Asian American Officials in the American South 美南亞洲人當官

Winston Ho 何嶸.  
Independent Historian,
Researching Chinese American History in New Orleans 紐奧良華僑歷史研究.

https://nolachinese.wordpress.com
NolaChinese on FacebookYoutubeInstagram, and Pinterest.

2021 Mar. 18, Thursday (revised Oct. 20, Wednesday).


us50-1The following is a list of all known Asian Americans who have served in elected office in the American South. This is the first known attempt to compile such a list, and it should not be considered exhaustive. Short biographies and a bibliography of sources for each elected official is also currently being drafted. Many Asian Americans have served as judges in the American South but are not currently listed here.

This list began with a conversation between myself and the noted Chinese American photographer, Corky Lee, who had been following and sharing my research on Chinese American history in New Orleans over the past few years. I had already drafted a list of Asian American elected officials in the Greater New Orleans area, articles on my website for sheriff Harry Lee, parish president Cynthia Lee-Sheng, and city council woman Cyndi Nguyen, and a second list for Asian Americans in the Mississippi and Arkansas delta region, when Mr. Lee began asking exactly how many Asians Americans in the South had served in office.

At the beginning of March of 2021, I began developing the idea for an oral history project with these elected officials, so I also began researching Asian Americans in office in Texas, Florida, and Georgia. It was under these circumstances that the murder of eight victims, including six Asian Americans, unexpectedly took place in Atlanta and Cherokee county on Tuesday, Mar. 16, 2021. Because of the urgency of this evolving and fluid situation, this list has been uploaded to my website in haste, and I will upload the biographies over the next few weeks as I finish writing them.

Like all Americans, and indeed like everyone in the world, the Asian American community in the American South has been profoundly affected by the ongoing Covid crisis, including the death of family and friends in our community. One of those friends was Corky Lee, who passed away from Covid in January of this year. It is clear now that Covid, and the violence and harassment directed against our community, will be the defining crisis for our generation of Asian Americans. Future historians will remember how we as Americans respond today.

**** Four asterisks indicate that the elected official is currently in office.

Sources.  

NolaChinese:  Asian Americans in Louisiana Politics 亞洲美國人在路州參政.  Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL-du-0FMXLgNNjFQjOMHbfbyubHJ3hLyY). 

 



laLouisiana.  

Louisiana is special among all other Southern states in that Asian Americans have been present here for as long as Louisiana has been state.  Filipino American fishermen have lived in the wetlands of Southeast Louisiana since the beginning of the 1800s, if not earlier.  After the Civil War, thousands of Chinese contract laborers were introduced to Southern plantations, including cotton, sugar, and citrus plantations in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas.  They were soon followed by Chinese merchants, who established a small Chinatown in New Orleans.  Japanese and South Asians, especially Muslims from the Bengali region of modern India and Bangladesh, were settling in Louisiana by the 1890s.  Asian Americans from other U.S. states migrated to Louisiana in the twentieth century, including Chinese Americans displaced by the San Francisco earthquake, and Japanese Americans who were forced from their homes in California and other Western states during the Second World War.  Japanese Americans were interred in camps in Louisiana and Arkansas, and after the war, a few remained permanently in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and other Southern cities.  They were joined by Japanese war brides, women who married Louisiana men serving in the U.S. military during the post-war occupation of Japan. After the passage of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, large numbers of Taiwanese, Koreans, Pakistanis, and other immigrants from Asia began arriving in Louisiana.  Southeast Asians, namely the Laotians, Cambodians, and Vietnamese, displaced by war in their homelands, began settling in Louisiana in the mid 1970s.  Today, Vietnamese Americans are the largest group of Asian Americans in the state, though the population of Chinese Americans and Filipino Americans continues to grow.  Their numbers remain small compared to Asian Americans in the West or East Coast, but they have nonetheless made a disproportionately large contribution to the economy of Louisiana.  Likewise, Louisiana has elected an unusually diverse and large number Asian Americans to office, and has done so since 1979.  


Lee, Harry (朱家祥). Chinese American. New Orleans / Metairie, Jefferson Parish.
Federal Magistrate Court Judge, Eastern District of Louisiana (D), 1971 → 1975.
Jefferson Parish Attorney (D), 1975 → 1979.
Sheriff of Jefferson Parish (D), 1980 → 2007.

Harry Lee was a former federal judge who served for seven terms as sheriff of Jefferson Parish.  He was the first Asian American to be elected to office in Louisiana and the first Asian American to serve as the chief law enforcement officer for any major metropolitan area in the United States.  Harry Lee is the husband of Lai Bet Woo and the father of parish president Cynthia Lee-Sheng.  

