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.
As many people know, I’ll be leaving my post at the ISJL next week to pursue a Ph.D. in American Studies. The last four years have been amazing for me, personally, professionally and academically, and I know I’m going to miss the city of Jackson and the ISJL office.
My last big project here has been a series of three short videos about Jewish life in Ashland, Kentucky, which were commissioned by the Kaplan Simons Family Foundation. I’m proud and excited to share these videos today:
Huge thanks to all of the participants, the families who shared photographs with me and especially the Boyd County Public Library, where many of the interviews were conducted.
Continuing with excellent posts from our excellent summer interns, history intern Caroline Kahlenberg considers the southernness of Alexandria, Virginia.
Two weeks ago, during our History Department research trip to northern Virginia, the same question continued to crop up: Is Virginia—and the northern border of the state, specifically—still considered the South? When we posed the question in our interviews with rabbis and long-time Jewish community members, the response was never simple. On some occasions, in fact, the phrase, “two Jews, three opinions,” took on a literal meaning.
Indeed, it’s a hard question. Defining the American South—and who is considered a southerner—has long been a topic of debate among journalists, historians, and social critics alike. It seems that everyone has their own criteria: some use the SEC football league as a guiding principle, while others prefer to base it on the sweetness of their tea.
Being neither a football fan nor a tea drinker, I turned to Virginia’s history to explore this question further. While discussions of southern identity surfaced in every congregation we visited, the city of Alexandria poses an especially interesting case.
Alexandria—today just 6 miles south of Washington, DC—was actually founded as part of the nation’s capital in 1791 and remained part of the city until 1846. During that era, Alexandria’s economy was deeply involved in tobacco production and in the slave trade. Alexandria was also the childhood home of Robert E. Lee. Not surprisingly, when the Civil War broke out, most Alexandrians—including the city’s Jewish citizens—were sympathetic to the Confederate cause.
Certainly, then, 19th century Alexandria aligned economically and politically with the Old South, and it remained culturally removed from Washington DC well into the 20th century. But in the decades after World War II, as the greater D.C. metropolitan area grew to once again encompass the city, Alexandria lost much of its distinct southernness .
Suburbanization largely explains this shift. In the 1950s, many federal employees moved out of DC and into the newly developed northern Virginia neighborhoods surrounding Alexandria, greatly altering the “Southern” character of the region. Alexandria, too, became one of the many “bedroom communities” catering to Washington. The shift also altered Virginia’s political landscape by bringing more liberal voters into a traditionally conservative state, which eventually transformed it into the swing state that it remains today.
As new arrivals transformed Alexandria into a suburb of Washington D.C., the Brown v. Board decision by the Supreme Court in 1954 brought new energy to the struggle for African American civil rights. Led by Senator Harry F. Byrd, Sr., most areas of the Commonwealth of Virginia engaged “massive resistance” to school integration. While Alexandria was slow to enforce the federal verdict—integrating in the mid 1960s—the city did come to terms with integration sooner than other parts of Virginia. Prince Edward County, for example, shut down its schools for five years in defiance of integration. While the history of Alexandria’s integration is neither a perfect nor complete measure of the city’s regional identity, it provides some insight into its demographic and cultural transformation.
Hailing from a suburb of Washington, DC myself (though on the Maryland side) I can certainly relate to this complicated geographic identity. Personally, I don’t call myself a southerner. And according to the native Mississippians that I’ve met during my time here in Jackson, I’m most definitely a Yankee. But in Vermont, where I attend college, friends and teachers quite often consider Maryland the South, or at least close enough to it; to them, I’m not a true Yankee. The South is relative.
So, is today’s northern Virginia still the South? Looking at its recent history, I’d say “not exactly,” but it certainly retains some Southern elements. In addition to the historic Old Town, the people we talked to in Alexandria, for instance, were extremely hospitable, something I’ve come to greatly appreciate in Mississippi. I can’t exactly say the same about northern Virginia’s heavy traffic, which had a certain “DC” feel. Ultimately, though its location on a map has remained the same, the area’s cultural, demographics and politics have become less aligned with today’s Deep South, and more so with the country’s Mid-Atlantic region. Overall, it’s a tricky question. Next time, maybe I’ll just try the tea.