Penney Gong Interview · Back to DSU Oral Histories

Gong, Penny
Tape 1 of 1     10/7/99
By Georgene Clark


This is an interview for the Mississippi Oral History Project. This is being recorded with Ms. Penney Gong at the Capps Archives Building on October 7,1999. The interviewer is Ms. Georgene Clark.
GC: Penney, why don’t you tell me something about yourself? Your background, family, childhood, or where you grew up, those kinds of things? Just acquaint us with you please?
PG: Okay, I was born in San Francisco on May 19, 1950. I have a brother and sister.    Both were born in California. My mother was born in California in 1922, and my father was born in China. He came over to the United States when he was eight years old. He and my mother were married in 1944, and in 1954 we moved to Mississippi.
GC: What about growing up? Where in Mississippi did you live?
PG: We spent a year here in Cleveland, MS. My father had a great aunt that lived in Boyle, Ms., and she said Mississippi was the land of opportunity. So my father packed up our family, and we moved to Cleveland. We stayed in Cleveland a year. We had a grocery store on Highway 61. At that time there was not that much traffic going by the store and my parents could not make it. My grandfather had a friend in Clarksdale, MS, thirty-six miles away from Cleveland. He took my father under his wing, and set us up with a grocery store in Clarksdale,, and that is where we all resided.
GC: You know I always thought you were from Cleveland.
PG: No
GC: So when did you move back to Cleveland?
PG: When I came to Delta State. When I came to school.
GC: Oh okay, can you tell me something about growing up in Clarksdale, your childhood in Clarksdale?
PG: Okay, most of my childhood was spent in the grocery store. I went to school. It was very hard for my brother and sister when we moved here. Both of them failed the first year because of the language differences, the accents, and the differences in the schools from California. Both my brother and sister really never liked it here in Mississippi; it did not feel like home. All of my mom’s relatives were in California After they graduated from Delta State, they moved back to California. My sister tried to stay and taught at Coahoma County High School, but eventually moved back to California. I have always enjoyed it here. I call myself a true southerner. I have grown up here since I was four. I have never wanted to move away. Before getting married, I stayed most of the time in school or at home, and that was all.
GC: Did you have many friends as a child or were the children more?
PG: I played by myself or with my brother and sister when I was growing up before I started going to school. We had our store in the black area of town. We lived in the back of the store. I played mostly with the children around the store, which was great.   I had a really hard time starting school. I had a few good friends. Just went to school and came home.
GC: What about teachers? Were there any particularly memorable or influential?
PG: I had a teacher, Malcolm Mabry. I think he is a political leader in Clarksdale. He taught Civics. He was just about the only memorable teacher I had.
GC: How about extra-curricular activities in school?
PG: I never went to the games. That was the main thing with the Chinese culture– you stayed at the store and worked for the parents.
GC: Tell me more about how the Chinese culture differed from perhaps the Anglo of African American culture that you were being integrated into? How did you preclude you from doing certain things, like taking part in certain activities because you needed to do something else?
PG: Well you know–running a grocery store. My parents opened up every day, three hundred sixty-five days a year. So to be able to run a grocery store, the children and the parents had to spend most of their time stocking groceries, watching the store. So there is really no time for extra-curricular activities.
GC: Were there other Chinese families in the area?
PG:   There were. At the time that I was growing up, there was a large Chinese population. My mother made sure that we went to church every Sunday. We had an elderly couple that came by and picked us up to go to church every Sunday. We also had Chinese church. We also had Chinese school in the summer. So we could make sure we learned about the Chinese culture, learn about the Chinese language, and still try to learn how to use it.
GC: What about socializing not just in school but in your family too? When they were not working?
PG: Okay , that was never. Most of our activities were with our family. We did go to the drive in every Friday night. That was just about the only thing we did. I never had a store bought hamburger until I came to college. We never ate out.
GC: What about discrimination? Were there any times when you living in Clarksdale that you or anybody in your family felt discriminated against?
PG: We did have a problem with that. In the community where we lived we were quite accepted, but the blacks considered us as whites. The whites considered us as non-black, but we were kind of stuck in the middle there.   Because my father hunted and fished, he had a lot friends. There were a lot of people that came and socialized at the store.   My school integrated 1968. I still remember the one girl, the black girl that came to school there. I remember her name–Eleanor Fondren. The biggest thing that I remember about her was that she was ridiculed a great bit. She had a lot of humor, and she just laughed it off. She graduated with us.
GC: What grade was this?
PG: Twelfth grade. Senior year. So that was 1968. In 1967, we tried to buy a house so that I could go to school at Clarksdale High School. We met much opposition.
GC: Was it overt or was it covert? Did they come out directly and oppose the purchase?
