ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
Over the next two days we're going to take a look at life on the Mississippi delta. It's one of the poorest regions in the country. Agriculture is still the dominant economic force, but modern techniques have put many farm workers out of a job. And a recent exodus of manufacturing jobs has made matters worse. In the first part of our series, NPR's Debbie Elliott gives us the lay of the land in the delta.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT reporting:
The sun is dropping fast, a big, red ball reflecting glimmers of color on the muddy brown waters of the Mississippi River. About two dozen people are braving the mosquitoes at sunset on the riverbank at Mound Landing.
(Soundbite of crowd noise)
ELLIOTT: They're marking the 78th anniversary of when the levee broke here in the great flood of 1927. Henry Outlaw reads famous quotes about the delta's relationship with the river.
Mr. HENRY OUTLAW: David Cohn from Greenville said this: `The delta was born of the river. The Mississippi had built this earth inch by inch, layer by layer. The river was a god that gave. It was also a god that took away.'
ELLIOTT: The writer David Cohn also coined the oft-cited definition of the Mississippi delta; that it begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis and ends at Catfish Row in Vicksburg, Mississippi. On one end, the posh trappings of the white planter class; on the other, the ramshackle cabins of the blacks who work the land. Other writers have described the delta as `the most Southern place on Earth.' It's not really a river delta at all but a great fertile floodplain nearly 70 miles wide. The Mississippi River is at its core, twisting, turning and coiling its way past towns and cities that sprung into life because of the river.
Ms. DEBRA FERGUSON (Photographer): Yeah, that's pretty good.
(Soundbite of photos being taken)
Ms. FERGUSON: So the river brings just something that's of interest to me.
ELLIOTT: Photographer Debra Ferguson grew up in the delta.
Ms. FERGUSON: The driftwood--it sort of represents what the river does. It comes up and it goes down, and it's just telling the river's story in a different way without just a straight photograph of the river.
ELLIOTT: Ferguson is an agricultural photographer by trade and spends her days driving the long, straight roads that cut through seemingly endless stretches of farmland that fan out from the river.
(Soundbite of car traveling)
Ms. FERGUSON: We're driving along Highway 1 near Scott, Mississippi, and looking at Lake Bolivar. Everything's green and lush. The planting is going on. The seed's being put out into the ground, or they're prepping the land. Right now you see young, new fields of rice, where the seedlings are popping up. It's...
ELLIOTT: The earth is waking up from its winter nap and, driving through the countryside, you can smell the freshly turned ground, a thick, musty aroma. Ferguson has been documenting life in this unique place through a series of photographs called "The Vanishing Delta."
Ms. FERGUSON: It's just the buildings that were there at one time thriving because there were plenty of people in the delta--those people have moved on, companies have closed, small towns have had closure because there's just not the numbers of people living here and the incomes they need in order to keep the delta thriving.
ELLIOTT: Six counties in the region have lost more than 20 percent of their population since 1970. The delta has been hard hit by the loss of manufacturing plants. Agriculture remains dominant; the state's cotton crop alone is worth more than $2 billion. But the land is concentrated in fewer hands, with machines doing most of the work, and absentee corporations run many of the plantations now. What has stayed the same, Ferguson says, is people's deep connection to the land and its promise.
Ms. FERGUSON: Spring is--you've had a whole winter of rain, dark days. And when it clears and the land dries enough to get a tractor in the field, everybody's in a great mood. All things are possible in the spring. You put the seed in the ground, and you don't know what it's going to do. You don't know if the weather will work. And it's just this great expectation of what's to come.
(Soundbite of truck; door closing)
Mr. BILLY PERCY (Farmer): Y'all about to get it.
Unidentified Man: Yes, sir.
ELLIOTT: Billy Percy is surveying the newly planted cotton fields on his thousand-acre farm.
Mr. PERCY: We're on Deer Creek about two miles south of Arcola, Mississippi. Well, this is the sand and loam that was deposited when the Mississippi River flooded. It's the best farmland in the United States. It's got wonderful nutrients. The soil is so pliable; it's so easy to farm.
(Soundbite of planter)
ELLIOTT: The planter is running back and forth over the flat terrain. A wheel plows the ...(unintelligible) soil and punches the seed about an inch down into the center of slightly elevated rows.
Mr. PERCY: See where the moisture meets down there? That's where you want to plant the seed and then cover it up, pack it.
ELLIOTT: The Percys have been growing cotton in the delta for five generations and were among the first settlers in the region. The family tree includes powerful and educated men that helped shape the delta, including a US senator and famous writers.
Mr. PERCY: My family's first farm was in Leland, Mississippi, right on Deer Creek. It was all hardwood forest, swampy as well because it went underwater every year, you know. They had to clear it up 40 acres at a time with handsaws and mules. This really was not that long ago. The Mississippi delta is not old, and it's not the old plantation. Nobody was here in the early 1800s until about 1835. This was kind of the hardscrabble part.
