The Great Black Migration and How it Changed America
To my mother and father
vintage books edition, march 1992
Copyright © 1991 by Nicholas Lemann
All rights reserved under International and
Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in
the Untied States by Vintage Books, a division of
Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in
Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Originally published in hardcover by
Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1991.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The promised land: the great Black migration
and how it changed America
Nicholas Lemann. –1st Vintage Books ed.
ISBN 0-679-73347-7 (pbk.)
I. Afro-Americans – Migrations – History –
20th century. 2. Rural-urban
migration – United States – History –
20th century. 1. Title.
Author photograph © 1992 by Rex Miller
Manufactured in the United States of America
Three or four miles south of the town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, there is a shambling little hog farm on the side of the highway. It sits right up next to the road, on cheap land, unkempt. A rutted dirt path leads back to a shack made of unpainted wood; over to the side is a makeshift wire fence enclosing the pen where the hogs live. Behind the fence, by the bank of a creek, under a droopy cottonwood tree, is an old rusted-out machine that appears to have found its final resting place. The vines have taken most of it over. It looks like a tractor from the 1930s with a very large metal basket mounted on top. Abandoned machinery is so common a sight in front of poor folks’ houses in the South that it is completely inconspicuous.
The old machine, now part of a hoary Southern set-piece, is actually important. It is the last tangible remnant of a great event in Clarksdale: the day of the first public demonstration of a working, production-ready model of the mechanical cotton picker, October 2, 1944. A crowd of people came out on that day to the Hopson plantation, just outside of town on Highway 49, to see eight machines pick a field of cotton.
Like the automobile, the cotton picker was not invented by one person in a blinding flash of inspiration. The real breakthrough in its development was building a machine that could be reliably mass-produced, not merely one that could pick cotton. For years, since 1927, International Harvester had been field-testing cotton-picking equipment at the Hopson place; the Hopsons were an old and prosperous planter family in Clarksdale, with a lot of acreage and a special interest in the technical side of farming. There were other experiments with mechanical cotton pickers going on all over the South. The best-known of the experimenters were two brothers named John and Mack Rust, who grew up poor and populist in Texas and spent the better part of four decades trying to develop a picker that they dreamed would be used to bring decent pay and working conditions to the cotton fields. The Rusts demonstrated one picker in 1931 and another, at an agricultural experiment station in Mississippi, in 1933; during the late 1930s and early 1940s they were field-testing their picker at a plantation outside Clarksdale, not farm from the Hopson place. Their machines could pick cotton, but they couldn’t be built on a factory assembly line. In 1942 the charter of the Rust Cotton Picker Company was revoked for nonpayment of taxes, and Mack Ruse decamped for Arizona; the leadership in the development of the picker inexorably passed from a pair of idealistic self-employed tinkerers to a partnership between a big Northern corporation and a big Southern plantation, as the International Harvester team kept working on a machine that would be more sturdy and reliable than the Rusts’. With the advent of World War II, the experiments at the Hopson plantation began to attract the intense interest of people in the cotton business. There were rumors that the machine was close to being perfected, finally. The price of cotton was high, because of the war, but hands to harvest it were short, also because of the war. Some planters had to leave their cotton to rot in the fields because there was nobody to pick it.
Howell Hopson, the head of the plantation, noted somewhat testily in a memorandum he wrote years later, "Over a period of many months on end it was a rare day that visitors did not present themselves, more often than otherwise without prior announcement and unprepared for. They came individually, in small groups, in large groups, sometimes as organized delegations. Frequently they were found wandering around in the fields, on more than one occasion completely lost in outlying wooded areas." The county agricultural agent suggested to Hopson that he satisfy everyone’s curiosity in an orderly way by field-testing the picker before an audience. Hopson agreed, although, as his description of the event makes clear, not with enthusiasm: "An estimated 2,500 to 3,000 people swarmed over the plantation on that one day. 800 to 1,000 automobiles leaving their tracks and scars throughout the property. It was always a matter of conjecture as to how the plantation managed to survive the onslaught. It is needless to say this was the last such ‘voluntary’ occasion."