Borne, Frank.  “Jefferson Parish Sheriffs.”  Jefferson History Notebook (vol. 8, no. 1, 2004 Feb.):  p. 2-7.  [There’s a copy of this journal in the Eastbank Regional Public Library in Metairie.]

Johnson, Allen Jr.  “The Last Emperor:  The Life and Times of Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee.”  Gambit (1999 Feb. 23):  p. 22-27, 29.  

Seder, Deno.  Wild About Harry: A Biography of Harry Lee.  New Orleans, Louisiana:  Edition Dedeaux, 2001.


Jindal, Bobby (Piyush Jindal). Indian American. Baton Rouge / Kenner, Jefferson Parish.
U.S. Congressman, Louisiana District 1 (R), 2005 → 2009.
Governor of Louisiana (R), 2009 → 2017.

Bobby Jindal was the first Asian American to serve in the U.S. Congress from Louisiana and the second Indian American to serve in Congress (after Dalip Singh Saund of California).  He was also the first Indian American to serve as governor of any state in the U.S., the first Asian American governor in the American South, and the second Asian American governor of any U.S. state (after the Chinese American Gary Locke of Washington state).  

Bobby Jindal, Congressman, Louisiana District 1.  House of Representatives archive (https://history.house.gov/People/Detail?id=16063).  

Bobby Jindal, Governor of Louisiana.  Secretary of State archive (https://www.sos.la.gov/HistoricalResources/AboutLouisiana/LouisianaGovernors1877-Present/Pages/BobbyJindal.aspx).  

Bobby Jindal, official website (https://www.bobbyjindal.com/).  

“Bobby Jindal:  APA Legacy Leader.”  U. S. Capitol Historical Society (2013 Apr. 4).  Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8dH1koHCjkI).  

 


Lee-Sheng, Cynthia (朱嫦娥). Chinese American. Metairie, Jefferson Parish.  
Jefferson Parish Councilwoman, District 5 (R), 2009 → 2015.  
Jefferson Parish Councilwoman-At-Large, Division B (R), 2015 → 2020.  
**** Jefferson Parish President (R), 2020 → present.  

Cynthia Lee-Sheng is the first Asian American to serve on the council of any parish in Louisiana, the first Asian American to serve as chief executive of any parish, and the first woman to serve as the president of Jefferson Parish.  Cynthia Lee-Sheng was the wife of Stewart Sheng, who died of an un-diagnosed heart condition at an early age when Lee-Sheng was serving on the parish council.  She is the mother of two, and she is the daughter of former Jefferson Parish sheriff Harry Lee.  

Cynthia Lee-Sheng, Jefferson Parish President, official website (https://jeffparish.net/government/parish-president).  

Cynthia Lee-Sheng, official campaign website (https://www.cynthialeesheng.com/).  


Cao, Joseph (Cao Quang Ánh). Vietnamese American. New Orleans.  
U.S. Congressman, Louisiana District 2 (R), 2009 → 2011.  

Joseph Cao was the first Vietnamese American to serve in the U.S. Congress.  Trained as an attorney, he was one of the plaintiffs who led a successful lawsuit that closed a toxic landfill built by the city of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans East neighborhood, adjacent to the Vietnamese American community to Versailles.  

Joseph Cao, Congressman, Louisiana District 1, House of Representatives archive (https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/44592).  

Joseph Cao, official website (https://www.caolawfirm.com/).  


Drucker, Sharon Lo.  Taiwanese American.  New Orleans / Mandeville.  
St. Tammany Parish School Board, District 9 (R).  2014 → 2020.  

Sharon Lo Drucker is a native of New Orleans and the daughter of immigrants from Taiwan.  She graduated from Louisiana State University with a bachelor’s degree in finance and worked for many years in the Greater New Orleans area as an insurance claims adjuster.  A community activist and longtime volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and other local charities, she was first elected in 2014 to the St. Tammany Parish School, a mostly affluent and white suburban parish on the northshore of Lake Pontchartrain, across from New Orleans.  She was re-elected in 2018, but resigned in 2020 before completing her second term.  


Pannu, Raj (Rajender Pannu).  Malaysian American.  LaPlace, St. John the Baptist Parish. 
St. John the Baptist Parish Councilwoman, District 7, 2016 → 2020.  

