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Mississippi Delta


Mississippi Delta

The Mississippi Delta is the distinctive northwest section of the U.S. state of Mississippi which lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. The region has been called "The Most Southern Place on Earth"[1] ("Southern" in the sense of "characteristic of its region, the American South"), because of its unique racial, cultural, and economic history. It is two hundred miles long and seventy miles across at its widest point, encompassing circa 4,415,000 acres, or, some 7,000 square miles of alluvial floodplain.[2] Originally covered in hardwood forest across the bottomlands, it was developed as 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 on the labor on black slaves, who comprised the vast majority of the population in these counties well before the Civil War, often twice the number of whites.

As the riverfront areas were developed first and railroads were 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 buy land. By the end of the 19th century, black farmers made up two-thirds of the independent farmers in the Mississippi Delta.[3] In 1890 the white-dominated state legislature passed a new state constitution effectively disenfranchising most blacks in the state. In the next three decades, most blacks lost their lands due to tight credit and political oppression.[3] African Americans had to resort to sharecropping and tenant farming to survive. Their political exclusion was maintained by the whites until after gains 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 during the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th century, moving to northern, midwestern, and western industrial cities.

As the agricultural economy does not support many jobs or businesses, the region has had to work hard in order to diversify that economy. Lumbering is important and new crops such as soybeans have been cultivated in the area by the largest industrial farmers.

At times, the region has suffered heavy flooding from the Mississippi River, notably in 1927 and 2011.


  • Geography 1
  • Music 2
  • Agriculture and the Delta economy 3
    • Plantations 3.1
    • Mechanization and migration 3.2
  • Political environment 4
    • Diversification 4.1
  • Encompassed towns 5
  • Festivals 6
  • Government and infrastructure 7
  • Demographics 8
  • Education 9
    • Universities 9.1
    • Community colleges 9.2
    • Primary and secondary schools 9.3
  • Media and publishing 10
  • Transportation 11
  • See also 12
  • Notes 13
  • References 14
  • Further reading 15
  • External links 16


Technically the area is not a delta but part of an alluvial plain, created by regular flooding of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers over thousands of years. This region is remarkably flat and contains some of the most fertile soil in the world. It is two hundred miles long and seventy miles across at its widest point, encompassing circa 4,415,000 acres, or, some 7,000 square miles of alluvial floodplain. On the east, it is bounded by bluffs extending beyond the Yazoo River.[2]

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 shifting river delta at the mouth of the Mississippi on the Gulf Coast 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 shared flood plain of the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers


The Delta is strongly associated as the place where several genres of popular music originated, including the Delta blues and rock and roll. The mostly black sharecroppers and tenant farmers had lives marked by poverty and hardship but they expressed their struggles in music that became the beat, rhythm and songs of cities and a nation.[4][5][6]

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 the musicians sparked off each other in the industrial cities, with blues in Chicago and St. Louis.

Agriculture and the Delta economy


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. Yeoman French farmers, supported by extensive families, had begun the back-breaking land clearing. Colonists tried to enslave the Native Americans, who escaped. 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 Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas. In the areas of greatest cotton cultivation, whites were far outnumbered by their slaves.

Many slaves were transported to Delta towns by riverboat from slave markets in New Orleans, which became the 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, Africans being held in 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.[7] According to Davis, the Africans "increased from a few unprofitable savages to millions of efficient Christian laborers."[8]

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. From 1822 cotton-related exports comprised half of all exports from the port of New York City.[9] In 1861 Democratic mayor Fernando Wood called for secession of New York City because of its close business ties to the South.[10] Eventually the city joined the state in supporting the war, but immigrants resented having to fight when the wealthy could buy their way out of military service.[10]

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 were used for 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.[3]

Following the Civil War, 90 percent of the bottomlands in Mississippi were still undeveloped. The state attracted thousands of migrants to its frontier.[3] They could trade their labor in clearing the land to eventually purchase it from their sale of lumber. Tens of thousands of new settlers, 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.[3]

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 economically for the region.

The sharecropping and tenant system, with each family making its own decisions, inhibited the use of progressive agricultural techniques in the region. 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.

Planters needed workers and recruited Italians in the 19th century and Chinese in the 20th to satisfy demand. The Chinese entered Mississippi mostly from 1900 to 1930. They quickly moved out of field labor, saving money as communities in order to establish themselves as merchants, often in the small rural towns.