In group photographs of the men developing the cotton picker, Howell Hopson resembles Walt Whitman’s self-portrait in the frontispiece of Leaves of Grass: a casually dressed man in a floppy hat, standing jauntily with a hip cocked and a twig in his hand. In truth he was more interested in rationalizing nature than in celebrating it. Perhaps as a result of an injury in early childhood that kept his physical activity limited, Hopson became a devoted agricultural tinkerer. His entrancement with efficiency was such that after he took over the family plantation, he numbered the fields so that he could keep track of them better. The demonstration was held in C-3, a field of forty-two acres.
The pickers, painted bright red, drove down the white rows of cotton. Each one had mounted in front a row of spindles, looking like a wide mouth, full of metal teeth, that had been turned vertically. The spindles, about the size of human fingers, rotated in a way that stropped the cotton from the plants; then a vacuum pulled it up a tube and into the big wire basket that was mounted on top of the picker. In an hour, a good field hand could pick twenty pounds of cotton; each mechanical picker, in an hour, picked as much as a thousand pounds – two bales. In one day, Hopson’s eight machines could pick all the cotton in C-3, which on October 2, 1944, was sixty-two bales. The unusually precise cost-accounting system that Hopson had developed showed that picking a bale of cotton by machine cost him $5.26, and picking it by hand cost him $39.41. Each machine did the work of fifty people.
Nobody bothers to save old farm equipment. Over the years the Hopsons’ original cotton pickers disappeared from the place. Nearly forty years later, a family son-in-law discovered the one rusty old picker that sits in the pigpen south of town; where the other ones are today, nobody knows. Howell Hopson had some idea of the importance of his demonstration in C-3, though. In his memorandum, he wrote that "the introduction of the cotton harvester may have been comparable to the unveiling of Eli Whitney’s first hand operated cotton gin. . . ." He was thinking mostly of the effect on cotton farming, but of course the cotton gin’s impact on American society was much broader than that. It set off some of the essential convulsions of the nineteenth century in this country. The cotton gin made it possible to grow medium- and short-staple cotton commercially, which led to the spread of the cotton plantation from a small coastal area to most of the South. As cotton planting expanded, so did slavery, and slavery’s becoming the central institution of the Southern economy was the central precondition of the Civil War.
What the mechanical cotton picker did was make obsolete the share-cropper system, which arose in the years after the Civil War as the means by which cotton planters’ need for a great deal of cheap labor was satisfied. The issue of the labor supply in cotton planting may not sound like one of the grand themes in American history, but it is, because it is really the issue of race. African slaves were brought to this country mainly to pick cotton. For hundreds of years, the plurality of African-Americans were connected directly or indirectly to the agriculture of cotton; at the time of the demonstration on the Hopson plantation, this was still true. Now, suddenly, cotton planters no longer needed large numbers of black people to pick their cotton, and inevitably the nature of black society and of race relations was going to have to change.
Slavery was a political institution that enabled an economic system, the antebellum cotton kingdom. Sharecropping began in the immediate aftermath of the end of slavery, and was the dominant economic institution of the agrarian South for eighty years. The political institution that paralleled sharecropping was segregation; blacks in the South were denied social equality from Emancipation onward, and, beginning in the 1890s, they were denied the ordinary legal rights of American citizens as well. Segregation strengthened the grip of the sharecropper system by ensuring that most blacks would have no arena of opportunity in life except for the cotton fields. The advent of the cotton picker made the maintenance of segregation no longer a matter of necessity for the economic establishment of the South, and thus it helped set the stage for the great drama of segregation’s end.
In 1940, 77 per cent of black Americans still lived in the South – 49 per cent in the rural South. The invention of the cotton picker was crucial to the great migration by blacks from the Southern countryside to the cities of the South, the West, and the North. Between 1910 and 1970m, six and a half million black Americans moved from the South to the North; five million of them moved after 1940, during the time of the mechanization of cotton farming. In 1970, when the migration ended, black America was only half Southern, and less than a quarter rural; "urban" had become a euphemism for "black." The black migration was one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history – perhaps the greatest not caused by the immediate threat of execution or starvation. In sheer numbers it outranks the migration of any other ethnic group – Italians or Irish or Jews or Poles – to this country. For blacks, the migration meant leaving what had always been their economic and social base in America and finding a new one.
