Warning: racial epithets and violence
My name is Brad Chao. I'm living in Chicago now but I spent my growing-up years in the Mississippi Delta. It’s now 2001 and I just turned 80 years and have been thinking lately about my early life down south. I never fit in there despite my goal of trying to be accepted. The worst thing that ever happened to me took place there when I was only a teenager. The events almost cost me my freedom and life. I ultimately had to flee for suspicion of murder with the sheriff on my tail. We Chinese were a handy target for the bullies in town but I’m getting ahead of myself.
You may be curious about how I got to Mississippi in the first place. I was born in 1921 in a poor area in southern China. Rocky, dry land, and large families with too many mouths to feed. At age 15, I took off, seeking a better life. I made my way to Canton, now Guangdong, and was hired as a mess boy on a passenger ship bound for New York. I jumped ship when we arrived in port. I quickly found work in a Chinese laundry in Brooklyn but it was not a satisfying life for me, particularly since I was by myself.
My uncle, Charlie Chao, had come to the U.S. around the turn of the century and settled in Rosedale, Mississippi, which had a small Chinese community. A speck of a town with a handful of rundown stores, one of which Charlie rented to sell groceries to black people. Chinese grocery stores played an important role in Mississippi rural culture because white store owners wouldn’t sell goods to them. Their stores, small shacks really, filled an important function in small towns. They served as gathering places for blacks who wanted to socialize with their neighbors and also for job-finding. They also offered credit that was essential to the very poor people.
Anyway, Charlie was growing quite frail. He had sent a letter to me in Brooklyn, offering me a job in his store which I quickly accepted. I was his only heir and also his only family. He had lost his wife about 30 years previously and had no kids of his own. It was tough work, mainly because of the long hours. Sun up to sun down, 365 days a year. None of us Chinese had been to school back home and spoke poor English and, perhaps, even poorer Chinese. We lived in the back of our stores, squeezed together like sardines.
Our social status in Mississippi was somewhere between the whites and blacks. We were shopkeepers which did earn us some degree of respect. But we also weren’t allowed to go to school with the whites. The county did set up Chinese school rooms for our kids, usually taught by a white teacher. We made enough money to put rice on the table but not much more. Most of the Chinese kids in town caught a bus heading out of town as soon as they could. Family ties did keep a number of Chinese in the state but under continuing and difficult circumstances, particularly from the local Klan. I won't go into that here.
Shortly after I arrived in town, Uncle Charlie took sick and died. I then became the sole proprietor of his store which I had inherited. The Chinese community was always very supportive of me and I never felt lonely or heartsick. My life was as good as it gets down there until one evening when I seemed to have become a criminal with no special effort on my part.
Bursting through the front door of my grocery store one evening came Mr. Beauregard Tavernier, dragging a large, heavy burlap sack behind him. I knew who he was from town gossip but, of course, he had never set foot in my store. I did know that he owned the largest cotton plantation in the area.
He entered in a rush and obviously in a foul mood. He was grunting as he pulled a heavy sack into the room. I came out from behind the counter and respectfully bowed to him, anxious to find out what why he was there. My humble gesture didn’t seem to put him in a better mood.
“Don’t just stand there, boy,” he said to me. “Can’t you see that I need help with this here load,” he shouted.
“Help in what way, Mr. Tavernier? I'm sure what kind of help you need.” My question definitely put in an even fouler mood. In retrospect, it truly was a stupid question but chalk it up to me being scared shitless.
“Quit your yapping, boy! I need to store this here sack out of sight for a while,” he said, glancing around the premises.
He then said: “Where does that door yonder lead to?”
"My storage room for canned goods and sacks of flour," I replied. "No customers are allowed back there," I replied.
"That suits my purpose for my package," he replied. "Now help me get it back there."
The two of us pulled his heavy sack back to the room. Both of us were straining because it was so heavy and flopped around.
“You hear me good now, boy. Y’all hold onto this for a day or two until I find a more suitable place for it. Right now, your store is my best choice, at least for a spell. No one’s gonna think of your place when lookin’ for the corpus delicti. But that’s pretty fancy talk for y'all. Pay it no mind.”
“Anyone asks,” he continued, “you never seen me this night or any other. I’m goin’ to send one of my boys back here tomorrow night to collect it. You’ll need to help him boost it onto the truck. Don’t let anyone see what you’re doing. The dark night will help but there are a lot of ‘eyes’ in this part of town.”
