The Mississippi Delta is the distinctive northwest section of the U.S. state of Mississippi that 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 was 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 for cotton plantations; they became wealthy planters dependent for labor on black slaves, who comprised the majority of population in these counties well before the Civil War.
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 blacks left the state in the 20th century Great Migration to northern, midwestern, and western industrial cities. As the agricultural economy does not support many jobs or businesses, the region has worked to diversify. At times the region has suffered heavy flooding from the Mississippi River, notably in 1927 and 2011.
Technically the area is not a delta but part of an alluvial plain, created by regular flooding over thousands of years. This region is remarkably flat and contains some of the most fertile soil in the world.
It includes all or part of the following counties: Washington, Western DeSoto, Humphreys, Western Carroll, Issaquena, Western Panola, Quitman, Bolivar, Coahoma, Leflore, Sunflower, Sharkey, Tate, Tunica, Tallahatchie, Western Holmes, Western Yazoo, Western Grenada and Warren.
The river delta at the mouth of the Mississippi lies some 300 miles south of this area, and is referred to as the Mississippi River Delta. The two should not be confused, as may happen in some media references or casual conversation.
The Delta is strongly associated with the origins of several genres of popular music, including the Delta blues and rock and roll. The rich music came out of the struggles of mostly black sharecroppers and tenant farmers whose lives were marked by poverty and hardship.
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 it led to the growth of jazz in Chicago, for instance, as musicians moved north.
Southern Living calls the Mississippi Delta "a back road traveler's paradise". Valerie Fraser Luesse showcased the region's character in her March 2008 essay, "Delta Journal". It begins:
The springtime sun is as yellow as a daffodil floating in a sea of blue. From high above, it reaches down to warm a vast expanse of smoky-black earth that smells like river. The cotton is flourishing—clear-to-the-horizon fields of it are broken by groves of pecan trees, whispering to each other in a rustle of leaves. And though you can't see Old Man hidden behind the levee, you can feel his presence—the twisting, turning, mighty, muddy presence of the Mississippi River.
- —Valerie Fraser Luesse
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. What had begun as back-breaking land clearing by yeoman French farmers, supported by extensive families, was expanded by the late 18th century into a labor-intensive plantation system dependent on the labor of enslaved Native Americans. But they could escape to the surrounding lands, their homeland. 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 stimulated the widespread production of short-staple cotton throughout the Deep South. Until then, it had been too labor-intensive to process. Congressional passage of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 extinguished Native American claims to the lands of the Deep South, and opened the way for European-American settlement.
During Indian Removal, tribes were forced west of the Mississippi in Indian Territory. Some slaves were brought to the Mississippi Delta by planters migrating from other parts of the South, but most were relocated through the domestic slave trade, in a forced migration from the Upper South and East Coast that totaled more than one million persons. Many slaves were brought up to Delta towns by riverboat from slave markets in New Orleans, or downriver from Memphis and Louisville. 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 helped make extremely profitable.
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 frequently there for business, and cotton-related exports comprised half of all from the port of New York City from 1822. In 1861 Democratic mayor Fernando Wood called for secession of New York City in 1861 because of its close business ties to the South.
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 provided transportation of products to market. Most of the territory 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, which led to the state's attracting numerous people 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 migrants, 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. The extended low price of cotton had caused many to go deeply into debt, however, and gradually they had to sell off their lands. From 1910 to 1920, the first and second generations of African Americans after slavery lost their stake in the land and had to resort to sharecropping and tenant farming to survive.
Sharecropping and tenant farming replaced the slave-dependent plantation system. This labor system inhibited the use of progressive agricultural techniques. 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.
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.
During the 1920s and 1930s, in the aftermath of the increasing mechanization of Delta farms, displaced whites and African Americans began to leave the land and move to towns and cities. 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.
From the late 1930s through the 1950s, the Delta experienced 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 continued to leave the fields and go 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.
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 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".
Of the state's African American population, 34% resides in the Mississippi Delta, which has many black-majority legislative districts.
As of 2005, the majority of public schools in the Mississippi Delta are majority black, and the majority of private schools are majority white. De facto racial segregation is present in schools in Delta communities. Suzanne Eckes of The Journal of Negro Education said "Although de facto segregation in schools exists throughout the country, the de facto segregation that exists in the Mississippi Delta region is somewhat unique."
Newspapers, magazines and journals
|Wikivoyage has a travel guide for Mississippi Delta.|