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Clarksdale, Mississippi

Clarksdale is a city in and the county seat of Coahoma County, Mississippi, United States.[2] It is located along the Sunflower River. Clarksdale is named after John Clark, a settler who founded the city in the mid-19th century when he established a timber mill and business. Clarksdale is in the Mississippi Deltaregion and is an agricultural and trading center. Many African-American musicians developed the blues here, and took this original American music with them to Chicago and other northern cities during the Great Migration.


Early history

The Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians had occupied the Delta region for thousands of years prior to the arrival of European settlers, and had each developed complex cultures that took full advantage of their environment.

European Americans built on this past, developing Clarksdale at the intersection of two former Indian routes: the Lower Creek Trade Path, which extended westward from present-day Augusta, Georgia, to New Mexico; and the Chakchiuma Trade Trail, which ran northeastward to the former village at present-day Pontotoc, Mississippi. They later improved these trails for roadways wide enough for wagons.

The first removal treatycarried out under the Indian Removal Act was the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, by which the Choctaw people were forced to cede 15 million acres of their homelands to the United States and to move to Indian Territory(now part of Oklahoma), west of the Mississippi River. A similar forced removal of the Chickasaw Nation began in 1837; when they reached Indian Territory, the federal government assigned them to what had been the westernmost part of the Choctaw Nation.

Development of cotton plantations

Following the removal of the Indians, European-American settlers migrated to the Delta region, where the fertile lowlands soil proved to be excellent for growing cotton after the land was cleared. They brought or purchased thousands of enslaved African Americans to work the several extensive cotton plantations developed in the county. The first ones were always developed with riverfront access, as the waterways were the chief forms of transportation.

John Clark founded the town of Clarksdale in 1848, when he bought land in the area and started a timber business.[5] It became a trading center. Clark married the sister of James Lusk Alcorn, a major planter who owned a nearby plantation. Alcorn became a politician, and was elected by the state legislature as US Senator. Later he was elected by voters as governor of the state. Thriving from the cotton trade and associated business, Clarksdale soon earned the title "The Golden Buckle on the Cotton Belt".

African-American slaves cultivated and processed cotton, worked as artisans, and cultivated and processed produce and livestock on the plantations. They built the wealth of "King Cotton" in the state.

Mississippi's 1860 population was 1,521 whites and 5,085 slaves.[6]James Alcorn was a major planter, owning 77 slaves according to the 1860 Slave Schedule.


Cedar Mound Plantation, located 5 miles south of Clarksdale, was purchased and named in 1834 by Alex Kerr Boyce. He died childless and it was inherited by his niece Mrs. Catherine (Kate) (née Henderson) Adams of South Carolina. She divided it among her unmarried children: Jennie, Will, and Lucia Adams. The sisters' correspondence (1845-1944) is held in a collection in their name at the University of Mississippi.

Post-Civil War and Reconstruction era

After slavery was abolished, many black families labored as sharecroppers or tenant farmers. They gained some independence, no longer working in gangs of laborers, but were often at a disadvantage in negotiations with white planters, as they were generally illiterate. Planters advanced them supplies and seed at the beginning of the season, allowed them to buy other goods on credit, and settled with them at the end of harvest for a major portion of the crop. Historian Nicholas Lemann writes "segregation strengthened the grip of the sharecropper system by ensuring that most blacks would have no arena of opportunity in life except for the cotton fields" (p. 6).

During the Reconstruction Era following the Civil War, Mississippi's blacks and poor whites both benefited from the State's new constitution of 1868, which adopted universal suffrage; repealed property qualifications for suffrage or for office; provided for the state's first public school system; forbade race distinctions in the possession and inheritance of property; and prohibited limiting civil rights in travel.

Those gains were short-lived, as insurgent white paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts worked to suppress black voting from 1868 on. By 1875 conservative white Democrats regained control of the state legislature in Mississippi. They later passed Jim Crow laws, including legal segregation of public facilities.

A freedman named Bill Peace, who had served in the Union Army and returned to Clarksdale after the war, persuaded his former owner to allow him to form a security force to prevent theft from the plantation. On October 9, 1875, whites in Clarksdale began hearing rumors that "General Peace" was preparing his troops to plunder the town; rumors spread that he was planning to murder the whites. A white militia was formed, and they suppressed Peace's "revolt". Across Mississippi, white militias frequently formed in response to similar fears of armed black revolt.[8]

Twentieth-century historian Nicholas Lemannwrites:

Like the establishment of sharecropping, the restoration to power of the all-white Democratic Party in the South was a development of such magnitude to whites that it became encrusted in legend; many towns have their own mythic stories of the redemption of the white South. In Clarksdale, it is the story of the "race riot" of October 9, 1875.[8]

After the Reconstruction era and construction in 1879 of the Louisville, New Orleans and Texas Railwaythrough the town, Clarksdale was incorporated in 1882. In 1886, the town's streets were laid out; it was not until 1913 that any were paved.

20th century to present

Former Yazoo & Mississippi Valley/Illinois Central Passenger Depot in Clarksdale, early 1900s. The building is now used for the Delta Blues Museum.