He then rushed out of the store as quickly as he had entered, never looking back. I just stood there, shaking my head and wondering what had just happened. I did not have a good feeling about it. It was clear that I had few or no other options so I went along with his directions.
The next day around lunchtime, a sharp rap came on the front door. This time it was Sheriff Burnley who stepped inside. No one ever knocked on the door so I was on high alert to see who was there. His visit, though, set a new record for me—two high profile, white men showing up out of nowhere in my store in just two days. He looked around suspiciously and then beckoned for me to come over to him from behind the counter. I was in a state of shock, continuing from the previous night, and aware that I was in deep trouble.
“You Brad Chao? he asked.
“Yes, sir, how can I help you.”
“Well, to start and unfortunately, there’s been a lynchin’ of a colored boy in town. Age 16 years. You may have heard some talk about this? It’s on everyone’s lips. This gossip will truly be the death of me.”
“No, Sir. What you are saying is none of my business. I don’t pay no mind to town gossip. I try to keep a clean record and just run my store for my black customers who are also good citizens.”
“I decide who’s a good citizen,” the Sheriff replied. “More to the point, I was told by one of your neighbors that Mr. Beauregard Tavernier was seen entering these premises last night. That seemed strange to all of us back at the station. White men don’t usually have no truk with the the Chinese and their shops. Did you, by any chance, see him last night?”.
I replied, trying to keep my cool and provide him with the best, honest answer I could under the circumstances: “Sheriff, you of all folks, know that no white men would be caught dead in a Chinese grocery in town, particularly at night. Only for black folks.”
“That’s sure true, the Sheriff replied quickly, stroking his beard and still looking at me, squinty-eyed. “The story didn’t make no sense to me but I am trying to cover all the bases. Lynchin’ has become less ‘popular’ these days in the state and I am starting to feel some pressure from above to find a guilty party. ”
For a moment, he appeared to be suspiciously eyeing the back of my store. That’s the last thing in the world that I wanted.
“Watcha' got stored back there, boy? he asked suddenly. "Your stock or, perhaps, even some other goods?"
“No need to search the store any further, Sheriff” I responded. “You don’t want to go back there. That’s where I live. Very messy. I also cook there on a hot plate. Kind of smells bad. You won’t like it. Best stay away.”
He seemed to be satisfied by my words, and also not inclined to stay in my store any longer than necessary. He suddenly wheeled around and strode out the front door, not even giving me a backward glance. I was glad to see him gone, but I didn’t know what to do next.
I finally realized that I was in a heap of trouble, none of which was of my own making. I was now apparently on the sheriff’s short list of possible suspects for the lynching, although it made no sense at all. He just wanted to arrest someone but certainly not a prominent white man.
It was the next night and I was sleeping. I heard a soft knock on the back door. I opened it carefully to see Aaron, a black man who worked for Mr. Beauregard. A truck was parked in the back of the store, idling.
“Boss man, sent me to pick up a ‘package’ that you holdin’ for him in your store,” he said. “He tole me not to let anyone see me transport it. So here I am.”
I got out of bed and helped Aaron load the sack on his truck bed and then covered it with a tarp. He motioned me over to him and placed his mouth gently to my ear.
“Mr. Chao, I don’t know what you done and I don’t even want to know. You been kind to us. People in town doin’ a lot of talkin’ about recent events, however. The sheriff lookin’ for someone to pin this lynchin’ on. The ‘trouble’ seems to be puttin’ the town and state in a bad light. You yourself now seem to be the perfect choice for blamin' for the crime. They won’t never pin a lynchin’ on a black man and you may be the next best choice.” With that he hurried over to the truck and drove away in a cloud of dust.
I began to go over my options to stay alive. They were to stay in town or jump on a bus headed north. It would not be good for one of our community to be under a magnifying glass. Best thing, I finally concluded, would be to catch the bus for Chicago that left early the next morning. The sheriff would soon be looking for another patsy. Unfortunately for him, to charge a black with a charge of lynching would be laughable.
I packed my suitcase in a hurry, reserving a place for a small Chinese shrine with the ashes of my Uncle Charlie. Nothing much else of value to take with me. A few wrinkled clothes. I knew that hightailing it out of town made me look guilty.
I knew for certain that the large number of white people in town who had actually witnessed the lynching knew that I was not involved. All the sheriff needed to do was to ask a few questions in town which he didn’t seem to want to do. No, he would merely let this incident fade in people’s memory with his most important suspect gone to “who knows where up north.”