During the first half of the twentieth century, it was at least possible to think of race as a Southern issue. The South, and only the South, had to contend with the contradiction between the national creed of democracy and the local reality of a caste system; consequently the South lacked the optimism and confidence that characterized the country as a whole. The great black migration made race a national issue in the second half of the century – an integral part of the politics, the social thought, and the organization of ordinary life in the United States. Not coincidentally, by the time the migration was over, the country had acquired a good measure of the tragic sense that had previously been confined to the South. Race relations stood out nearly everywhere as the one thing most plainly wrong in America, the flawed portion of the great tableau, the chief generator of doubt about how essentially noble the whole national enterprise really was.
The story of American race relations after the mechanical cotton picker
is much shorter than the story of American race relations during the period
when it revolved around the cultivation and harvesting of cotton by hand:
less than half a century, versus three centuries. It is still unfolding.
Already several areas of the national life have changed completely because
of the decoupling of race from cotton: popular culture, presidential politics,
urban geography, education, justice, social welfare. To recount what has
happened so far is by no means to imply that the story has ended. In a
way it has just begun, and the racial situation as it stands today is not
permanent – is not, should not be, will not be.
One of the field hands who used to pick cotton on the Hopson place sometimes in the early 1940s was a woman n her late twenties named Ruby Lee Daniels. She was tall and slender, with prominent cheekbones and wispy hair – there was supposed to be Indian blood in her mother’s family. Ruby had spent most of her life on cotton plantations as a sharecropper, but now she was living in Clarksdale and working, occasionally, as a day laborer on the plantations. The planters often needed extra hands at picking time. Anyone who wanted to work would go at six in the morning to the corner of Fourth and Issaqueena streets, the main commercial crossroads of the black section of Clarksdale. Trucks from the plantations would appear at the corner. The drivers would get out and announce their pay scales. The Hopson place always paid at the high end of the going rate – at the time, two dollars for a hundred pounds of cotton.
Picking was hard work. The cotton bolls were at waist height, so you had to work either stooped over or crawling on your knees. Every soft puff of cotton was attached to a thorny stem, and the thorns pierced your hands as you picked – unless your entire hand was callused, as most full-time pickers’ were. You put the cotton you picked into a long sack that was on a strap around your shoulder; the sack could hold seventy-five pounds, so for much of the day you were dragging a considerable weight as you moved down the rows. The picking day was long, sunup to sundown with a half hour off for lunch. There were no bathrooms.
On the other hand, compared to the other kinds of work available to a poor black person, picking paid well. A good picker like Ruby could pick two hundred pounds of cotton a day. Before the war, when the rates were more like seventy-five cents or a dollar a hundred, she would have made two dollars or less for a day of picking. Now that Hopson had gone up to two dollars a hundred, she could make four dollars a day. Most of the jobs she had held outside the cotton fields were in "public work" (that is, being a maid in white people’s houses), and that paid only $2.50 a week.
Even four dollars a day for picking cotton was nothing, though, compared to what you could make in Chicago, where many people Ruby knew, including one of her aunts, had moved since the war started. In Chicago you could make as much as seventy-five cents an hour working in a laundry, or a factory, or a restaurant or a hotel, or one of the big mail-order houses like Spiegel and Montgomery Ward, or, if you were a man, in the stockyards. You could get overtime. Some of these jobs were supposed to be as hard as picking cotton, but people were making sums unheard of among black unskilled workers in Mississippi. Anybody in Ruby’s situation in Clarksdale at the time couldn’t avoid at least toying with the idea of a move to the North. Ruby was thinking about it herself.
The ostensible reason she hadn’t moved was that she was married and her husband was away fighting, so she had to wait for him to come home. Ruby was not exactly an adoring, patient war bride, though. She had never been very much in love with her husband, and by disposition she was not the passive type; she had a tough edge. Quite often in those days, black people would do things that white people considered irrational, or, at best, impulsive. Ruby would do many such things herself, in the course of her long life. But in her case, and perhaps many others, the real motivation was a desire to live with a basic human complement of love and respect. When she had this, she was kind and sweet, though she had too good a sense of humor ever to ascend to full church-lady saccharinity; when she didn’t, which was most of the time, she could be angry and sarcastic and even mean, and could make what looked in hindsight like big, obvious mistakes.