PG: Yeah
GC: Or was it all subtly done?
PG: There was some people who were rather ugly to my parents, but those same people turned out to be some of our very best friends after thye got to know us and we them. In fact, Irby Ellis, I don’t know if you remember Irby Ellis, here at Delta State. His brother, Buddy Ellis was a judge in Clarksdale, and he was a very good friend of my father’s. He bought our first house for us, and he signed the house over. He used my father’s money to buy the house, and then he signed the house over to my father. After we moved in, our neighbors were just ignorant of the fact that we weren’t different.
GC: Do you still have family in Clarksdale now?
PG: No I have one aunt living here Cleveland, that is all.
GC: Okay Penney tell me about living in the new neighborhood, having a new house? How did you and your family adjust? Did you have any kinds of problems? I am especially interested in how you were able to retain your culture traditions, your heritage when you were living something of a melting pot, cultural melting pot there in your neighborhood?
PG: The Chinese church played a very big role in trying to keep the Chinese community together. To try to keep instilling their ideals. We were very fortunate to have a pastor that came in. His name was Dr. Jacken Chan. He was very educated. He came in, and he had certain ideas about how he wanted to church to bring all the Chinese community together. He is the one who made us go to Chinese school during the summer months while we were off. So we could learn the language. Learn how to write it, and to learn the Chinese culture and teachings. Also he wanted to make sure we were able to live with in the American society with these same values. After he retired, he retired back to Hong Kong. He became the Head of the English department at the University of Hong Kong. As I said we were very fortunate to have him. I think he played a major part in helping the youth grow up and be able to function well in the all of our surroundings.
GC: I want to jump ahead a little bit. Your freshman year in college, the whole college experience. You left Clarksdale, and you came here to Delta State. Tell me what it was like here at Delta State? How much adjusting did you have to do to deal with being away from home?
PG: It was very difficult, because I had never lived away from home. Very seldom did I spend the night out away from my family. I had a very good roommate, and she helped me get around at Delta State because I was very, very shy. At Delta State, there was always someone to help you. I remember Dr. Mary Long. She was the Dean of Women. She was very, very nice. You could go to her at any time, and it was very easy to talk with her. She made the people at Delta State when they first came not as scared as they would have been.
GC: What year did you come to Delta State?
PG: In 1969.
GC: Now if I recall correctly, that was pretty much the end of a pretty turbulent decade as far as Civil Rights were concerned. How did that movement affect you? Either here at Delta State, in Clarksdale, or did it at all? Were you involved? Were you an activist?
PG: No, at Delta State I did not see any kind of problems here. In Clarksdale the neighborhood where my parents still had the store was still a quiet community. My parents had a good relationship with the people they serviced, but during that time they were bringing people in from outside of Mississippi to try and stir up the movement. Since we were living in the black community, or my parents had their store in the black community, they considered us as white. Civil rights workers that came down may have gotten a bit carried away, but they burned my parents’ store down thinking that they needed to get us. They thought we were white, and they wanted us out of the community there. The people that lived around my parents’ store were devastated. My parents never rebuilt the store even though the people that lived around the store continuously called and wanted my parents to open the store back. It was too much.
GC: It was in the black neighborhood?
PG: It was in the black neighborhood. My parents had gotten older, and they would have rebuilt if they had been younger. It was just too much for them. They still had many, many friends there when they quit..
GC: That is a devastating experience. How else was the movement manifested in Clarksdale? Were there sit-ins? Were there demonstrations? Were there any of those kinds of thing with you being aware of the activity in the black neighborhood?
PG: At that time I was at school. I only went home on the weekends. So I can not remember.
GC: Well now going back to Delta State. What do you think Delta State gave you in terms of its contribution to your growth, education? That is academically, personally. What was your experience like, and what did it do for you personally?
PG: I wander if it is because Delta State is here in that Cleveland is a little bit more welcome to more of a melting pot of people coming in. They were more ready to accept you. The businesses downtown were nice–you would never had a problem when you went there. Every body here is very, very kind. Delta State all the teachers, as they are now–still as helpful back then as they are now. Of course you know school was much more rigid than as it is now. They expected you to meet class. You know you were not supposed to be absent from class.
GC: What was the biggest change you see between then and now, as a student and still being here on campus?
PG: I think the students are more relaxed now. Things are little more informal. As I said the classroom is not as rigid now as it was then. It was more structured. Students can come and go. They can speak their mind, where as we met class we were encouraged to speak out, but the teacher was more of an authority figure then. They taught much more, and the students talked less.
GC: If you had to think about it. Is there anything that Delta State didn’t give you that you wished that they had when you were a student? Kind of not really a good question I realize you are an employee, as a student? Overall how would you rate your experience as a Delta State student in the late sixties or early seventies?