African Americans composed most of the farm labor in the county into the 1940s, when increasing mechanization reduced the need for field workers. Thousands of blacks left Mississippi in the Great Migration to Chicago, St. Louis, and later, West Coast cities to work in the defense industry. They developed a rich musical tradition drawing from many strands of music, and influencing jazz and the blues in Chicago.

In the early 20th century, Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe began to settle in Mississippi, often working as merchants. From the 1930s to the 1970s, Clarksdale had one of the largest Jewish populations in Mississippi. In the 1930s, they founded Beth Israel Synagogue. However, most left as the city declined in population, with rural areas losing residents.

The Great Migration

The movement of large numbers of people both to and from Clarksdale is prominent in the city's history. Prior to 1920, Delta plantations were in constant need of laborers, and many black families moved to the area to work as sharecroppers. After World War I, plantation owners even encouraged blacks to move from the other parts of Mississippi to the Delta region for work. By this time, Clarksdale had also become home to a multi-cultural mixture of Lebanese, Italian, Chinese and Jewish immigrant merchants.

By 1920, the price of cotton had fallen, and many blacks living in the Delta began to leave. The Illinois Central Railroadoperated a large depot in Clarksdale and provided a Chicago-bound route for those seeking greater economic opportunities in the north; it soon became the primary departure point for many.

During the 1940s, three events occurred which increased the exodus of African-Americans from Clarksdale. First, it became possible to commercially produce a cotton crop entirely by machine, which lessened the need for a large, low-paid workforce. (Coincidentally, it was on 28 acres of the nearby Hopson Plantation where the International Harvester Company perfected the single-row mechanical cotton picking machine in 1946; soil was prepared, seeded, picked and bailed entirely by machines, while weeds were eradicated by flame.)

Second, many African-American GIs (soldiers) returned from World War II to find slim opportunities for employment in the Delta region. Finally, there appeared an accelerated climate of racial hatred, as evidenced by the violence against such figures as NAACP representative Aaron Henry.[citation needed]

"The Great Migration"north became the largest movement of Americans in U.S. history, and was recounted with Clarksdale triangulated with Chicago and Washington D.C. in Nicholas Lemann's award-winning book The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America.[11] The History Channel later produced a documentary based on the book, narrated by actor Morgan Freeman, who is also a co-owner of Ground Zero Blues Club.

Civil rights in Clarksdale

On September 10, 1919, Black veteran L. B. Reedwas lynched as part of the Red Summer of 1919.

Clarksdale played a very important role in the civil rights movement in Mississippi. The starting point for a civil rights movement in Clarksdale was the rape at gunpoint of two African-American women, Leola Tates and Erline Mills, in August 1951.[12] The two white teenagers they said assaulted them, who admitted the event but said it was consensual, were arrested, but "despite the overwhelming evidence against them, the justice of peace court judge freed the accused perpetrators".

Recent history

Clarksdale's citizens are famous for their civil rights activism and Clarksdale's police department is equally famous for its efforts to limit these rights. On May 29, 1958, Martin Luther King Jr. visited Clarksdale for the first major meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference(SCLC). In 1960, Aaron Henry, a local pharmacist, was named state president of the NAACP, and went on to organize a two-year-long boycott of Clarksdale businesses. In 1962, King again visited Clarksdale on the first stop on a region-wide tour, where he urged a crowd of 1,000 to "stand in, sit in, and walk by the thousands".

National headlines in February 2013 covered the discovery of mayoral candidate Marco McMillian, who was found murdered near the town of Sherard, to the west of his home town of Clarksdale. Because McMillian was openly gay and was badly beaten before his death, there was speculation that his murder qualified to be classified as a hate crime. Lawrence Reed, an acquaintance of McMillian, was charged, tried, and found guilty of the murder in April 2015.

Music history

Clarksdale has been historically significant in the history of the blues. The Mississippi Blues Trailplaces interpretative markers for historic sites such as Clarksdale's Riverside Hotel, where Bessie Smith died following an auto accident on Highway 61. The Riverside Hotel is just one of many historical blues sites in Clarksdale.[17] Early supporters of the effort to preserve Clarksdale's musical legacy included the award-winning photographer and journalist Panny Mayfield, Living Blues magazine founder Jim O'Neal, and attorney Walter Thompson, father of sports journalist Wright Thompson. In 1995, Mt. Zion Memorial Fundfounder Skip Henderson, a vintage guitar dealer from New Brunswick, New Jersey and friend of Delta Blues Museum founder Sid Graves, purchased the Illinois Central Railroadpassenger depot to save it from planned demolition. With the help of local businessman Jon Levingston, as well as the Delta Council, Henderson received a US$1.279 million grant from the federal government to restore the passenger depot. These redevelopment funds were then transferred on the advice of Clarksdale's City attorney, Hunter Twiford, to Coahoma County, in order to establish a tourism locale termed "Blues Alley", after a phrase coined by then Mayor, Henry Espy. The popularity of the Delta Blues Museumand the growth of the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival and Juke Joint Festivals have provided an economic boost to the city.

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