There is something about the Mississippi Delta. Known as “the most southern place on earth,” the Delta region is a complicated place with an often tortured history. Last week, the ISJL History Department visited the region to learn how this flat, alluvial flood plain, once home to the most fertile cotton growing soil in the country, transformed America. For a long time, cotton was king in the Delta, as primarily white plantation owners employed black sharecroppers to plant, grow, and harvest the cash crop.
From the 1870s to the 1970s, the Delta’s fortunes rose and fell with the price of cotton. The Delta was the richest part of the state, but was also the site of tremendous poverty. These contradictions helped give rise to the blues, a style of music created in the Delta in the late 19th century and exported to the world in the 20th. One of our stops was Dockery Farm, a large cotton plantation that was once home to 2,000 sharecroppers, including blues legends Charlie Patton, Robert Johnson, Howlin’ Wolf, and Son House. Many have argued that the blues musical style was invented and first passed around on this 10,000 acre plantation.
Because cotton was so labor intensive, and that labor was provided by African Americans, the Delta’s population became majority black. But due to segregation and disfranchisement, whites were able to maintain political power in the Delta. But there was one exception: Mound Bayou. A small hamlet in the heart of the Delta, Mound Bayou was established as a black freedom town by founder Isaiah T. Montgomery, a former slave, in 1887. In Mound Bayou, blacks voted and did not experience Jim Crow. It was a safe haven for blacks, an oasis in a region where white supremacy ruled.
In Mound Bayou, we met with Dr. Eulah Peterson, the president of the local historical society, who spoke about the important role the town’s residents played in the struggle for civil rights. This struggle was sparked by a terrible incident in the Delta that captured the attention of the entire world. In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was kidnapped and brutally murdered after supposedly whistling at a white female clerk at Bryant’s Grocery Store in Money, Mississippi. His mother’s decision to have an open casket funeral, letting everyone see the grotesque condition of his body, drew attention to the brutality of white supremacy and inspired a movement to change the South. In Glendora, we toured a museum that tells this troubling but important story.
In nearby Ruleville, we visited a memorial to one of the Delta’s most important civil rights leaders, Fannie Lou Hamer. Ms. Hamer was a 44-year old sharecropper who was thrown off her plantation in 1962 after she tried to register to vote. She then became a movement leader, inspiring her younger colleagues with her plain-spoken eloquence and commitment to the cause. In her hometown where she was once vilified, Hamer is now honored with a memorial park. Next to her grave is a newly installed life-size statue of the activist.
While we were visiting the memorial, a police car pulled up, driven by a white officer, and two African American women got out of the back. Like us, the women were visitors to Ruleville, and the police chief had met them downtown and offered to take them to see the statue, the town’s most prized historic site. Such a scene would have been inconceivable fifty years ago. In the usual story of the Delta, little mention is made of Jews, who settled in the region starting in the late 19th century. Jews were always a tiny percentage of the Delta’s population. They did not work as sharecroppers and were rarely plantation owners. They were merchants, setting up shop in countless Delta towns, many of which were little more than wide places in the road. They established congregations and built synagogues in the Delta’s larger towns, in places like Clarksdale, Greenville, Greenwood, and Cleveland. As the Delta has declined economically, its Jewish community has shrunk. Today, there are three small congregations left.
In Greenwood, we met with Gail Goldberg of Congregation Ahavath Rayim. The traditional congregation, which once had a full-time rabbi and a flourishing religious school, is now down to nine people. They meet for lay-led services once a month, but still fill their sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah, when extended family and friends from around the country come to the Delta to help the congregation carry on its traditions.
Driving through the Delta, you think a lot about what used to be there: thriving market towns with several Jewish-owned stores; cotton fields ringed by sharecropper shacks; white elected officials thwarting the efforts of blacks to vote. Now, many of these small towns have little or no commerce, mechanical cotton pickers have ended the sharecropping system and you are just as likely to see soybeans growing as cotton, and most Delta towns have black elected officials. While the Delta has been transformed over the last several decades, as you drive by its farms and swamps, you realize that the past is never far behind.
This week, we have a special “Snapshots from the Southern Jewish Road” collection of pictures to share with you, from last week’s Deli Day at Hebrew Union Congregation in Greenville, MS, right in the heart of the Mississippi Delta.
HUC used to be the largest congregation in the state (you can read more about the history of the Greenville Jewish community here). Now, the membership numbers have diminished- but the spirit has not, and that’s never more evident than on the day that HUC invites the rest of Greenville to come to the congregation for a good old fashioned deli lunch, featuring, of course, corned beef sandwiches with all the “fixin’”s.
This tradition has lasted for 130 years – and this year, several of the ISJL Education Fellows went up to the Delta again to help serve the record 2,000 sandwiches sold at the 2013 deli luncheon. They shared these photographs. Enjoy, and Shabbat shalom, y’all!
If you want to learn even more about this community, and the Deli Day in particular, Vox Tablet did a great mini-podcast story on it two years ago – wherein the interviewees talk about the importance of preserving this tradition. What’s a tradition that your community is committed to preserving?
The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience has a collection of over 3,000 objects and archival materials that tell the story of Southern Jewish communities. This includes temple sisterhood minutes, Jewish store memorabilia and objects from temples that are no longer active. I’m excited to use this space to share some pieces that best illustrate the history of these communities.
I’ll start with one of my favorites, a collection of youth group scrapbooks from Clarksdale, Mississippi. Clarksdale, most famously known as home of the Blues, also happened to have some Jews. We have 8 books from 1962-1975 in our collection but this one from 1970 stands out because of its ornate custom circular design and hand drawn calligraphy. Someone crafty was clearly excited about being yearbook editor.
The Clarksdale Jewish community has a long history, starting with early Jewish settlers in the 1880’s. At its peak in the 1930’s, Clarksdale was home to 400 Jews, but by 1970 the community was only a hundred families; the youth group had 25 members. This group was active in the community and participated in regional conclaves that enabled them to network with other Jewish teens in the SOFTY (Southern Federation of Temple Youth) region.
Here are some of the gems from their scrapbook:
I can’t help but wonder what these kids would have thought about their book being cataloged into this museum archive. Could they have known that their thick rimmed glasses would come back into style 40 years later? Would they have included their “play on marijuana,” featuring a progressive dialogue between teenagers and their parents on the merits of the drug?
These scrapbooks are especially telling of the Southern experience because it was this generation of young people who did not stay in Clarksdale or other Delta towns to grow the Jewish community but moved to larger cities like Memphis for greater opportunity. As a result, the community could no longer sustain the congregation and, like many pieces in our collection, these artifacts are from a temple that had to shut its doors.
They are paper and glue relics of the past since today most of our memories are posted to digital pages on Facebook. These should inspire you to print out your favorite Instagram shots and paste some into a book. You never know what important material (or embarrassing hair cut) you’ll be leaving for historians to blog about in the future.