Raj Pannu is a native of Malaysia and the owner of several Subway sandwich franchises in Southeast Louisiana.  She is a longtime resident of LaPlace in the River Parishes, and she has served as president of the Belle Terre Civic Association for many years.  She is also a noted community activist and leader in the LaPlace Rotary Club and the Asian Pacific American Society of New Orleans (APAS-NO).  Pannu was appointed by the St. John Parish Council to serve as an interim councilwoman for District 7, replacing Buddy Boe, who had been appointed the communications director for Lt. Governor Billy Nungesser.  She served most councilman Boe’s term, but decided not to run for a second term.  

Vargas, Ramon Antonio.  “St. John council picks civic association head Raj Pannu to temporarily fill vacant seat.”  New Orleans Advocate (2016 Jun. 29).  Accessed from the Times-Picayune (https://www.nola.com/news/politics/article_3b21229e-12a9-5b12-8a12-c7e29cd17e06.html).  


Nguyen, Cyndi. Vietnamese American. New Orleans.
**** New Orleans City Council, District E (D), 2017 → present.

Cyndi Nguyen is the founder of the Vietnamese Initiatives in Economic Training (VIET), a non-profit organization that assists other Vietnamese Americans in healthcare, childcare, small business development, and language issues.the first Asian American to serve on the New Orleans City Council. 

Cyndi Nguyen, New Orleans City Council, District E, official website (https://council.nola.gov/councilmembers/cyndi-nguyen/).  

 



TXTexas.  

A few dozen Chinese first arrived in Texas as contract laborers on the plantations after the Civil War, but the first major settlement of Chinese took place in El Paso in the 1870s.  The Chinese here were laborers who built the Southern Pacific Railroad between Los Angeles and New Orleans, and they built nearly all of the railroad between Los Angeles and El Paso, as well as spur lines to Arizona, New Mexico, and other Texas cities.  In 1916, around two hundred Mexican Chinese aided John Pershing’s expedition against the Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, and “Pershing’s Chinese” followed this expedition back to the United States.  A special act of Congress was passed allowing Pershing’s Chinese to remain in the United States, and most settled in San Antonio, establishing a Chinese American community here.  After the passage of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, large numbers of immigrants from all of Asia settled in Texas, especially in Texas cities such as Dallas/Ft. Worth, Austin, and Houston.  These immigrants and their descendants have established several flourishing Asian American communities, including a Chinatown and a Little Saigon in Houston.  Immigrants from Asia and Asian Americans from other U.S. states continue to migrate to Texas cities, and today, Texas has the largest population of Asian Americans in the American South, and the Greater Houston area has one of the largest Asian American populations in the United States.  Since the 2000s, Houston has elected several Texas Asians to its city council and to the Texas State Legislature.  Asian Americans have become such an entrenched element in Texas politics that Texas Asians from both the Republican and Democratic parties have run against each other for the same office.  


Khan, M.J. (Masrur Javed Khan). Pakistani American. Houston.
Houston City Councilman, District F, 2004 → 2010.

M.J. Khan is the first Muslim American and first Pakistani American to be elected to office in the American South.  

 


Hoang, Al. Vietnamese American. Houston.
Houston City Councilman, District F, 2010 → 2014.  

“Interview with Al Hoang.” Rice University. 2021. Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9-2QmvseU0).

 


Nguyen, Richard. Vietnamese American. Houston.
Houston City Councilman, District F, 2014 → 2016.

 


Le, Steve (Le Duc). Vietnamese American. Houston.
Houston City Council, District F, 2016 → 2020.

 


Vo, Hubert (Võ Việt).  Vietnamese American.  Houston.
**** Texas State Representative, District 149 (D), 2005 → present.  

Hubert Vo, Texas State Representative, District 149, official website (https://house.texas.gov/members/member-page/?district=149).

Hubert Vo, official campaign website (https://hubertvo.com/about/).

 


Wu, Gene (吳元之).  Chinese American.  Houston.  
**** Texas State Representative, District 137 (D), 2013 → present.  

Gene Wu, Texas State Representative, District 137, official website (https://house.texas.gov/members/member-page/?district=137).  

Gene Wu, official campaign site (http://genefortexas.com/meet-gene/).  

“Interview with Gene Wu.” Houston Asian American Archive, Rice University. 2021. Accessed from Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rcLnHXfKJC4).

 



AKArkansas. 