The real reason Ruby hadn’t moved to Chicago was that in her husband’s absence, she had fallen in love with another man, a married man who was unwilling to abandon his wife and children in Clarksdale. Certainly the idea of moving was not itself in any way a deterrent to Ruby. She had been moving for all of her life already.
Ruby was born Ruby Lee Hopkins, on November 23, 1916, in Kemper County, Mississippi, near the Alabama border. She was one of a set of identical twins born out of wedlock to a fifteen-year-old girl named Ardell Hopkins. When Ruby’s grandfather, George Hopkins, found out that his daughter was pregnant, he picked up his shotgun and went out looking for the young man who had gotten her in that condition, intending to kill him. When the young man, whose name was Sam Campbell, heard about this, he joined the Army and went off to fight in World War I. Ruby and her twin sister Ruth didn’t meet their father until twenty years later.
The family history, as Ruby heard it, was sketchy. Her grandfather’s grandmother had been a slave whose last name was Chambers, but she was sold to a white family named Hopkins who changed her name to match theirs; shortly afterward, according to family legend, she had given birth to a white-looking child whose father was the master. This child was Ruby’s great-grandfather. Quite often in those days, poor black families in the South didn’t pass on to their children too much information about slavery, because they considered it an unpleasant memory and one that might induce a lack of self-esteem if dwelt upon at length. Many people of Ruby’s generation were left with a vague picture of horrors – whippings, sales that broke up families, sexual oppression, material privation – and a feeling that you were better off not knowing the details, so long as you were aware that things were better now.
Ruby’s grandfather was a small farmer in Kemper County, barely getting by. Shortly after Ruby was born, a white man named Charlie Gaines appeared in the county. He was a manager on a big cotton plantation outside the town of Hill House, a few miles outside of Clarksdale; he had come all the way across Mississippi to recruit black people to come to Hill House as sharecroppers. His sales pitch was simple: a promise of prosperity. It convinced George Hopkins. In January 1917, when Ruby was six weeks old, George moved the family to Hill House to start over.
Hill House, and Clarksdale, are in a part of Mississippi called the Delta – a flat alluvial plain two hundred miles long and fifty miles wide that runs between the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers from Memphis down to Vicksburg. The Delta is the richest natural cotton-farming land in the United States. Its dark black-brown topsoil, deposited over eons of springtime floods, is more than fifty feet deep. Like an oil field or a silver mine, the soil of the Delta is the kind of fabulous natural resource that holds the promise of big, big money, and so the agricultural society that grew up on top of it was dominated by farming tycoons, not yeomen.
The Delta is remote, even now, and in its state of nature it was wild – swampy in some places and densely forested in most others, and populated by Choctaws and panthers and bears. It was the last area of the South to be settled; the mythic grand antebellum cotton plantation did not exist there. The leading planter families of the Delta consider themselves to be members of the Southern upper class – which is to say that they are Episcopalian, of British or Scotch-Irish extraction, and had ancestors living in the upper South before 1800 – but they were never so well established somewhere else as to have precluded a move to the Delta when it was frontier. The patriarch of the Hopson family, Joseph J. Hopson, came to the Delta from Tennessee in 12832, and he was one of the first white settlers. The Hopson plantation didn’t begin its operations until 1852. Most of the other big plantations in the Delta were founded after the Civil War. John Clark, for whom the town of Clarksdale is named, arrived in 1839, and laid out the town’s street sin 1868. Clarksdale had no rail line until 1879, wasn’t incorporated until 1882, and had no paved streets until 1913.
The reason the Delta was quiescent before the Civil War wasn’t just that the land was substantially uncleared an undrained, though clearing and draining it was a tremendous undertaking; it was that the Mississippi River flooded so often. Floods ruin crops. The river had made the land rich, but for the land to make men rich, its link to the river had to be severed. It was two decades after the end of the war before a marginally reliable system of levees was in place. Even then the Delta never became grand. It is a purposive country, the purpose being to grow cotton. The landscape is long and wide. Trees appear in lines, to demarcate the fields. The turn rows undulate only when they have to make their way around creeks. The planters’ houses, most of them, are quite modest, with small lawns and a few shade trees, evidence of a desire not to divert too much arable land to other uses. The big money made in the Delta is usually spent outside the Delta, on parties in Memphis and tours of Europe and Eastern prep schools.
