Ethnographies of Mississippi

Between World War I and World War II, social scientists and intellectuals perceived Mississippi as the most southern of the southern states. These scholars conducted three pioneering studies—two in Indianola and one in Natchez—that represented Mississippi as “the South.” All were supported by the Rockefeller-funded Social Science Research Council, a newly formed organization that underwrote problem-oriented social science research. In Mississippi, the issue studied was the “Negro problem.”

Between 1932 and 1934, Hortense Powdermaker spent twelve months in Indianola, in Sunflower County, ultimately producing After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (1939), an ethnography that described the town’s African American community (though she referred to it by the pseudonym Cottonville). She also surveyed middle-class whites regarding their attitudes on the “interracial situation.”

John Dollard, Powdermaker’s colleague at the Yale Institute of Human Relations, spent five months conducting research in Indianola (which he called Southerntown) and made broad generalizations about the nature of race relations in the South in Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937). Rather than studying community norms and attitudes, as Powdermaker did, Dollard laid out a series of social, economic, and psychological “gains” that whites obtained by dominating black people and explored the effects of white supremacy on African Americans. The first edition of Dollard’s book contained a report by Leonard W. Doob on “Poor Whites: A Frustrated Class,” the only ethnographic attention paid to this group.

Dollard adopted the concept of “caste and class” from W. Lloyd Warner, a Harvard anthropologist. While Powdermaker and Dollard were studying Indianola, Warner directed an in-depth multiyear study of Natchez, which he dubbed Old City. His research team included an African American couple, W. B. Allison Davis and Elizabeth Stubbs Davis, and a white couple, Burleigh B. Gardner and Mary R. Gardner. They produced Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (1941), which examined the “system of color-castes,” looking at the stratification within each caste and examining the system’s economic underpinnings.

These three works are now considered classics. Dollard’s broad-brush analysis of white racism was poorly reviewed but remained a staple in classrooms and was read by virtually all civil rights workers in Mississippi in the 1960s. Deep South was used to support the US Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision outlawing segregated public schools. Powdermaker’s well-reviewed study garnered little attention until the late 1960s and has subsequently remained continuously in print.

Three decades passed before publication of the next significant ethnographic study of Mississippi, James W. Loewen’s The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White (1971). Unlike the depression-era studies, Loewen did not claim to study a general phenomenon; rather, he brought to light a group that had been largely invisible outside the Delta. The Mississippi Chinese can be viewed as emblematic of the revolutionary shift in the structure of race in America, marking a renewed interest in ethnicity and a recognition that “race” constituted more than simply black and white.

In 1997 political scientist Frederick M. Wirt documented the impact that federal civil rights laws had on institutions and individuals in Panola County in “We Ain’t What We Was”: Civil Rights in the New South. White attitudes, Wirt argues, changed largely because of enforcement of federal civil rights laws. The study is ethnographic because Wirt conducted large numbers of in-depth interviews and used local newspapers and other qualitative sources to explore changing attitudes and behaviors.

All of these studies occurred near the Mississippi River, primarily in the Delta, where plantation agriculture predominated. The river also allowed a vigorous commercial culture to develop, something little noted in these studies. Economic anthropologist E. Paul Durrenberger looks at these dimensions of Mississippi Gulf fisheries in his 1996 ethnography, Gulf Coast Soundings: People and Policy in the Mississippi Shrimp Industry. This work analyzes the history of shrimping around Biloxi, documenting the arrival of Vietnamese immigrants, relations among fishers and processors, and the international markets and ecological conditions that shift the circumstances under which fishers make their livelihoods.

Further Reading

  • Allison Davis, Burleigh B. Gardner, and Mary R. Gardner, Deep South: A Social Anthropological Study of Caste and Class (1941)
  • John Dollard, Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937)
  • Leonard W. Doob, in Caste and Class in a Southern Town, ed. John Dollard (1937)
  • Paul E. Durrenberger, Gulf Coast Soundings: People and Policy in the Mississippi Shrimp Industry (1996)
  • James W. Loewen, The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White (1988)
  • Hortense Powdermaker, After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (1939)
  • Frederick M. Wirt, “We Ain’t What We Was”: Civil Rights in the New South (1997)

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Article Title Ethnographies of Mississippi
  • Author
  • Keywords ethnographies, mississippi
  • Website Name Mississippi Encyclopedia
  • URL
  • Access Date July 6, 2020
  • Publisher Center for Study of Southern Culture
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update April 14, 2018