Like neighboring Mississippi and Louisiana, the Chinese first began settling in Arkansas as contract laborers on cotton plantations in the 1870s after the Civil War.  The Chinese plantation workers were subjected to long hours, difficult conditions, and poor pay, and within a few years, nearly all had abandoned the plantations and moved to other states or returned to California.  However, a few Chinese remained in the Arkansas Delta, where they established small stores and sold groceries to both white and black plantation workers.  Many Cantonese-speaking Chinese from Guangdong province and from other U.S. States followed this pioneering group of Chinese grocers.  By the early twentieth century, Chinese-owned groceries could be found in small towns throughout eastern Arkansas, northwest Louisiana, and western Mississippi, a region commonly known as the “Mid-South Delta.” Most of these small towns had a population of less than two thousand, and in most cases, only one or two Chinese American families lived in each town.  However, nearly all of the Chinese owned groceries, providing a valuable service to mostly African American patrons, while also providing a market for produce from white farmers and wholesalers. Under segregation, the Chinese gained a reputation among the white community for their honesty and work ethic.  The Chinese also gained respect from the black community for their generosity and for aiding families in need, often allowing men who had lost their jobs to purchase groceries on credit.  After the repeal of segregation and the passage of the Voting Rights of 1965, large numbers of African Americans were registered to vote for the first time since Reconstruction, and political power in the Delta shifted from whites, who controlled most of the economic power in the Delta, to blacks, who became the majority of voters in many of these towns.  As the Chinese were neither white nor black, but respected by both, they were bridge between both communities.  Thus, the Mississippi and Arkansas Chinese were first elected as alderman (equivalent to a city councilman) and as mayors of these small towns in the 1970s, and continue to be elected to this day.  Other Asian American populations have settled in Arkansas since the passage of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, including a community of Laotian Americans in northwest Arkansas.


Howe, William Chew. Chinese American. Crawfordsville, Crittenden county.
Crawfordsville Councilman, 1971 → 1976.
Mayor of Crawfordsville, 1976 → 1993.


Owyoung, Jeff. Chinese American. McGehee, Desha county.
**** Mayor of McGehee, 2015 → present.
School Board President of McGehee, 2019 → present.

City of McGehee official website (https://cityofmcgehee.com/administration/).

McGehee School District official website (https://www.mcgeheeschools.org/administration).


Yee, Joe Dan. Chinese American. Lake Village, Chicot county.
Lake Village Alderman, 1996 → 2019.
Chicot County Assessor, 2015 → present.
**** Mayor of Lake Village, 2019 → present.

Lake Village city government official website (http://lakevillagear.gov/elected-officials/).

Lake Village city government State of Arkansas website (https://local.arkansas.gov/local.php?agency=Lake%20Village).

 



MSMississippi.  

[Note that the designer of the magnolia blossom in the Mississippi State flag is Sue Anna Joe, a Chinese American from Greenwood, Mississippi.]

Like neighboring Arkansas and Louisiana, the first major settlement of Chinese to Mississippi were contract laborers on the plantations during Reconstruction.  By the mid-1870s, most of the Chinese had fled the plantations and abandoned the South, but a few stayed in the Mississippi Delta, where they established stores that provided groceries to mostly African American patrons, and provided a market for produce from white farmers and wholesalers.  In the following decades, many other Chinese Americans from other U.S. states purchased or started groceries in Mississippi, and by the early twentieth century, at least one Chinese-owned grocery could be found in nearly every small town in the Delta.  In addition to small towns, the Mississippi Chinese in small cities, such as Greenville and Cleveland, owned groceries in several neighborhoods.  As in Arkansas and Louisiana, the Chinese in segregated Mississippi were respected by whites for their honesty and work ethic, and by blacks for their generosity and for allowing families in need to purchase groceries on credit.  But unlike Arkansas and Louisiana, where the Chinese were considered “white” under segregation, the Chinese were considered “colored” in Mississippi, following the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision Lum v. Rice of 1927. As segregationist laws became increasingly restrictive in the 1920s, this new law allowed local governments to redefine “colored,” including expanding the word to include the Chinese.  As Chinese American students were now barred from entering white public schools, the Mississippi Chinese and their allies in the Southern Baptist Church established schools exclusively for the Chinese, so that Greenville and Cleveland had white schools, colored schools, and Chinese schools.  Indeed, Mississippi has a long history of cooperation between white religious and business leaders and their Chinese American counterparts, despite the long history of white supremacy against blacks that also exists in that state.  It was this alliance of white and Chinese leaders that led the successful effort to overturn the segregation of Chinese from the white schools in the late 1940s following the Second World War.  Chinese were allowed to attend the formerly whites-only schools and colleges in Mississippi over ten years before African American students were also allowed to do so, in the chaotic years following the Brown v. Topeka Supreme Court decision of 1954.  With the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both white leaders and black voters supported Chinese American candidates as alderman and mayors of these small towns, which they perceived as a compromise candidate for both communities.  Thus, several Chinese Americans have served in local office in Mississippi between the 1970s and 1990s, though the Chinese American population remains small.  Meanwhile, the Asian American population in the state capital of Jackson and along the Mississippi Gulf Coast has grown rapidly since the 1970s, especially due to immigration from Vietnam and Mainland China.  