Before the Depression, cotton was the least mechanized type of American agriculture, and extremely labor-intensive. During the decades following the end of the Civil War, the acreage planted to cotton steadily increased, in the Delta and all through the Southern cotton belt, peaking in 1929. This created an enormous demand for field hands, which was met mainly through the expansion of the tenant-farming system whose most common form was sharecropping. The number of tenant farmers in the South grew in lockstep with the number of acres of cotton fields. In 1930, by the estimate of a commission investigating the sharecropper system, eight and a half million people in the ten chief cotton-producing states were living in tenant-farming families. The Delta, as home to the biggest and richest plantations in the cotton belt, was the capital of the sharecropper system – at least in its most extreme form, in which all the sharecroppers were black and lived in self-contained plantation communities that were home, in many cases, to hundreds of people, and where the conditions were much closer to slavery than to normal employment.
There used to be a misty, romantic tone to Southern whites’ descriptions of how sharecropping got started. After the Civil Ware, the story went, the planters, weary and penniless, returned to the smoldering ruins of their plantations, determined to make a cotton crop. But there was no one to pick the cotton – the slaves, after freedom, had taken an extended vacation. They spent their days roaming aimlessly through the countryside or lolling about in the town squares, egged on by carpetbaggers, scalawags, and the occupying troops. The novels of Thomas Dixon, on which the film Birth of a Nation is based, are the mother lode of such lore.
Finally, the story continues, the former slaves ran out of food, and they began to drift back to their former owners and beg for a chance to cultivate the land again. The owner would explain that he had land but no money to pay out in wages, so he offered a deal, which the former slaves eagerly accepted: I’ll provide you with land, housing, seed, and provision, you make a cotton crop, and when we sell it we’ll split the proceeds. Everyone put shoulder to the wheel, and social and economic order was restored.
The story has the overspecificity of a myth. Both of the Delta’s best-known writers of the sharecropper period, David Cohn, a literary lawyer-businessman, and William Alexander Percy, a cotton planter and poet, claim that sharecropping was invented on a particular plantation: Cohn says the inventor was a General Hargreaves and the location "his plantation home in the Mississippi Delta;’ Percy, with typical grandeur, says it was his own grandfather, on Trail Lake, the family plantation outside of Greenville. In both cases there is a worked-up social vision underlying the store that today seems obviously self-justifying and self-deluding. The planters are always kind, responsible, and disinterested; Percy, who had a more elaborately patrician self-concept than Cohn, makes it sound as if his family’s entire purpose on earth was to help black people. The story cannot make sense, either, unless black people are congenitally incapable of an independent existence. Whites’ accounts of the origins of sharecropping never mention the never-realized idea of giving the ex-slaves forty acres and a mule for each family. The reason blacks accepted the bargain of the sharecropper system, as white people tell it, was not that they could get no decent land to farm, but that they, practically alone among all the peoples in the world, lacked the basic ability to manage a simple agrarian way of life on their own.
The most obvious flaw in the idea of sharecropping as a benevolent, voluntary system is that for most of its reign, black sharecroppers were not citizens. When the sharecropper system began, just after the war, Mississippi was under military occupation; when it was readmitted to the Union, in 1870, blacks could, and did, vote and hold political office, and the Republican Party ran the state. Even then, in accordance with long-standing custom, black people living on plantations inhabited a world entirely apart from white society. Some different form of race relations might have evolved under Reconstruction – but Republican rule in Mississippi lasted only five years. Like the establishment of sharecropping, the restoration to power of the all-white Democratic Party in the South was a development of such magnitude to whites that it became encrusted in legend; many towns have their own specific, mythic stories of the redemption of the white South. In Clarksdale it is the story of the "race riot" of October 9, 1875.
