessee Valley Immigration Company. Image Courtesy of Chronicling America.
This was not the end of the story for Chinese or people of Asian descent in the South. In Louisiana, Arkansas, and Mississippi, small groups of Chinese laborers were hired to work the land. Several chose to stay but left agriculture, building businesses and families. In Tennessee, the first Chinese launderers set up shop in Memphis in the 1870s, not long after the convention. After their arrival, Chinese-owned groceries and restaurants opened. The presence of Chinese people throughout Tennessee grew gradually, despite the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which banned Chinese citizenship and immigration of Chinese laborers in the U.S. and only allowed Chinese merchants and other specific occupations to enter. The first Chinese laundry businesses in Nashville and Knoxville were established in the 1880s. Several colleges and universities, such as Vanderbilt, accepted foreign born students, including a number of Chinese students. In the 1920s, Chinese settlers opened the first mutual aid organization in Memphis, the Lung Kong Tin Yee Association.
Joyska Nunez-Media is a Tennessee State Museum educator. She previously wrote about poet Nikki Giovanni for the Thousands of Stories blog.
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Zebley Liulevicius, Kathleen. Rebel Salvation: Pardon and Amnesty of Confederates in Tennessee. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2021.
 Kathleen Zebley Liulevicius, Rebel Salvation: Pardon and Amnesty of Confederates in Tennessee (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2021), 50.
 Zack McCullough, “‘Not as slaves… But as Freemen’: Coolies, Free Labor, and Reconstruction in the Age of Emancipation,” Master’s thesis, Middle Tennessee State University (2017): 21.
 “A Legacy from the Far East,” National Park Service, July 9 2021, https://www.nps.gov/gosp/learn/historyculture/a-legacy-from-the-far-east.htm.
 “Proposed Importation of Coolies in the South,” Memphis Daily Appeal (Memphis,TN), November 19, 1865.
 Ibid, 29.
 Later renamed the Grand Opera House, the building burned down in 1883.
 “John Chinaman,” Memphis Daily Appeal, July 1, 1869.
 “Chinese Labor Convention,” Memphis Daily Appeal, July 14, 1869.
 McCullough, 46.
 Lennie Austin Cribbs, “The Memphis Chinese Labor Convention, 1869,” The West
Tennessee Historical Society Papers 37, no. 74 (1983): 78.
 McCullough, 57.
 McCullough, 66.
 Ibid, 77-78.
 “A Chinaman’s Views of Emigration,” Memphis Daily Appeal, October 24, 1869.
 State of Tennessee, “Acts of the State of Tennessee 1869-1870“. (State legislation, Nashville, TN, 1870), 188-189.
 George H. Roberts, Nashville Directory Vol. 16 (Nashville: Marshall & Bruce, 1880) 310. https://books.google.com/books?id=b-sCAAAAYAAJ&pg=PP1#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Jack Neely, “Knoxville’s Asian Festival Highlights a Long Local History,” Knoxville History Project, August 26, 2016, https://knoxvillehistoryproject.org/2016/08/26/knoxvilles-third-annual-asian-festival-highlights-surprising-local-history/.
 “Durham Reporter,” Orange County Observer (Hillsborough, NC) September 2, 1882.
 “Gathering: Historical Marker Plaque,” Your Story, Our Story, Chinese Historical Association of Memphis and the Mid-South, 2019. https://yourstory.tenement.org/stories/gathering-historical-marker-plaque.