Natchez to Jackson to Memphis - Where Am I??

Russellville, AR

November 30, 2019

Last week I drove north from Natchez, Mississippi to Jackson, Mississippi and on to Memphis.  Overall about 200 miles.

The first 80 miles of the trip were along the Natchez Trace, a road similar to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The Trace is a 400 mile route from Natchez to Nashville that follows a trail used by Native Americans and then frontiersmen.  It was a beautiful, Zen drive.

Jackson is the state Capitol and that’s about all I have to say about it.  The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band said Augusta, Georgia was no place to be; I had that feeling based on my hour in Jackson. Vacant houses, delapedated houses, vacant stores. A recurring theme of my trip; a view that you don’t see from the interstates that we all take.

I headed northwest from Jackson on US 49 for the 120+ mile drive to Memphis. Before long I was in an area that was flat as far as I could see.  No trees, just farmland, interrupted here and there by silos and farm equipment.  There were a few small towns I passed through - if you can call them that with their vacant buildings and impoverished looking houses.   I came across a town named Belzoni that advertised itself as being “the heart of the Delta.“ That inspired a Google search. I thought the Mississippi Delta was at the mouth of the Mississippi - turns out that is the Mississippi RIVER Delta.

What I learned about the Mississippi Delta and what I saw both amazed and deeply saddened me.  Here’s what I learned:

General History

The Mississippi Delta is the northwest section of Mississippi (and portions of Arkansas and Louisiana) which lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. The region has been called "The Most Southern Place on Earth" ("Southern" in the sense of "characteristic of its region, the American South"), because of its unique racial, cultural, and economic history. It is 200 miles long and 87 miles across at its widest point, encompassing almost 7,000 square miles of alluvial floodplain. My impression was that it is 7,000 square miles of abject poverty.

Originally covered in hardwood forest across the bottomlands, it was developed as one of the richest cotton-growing areas in the nation before the Civil War.  The region attracted many speculators who developed land along the riverfronts for cotton plantations; they became wealthy planters dependent on the labor of black slaves, who comprised the vast majority of the population in the area well before the Civil War, often twice the number of whites.

As the Mississippi riverfront areas were developed first and railroads were slow to be constructed, most of the bottomlands in the Delta were undeveloped, even after the Civil War. Both black and white migrants flowed into Mississippi, using their labor to clear land and sell timber in order to buy land. By the end of the 19th century, black farmers made up two-thirds of the independent farmers in the Mississippi Delta.

Following the Civil War, Democrats had used fraud, violence and intimidation to gain control of the state legislature. Paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts in Mississippi were active against Republicans and blacks to suppress their voting for state candidates. Many blacks continued to be elected to local offices, and there was a biracial coalition between Republicans and Populists that briefly gained state power in the late 1880s.

To prevent this from happening again, in 1890 the Mississippi state legislature now controlled by the Democrats passed a new constitution which effectively disenfranchised most blacks by use of such devices as poll taxes, literacy tests and grandfather clauses, which withstood court challenges. If one method was overturned by the courts, the state would come up with another to continue exclusion of blacks from the political system. Unable to vote, they could not participate on juries. The state passed legislation to impose racial segregation and other aspects of Jim Crow.

During the next three decades, most blacks lost their lands due to tight credit and political oppression.  African Americans had to resort to sharecropping and tenant farming to survive. Their political exclusion was maintained by the whites until after the gains of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

During the first 65 years of the 20th Century the Delta was the scene of violence and economic boycotts, as blacks worked to regain their constitutional rights as citizens. The Delta counties were sites of fierce and violent white resistance to change, with blacks murdered for trying to register to vote.

The majority of residents in several counties in the region are still black, although more than 400,000 African Americans left the state during the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th century, moving to northern, midwestern, and western industrial cities.

As the agricultural economy does not support many jobs or businesses, the region has had to work hard in order to diversify that economy. Lumbering is important and new crops such as soybeans have been cultivated in the area by the largest industrial farmers.

Currently about one-third of Mississippi's African-American population resides in the Delta, which has many black-majority state legislative districts.  Much of the Delta is included in Mississippi's 2nd congressional district.

More Detail about Delta Agriculture, Slavery and The Economy

For more than two centuries, agriculture has been the mainstay of the Delta economy. Sugar cane and rice were introduced to the region by European settlers from the Caribbean in the 18th century. Sugar and rice production was centered in southern Louisiana, and later in the Arkansas Delta.

Early agriculture also included limited tobacco production in the Natchez area and indigo in the lower Mississippi. Yeoman French farmers, supported by extensive families, had begun the back-breaking land clearing. Colonists tried to enslave the Native Americans, who escaped. In the 18th century, the French, Spanish and English ended Native American slavery, and imported enslaved Africans instead. In the early years, African laborers brought critical knowledge and techniques for the cultivation and processing of both rice and indigo. 