Mechanization and migration

During the 1920s and 1930s, in the aftermath of the increasing mechanization of Delta farms that reduced the need for labor, displaced whites and African Americans began to leave the land and move to towns and cities. Tens of 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, many going north on the railroad to Chicago. People from the same towns often settled near each other.

From the late 1930s through the 1950s, the Delta enjoyed 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 left fieldwork and went 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.[11]

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.[11]

Political environment

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 in Mississippi 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 in the late 1880s.

To prevent this from happening again and to end the violence around elections, in 1890 the Mississippi state legislature passed a new constitution to resolve these 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.

This system of white supremacy was maintained with violence and economic boycotts into the years of increasing activism for civil rights, as blacks worked to regain their constitutional rights as citizens. The Delta counties were sites of fierce and violent white resistance to change, with blacks murdered for trying to register to vote or to use public facilities. African Americans were not able to exercise their constitutional rights again until well after their successes in the Civil Rights Movement and gaining passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


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).

Encompassed towns


Following is a list of various festivals in the Delta:

  • Mississippi River Marathon (Greenville)
  • Italian Festival of Mississippi (Cleveland)
  • Rivergate Festival (Tunica)
  • World Catfish Festival (Belzoni)
  • Leland Crawfish Festival (Leland)
  • Crosstie Arts & Jazz Festival (Cleveland)
  • Juke Joint Festival (Clarksdale)
  • Riverfest (Vicksburg)
  • Dragon Boat Festival (Greenville)
  • Deep Delta Festival (Rolling Fork)
  • River to the Rails Festival (Greenwood)
  • Mainstream Arts & Crafts Festival (Greenville)
  • Summerfest (Hollandale)
  • Showfest (Tunica) As of 2010
  • Webb Day Festival (Webb)
  • B.B. King Homecoming Festival (Indianola)
  • Highway 61 Blues Festival (Leland)
  • Delta Jubilee (Clarksdale)
  • First Friday Jazz Festival (Greenville)
  • Sunflower River Blues Festival (Clarksdale)
  • September Festival (Mound Bayou)
  • Delta Air and Balloon Festival (Greenwood)
  • Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival (Greenville)
  • Charleston Day Reunion (Charleston)
  • Gateway To The Delta Festival (Charleston)
  • Delta State University Pig Pickin' (Cleveland)
  • Great Delta Bear Affair[12]
  • Octoberfest (Cleveland)
  • The Great Ruleville Roast
  • The King Biscuit Blues Festival (Helena, AR)
  • Frog Fest (Leland)
  • Mighty Mississippi Music Festival (Greenville)
  • Delta Hot Tamale Festival (Greenville)
  • Electroacoustic Juke Joint (Cleveland)[5]
  • Roy Martin Delta Band Festival (Greenwood)

Government and infrastructure

The Mississippi Department of Corrections operates the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman, MSP) in unincorporated Sunflower County,[13][14] 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".[15]


From 1900 to 1930 planters recruited Chinese immigrants as field hands, although the earliest Chinese were recorded in Bolivar County in 1870. Most Chinese immigrants worked to leave the fields, becoming merchants in the small rural towns. As these have declined, along with other Delta residents ethnic Chinese have moved to cities or other states.[16] Their descendants represent most of the ethnic Asian residents of the Delta recorded in censuses. While many Chinese have left the Delta, their population has increased in the state.[17][18][19]

Of the state's African-American population, in the 21st century 34% resides in the Delta, which has many black-majority state legislative districts.[20] Much of the Delta is included in Mississippi's 2nd congressional district, represented by Democrat Bennie Thompson.



Community colleges

Primary and secondary schools

During the years of segregation, public school systems did not know how to classify the minority Chinese students, initially requiring them to attend schools with blacks. Their socioeconomic status affected their classification and, as their parents became merchants and filed legal suits, in some areas they gained entrance for their children to white schools, before the schools were integrated beginning in the late 1960s.[16]

As of 2005, the majority of students in public schools in the Mississippi Delta are black, and the majority of private school students are white. This de facto racial segregation is related in part to economics, as few African-American parents in the poor region can pay to send their children to private schools. Suzanne Eckes of The Journal of Negro Education wrote, "Although de facto segregation in schools exists throughout the country, the de facto segregation that exists in the Mississippi Delta region is somewhat unique."[21]

Media and publishing

Newspapers, magazines and journals


The Northern Delta is also served by The Commercial Appeal and The Daily News newspapers based in Memphis, Tennessee, plus several radio and TV stations also based there.


