Before Brown v. Board of Education, there was Gong Lum v. Rice.
The 1927 court case was a landmark of its time; Mississippi grocery store owner Gong Lum wanted to send his daughter Martha to the local white school but was refused on the basis of race. His case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was ruled that there was no discriminatory basis for excluding Lum’s daughter since she wasn’t white and could attend the local Black schools. According to BlackPast, the Supreme Court declared that under Mississippi law, Martha was a member of the “colored races” in order to preserve the rule about whites-only schools.
The case might have failed in 1927, but Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas finally achieved what Lum had hoped for his daughter. In 1954, the Supreme Court declared schools being “separate but equal” as unconstitutional, finally integrating schools. Brown v. Board came after 11 court cases reaching the Kansas State Supreme Court by 1950, according to the National Park Service. And, as we’ve now learned, Lum v. Rice also helped get the ball rolling about 30 years prior.
However, as Henry Yuk told me in a recent interview, law books don’t even include Lum v. Rice among their list of prominent cases. Yuk, who fans might know from the first season of Warrior and from other TV and film projects including The Equalizer, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Luke Cage, Iron Fist, The Sopranos, The Last Dragon, Kundun and A Father’s Son, is starring in the off-Broadway play Gong Lum’s Legacy, produced via Woodie King Jr.’s New Federal Theatre in association with the Peccadillo Theater Company. In Gong Lum’s Legacy, Yuk plays Charlie, a Mississippi grocery store owner and Chinese immigrant who must come to terms with his son Joe (Eric Yang) falling in love with a Black school teacher Lucy (DeShawn White). Lum’s real-life struggle with racism is interwoven into the story. According to Broadway World:
Gong Lum’s Legacy takes place in 1924 in the Mississippi Delta. Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South, we witness the unexpected romance that blooms between Joe Ting, a Chinese Immigrant and Lucy Sims, a Black school teacher.
Joe’s father, Charlie, is adamantly opposed to their relationship. When Charlie’s friend, Gong Lum, sues the local school board to permit his daughters to attend a white school. Charlie is confident that Lum will prevail and that Chinese people will soon have the same rights as whites. Charlie does not want those rights jeopardized by his son being romantically involved with a Black woman, and he does everything in his power to separate the young couple.
I talked with Yuk about the play and how its story has its finger on the pulse of today’s fight against racism and anti-Asian hate crimes. Yuk also talked about how people can get active in protesting anti-Asian hate and racism as a whole. Watch the video interview below.
Gong Lum’s Legacy debuted Mar. 24, and will run through April 24 at the Theater at St. Clements at 423 W. 46th St. in Manhattan, NYC. Tickets are available at Instant Seats. Running time is 1 hr. 40 min. with one intermission.