The Mississippi Delta encompasses the northwestern part of the state of Mississippi, bounded on the west by the Mississippi River and to the east by the Loess Bluffs that separate the area from the hills and prairies that characterize much of Mississippi. The Delta is not the delta of the Mississippi River, which is farther to the south in Louisiana, but rather one of the largest of the numerous alluvial floodplains in the Lower Mississippi River Valley and a basin for the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. It measures seventy miles across at its widest point and encloses an area about two hundred miles long that writer William Alexander Percy called “a badly drawn half oval.” The Delta is unusually flat, with elevation going from 205 feet above sea level below Memphis to 80 feet above at Vicksburg and averaging an elevation of 125 feet from Greenville to Greenwood. The core counties of the Delta are Bolivar, Coahoma, Humphreys, Issaquena, Leflore, Quitman, Sharkey, Sunflower, Tunica, and Washington. The counties of Carroll, DeSoto, Grenada, Holmes, Panola, Tallahatchie, Tate, Warren, and Yazoo contain alluvial deposits as well and have been part of the Delta’s human history.
For thousands of years the Mississippi River deposited silt from upstream into the Delta, slowly building up rich alluvial deposits that would make the area some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world. Its environment is part of the Southeastern Bottomland Forest Region, an area that was one of the nation’s largest forests, dominated by cypress, tupelo, and sweet gum but also featuring sycamore, poplar, pecan, maple, hickory, hackberry, black gum, slash pine, honey locust, and walnut. A traveler in the 1820s noted the picturesque ecology, with migratory birds, kingfishers, herons, ducks, eagles, and soon-to-disappear Florida panthers. The Delta was swampland, with rivers and streams flowing through it and the Mississippi River flooding each spring. Wetlands in the Delta offer extensive water resources and a natural river pathway to support an “avian superhighway” for countless migrating birds. This Mississippi Flyway attracts the most diverse migratory flock in North America.
The Delta is a cultural concept as well as a physical region. Writer David L. Cohn is credited with saying that the “Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” The Peabody is a classic grand southern hotel and was the gathering spot for the Delta elite: according to Cohn, anyone who stood in its lobby long enough would “see everybody who is anybody in the Delta and many who are on the make.” Catfish Row suggested a very different Delta, with race and social class meanings: in shacks along the Mississippi River, African Americans, Cohn wrote, celebrated a culture with “the music of guitars, the aroma of love, and the soul-satisfying scent of catfish frying to luscious golden-brown in sizzling skillets.” The extremes of wealth and poverty structured the cultural Delta and produced distinctive ways in differing communities.
Beginning in ad 1000, long before the Peabody and Catfish Row, Native Americans lived on the land that became known as the Delta. They were part of the Mississippian culture that dominated the Mississippi River Valley for seven centuries. The natives were organized into chiefdoms and had an economy based on trade and agriculture. They built flat-topped earthen mounds that were ceremonial and political centers of life. Winterville, six miles north of present-day Greenville, had a series of twenty-three mounds arranged around a plaza, at the center of which towered a fifty-five-foot mound. Today it is a National Historic Landmark and a state park, reflecting its value as a point of origin for Delta life. Hernando de Soto and his sixteenth-century explorers of the Gulf Coast were the first Europeans to traverse the Delta, as he crossed the Mississippi River in June 1541, likely in what is now Tunica County. He encountered a tribe known as the Quizquiz, who later reorganized as the Tunica.
Whites had settled on farms near the Mississippi River and on higher land on the eastern fringes of the Delta in the early nineteenth century, and they and their slaves transformed the land, eventually building vast cotton plantations that replaced the forests, canebrakes, and swamplands. Successful agricultural work required large numbers of slaves and money, making the Delta a region dominated by a planter elite. Wade Hampton III, a South Carolinian from one of the South’s most distinguished families, became one of the Delta’s largest landowners, with nine hundred slaves scattered over two counties by the time of the Civil War. Greenwood Leflore, a Choctaw leader who had signed the 1930 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek that ceded Indian lands to the state, was another successful planter, with four hundred slaves on his plantation near Greenwood and a taste for fine European decorations for his home, Malmaison. Davis Bend Plantation, run by Jefferson Davis’s brother, Joseph, was an unusual antebellum experiment based on the communal teachings of socialist Robert Owen. Productivity was extraordinary in the Delta, enabling planters to accumulate wealth and become a powerful social group that dominated the region’s economic and political life for generations.
Union and Confederate forces contended in the Delta for control of the Mississippi River during the Civil War, notably fighting over the Yazoo Pass, including the Battle of Fort Pemberton near Greenwood in 1863. At the end of the war, the Delta attracted freed slaves from the eastern South who saw the region as a more open and almost frontier society compared to those southern areas with a long legacy of slavery and its behavioral expectations for blacks. They sought landownership in the Delta after the war and asserted their political rights during Reconstruction at a time when new Delta lands were being cleared for settlement. Even with the restriction of political rights at the end of Reconstruction, African Americans still came to the Delta in search of economic opportunity.
