Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants Led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South by Adrienne Berard

Chinese immigrants to Mississippi challenged school segregation a generation before the famous Brown v. Board of Education case.

water tossing boulders

Thirty years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision made school segregation unconstitutional, a case originated in small-town Mississippi to challenge the same injustices. Journalist Adrienne Berard’s Water Tossing Boulders reveals the little-known experience of the Mississippi Delta Chinese population, including the Lum family, whose two daughters were sent home from the local white school they attended in Rosedale, Miss. The resulting case, Gong Lum v. Rice (1924), made it as far as the United States Supreme Court, but failed.

Berard has done rigorous research, as detailed in her author’s note, and offers a storytelling style with momentum. She expertly evokes her characters. Jeu Gong Lum and his wife, Katherine Wong, were Chinese immigrants who met and married in the Delta; their daughters had divergent personalities, Berda rebellious and Martha an ardent scholar. Their lawyer, Earl Brewer, spent his career fighting for social reforms. Ultimately an anti-lynching campaign would take his attention away from the Lums’ case, perhaps ruinously. Other legal players are profiled, including Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis and Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who penned the Court’s unanimous decision in favor of segregation. This is the story of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the tortured arguments of eugenics, racism and segregation as much as it is the story of a family who simply wanted a decent education for their children. Told with precision, sympathy and context, Water Tossing Boulders is a brief but incisive history of great significance.


This review originally ran in the October 28, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 children.

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