Unlike Rosa Parks, who led the Montgomery Bus Boycott in Alabama, Doris Topsy-Elvord got early lessons in racial tolerance in an unlikely place--the Mississippi Delta.
First Black Female
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In these sharecropping arrangements, families needed all hands, including the children's hands, to work the land, help plant and bring in the crops to pay the landowner his share of the crops and settle the bill at the farm store.
In Mississippi, Doris Topsy-Elvord's mother was a nurse at a Vicksburg hospital and her father owned his own business. In Alabama, Rosa Parks' mother was schoolteacher and her father owned his own business. These families had comfortably independent lives, except for Jim Crow laws that affected all people of color in the South and nationwide. Jim Crow laws made life for African Americans like Doris Topsy-Elvord and Rosa Parks seem as though the Union had not defeated the Confederacy and won the Civil War, although during the War, between 1862 and 1863, Vicksburg, overwhelmed by Union troops, was captured by Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863, a strategic maneuver by Lincoln's Army. The importance of Vicksburg was significant to the Union due to its location on the Mississippi River as a supply port.
Jim Crow laws ruled education in the southern United States in the 1930s, but somehow, Vicksburg schoolgirl, Doris Topsy-Elvord escaped school segregation before the Civil Rights Movement, unlike Rosa Parks, who was forced to attend segregated schools throughout her education.
|Library of Congress|
Ironically, this global political upheaval had little impact on some African Americans and other poor families, many of whom were white, with little if anything to lose living hand-to-mouth in tents and cars. Sending their children to college was the last thing on their minds with jobs impossible to find and food nearly as scarce.
Segregated public school education in those days in most of the South was inferior for black students like Rosa Parks with school districts using most of the money allotted for white schools, teachers and school buses. Segregated schools in those days did not provide school buses for transporting black students to school. Black children like Rosa Parks walked several miles to school. Unlike Rosa Parks, however, whose mother was a schoolteacher, many students were the children of sharecroppers who were not educated and were unable to help their children with their lessons.
|Rosa Parks, Young Adult|
Topsy-Elvord lived with her parents in the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, with the integrated Catholic school within a short walking distance from their comfortable home. What her family had in common with their non-plantation non-black immigrant counterparts, who also lived in their neighborhood, was the choice of a good school for their children and the desire to educate their children, a key to improved economic status and social standing, the same desire of the white community.
|Photograph circa 1900: Photograph courtesy |
Library of Congress
Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-131516
The Ku Klux Klan and other similar groups targeted Catholics, including Italians, Italians in Mississippi By Charles Reagan Wilson. Photo above: Early banana importers and distributors were mostly Italian immigrants. The Alfonso family in Gulfport and their Standard Fruit Steamship Co. imported fruit from Honduras, distributing it throughout Mississippi and elsewhere.
|No Chinese Poster|
There, Chinese families became part of the natural human landscape, influencing their neighbors with their Chai tea rituals, exotic spices, herbal remedies and Eastern medicines.
Through labor agents, the same tactic was used to import southern Italian, Lebanese and Syrian indentured servants to Mississippi Delta plantations to pick cotton alongside the Chinese and black workers who had stayed on farms after being freed.
On the other hand, Jews who landed in the Mississippi Delta were inexperienced at farming, having been legally prevented in Europe. This meant they had no farming background and were unable to produce a living in that way. Many became peddlers of goods and storekeepers as they had done and their parents had done before leaving Europe. They bought goods at the port in Vicksburg and made their way inland to sell their wares. "At the close of the Civil War, there were 90 Jewish families in Vicksburg. They own 35 stores in the town," GOLDRING-WOLDENBERG INSTITUTE OF SOUTHERN JEWISH LIFE
Immigrants, who earned their way off of plantations, got jobs or opened businesses in Vicksburg, and sent their children to Catholic school where they could learn English and get an education. Most of these immigrants, unwelcome to reside in white neighborhoods and send their children to white public schools, lived among African Americans. The Delta's dominant class considered some immigrants as undesirable for assimilation as African Americans because of immigrants' dark complexion, foreignness of their customs and former cotton-picker status, regardless of the white racial classification these immigrants may have claimed.
Racial classification was so blatant in the United States during the early 20th Century that southern Italians were classified as a different nationality from northern Italians, who thought themselves to be more “white” and more closely related to the French and Germans. This classification seems to have been based on shades of complexion—fair-skinned northern Italians as opposed to dark-skinned southern Italians.
“When we lived in Vicksburg, Mississippi,” Topsy-Elvord said, “I went to school with Italians, Chinese and other nationalities. The kids there treated me like I treated them. It was based on character, not color. We lived in the same neighborhoods, too.”
Often, people who are educated and have been exposed to other cultures look at society and life in a more sophisticated way. Topsy-Elvord's childhood experience in race relations may account for her later success in an atmosphere that could have felt discouraging to others. This does not say Vicksburg, Mississippi, was a bastion for racial tolerance. It says Vicksburg, a southern city with racial problems, may have forced its minority communities into a fragile social order that developed out of an economic rather than racial climate, unlike West Coast and northern cities that did not have the same history and, in many ways, ignored racial issues.
In 1942, Topsy-Elvord's family left Mississippi and moved to Long Beach, California. “I was the only African American student at St. Anthony when we got to Long Beach,” said Topsy-Elvord. As a nine-year-old child, when she first entered St. Anthony, she said she learned more about racism than she had ever known in Mississippi. “And it was in Long Beach, California, that I first heard the “N” word.” In 1949, Topsy-Elvord became the first African American to graduate from St. Anthony High School in Long Beach.
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