US 49 runs through the Mississippi Delta

Air transportation


See also


  1. ^ James C. Cobb, The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992)
  2. ^ a b [7]
  3. ^ a b c d e John C. Willis, Forgotten Time: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta after the Civil War, Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000
  4. ^ "Vintage / Anchor « Knopf Doubleday - Vintage / Anchor". Retrieved 2012-07-07. 
  5. ^ "Mississippi Delta's Economy, Way of Life Fading". NPR. Retrieved 2012-07-07. 
  6. ^ "Preface". Retrieved 2012-07-07. 
  7. ^ Davis, Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government (1881), pp. 517-518
  8. ^ Davis (1881), Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, pp. 160-161.
  9. ^ "King Cotton: Dramatic Growth of the Cotton Trade", New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War, New-York Historical Society, accessed May 12, 2012
  10. ^ a b Roberts, Sam (December 26, 2010). "New York Doesn't Care to Remember the Civil War", The New York Times, accessed 10 March 2014
  11. ^ a b Justin Gardner and Tom Nolan, "An Agricultural Economist's Perspective on the Mississippi Delta", Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, August 2009, Vol. 40 Issue 2, pp 80–89
  12. ^ [8] Archived 27 February 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  13. ^ "State Prisons". Mississippi Department of Corrections. Retrieved on January 14, 2011.
  14. ^ "MDOC QUICK REFERENCE". Mississippi Department of Corrections. Retrieved on May 21, 2010.
  15. ^ Buntin, John. "Down on Parchman Farm". Governing Magazine. July 27, 2010. Retrieved on August 13, 2010.
  16. ^ a b Vivian Wu Wong, "Somewhere between White and Black: The Chinese in Mississippi", Magazine of History, v10, n4, pp33–36, Summer 1996, accessed October 1, 2013
  17. ^ Thornell, John G. 2008. “A Culture in Decline: The Mississippi Delta Chinese,” Southeast Review of Asian Studies 30: 196-202
  18. ^ Loewen, James W. 1971. The Mississippi Chinese: Between Black and White, Cambridge: Harvard University Press
  19. ^ Quan, Robert Seto. 1982. Lotus Among the Magnolias: The Mississippi Chinese, Jackson: University Press of Mississippi
  20. ^ a b "Location". Mississippi Valley State University. Retrieved on April 5, 2012.
  21. ^ Eckes, p. 159.


  • Cobb, Charles E., Jr., "Traveling the Blues Highway", National Geographic Magazine, April 1999, v.195, n.4
  • Eckes, Suzanne E. "The Perceived Barriers to Integration in the Mississippi Delta". The Journal of Negro Education. Northern hemisphere Spring 2005. Volume 74, No. 2. pp. 159-173. Available at Jstor
  • Ferris, William. Give My Poor Heart Ease: Voices of the Mississippi Blues. The University of North Carolina Press; (2009) ISBN 0-8078-3325-8 ISBN 978-0807833254 (with CD and DVD)
  • Ferris, William and Glenn Hinson. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Volume 14: Folklife The University of North Carolina Press (2009) ISBN 0-8078-3346-0 ISBN 978-0-8078-3346-9 (Cover: photo of James Son Thomas)
  • Ferris, William; Blues From The Delta Da Capo Press; Revised edition (1988) ISBN 0-306-80327-5 ISBN 978-0306803277
  • Ted Gioia; Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters Who Revolutionized American Music. W. W. Norton & Company (2009) ISBN 0-393-33750-2 ISBN 978-0393337501
  • Hamilton, Marybeth: In Search of the Blues.
  • Gussow, Adam. "Heaven and Hell Parties: Ministers, Bluesmen, and Black Youth in the Mississippi Delta, 1920–1942", Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies, Dec 2010, Vol. 41 Issue 3, pp 186–203
  • Sheldon Harris; Blues Who's Who Da Capo Press 1979
  • Robert Nicholson; Mississippi Blues Today ! Da Capo Press (1999) ISBN 0-306-80883-8 ISBN 978-0-306-80883-8
  • Robert Palmer; Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta - Penguin Reprint edition (1982) ISBN 0-14-006223-8; ISBN 978-0-14-006223-6
  • Frederic Ramsey Jr.; Been Here And Gone - 1st edition (1960) Rutgers University Press - London Cassell (UK) andNew Brunswick, NJ
    • 2nd printing (1969) Rutgers University Press New Brunswick, NJ
    • (2000) University Of Georgia Press
  • Charles Reagan Wilson, William Ferris, Ann J. Adadie; Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. The University of North Carolina Press; 2nd Edition (1989). ISBN 0-8078-1823-2, ISBN 978-0-8078-1823-7.