The invention of the cotton gin in the late 1700s made profitable the cultivation of short-staple cotton. This type could be grown in the upland areas of the South, leading to the rapid development of King Cotton throughout what became known as the Deep South. The demand for labor drove the domestic slave trade, and more than one million African-American slaves. After continued European-American settlement in the area, Congressional passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 extinguished Native American claims to these lands. The Five Civilized Tribes and others were mostly removed west of the Mississippi River, and European-American settlement expanded at a rapid rate in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. In the areas of greatest cotton cultivation, whites were far outnumbered by their slaves.

Many slaves were transported to Delta towns by riverboat from slave markets in New Orleans, which became the fourth largest city in the country by 1840. Other slaves were transported downriver from slave markets at Memphis and Louisville. Still others were transported by sea in the coastwise slave trade. By this time, slavery had long been established as a racial caste. African Americans for generations worked the commodity plantations.

Jefferson Davis, who was a Mississippian, represented the perspectives of many whites in Mississippi before the Civil War. He held that Africans being held in slavery reflected the will of Providence, as it led to their Christianizing and to the improvement of their condition, compared to what it would have been had they remained in Africa.   According to Davis, the Africans "increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers."

Demand for cotton remained high until well after the Civil War, even in an era of falling cotton prices. Though cotton planters believed that the alluvial soils of the region would always renew, the agricultural boom from the 1830s to the late 1850s caused extensive soil exhaustion and erosion. Lacking agricultural knowledge, planters continued to raise cotton the same way after the Civil War.

Following the Civil War, 90 percent of the bottomlands in Mississippi were still undeveloped. The state attracted thousands of migrants to its frontier.  They could trade their labor in clearing the land to eventually purchase it from their sale of lumber. Tens of thousands of new settlers, both black and white, were drawn to the area. By the end of the century, two-thirds of the independent farmers in the Mississippi Delta were black. But, the extended low price of cotton had caused many to go deeply into debt, and gradually they had to sell off their lands, as they had a harder time getting credit than did white farmers.  From 1910 to 1920, the first and second generations of African Americans after slavery lost their stake in the land. They had to resort to sharecropping and tenant farming to survive.

Sharecropping and tenant farming replaced the slave-dependent plantation system. African-American families retained some autonomy, rather than working on gangs of laborers. As many were illiterate, they were often taken advantage of by the planters' accounting. The number of lynchings of black men rose in the region at the time of settling accounts. 

The sharecropping and tenant system, with each family making its own decisions, inhibited the use of progressive agricultural techniques in the region. In the late 19th century, the clearing and drainage of wetlands, especially in Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel, increased lands available for tenant farming and sharecropping.

Planters needed workers and recruited Italians and Chinese workers in the 19th century to satisfy demand. They quickly moved out of field labor, saving money as communities in order to establish themselves as merchants, often in the small rural towns.

During the 1920s and 1930s, in the aftermath of the increasing mechanization of Delta farms that reduced the need for labor, displaced whites and African Americans began to leave the land and move to towns and cities. Tens of thousands of black laborers left the Jim Crow south for better opportunities in the Northeast and Midwest in the Great Migration, settling in cities such as St. Louis, Chicago, Cleveland, and New York City.

It was not until the Great Depression years of the 1930s and later that large-scale farm mechanization came to the region. The mechanization of agriculture and the availability of domestic work outside the Delta spurred the migration of Delta residents from the region. Farming was unable to absorb the available labor force, and entire families moved together, many going north on the railroad to Chicago. People from the same towns often settled near each other.

From the late 1930s through the 1950s, the Delta enjoyed an agricultural boom, as wartime needs followed by reconstruction in Europe and Japan expanded the demand for the Delta region’s farm products. As the mechanization of agriculture continued, women left fieldwork and went into service work, while the men drove tractors and worked on the farms. From the 1960s through the 1990s, thousands of small farms and dwellings in the Delta region were absorbed by corporate-owned agribusinesses, and the smallest Delta communities stagnated.

Current Situation

Remnants of the region’s agrarian heritage are scattered along the highways of the lower Delta.  Larger communities have survived by fostering economic development in education, government, and medicine. Other endeavors such as catfish, poultry, rice, corn, and soybean farming have assumed greater importance.  Today, the monetary value of these crops rivals that of cotton production in the lower Delta. Shifts away from the river as a main transportation and trading route to railroads and, more significantly, highways, have left the river cities struggling for new roles and businesses.

Examples of the vacant downtowns and views in the Delta. I assume the ponds are filled with catfish - ugh!

Due to the growth of the automobile industry in the South, many parts suppliers have opened facilities in the Delta as well as on the Arkansas Delta side of the Mississippi River, another area of high poverty. The 1990s state legalization of casino gambling in Mississippi has boosted the Delta's economy, particularly in the areas of Tunica and Vicksburg.  Tunica, which is just south of Memphis, boasts of its “8,000 slot machines and 5,000 hotel rooms.” Vegas it’s not; it’s not even Reno. It’s just plain old sad.

On Another Note

The Delta is in the middle of the Mississippi Flyway, the largest of all the migratory bird routes in America.

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