ELLIOTT: You don't find antebellum-style homes here because most of the delta was developed after the Civil War.
Mr. LUTHER BROWN (Director, The Delta Center for Culture and Learning): And at that time--I'm talking the 1870s, '80s, '90s--the delta was the place to be. I mean, land was cheap.
ELLIOTT: Luther Brown is director of The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi.
Mr. BROWN: Within a matter of just a few years, the whole wilderness was cleared, and it was transformed into one of the most altered landscapes on the planet.
ELLIOTT: Brown says in 1870, 90 percent of the delta was virgin wilderness; 20 years later, 90 percent of the delta was within five miles of a railroad track, developed largely by the influential Percys, who used New York banking connections to build railroads during Reconstruction. The rails opened up markets for the region's valuable but labor-intensive cotton crop. The development brought wealth to the region and increased the demand for workers.
Mr. BROWN: It was shortly after the Civil War, so you had a large number of agriculturally skilled African-American laborers, but they had no capital. And so they flooded into the area because of the opportunity to sharecrop. Whites from the surrounding area flooded in, especially from the hills. In those years Chinese came in, the Italians came in, Germans, Russian Jews. So this was the place where, you know, people of all sorts could come and try to make their fortune.
ELLIOTT: Some did--for instance, the land owners and the merchants, who set up in small, rural towns near plantations or in the port city of Greenville, which became the hub of the delta. But others just discovered back-breaking work and a race-based labor system that allowed the few to profit off the toil of the many. The Percy family helped set up what was known as Sunnyside Plantation over the river in Arkansas as an experiment to bring Italian farmers to work the land. For decades the delta was a rural-based economy feudal in nature. Billy Percy says each plantation was like a town unto itself.
Mr. PERCY: And we had a school, three churches. You know, the store was a commissary, really, where they could get at groceries and even clothes, even coffins. So it used to be a self-contained unit in the '40s, the late '30s. More than 200 people lived on the farm.
ELLIOTT: Today the sharecroppers are gone, no one lives on the farm, and it only takes a few men to work the land.
Mr. PERCY: Mechanization began first with tractors and then, later, with harvesting equipment, combines and cotton pickers. As that took hold, obviously the need for labor decreased.
ELLIOTT: Luther Brown says as the farm jobs faded, so did the region's economic base.
Mr. BROWN: Some people say emancipating field workers; other people say terminating field workers. While nobody I've ever talked to liked to pick cotton, it still did provide a way of life for people. And that way of life no longer exists.
ELLIOTT: That's left 55-year-old Tommy Lee Page(ph) with nothing.
Mr. TOMMY LEE PAGE: I used to do farmwork, and you work from sun-up to sundown, you know. And you never made overtime, no kind of benefit. You just worked. And they worked the devil out of you for minimum wage, and I had been working there, I would say all my life, ever since I was big enough to work. They provided a house; that's about all, too. Everything else you had to pay for yourself. And as--my health got bad, so I moved off the farm and moved over to my mom's place. But, basically, that's about all gone right here, farming and, you know, don't seem like they want no factories or nothing to come in this area; just to keep you out here on the farm 'cause they figure they won't have anybody to work for them. So that's the reason they don't want no factories around here.
(Soundbite of traffic)
Mr. OTIS CLARK: My name is Otis Clark, and I was the largest black farmer in Holmes County. I was growing cotton and soybeans and, on ...(unintelligible) land, I grew wheat. And I got four kids, every one of them grown. And I put them in college. They got out, they can't find nothing, so they gone. And that's what happening in this area. You can't find nothing. If you want somebody to relocate, just don't put no jobs there; they got no choice but to relocate. So that's what's happening in the delta with black people, especially Holmes County.
Mr. CRAIG WILLIAMS: It's sad. It really is, you know. It would be nice. It would be really nice where I can, you know, be here in my hometown and work, you know, in Tchula. So it's kind of hard, you know.
ELLIOTT: Craig Williams' wife and young son live in Tchula, Mississippi, but the 32-year-old truck driver works out of Murray, Kentucky.
Mr. WILLIAMS: If they put one factory here to give somebody a chance, that'll make a big difference. Out of the 32 years I've been here, I have never known a factory here, besides like the gin. That's not really helping us, you know. But it's sad because we got a lot of unemployed people here, a lot of them.
(Soundbite of train passing by)
ELLIOTT: Tchula was once a busy trading center and railroad stop, but now the train just rolls by with nothing to bring or take from the town. For longtime residents like Tommy Lee Page and Otis Clark, it's a daily struggle to survive. They say the best agriculture jobs, like running the cotton gin, are now taken by migrant workers from Mexico, and there's nothing else for them to do. More than half of all Tchula residents live below the federal poverty level. The median income here is $6,373 a year. One local entrepreneur in Tchula is hoping to change those statistics one job at a time. Tomorrow learn how he and others are trying to transform the Mississippi delta. Debbie Elliott, NPR News.
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SIEGEL: And you can see photos and a map of the Mississippi delta at our Web site, npr.org.