Even then Clarksdale was dominated by relatively well-off, educated whites rather than rednecks. The Ku Klux Klan, in its several incarnations over the years, has never been an officially sanctioned presence there. During Reconstruction, Clarksdale’s most prominent white citizen, James Lusk Alcorn, the "sage of Coahoma County," a former Confederate general, United States senator, and governor of Mississippi, was a Republican, though not a radical Republican like Adelbert Ames, the young man from Maine who was governor of Mississippi during the final phase of Reconstruction. Alcorn had rented land on his plantation to freed slaves, and the Klan rewarded him for this gesture by burning the plantation down.
The prelude to the race riot was a Republican county convention held at the courthouse in Clarksdale. After the Civil Ware, the Reconstruction government of Mississippi had first enfranchised blacks and then written a new state constitution that created a lot of new government jobs that went to blacks – all events that recurred in Mississippi, courtesy of the forces of Northern liberalism, a hundred years later. Alcorn and a few other practical-minded, economically ambitious ex-Confederates became Republicans "with the hope that the tide of ignorance might be controlled from with," as a segregation-era history of Mississippi put it. But by 1875 they had become disillusioned, believing (as, again, most of their counterparts in the white Clarksdale planter-businessman class of the late twentieth century would believe) that the true mission of the government’s new agencies was to swell the voter rolls in service of liberal political interests in Washington, and that many of the new black officials were unqualified and incompetent.
Alcorn and his white Republican allies appeared at the county convention of 1875 bearing arms, and Alcorn delivered a fierce denunciation of the blacks who held most of the political offices in the county. In particular he accused the black county sheriff, John Brown, a recent arrival in the Delta from the abolitionist hotbed of Oberlin, Ohio, of stealing $60,000 in county funds. The convention broke up in confusion without the issue’s being resolved.
In the meantime, a black man named Bill Peace, a former slave who had served in the Union Army during the war and then returned to his old plantation, had persuaded his former owner to let him start a security force in order to prevent blacks from stealing hogs and cattle from the place. As a white old-timer remembered it years later, "This turned out like things generally do when a negro is placed in power; he soon had a regiment of five thousand negroes." In the wake of the brouhaha at the Republican county convention, the whites in Clarksdale began to hear rumors that Bill Peach, now calling himself General Peace, was readying his troops to sack, plunder, and burn the county, and murder all the white people.
A former Confederate general named James R. Chalmers arrived on the scene and organized a white militia. An engagement occurred at a bridge on the Sunflower River, which meanders through the center of Clarksdale. All the surviving accounts of the battle come from the reminiscences of whites taken down many years later, and they share a basic implausibility: they all say that a small band of whites numbering in the dozens drew itself into a line and, by this act alone, engendered complete panic among five thousand heavily armed blacks. The blacks ran; the whites aimed their rifles, but General Chalmers commanded them not to fire, saying, "Do not shoot these negroes, boys, we need cotton pickers."
The whites marched into Clarksdale, which then consisted solely of John Clark’s country store, and camped for the night. At dawn a messenger appeared and announced that two blacks had shot and killed a white plantation manager. General Chalmers took his men to the plantation and caught two suspects. He ordered them taken to the county jail, but they never arrived there – the rumor was that they were killed by their guards en route and their bodies thrown in a lake. Chalmers’s militia spent the next couple of days marching to various settlements in the county where General Peace’s army had supposedly been sighted, but the army was nowhere to be found. John Brown, the black sheriff, escaped across the Mississippi River. He eventually settled in Kansas, never to be heard from in Clarksdale again. All in all there were six black casualties over the several days.
So ended the race riot, if it was a race riot. A month earlier there was another riot, also involving a rumored armed black uprising that never materialized, in the Delta town of Yazoo City. Exactly the same script was played out in a third Delta Town, Rolling Fork, at the same time. All over Mississippi white militias began, in response to similar shadowy incidents, to take the law into their own hands. Governor Ames, sensing his authority crumbling, asked Washington to send federal troops to Mississippi to restore order, and was refused. It was in this atmosphere that the election of November 3, 1875, took place, in which many blacks were prevented from voting by force or by threats, in which violence broke out at several county seats, and in which the Democrats swept the Republicans out of office forever. Governor Ames was impeached and the positions in state government held by black officials were abolished. In the late 1880s Mississippi and the other Southern states, emboldened by Washington’s post-Reconstruction hands-off attitude toward the South, began to pass the "Jim Crow" laws that officially made blacks second-class citizens. The Mississippi constitution of 1890, which effectively made it impossible for blacks to vote, was a model for the rest of the South. After its passage, the new political order of legal segregation was fully in place.
