Emma Knowlton Lytle’s work as a filmmaker and artist was rooted on Perthshire plantation in Bolivar County. Born in 1911, Knowlton was the daughter of Sam and Susie Knowlton. Sam’s father, Pole Knowlton, had moved to the Delta from Arkansas in the 1880s and bought Perthshire plantation in 1905. Emma attended Sweet Briar College in Virginia and graduated from Radcliffe College in Massachusetts. When her first husband, Jack Rose Humphreys, died in 1940, Emma and her daughter, Eleanor, moved back to Perthshire. In 1945 she married Chicago native Stuart Lytle; they went on to have two children, Robert and Susan.
From 1939 to 1941 Emma Lytle filmed scenes at Perthshire plantation, turning them into an intriguing color documentary, Raisin’ Cotton. The film moved through the year, showing workers at various stages of the cotton-growing process—breaking ground with mule-driven plows, planting, chopping cotton, dealing with pests, picking, and ginning. With scenes of airplanes and tractors, the film also dramatized the mechanization of cotton plantation labor. Later scenes filmed in black and white showed cotton being milled into cloth at a North Carolina textile mill. Lytle subsequently said that she was disappointed in the scenes in North Carolina cotton mills because she did not understand what was going on in the factories the way she understood plantation agriculture.
Raisin’ Cotton also showed African Americans spending Saturdays at general stores and baptisms held in the fall after revival services. Lytle was impressed by what she later termed the “profound reverence” of the baptisms, and she repeatedly returned to such images in her painting. She concentrated much of her painting and sculpture on scenes of African American life at Perthshire.
In 1997 the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi completed Voices of Perthshire, a project featuring two versions of Raisin’ Cotton, one with commentary from Lytle, the other with commentary from some of the workers she filmed.
Lytle died in 2000.
- Guide to the Gilbert-Knowlton-Lytle Papers, Charles W. Capps Jr. Archives and Museum, Delta State University
- Voices of Perthshire (film, 1997)