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.
Clarksdale, Mississippi. To fans of the blues, Clarksdale is the birthplace of the great Sam Cook, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and of course, site of the legendary crossroads of Hwy 61 and 49 where bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil.
To me, however, Clarksdale represents family, and an important part of my childhood.
Growing up in Jackson, I remember our family’s annual “pilgrimage” to Clarksdale, a small town in the Mississippi Delta. Every year before the fall holidays, my siblings, mother and I (Dad was at work) would drive up to the Delta, passing lush farmland and cotton fields, to go to Beth Israel cemetery and “visit” with my mom’s parents, both buried there.
We left early in the morning, got to the cemetery by 11, had lunch – vague recollections of the plate lunch special included fried chicken and black eyed peas – and then visited with my mom’s friend, who we knew as “Aunt” Adele Cohen (who was not an actual relation). And then we turned around and drove home.
My mom treasured this annual road trip. She lived in Clarksdale as a young girl and graduated high school there. My grandparents had a small grocery store in Clarksdale, and lived there until the early 1960s before moving to Jackson.
I left Mississippi when I was 24, and headed to the West Coast. After two decades away, and now with a family of my own, I moved back to Jackson five years ago. By the time I returned to reside in my home state, my mom had passed away.
I don’t really know when my family’s last Clarksdale “visit” took place. But this summer, en route to Memphis, I vowed to go visit. All I had was the street name for the cemetery; no address. I drove up and down Friar’s Point Road – no cemetery. I decided to find downtown Clarksdale – perhaps someone could direct me.
It was a hot day in July – I mean, HOT. Easily 99 degrees, with humidity to match. I made it to Main Street, which has seen better days. Lots of empty stores, a victim of small towns getting smaller and a poor economy in the Delta. But I spotted the Clarksdale Press Register newspaper office, went in, asked if they could point me in the direction of the Jewish cemetery.
Though her companion gave me a confused look, one of the young women said: “Oh sure, it’s just around the corner.”
I quickly got back in the car and made my way to the cemetery.
And there they were. Michael (for whom I’m named) and Shelda Binder, my maternal grandparents. It was a moment that brought a flash of days long gone, as well as a connection to my mom and generations past. I also saw the graves of relatives for whom I have no memories – they were just names to me.
As I placed the stones on their tombstones, I spoke to them; whether it was aloud or simply words in my head, I’m not certain. But I told them: “I’m sorry it’s been such a long time since I’ve been here. I love you.”
I returned to my car and headed back to the highway, feeling a sense of calm and comfort. It won’t be my last visit to Clarksdale.