Segregation’s heyday and sharecropping’s heyday substantially coincided. Together the two institutions comprised a system of race relations that was, in its way, just as much a thing apart from the mainstream of American life as slavery had been, and that lasted just about as long as slavery did under the auspices of the government of the United States. The Mississippi Delta, which was only a footnote in the history of slavery because it was settled so late, was central to the history of the sharecropper system, especially the part of the system that involved blacks working on large plantations. The Delta had the largest-scale farming of the quintessential sharecropping crop, cotton. It was in the state that had the quintessential version of Jim Crow. The intellectual defense of sharecropping emerged from the Delta more than from any other place. The study of sharecropping by outsiders took place more in the Delta than in any other place. The black culture associated with sharecropping – including that culture’s great art form, the blues – found its purest expression in the Delta. The Delta was the locus of our own century’s peculiar institution.
The greatest days of the Delta were during World War I. The veneer of civilization had by then been pretty well laid down. There were clubs, schools, libraries, businesses, and solid homes in the towns. Agricultural prices were high nationally all through the ‘teens, and World War I created an especially great demand for cotton. In 1919 the price of Delta cotton went to a dollar a pound, its all-time high relative to inflation. Land prices were as high as a thousand dollars an acre, which meant that all the big plantations were worth millions. In 1920 disaster struck: the price of cotton fell to ten cents a pound. The Delta began struggling on and off with economic depression a decade earlier than the rest of the country.
Before the cotton crash, though, the Delta’s main problem was that black people had begun to migrate to the North to work in factories. The main transportation routes out of the Delta led straight north. The Illinois Central Railroad, which was by far the most powerful economic actor in Mississippi, had bought the Delta’s main rail system in 1892; its passengers and freight hooked up in Memphis with the main Illinois Central line, which ran from New Orleans to Chicago, paralleling the route of U.S. Highway 51. U.S. Highway 61, paralleling the Mississippi River, passed through Clarksdale; U.S. 49, running diagonally northwest through the Delta from Jackson, Mississippi, met 61 on the outskirts of Clarksdale. These were famous routes. The Illinois Central trains were household names: the Panama Limited, the City of New Orleans, and Louisiane. One of the canonical blues songs is called "Highway Forty-Nine." The closest cities to Clarksdale were Jackson, Memphis, New Orleans, and St. Louis, but none of them was fully removed from the social orbit of Southern segregation, or in a state of flat-out industrial expansion. The main place where all the routes out of Clarksdale really led was Chicago – job-rich Chicago.
Chicago was home to the Chicago Defender, the country’s leading black newspaper, with a wide readership in the rural South. Robert S. Abbott, the Defender’s publisher, a small, round, well-dressed man who artfully combined the roles of race crusader and businessman, launched what he called "The Great Northern Drive" on May 15, 1917. The object of the drive was to exhort Southern blacks to come to Chicago, in order to make money and live under the legal benefits of citizenship. Abbott invented slogans ("The Flight Out of Egypt") and promoted songs ("Bound for the Promised Land," "Going Into Canaan") that pounded home a comparison to the events described in the Book of Exodus for his audience of extremely religious children of slaves. He persuaded the railroads to offer "club rates" to groups of blacks migrating to Chicago. At the same time strong-back businesses like the stockyards and packing houses, desperately short of labor because of the war, hired white labor agents and black preachers to tour the South recruiting. Black porters on the Illinois Central, who at the time were a prosperous, respected elite in black America, spread the word (and passed out the Defender) on their stops in Mississippi towns. E. Franklin Frazier, the black sociologist, reported that, "In some cases, after the train crossed the Ohio River, the migrants signalized the event by kissing the ground and holding prayer services." The black population of Chicago grew from 44,000 in 1910 to 109,000 in 1920, and then to 234,000 in 1930. A local commission on race relations reported that 50,000 black people had moved to Chicago from the South in eighteen months during the war.