Brooks, Joe Sr. Chinese American. Cary, Sharkey county.
Cary Alderman.
Mayor of Cary.


Wing, John. Jonestown, Coahoma county.
Mayor of Jonestown.

John Wing is the elder brother of Luck Wing, the former mayor of Sledge.  


Wing, Luck. Chinese American. Jonestown / Sledge, Quitman county.
Mayor of Sledge.

Luck Wing is the younger brother of John Wing, the former mayor of Jonestown.  


Lee, Hoover. Chinese American.  Louise, Humphreys county.
Mayor of Louise, 1973 → 1997.

 



GAGeorgia.  

There is conflicting information as to how Asian Americans first settled in Georgia, but by the end of the 1800s, dozens of Chinese Americans owned laundries and groceries in Georgia cities, including Augusta, Macon, Savannah, and Atlanta.  The Chinese were generally treated like whites in these segregated cities.  Chinese laundry-workers did not compete with whites for jobs, and the Chinese grocers existed primarily in African American neighborhoods.  Like most of the American South, and unlike the American West, there is little evidence for widespread discrimination against Asian Americans in Georgia beyond a few isolated incidents.  The Georgia State Legislature did consider expanding segregationist laws to the Chinese, as Mississippi had done, but ultimately, Georgia did little beyond expanding the anti-miscegenation laws to the Chinese.  The Asian American population of Georgia remained small until the passage of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965.  Since that time, the Asian American population of the state has exploded, with migrants from Asia and especially Asian Americans from other U.S. States.  In particular, metro Atlanta, a city that has flourished economically since the late twentieth-century, has emerged as one of the largest Asian American populations in the American South.  The Georgia Asian population continues to grow as the city of Atlanta grows and becomes increasingly diverse.  


Byrd, Charlice (Hew). Chinese American. Metairie, Louisiana / Woodstock (metro Atlanta), Cherokee county.
**** Georgia State Representative, District 20 (R), 2005 → 2013, 2021 → present.

Charlice Byrd, Georgia State House of Representatives, District 20, official website (https://www.legis.ga.gov/members/house/75?session=1029).

Charlice Byrd, official campaign website (https://charlicebyrd.com).

Charlice Byrd, official Youtube site (https://www.youtube.com/user/CharliceByrd/videos).

 


McMillian, Carla Wong.  Chinese American.  Augusta, Augusta–Richmond county. 
Georgia County Judge, Fayette County, 2010 → 2013. 
Georgia State Court of Appeals Judge, 2013 → 2020.
**** Georgia State Supreme Court Justice, 2020 → present.

A native of Augusta, Georgia, Carla Wong McMillian is the first Asian American to serve as a state supreme court justice in the American South.  

Carla Wong McMillian, Georgia State Supreme Court Justice, official website (https://www.gasupreme.us/court-information/biographies/justice-carla-wong-mcmillian/).  

 


Au, Michelle 歐曉瑜. Chinese American. New York City / Johns Creek (metro Atlanta), Fulton county.
**** Georgia State Senator, District 48 (D), 2021 → present.

Michelle Au, Georgia State Senator (D), District 48, official website (https://www.legis.ga.gov/members/senate/4983?session=1029).

Michelle Au, official campaign website (https://auforga.com/meet-michelle/).

 



FLFlorida.  

Florida did not have a significant Asian American population before the Immigration Reform Act of 1965.  But since that time, the Asian American population has exploded, especially in Florida cities such as Jacksonville, Tampa Bay, Miami, and Orlando.  Many Asian Americans have migrated from other U.S. cities, especially from northeastern and other southern states.  Asian Americans are following the same trend as other Americans, who are migrating from the overcrowded cities of the north, and the economically stagnant regions in the deep south, to the economically vibrant cities of Texas and the Southern East coast.  Florida was also an important place of settlement for Southeast Asian refugees in the mid 1970s, along with other southern states such as Texas, Louisiana, and Georgia.  Today, Florida has one of the largest Vietnamese American populations in the U.S.  


Murphy, Stephanie (Dang) (Đặng Thị Ngọc Dung). Vietnamese American. Virginia / Orlando.
**** U.S. Congresswoman, Florida District 7 (D), 2017 → present.

Stephanie Murphy, Florida District 7 (D), official website (https://murphy.house.gov/biography/).

Stephanie Murphy, official campaign website (https://www.stephaniemurphyfl.com/about/).

 

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