Outside forces helped remake the Delta in the late nineteenth century. Timber companies clear-cut the swampy forest of its hardwoods, making land available for sale, and railroads laid tracks that connected Delta planters to outside cotton markets. The federal government passed constructed levees to contain the tumultuous floods that had prevented the utilization of much Delta land for farming before the Civil War. In the early twentieth century, foreign investors began buying and operating Delta plantations. The British-owned Delta and Pine Land Company became the world’s largest cotton plantation, with a sixty-thousand-acre operation in 1927. All of these forces promoted the region’s economic modernization, creating plantations as factories with management methods that resembled those found at industrial sites. Essential to this management was close control of costs, including the exploitation of a large pool of cheap labor. By 1910 tenants operated 92 percent of Delta farms, and 95 percent of those tenants were African Americans.
The plantation dominated the Delta’s economic, social, and cultural life. As Luther Brown has noted, the plantation was a virtual company town. Plantations often had their own currencies and supported commissaries, churches, and health care facilities. Delta and Pine Land published a weekly newspaper for its black tenants. Another well-known and successful plantation, Dockery Farms, was established by Will Dockery in 1895 between Ruleville and Cleveland on the Sunflower River. Dockery Farms came to support several thousand workers who raised crops on six thousand acres. It relied on wage farmworkers rather than the more typical sharecroppers. Family, managers, and workers mailed their letters from Dockery’s own US Post Office and bought train tickets at the Dockery railroad terminal. A physician tended to the sick on the plantation, ministers of two Dockery churches pastored their flocks, and a sizable Dockery cemetery provided a final resting place for those who worked on the plantation. Early bluesmen such as Charley Patton and Son House worked on Dockery, making it the plantation birthplace of the blues.
Although Delta planters embraced economic modernization and sold their cotton on world markets, they saw themselves as Old South gentry. Their style emphasized personalism and paternalism, and they pursued the good life, with their financial resources enabling frequent travel, elaborate parties and dances, tasteful decoration of homes, good food and drink, and education of their children at fine schools and colleges across the South and the nation. The Percy family in particular embodied this ideal, producing generations of political leaders and writers as well as savvy economic managers. Planter fortunes depended on the success of cotton growing, and cotton culture pervaded the Delta as what Cohn called “a secular religion.”
As the white landowning class prospered via cotton, African American fortunes grew more desperate. Delta society was rigidly segregated along racial lines, and by the early twentieth century the post–Civil War dream of the Delta as a place for African American economic success had been frustrated. Blacks found themselves facing declining economic opportunities, political disfranchisement, increasing violence, virtual powerlessness in the criminal justice system, sparse health care facilities, and inferior schools. These social problems, along with cotton’s declining fortunes because of the boll weevil and the availability of jobs for African Americans in the urban North, pushed African Americans out of the Delta by the second decade of the twentieth century, as they increasingly migrated to Chicago and other northern cities. The Illinois Central Railroad became a powerful symbol in black culture of a connection to a new world. With the paving of roads, Highway 61, which runs from New Orleans to Chicago via the Delta, became another escape route. Black migrants from the Delta transplanted southern culture to the North, including foodways, speech patterns, church life, and folklife.
African Americans produced a vibrant Delta culture that sustained them through hard times. The blues emerged there out of traditional work songs, not only expressing the black suffering but also transcending that suffering. The black church also insulated its believers from the traumas of living in an oppressive society. Baptists, especially Missionary Baptists, constituted the major denomination, but Delta blacks also became Methodists, Presbyterians, and Pentecostals, particularly joining the Church of God in Christ, which had emerged on the edge of the Delta in the early twentieth century. The rural culture featured black folk customs involving ways to ensure healthy babies, contain the spirits of the dead, bless marriages, and nurture good health. Folk magic included dreaded conjure balls, which represented physical curses; mojo hands, which were small pouches that protected against curses; and bottle trees, which captured unwanted spirits on the landscape.
Mound Bayou was a distinctive Delta place, an all-black town founded in the 1880s. Booker T. Washington noted that the town was “the heart of a Negro population more dense than can be found anywhere outside of Africa.” He called it a “Negro colony, occupying 30,000 acres, all of it owned by blacks who farmed small tracts of land.” Mound Bayou’s Taborian Hospital opened in 1942 and represented one of the few medical centers serving blacks throughout the Delta.
Immigrant groups made the Delta ethnically diverse, although these groups lived within a world that thought overwhelmingly in terms of black and white. Chinese immigrants originally came to the Delta after the Civil War as potential tenant farmers, but they quickly left the fields and launched grocery stores, usually serving black workers. Passed down through families for generations, these stores were gathering spots for blacks; whites often came there looking for potential day laborers. The Chinese fell outside the Delta’s black-white ideological framework, and some communities there maintained separate schools for Chinese children in addition to segregated schools for blacks and whites. Some of the lumberjacks who cleared the Delta of its trees came from Germany, and the Irish helped build levees. Labor recruiters in Italy brought farmworkers to the Delta for several decades around 1900. Later in the century Sicilian immigrants owned and operated restaurants in Greenwood. Lebanese came around the same time, becoming merchants in such Delta towns as Greenwood, Greenville, Leland, and Vicksburg.