PG: The experience was good. I only went for two years, and I did not finish my degree until several years ago. The students were very close. We had to depend on each other much more then than you do now. It was a lot safer. You never had to worry. Then we had curfews.
GC: What time was curfew?
PG: Must have been ten or ten thirty. You had to sign in or sign out so they could make sure that you were back in the dorm. You hardly had to have a room check because once you signed the register they knew you were in your room. You also had to have permission to go home on the weekends. You couldn’t just leave and go. You had to have a permission slip to check out of the dormitory on Fridays and check back in on Sundays.
GC: A signed permission slip?
PG: Yes
GC: Well how did you come to work at Delta State?
PG: Dr. McRaney gave me an opportunity to work in the registrar’s office for two weeks one summer. His wife recommended me My husband had done some work for Ms. McRaney, and she said that she thought I might like to work in the office during the summer. So I took that job, and from then on I knew this is where I wanted to work. The first opportunity I had to have a position in the registrar and admission’s office at that time, I took it.
GC: So what positions have you held in that office?
PG: The first job I took was typing clerical. Then I moved into posting clerk position. Now I am coordinator of graduation and commencement. It has been an enjoyable experience.
GC: Penney tell me who were the administrators when you first came to Delta State as an employee? What were they like? What was the campus like?
PG: The campus, I started in 1976. Dr. Wyatt had just taken the position of president after Dr. Lucas. We worked a very rigid eight to five schedule. You took fifteen-minute breaks. You had two fifteen minute breaks. It is more casual now. The offices stayed open during the lunch hour. There was a time when we opened on Saturday to make sure that the campus was accessible to everyone at all times. If they needed you to work after five o’clock you were expected to put in that over time with no added pay because that was your job.
GC: Who were the other people in your department, in your office? What were they like?
PG: Okay, Dr. McRaney was head of admissions and records when I first started working there. He was very fair, and he was very good about offering the same opportunities to everyone. We have had a great turnover in that office, but we have had a diverse employee pool. He had hired an American Indian, blacks, Asians, whites, and he believed in giving equal opportunity to all races. I feel like this office has been very diverse in its employees.
GC: Tell me what Cleveland was like during this time?
PG: Being from Clarksdale growing up there, there was a distinct difference. When I moved to Cleveland, and after I married in 1970 and got to know a lot more people in the community. I realized how much more accepting Cleveland is to changes. Things were much more open here. I believe Delta State had a big hand in that. I believe it was because the university was here, and it had brought in different types of students and faculty. Delta State and Cleveland have been more of a cultural, diverse community.
GC: Good I was going to ask you what kind of affect you thought Delta State might have had on Cleveland. Do you think it has had the same kind of impact on the delta itself?
PG: I do. Ever since the Performing Arts Center has been built. Since we bring in people from all around the state and all types of programs, it has made people more aware. It gathers different kinds of people up. They are able to discuss and see these performances and entertainment that they may have never had the opportunity to go to.
GC: Well that was something else I was going to ask you about in terms of the growth that you see? The cultural growth is one thing that the University has contributed to for itself as well as the area. Now what about other types of contributions that you think the University has made to the area or influence that it may have made on the Cleveland area other than the cultural diversity?
PG: Economically I feel like it has made it an open area. Since it can draw employees from the students, I think more educated students or more educated workers, I think it had brought in industry that may have never thought of coming here or in surrounding areas. We have companies that come from all over the United States that come to interview at Delta State. Which to me shows that we have good graduating classes. The people from Delta State are highly thought of. Delta State students go out in other states and they try to bring more Delta State people into their areas. Job opportunities are made because of Delta State graduates in the work force.
GC: Well you mentioned that you got married in 1970? We haven’t said too much about your immediate family? Is your husband a native of Cleveland? How many children do you have? How do they like it here? What kinds of adjustments have they made? What has Delta State’s contribution to their growth? Are they Delta State students? Did they attend? Those kinds of things tell us about that.
PG: My husband moved here from New York when he was two or three year old. We have raised our tchildren here. I have three children, two daughters and a son. All three of them– two of my daughters have graduated from Delta State and have very good jobs.  My son is a junior this year. They never thought of going anywhere else. Delta State is the only school they ever wanted to go to. It has set a good background for what they are doing now. My daughter moved to Oregon, and she lived there for three years. She has come home to Mississippi because she feels more comfortable here. She enjoyed being in Oregon, but this is home.
GC: Is there anything that you would like to tell us in closing Penney? I appreciate you doing this. Is there anything that perhaps I have left uncovered that you might want to mention to us?
PG: I think we have covered most everything. I appreciate you interviewing me. I hope I had something interesting to say.
GC: Of course you did. Thank you so very much.