Further reading

  • Cobb, James C. The Most Southern Place on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity (1992) excerpt and text search; also online edition
  • Cosby, A.G. et al. A Social and Economic Portrait of the Mississippi Delta (1992) online (Alternate, Archive)
  • Currie, James T. Enclave: Vicksburg and Her Plantations, 1863-1870 (1980) excerpt and text search
  • Dollard, John. Caste and Class in a Southern Town (1937), sociological study of the Delta
  • Gardner, Justin, and Nolan, Tom. "An Agricultural Economist's Perspective on the Mississippi Delta," Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies Aug 2009, Vol. 40 Issue 2, pp 80–89
  • Hamlin, Francoise N. Crossroads at Clarksdale: The Black Freedom Struggle in the Mississippi Delta After World War II (University of North Carolina Press; 2012) 371 pages
  • Helferich, Gerry. High Cotton: Four Seasons in the Mississippi Delta (2007) excerpt and text search, growing cotton in the 21st century
  • McCoyer, Michael. "'Rough Men in "the Toughest Places I Ever Seen': The Construction and Ramifications of Black Masculine Identity in the Mississippi Delta's Levee Camps, 1900-1935," International Labor and Working-Class History, Spring 2006, Issue 69, pp 57-80
  • Morris, Christopher. Becoming Southern: The Evolution of a Way of Life, Warren County and Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1770–1860 (1995) excerpt and text search
  • Nelson, Lawrence J. "Welfare Capitalism on a Mississippi Plantation in the Great Depression". Journal of Southern History 50 (May 1984): 225–50. in JSTOR
  • Owens, Harry P. Steamboats and the Cotton Economy: River Trade in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta (1990). excerpt and text search
  • Percy, William Alexander. Lanterns on the Levee; Recollections of a planter's son (1941) 347 pages excerpt and text search
  • Powdermaker, Hortense. After Freedom: A Cultural Study in the Deep South (1939), anthropological study of the Delta
  • Rogers, Kim Lacy. "Lynching Stories". (Archive) In: Rogers, Kim Lacy, Selma Leydesdorff, and Graham Dawson (editors). Trauma and Life Stories: International Perspectives. Routledge: London and New York City. p. 113-130.
  • Rubin, Richard. Confederacy of Silence: A True Tale of the New Old South (2002)
  • Saikku, Mikko. This Delta, This Land: An Environmental History of the Yazoo-Mississippi Floodplain (University of Georgia Press, 2005). xx, 373 pp. ISBN 0-8203-2673-9
  • Willis, John C. Forgotten Time: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta After the Civil War (2000)
  • Woodruff, Nan Elizabeth. American Congo: The African American Freedom Struggle in the Delta (2003) excerpt and text search
  • "Nile of the New World", John Gunther, National Park Service

External links

  • Delta News Online: Hometown News for The Mississippi Delta
  • Mississippi Teacher Corps
  • Mississippi Delta Tourism Association
  • Blues Highway Association
  • Delta Center for Culture and Learning
  • Delta Council
  • Delta Regional Authority
  • Delta Research & Extension Center
  • Mississippi Delta Blues Society of Indianola
  • Charles Reagan Wilson, "Mississippi Delta", Southern Spaces, 4 April 2004.
  • Mikko Saikku, "Bioregional Approach to Southern History: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta", Southern Spaces, 28 January 2010.
  • Scott Matthews, "Flatlands in the Outlands: Photographs from the Delta and Bayou", Southern Spaces, 12 December 2011.
  • Fratt, Lisa. "Mississippi Delta Renegade". District Administration. Professional Media Group. Monday December 1, 2003.
  • Null, Elisabeth Higgins. "Fifty Years After Brown: The Fight for Equality in Mississippi’s Delta Schools Continues". Rural Roots. Rural School and Community Trust. February 2004.

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