Delta people experienced eleven major floods between 1858 and 1922, but the 1927 Mississippi River flood was a defining experience for the modern Delta. The Delta became covered with water from south of Cleveland all the way to Vicksburg, inundating more than 16.6 million acres and 162,000 homes and leading to the deaths of between 250 and 500 people. The flood worsened race relations, as authorities forced black tenant farmers to stay in improvised crowded camps through the ordeal and required some blacks to work without pay in recovery efforts. The flood consequently spurred increased migration to Chicago.
The federal government helped to define the Delta in the mid-twentieth century. Soon after the 1927 flood, Congress appropriated $325 million for an extensive flood control project. The New Deal introduced the most extensive federal government presence in the region since Reconstruction. Planters used New Deal appropriations to their advantage, accepting payments to take land out of production and leaving their tenants with few resources. World War II created jobs that drew tenants away to military and defense projects, creating a labor shortage that promoted the consolidation of agricultural lands, the diversification of crops beyond cotton, and the mechanization of plantations.
The Delta was a stronghold in the South’s final defense of racial segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. Delta politician Fielding Wright was the vice presidential candidate of the Dixiecrat Party in 1948, and Delta whites voted overwhelmingly for that party’s rhetoric of resistance to social change. In the 1950s the region birthed the Citizens’ Councils, which organized intimidation of civil rights advocates and cooperated with state government agencies to defend the South’s racial caste system. The brutal 1955 murder of Chicago teenager Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, sparked racial protest across the nation.
Civil rights activists targeted the Delta with boycotts, voter registration drives, marches, and other activities designed to show the injustices rooted in race in a region where blacks comprised a majority of the population yet lacked basic democratic rights. James Meredith was shot during a 1966 march through the Delta, and protesters occupied the courthouse grounds and the Confederate monument in Greenwood, where Stokely Carmichael first used the phrase “Black Power.” The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 empowered Delta blacks politically and economically. The region elected its first black congressman, Mike Espy, in 1986, and he served until 1993. Since that time, the seat has been held by another African American, Bennie Thompson. The Delta’s historical memory has drastically changed, with civil rights leaders Fannie Lou Hamer, Aaron Henry, and Amzie Moore now central figures in a new regional iconography.
The civil rights movement coincided with changes in agricultural production, as the neoplantation emerged as a highly mechanized and capitalized cotton production system that relied on a few wage hands and had no need for the large numbers of tenants who had long made their homes on plantations. This promoted the further exodus of blacks from the Delta and began a period of agricultural reorganization that led to a new farm economy based not only on cotton but also on soybeans, rice, catfish farming, poultry production, and more recently commercial corn production. The decline in federal government price supports for agricultural production in the 1980s hit the Delta hard and promoted consolidation of farms into larger plantation systems. Casino gambling came to the Delta in the 1990s, with Tunica and Vicksburg especially profiting from increased jobs and tax-generated public funds in a region that still has high rates of rural poverty.
Despite racial divisions and the poverty of many of its citizens, the Delta has been a creative place for musicians, writers, and artists. Such classic blues performers as Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and B. B. King, among many others, first played their music there. Country singers Charley Pride and Conway Twitty also grew up in the Delta, as did classical music composer Kenneth Haxton. Sam Cooke sang gospel music in Delta churches before becoming a classic rock and soul performer, while the Delta’s Ike Turner recorded what has been described as the first rock and roll record, “Rocket 88,” in 1951. Sculptor Leon Koury and artist Valerie Jaudon called the region home, and the inimitable Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets, was raised in Leland. Tennessee Williams lived in Clarksdale as a child, and his plays feature recurring themes of Delta society. Greenville was a major literary community in the mid-twentieth century, home to William Alexander Percy, Walker Percy, Shelby Foote, Ellen Douglas, Hodding Carter, David Cohn, Beverly Lowry, Lewis Nordan, and Steve Yarbrough. Cultural tourism has become an important part of the Delta’s economy, with travelers visiting literary sites as well as the Delta Blues Museum and actor Morgan Freeman’s Clarksdale blues club, Ground Zero; the B. B. King Museum in Indianola; and numerous historic blues sites that now have official markers as part of the Mississippi Blues Commission’s Blues Trail.
- Nancy Bercaw, Gendered Freedoms: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Household in the Delta, 1861–1875 (2003)
- Blues Highway website, www.blueshighway.org
- Robert L. Brandfon, Cotton Kingdom of the New South: A History of the Yazoo Mississippi Delta from Reconstruction to the Twentieth Century (1967)
- James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
- David L. Cohn, Where I Was Born and Raised (1948); Tom Rankin, Southern Space: Photographs from the Mississippi Delta (1993)
- Mikko Saikku, This Delta, This Land: An Environmental History of the Yazoo-Mississippi Floodplain (2005)
- John C. Willis, Forgotten Time: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta after the Civil War (2000)
- Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta (2003)
- Sharon D. Wright Austin, The Transformation of Plantation Politics: Black Politics, Concentrated Poverty, and Social Capital (2006)