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It Started with the Land

Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta: Pure Soil, Dark, Deep and Sweet.

Image of the Mississippi Delta bottomland from The Nature Conservancy

The Mississippi Delta looked somewhat like this when the land was first settled in the early 1800’s (image via The Nature Conservancy here).

Geography is fate!

It all had to start somewhere… from something, and this is how and why the unique fertility of the Mississippi Delta soil led to Clarksdale becoming the birth of blues and rock and roll.

Historically, alluvial soil that is necessary for the growing of cotton was measured in inches, if not more than a foot. The rich nutrients added to the Nile Delta soil by annual flooding so long ago were essential for Egyptian cotton, which is still among the finest in the world.

The alluvial soil along the Nile was less than a foot in some places. Upon the U.S. organization of the Mississippi Territory in 1798, the first white settlers in the Mississippi Delta stumbled upon the catalyst of a new cotton empire. Here in the Delta land, and all around Clarksdale, the alluvial soil from the annual flooding of the Mississippi River had a depth of some 20 feet. This was the most fertile soil for growing cotton in the world.

It is this dirt, and what came from it, that the blues and rock and roll began.

The Land first found around Clarksdale and the Delta
The Mississippi Delta and Clarksdale, MS, the most Southern Place on Earth

The Most Southern Place on Earth by James C. Cobb (buy it here)

The Mississippi Delta “was the land of the loins of the river,” writes David L. Cohn, as cited by James C. Cobb in The Most Southern Place on Earth (p. 5), “it sprung from the body of the Mississippi in a gestation eons long.” Cohn further describes the rich detritus of alluvial deposits for centuries on the land that was “pure soil, endlessly deep, dark and sweet.”

When it was first found the Mississippi Delta was a dense jungle in an impenetrable swamp. Amid the thicket were cypress, tupelo, and sweet gum trees a yard or two in diameter. Amid them was a wildfire spread of sycamore, poplar, pecan, maple, hickory, walnut, ash, hackberry, black gum, cottonwood, honey, locust and slash pine trees. Between all of this was a light suffocating pandemonium of vines, cane and brush, and on the floor of all of that water seeped and oozed everywhere. Over the eons of century after century passed, flood after flood spread layer after layer of rich alluvium over evermore accumulating layers of decomposing vegetation. The Delta land only grew richer, and sweeter with cotton growing possibility as it grew evermore impervious to being developed and tamed.

Amid all of this impossible verdant density was a riot of ravenous bears, panthers, wild cats, hissing snakes, ill tempered alligators, clinging leeches, storms of mosquitoes, ticks, fleas gnats and an infectious sea of subtropical diseases just waiting to get their teeth into you at every opportunity. Then there was that humidity and the Delta heat. that made breathing daunting, and moving about to combat the wild penetrating Delta obstacles all the more challenging, if not totally impossible.

This is what the first settlers found back at the beginning of the 1800’s. To get to that soil, and whatever prosperity that might come, the land had to be ripped out of its jungle and cleared for farming.

Clearing the Land, a Hell in an Opportunity

Imagine what it took to clear land like this? (photo of the Great Dismal Swamp by Allison Shelley for Smithsonian magazine)

The task was herculean, taming the land, and it took quite a lot over quite a lot of time. All that it reaped was at great expense. First though settlers had to come, someone who wanted that land, and was willing to clear it. That started after Mississippi became a state in 1817, and initial settlements into the Delta were along the River in the 1820’s. Almost all who first came were not born here; one was from Kentucky, another from the East. Then settlers came from Tennessee, Alabama, the Carolina’s, the East, the Midwest, Europe and so on.

The two that came first were planters elsewhere. They came with their families, their households and all their property. Both already owned slaves. One floated his household and his slaves on a flat bottom boat and a makeshift raft to a spot that would become his riverfront home. To get a settlement foothold, someone had to work, and from the onset the land was developed with slave labor.  More than anything else, Mississippi Delta slaves were low cost farm labor.  Cheap labor hedged a bet on cotton profitability. This was the new King Cotton Delta economy from the get-go.

Increased Labor Demand
Swamp land and the Mississippi Delta.

Developing the Mississippi Delta land, all in a day’s work! (photo by Framepool)

After statehood, in the four decades preceding the Civil War, labor demand to clear and farm the fields increased. So did settlement from near and afar. The Delta population grew significantly in the 1840’s, and dramatically in the 1850’s. Then the white population increased by 253% and the slave population increased by 332%. By the start of the war in 1861, however, most of the delta land remained undeveloped with only a little of it cleared for farming. (Every planter around Clarksdale and in Tunica county by then had come from outside of Mississippi, by the way.)

The Ideal Cotton Plantation

This from Cobb’s book gives insight to the thinking about starting a Delta cotton operation at the time. A move to the Delta offered a promise of fortune, but it came with a most difficult challenge. Significant investment capital and slave labor were required to carve a plantation out of the wilderness. The ideal plantation as cited in 1855 would be about 1,600 acres. That would require 1,000 acres in cultivation, 750 acres of cotton and 250 acres of corn, peas and sweet potatoes. A minimum of 75 working slaves were needed. This meant a total slave population of some 135 to 150 slaves. Outfitting cost for such an operation would have been about $150,000. Properly managed, such a plantation would yield a bale per acre, and an annual net of $12,000.

