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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 along the riverfronts 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.
As the riverfront areas were developed first and railroads had been 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 purchase land. By the end of the 19th century, black farmers had achieved land ownership; they made up two-thirds of the independent farmers in the Mississippi Delta. But in the next two decades, most lost their lands due to tight credit and political oppression. African Americans had to resort to sharecropping and tenant farming to survive.
In 1890 the white-dominated state legislature passed a new state constitution effectively disenfranchising most blacks in the state. This political exclusion was maintained by the whites until after successes 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 in the first half of the 20th century's 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 and St. Louis as musicians moved north to settle in industrial cities.
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 made profitable 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 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, and opened the way for European-American settlement in Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
During Indian Removal, tribes were forced west of the Mississippi into Indian Territory. Many slaves were brought up to Delta towns by riverboat from slave markets in New Orleans, which became teh 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, their being imported into 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. Cotton-related exports comprised half of all exports from the port of New York City from 1822. 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 wealthy could buy their way out.
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 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, 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. 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 for the region.
The sharecropping and tenant system, with each family making its own decisions, 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.
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 (Southern United States) 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.
To prevent this from happening again, in 1890 the Mississippi state legislature passed a new constitution to resolve the 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.
During the activism of the civil rights years, the Delta counties were sites of fierce and violent white resistance to change, with blacks murdered for trying to register to vote. African Americans were not able to exercise their constitutional rights in number again until well after their successes in the Civil Rights Movement and gaining passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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".
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.|