The Mississippi Delta is the distinctive northwest section of the U.S. state of Mississippi 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 70 miles across at its widest point, encompassing circa 4,415,000 acres, or, some 7,000 square miles of alluvial floodplain. Originally covered in hardwood forest across the bottomlands, it was developed as one of the richest cotton-growing areas in the nation before the American Civil War (1861-1865). 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 these counties well before the Civil War, often twice the number of whites.
As the riverfront areas were developed first and railroads were slow to be constructed, even after the Civil War most of the bottomlands in the Delta were undeveloped. 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. In 1890 the white-dominated state legislature passed a new state constitution effectively disenfranchising most blacks in the state. In 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.
African Americans developed the musical forms of blues and jazz. 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.
Despite the name, this region is not part of the delta of the Mississippi River. Rather, it is part of an alluvial plain, created by regular flooding of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers over thousands of years. The land is flat and contains some of the most fertile soil in the world. It is two hundred miles long and seventy miles across at its widest point, encompassing circa 4,415,000 acres, or, some 7,000 square miles of alluvial floodplain. On the east, it is bounded by bluffs extending beyond the Yazoo River.
It includes all or part of the following counties: Washington, Western DeSoto, Humphreys, Carroll, Issaquena, Western Panola, Quitman, Bolivar, Coahoma, Leflore, Sunflower, Sharkey, Tate, Tunica, Tallahatchie, Western Holmes, Western Yazoo, Western Grenada and Warren.
The shifting river delta at the mouth of the Mississippi on the Gulf Coast lies some 300 miles south of this area, and is referred to as the Mississippi River Delta. The two should not be confused.
The Delta is strongly associated as the place where several genres of popular music originated, including the Delta blues and rock and roll. The mostly black sharecroppers and tenant farmers had lives marked by poverty and hardship but they expressed their struggles in music that became the beat, rhythm and songs of cities and a nation.
Gussow (2010) examines the conflict between blues musicians and black ministers in the region between 1920 and 1942. The ministers condemned blues music as "devil's music". In response, blues musicians satirized preachers in their music, as for example in the song, "He Calls That Religion", by the blues group Mississippi Sheiks. The lyrics accused black ministers of engaging in and fomenting sinful behavior. The black residents were poor, and the musicians and ministers competed for their money. The Great Migration to northern cities, beginning before World War I, seriously depleted black communities and churches, but the musicians sparked off each other in the industrial cities, with blues in Chicago and St. Louis.
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 were 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. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were captured, sold and transported as slaves from West Africa to North America.
The invention of the cotton gin in the late 18th century 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 were forced by sales into the South, taken in a forced migration from families in the Upper South. 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, which they made extremely profitable. In the opinion of Jefferson Davis and others later living in Mississippi, 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."
By the early 19th century, cotton had become the Delta’s premier crop, for which there was high international demand. Mills in New England and New York also demanded cotton for their industry, and New York City was closely tied to the cotton trade. Many southern planters traveled so frequently there for business that they had favorite hotels. From 1822 cotton-related exports comprised half of all exports from the port of New York City. In 1861 Democratic mayor Fernando Wood called for secession of New York City because of its close business ties to the South. Eventually the city joined the state in supporting the war, but immigrants resented having to fight when the wealthy could buy their way out of military service.
Comparing cotton's preeminence then to that of oil today, Historian Sven Beckert called the Delta "a kind of Saudi Arabia of the early nineteenth century."
Demand for cotton remained high until well after the American 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.
Plantations before the war were generally developed on ridges near the rivers, which were used for transportation of products to market. Most of the territory of Mississippi was still considered wilderness, needing substantial new population. These areas were covered in a heavy dense growth of trees, bushes and vines.
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, and researchers have also found a correlation of lynchings to years that were poor economically for the region.
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 in the 19th century and Chinese in the 20th to satisfy demand. The Chinese entered Mississippi mostly from 1900 to 1930. 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 North and Midwest in the Great Migration, with many going straight north by railroad to settle in St. Louis and Chicago. 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 agriculture boom, as wartime needs followed by reconstruction in Europe 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 large corporate-owned agribusinesses, and the smallest Delta communities have stagnated.
Since the late 20th century, lower Delta agriculture has increasingly been dominated by families and nonresident corporate entities that hold large landholdings. Their operations are heavily mechanized with low labor costs. Such farm entities are capital-intensive, where hundreds and thousands of acres are used to produce market-driven crops such as cotton, sugar, rice, and soybeans.
White Democrats had used fraud, violence and intimidation to regain control of the state legislature in the late 19th century. Paramilitary groups such as the Red Shirts in Mississippi were active against Republicans and blacks to suppress their voting for state candidates. But 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 and to end the violence around elections, in 1890 the Mississippi state legislature passed a new constitution to resolve these political issues; it 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. Whites passed legislation to impose racial segregation and other aspects of Jim Crow.
This system of white supremacy was maintained with violence and economic boycotts into the years of increasing activism for civil rights, 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 or to use public facilities. African Americans were not able to exercise their constitutional rights again until well after their successes in the Civil Rights Movement and gaining passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Remnants of the region’s agrarian heritage are scattered along the highways and byways 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.
In recent years, 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.
A large cultural influence in the region is its history of hunting and fishing. Hunting in the Delta is primarily for game such as whitetail deer, wild turkey, and waterfowl, along with many small game species (squirrel, rabbit, dove, quail, raccoon, etc.) For many years, the hunting and fishing have also attracted visitors in the regional tourism economy. The Delta is one of the top waterfowl destinations in the world because it is in the middle of the Mississippi Flyway (the largest of all the migratory bird routes in America).
Following is a list of various festivals in the Delta:
The Mississippi Department of Corrections operates the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman, MSP) in unincorporated Sunflower County, within the Mississippi Delta. John Buntin of Governing magazine said that MSP "has long cast its shadow over the Mississippi Delta, including my hometown of Greenville, Mississippi".
From 1900 to 1930 planters recruited Chinese immigrants as field hands, although the earliest Chinese were recorded in Bolivar County in 1870. Most Chinese immigrants worked to leave the fields, becoming merchants in the small rural towns. As these have declined, along with other Delta residents ethnic Chinese have moved to cities or other states. Their descendants represent most of the ethnic Asian residents of the Delta recorded in censuses. While many Chinese have left the Delta, their population has increased in the state.
Of the state's African-American population, in the 21st century 34% resides in the Delta, which has many black-majority state legislative districts. Much of the Delta is included in Mississippi's 2nd congressional district, represented by Democrat Bennie Thompson.
During the years of segregation, public school systems did not know how to classify the minority Chinese students, initially requiring them to attend schools with blacks. Their socioeconomic status affected their classification and, as their parents became merchants and filed legal suits, in some areas they gained entrance for their children to white schools, before the schools were integrated beginning in the late 1960s.
As of 2005, the majority of students in public schools in the Mississippi Delta are black, and the majority of private school students are white. This de facto racial segregation is related in part to economics, as few African-American parents in the poor region can pay to send their children to private schools. Suzanne Eckes of The Journal of Negro Education wrote, "Although de facto segregation in schools exists throughout the country, the de facto segregation that exists in the Mississippi Delta region is somewhat unique."
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