In 1860, the white population in the Mississippi Delta was 6,698. There were 30,274 slaves, and an ever increasing demand to develop the Delta land. A year later though, the war started and by its end, everything changed (at least for a while).

Emancipation, Reconstruction and Disenfranchisement

White reconstruction migrants we known as “carpetbaggers” in the deep South.

The end of the Civil War in 1865 and the emancipation that came along with it brought tremendous uncertainty, the loss of political power and serious economic threat to the Delta planter. Though a handful of planters continued to prosper, this threat to their economic well being was directly due to losing control of cheap labor.

This was reconstruction, a time spanning some 25 years where demand for cheap labor remained ever part of the economic times.  During this period, however, blacks held much of the local political power, and both black and white migrants steadily flowed into the Mississippi Delta. They used their labor to clear land, and then sell the timber off of it in order to buy more land. By the end of the 1800’s, black farmers made up 2/3rds of the independent Delta farmers, but by 1890 the white dominated Mississippi legislature passed a new state constitution that effectively disenfranchised most blacks in the state. This marked the beginning of the end of reconstruction, and in the next 30 years, most blacks lost whatever lands they gained due to political oppression.

Plessy v. Ferguson
Plessy v. Ferguson legalized segregation with an enormouse negative impact on Civil Rights in the deep South.

Plessy v. Ferguson legalized segregation and became the law of the land for a half century.

The end of the reconstruction era came with Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision (1896) that upheld state racial segregation. This was the “separate but equal” ruling.  Plessy remained U.S. law until it was repudiated in 1954 by the Brown v. Board of Education SCOTUS decision. (Elvis Presley’s first song was also in 1954. A former gospel singer out of Clarksdale wrote it. ClarksdaleNews will cover this in other stories).

The legitimization of state laws establishing racial segregation in the South was the direct outcome of Plessy v. Ferguson.  It brough additional segregation laws that would become “Jim Crow”.  The Plessy doctrine also erased property ownership achievements by blacks during Reconstruction,  and it limited the federal government’s ability to intervene in state affairs.  This warranted that Congress only had the power “to restrain states from acts of racial discrimination and segregation”.   As such, Plessy basically granted states legislative immunity when dealing with questions of race.  It thereby gave the right to a state to implement separate racial institutions, requiring them only to be “equal”.

Plessy, therefore, gave Mississippi Delta economic interests, and its planters, the legal means to control labor once again to work the valuable land (that didn’t necessarily happen overnight, however).

Jim Crow

Separate but equal doctine paved the way for “Jim Crow” laws to emerge in the deep South. These were state and local laws that enforced segregation, and the Jim Crow era was nothing but economic, educational and social discrimination.  It was cheap labor control that was the heart of the matter.

Mandated segregation of education systems, public places, public transportation, and segregation of restrooms, restaurants, and drinking fountains are examples of Jim Crow laws. Also segregated were Federal work places and the U.S. military.

The “poll tax” and “literacy tests” were especially effective Jim Crow laws in the South. They prevented black voters from any political power, and forced them deeper into economic servitude.

Such segregation laws remained in effect until the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.  During the post reconstruction era, however, Jim Crow solved the labor force needs of the Mississippi Delta planter to continue developing and farming the Delta land.

Sharecropping

Throughout the reconstruction and post-reconstruction era in the deep South, a fundamental characteristic of the economic climate was a lack of cash money. The war had effectively made cash a rare commodity; it was both exceptionally scarce, and therefore “king”, and this was especially so throughout the Mississippi Delta.  Attendant to this monetary problem was an additional absence of a credit system.  The daily struggle during this period was planters were looking hard for labor, with little or no cash to pay for it, and laborers were looking for paying jobs, which were next to impossible to find. Something simply had to give, and what gave was the creation of sharecropping.

A Mississippi Delta sharecropper.

Sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta faced a daily load of long hours and hard work in the Delta heat and humidity.

Sharecropping was an economic system where the landlord/planter allows a laborer to use the land in exchange for a share of the crop.  This circumvented the lack of cash for both the planter and laborers. Its upside was that it incentivized workers to produce. It also gave planters a method to keep labor tied to their land.

High interest rates, unpredictable harvests, and unethical landlords and merchants were key sharecropping downsides.  Sharecroppers often became severely indebted.  Debts were transferred to the next year, and the next, and so on.

Not all sharecroppers were black, there were many whites as well.  Some were well treated, some made a living.  Work was exceptionally hard, however, and it was even more difficult to prosper.  Indentured servitude for most was the result, and despair and hopelessness grew out of all of that. This painful economic trap for many unskilled laborers lasted for more than a half century.

Clarksdale: The Birthplace of the Blues

Well, here we are, Jim Crow and Sharecropping lead directly to the birth of the blues, and it happened in Clarksdale and the Mississippi Delta.  As we can see however, much more came to pass beforehand to set the stage for the human circumstances and conditions to reach that point in time where the Mississippi Delta blues began. Though there were certainly ethical and benevolent planters in the Delta, it was out of oppression that the blues got its spark, and took its foothold.

It is surely a certain irony that the wonderful art form that is the blues grew out of such adversity, and that perhaps the music that came out of expression from such oppression is THE artform that most characterizes the Mississippi Delta and its culture. The blues would not have happened; Clarksdale would not have been the birth of it; the baby the blues had called rock and roll that also came out of Clarksdale would all have been substantially different… without the Delta dirt in it’s soul.