The Mississippi River and the Land it Embraces
The river bore the alluvial plain that is the Delta, and the Delta bore fruit…” The Delta is the Mississippi River. It is created, sustained and sometimes destroyed by the river. The Delta simply would not have the heritage it has if it were not for the river’s deposition of the vast alluvial plain, a plain pre-destined for cotton. The oldest stories of the river and the land include the physical formation of the Delta and its rich alluvial soils, Native American settlement, and early European exploration of the wilderness.
Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, the vast wilderness underwent a transformation as people tamed the Delta for agriculture. The land was clear cut, attempts were made to control the waterways, transportation carved new paths through the region, and wildlife suffered a huge loss of habitat. Labor-intensive cotton agriculture founded first on enslavement and then on sharecropping dominated the next century of development, impacting all aspects of the economy and culture. When the river escaped its banks in the Great Flood of 1927, the planter class based disaster-relief decisions on retaining the Delta’s labor force, increasing racial tensions and raising national questions about the role of government in relief efforts.
Mechanization ushered in a new era in the middle of the 20th century, causing seismic shifts in the region’s socio-economic structure as reliance on human labor waned. Agriculture remains at the heart of the Delta’s identity, although today it is marked by innovation and sustainability and balanced with opportunities offered by the natural world and cultural traditions.
A variety of resources help tell the stories of the river and the land. Museums and parks along the Mississippi River interpret the physical formation of the region, while important physical structures such as bridges and levees demonstrate humans’ adaptation to and control over the mighty waterway. A large number of Native American mounds relate to prehistoric settlement in the Delta, while fewer resources relate to the Choctaw and Chickasaw who lived in the area historically.
The Culture of the Blues and the Birth of an American Sound
The Mississippi Delta’s fertile ground gave birth to the Blues. The Delta is recognized internationally for its role in shaping American culture in the 20th century because it is the place where the African American musicians created the Blues. Cotton agriculture contributed to deep socio-cultural and economic dichotomies in the Delta between the planter class and the labor class. These dichotomies led to the emergence of a distinctive musical form, the Blues, as well as the culture that surrounded it. The Delta has been home to hundreds of famous Bluesmen and the jukes where they played. Music is in the lifeblood of the Delta. Rock ‘n’ roll was born there, emerging straight out of the Blues. Rhythm and blues and jazz are also derived from the Blues, and gospel and country have strong roots in the Delta. A uniquely American musical form, Blues music has brought national and international recognition to the Delta and still thrives in the region today.
The history and culture of the Blues can be seen in a wide variety of resources in the Delta. Authentic resources include juke joints where live Blues music is currently (or has been) played, and homes, plantations and gravesites related to Blues musicians. Modern resources include several museums and an extensive system of 79 Blues Trail interpretive markers (out of 175 placed statewide). Also important are the festivals that promote and celebrate the Blues in communities throughout the Delta.
Moving Towards Freedom: Changing America’s Character in the Struggle for Rights
A social revolution swept the Mississippi Delta in the midst of the 20th century, empowering its majority African American population and focusing America’s eyes and hearts on the some of the best and worst moments of the Civil Rights Movement. The dichotomies created in more than a century of plantation agriculture left a legacy of inequality and fueled the struggle for rights. As in much of the South, commercial agriculture in the Delta was initially based on an enslaved workforce of African Americans. In 1863, the Siege of Vicksburg ended in Union victory, hastening the close of the Civil War. This devastating conflict brought an end to the institution of slavery, but not to the inequalities on which it was based. From Reconstruction to the emergence of a Southern mythology and the legal segregation of the Jim Crow era, deep racial divisions meant difficult times for Delta residents. When mechanization changed agriculture forever, reducing the need for human labor, many African Americans left rural farms for cities near and far. As the era of Civil Rights dawned in this nation, the Delta was home to pivotal events both horrible and inspirational, including Emmett Till's murder, Freedom Summer and the Poor People's Campaign. Leaders and activists such as Amzie Moore, Fannie Lou Hamer, the delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and the Freedom Riders are among those who paved the way for changes that are still unfolding today.
Growing more than cotton: The Delta as a wellspring of Creativity
The dark water and rich soils of the Delta grew more than cotton. Inspiration and creativity in all its forms abound in the region. The multitude of books, poems, plays and films that have emerged from the creative ranks of the Delta demonstrate how the region has reflected elements of—and has influenced—American society from the 19th century to today. Famous authors such as Tennessee Williams, William Alexander Percy, and Richard Wright are among the dozens of people who have lived in or written about the Delta.
Music is another expression of the artistry that thrives in the Delta. The Blues were born here and rock-n-roll emerged from the Blues. Famous artists in many genres come from the region. In addition to hundreds of Bluesmen, Ike Turner influenced rock-n-roll, Conway Twitty and Charley Pride helped shape country music, and gospel thrives in churches across the Delta.
Creativity is found in many Delta endeavors, including the arts, food, business and religion. From Marshall Bouldin's portraits to Sammy Britt's landscapes to the Tutwiler quilters and a host of pottery guilds, the work of artists colors the Delta and reaches well beyond it. Local restaurants remain an important fabric of communities. From folks traditions with ties to Africa and the Caribbean, to Jewish, Catholic and Protestant denominations, expressions of faith contribute to the Delta's creative cultural mosaic.
The Delta Divide: Creating the Delta's Diverse Communities
"The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg." With these geographical and cultural extremes, author David Cohn described the Delta, a land of great extremes. Indeed, author Will Campbell has defined the Delta as "a place of mean poverty and garish opulence." The contradictions that make up American society are visible in the paradoxes of the Delta—powerful and powerless, rich and poor, black and white, literate and illiterate, high class and low, sacred and secular, and humans and nature. Plantation agriculture and the stark contrasts it entails have embodied much of this divide. Yet the Delta is also a place of communities. In the 19th century, the self-contained industries and large labor forces of plantations formed the basis for community. After the Civil War ended, a number of ethnic groups were recruited to the region as sharecroppers to replace black laborers or simply came seeking opportunity. Italian, Jewish, Chinese and Lebanese immigrants added elements of their cultures to the Delta's mix. The built environment in Delta communities ranges from vernacular to high style, providing a window into many aspects of the region's complex history.