The South naturally wanted to stop the migration. Some towns levied heavy "licensing fees" on labor agents to prevent them from coming around. Some threatened to put the agents in jail. In some places the police would arrest black people for vagrancy if they were found in the vicinity of the train station, or even pull them off of trains and put them in jail. There was a great deal of local propagandizing against migration by planters, politicians, black preachers in the hire of whites, and the press. A headline of the time from the Memphis Commercial Appeal, the big-city paper most read in the Delta said:
south is better for the negro, say mississippians
colored people found prosperous and happy
None of these tactics seem to have worked, but it didn’t matter. When the soldiers came home in 1918, the demand for labor in Chicago slackened immediately. Later, the Depression hit Chicago especially hard, and the effect in the South of the high unemployment rate in Chicago was to discourage migration; the black population in Chicago grew by just 44,000 in the 1930s.
Anyway, the planters of the Delta had, during and after World War I, created a significant, though unpublicized, black migration of their own, from the hills of northern and central Mississippi to the Delta. The most common family history among black families in the Delta is exactly like Ruby Daniels’s: the family scratching out an existence in the mediocre soil of the hills; the Delta plantation manager painting his enticing picture of the bountiful cotton crop in the Delta and the economic promise of the sharecropper system; and then the move.
This inside-Mississippi migration almost always ended with the family feeling that it had been badly gulled, because it turned out to be nearly impossible to make any money sharecropping. The sharecropper’s family would move, early in the year, to a rough two- or three-room cabin on a plantation. The plumbing consisted of, at most, a washbasin, and usually not even that. The only heat came from a woodburning stove. There was no electricity and no insulation. During the winter, cold air came rushing in through cracks in the walls and the floor. Usually the roof leaked. The families often slept two and three to a bed.
Every big plantation was a fiefdom; the small hamlets that dot the map of the Delta were mostly plantation headquarters rather than conventional towns. Sharecroppers traded at a plantation-owned commissary, often in scrip rather than money. (Martin Luther King, Jr., on a visit to an Alabama plantation in 1965, was amazed to meet sharecroppers who had never seen United States currency in their lives.) They prayed at plantation-owned Baptist churches. Their children walked, sometimes miles, to plantation-owned schools, usually one-or two-room buildings without heating or plumbing. Education ended with the eighth grade and was extremely casual until then. All the grades were taught together, and most of the students were far behind the normal grade level for their age. The textbooks were tattered hand-me-downs from the white schools. The planter could and did shut down the schools whenever there was work to be done in the fields, so the school year for the children of sharecroppers usually amounted to only four or five months, frequently interrupted. Many former sharecroppers remember going to school only when it rained. In 1938 the average American teacher’s salary was $1,374, and the average value of a school district’s buildings and equipment per student was $274. For blacks in Mississippi, the figures were $144 and $11.
Each family had a plot of land to cultivate, varying in size from fifteen to forty acres depending on how many children there were to work and how generous the planter was. In March, the planter would begin to provide the family with a "furnish," a monthly stipend of anywhere from fifteen to fifty dollars that was supposed to cover their living expenses until the crop came in in the fall. The planter also provided "seed money" for cotton seed, and tools for cultivation. He split the cost of fertilizer with the sharecropper. Thus equipped, the sharecropper would plow his land behind a mule, plant the cotton, and cultivate a "garden spot" for vegetables. Between planting and harvest, the cotton had to be regularly "chopped" – that is, weeded with a hoe – to ensure that it would grow to full height. The standard of living provided by the furnish was extremely low – cheap homemade clothes and shoes, beans, bread, and tough, fatty cuts of pork – but nonetheless the money often ran out before the end of the month, in which case the family would have to "take up" (borrow) at the commissary.
The cotton was picked in October and November and then was taken to the plantation’s gin, where it was separated from its seeds and then weighed. The planter packed it into bales and sold it. A couple of weeks would pass during which the planter would do his accounting for the year. Then, just before Christmas, each sharecropper would be summoned to the plantation office for what was called "the settle," The manager would hand him a piece of paper showing how much money he had cleared from his crop, and pay him his share.
For most sharecroppers, the settle was a moment of bitterly dashed hope, because usually the sharecropper would learn that he had cleared only a few dollars, or nothing at all, or that he owed the planter money. The planters explained this by saying that ever since the cotton crash of 1920 they hadn’t made much money either; what every sharecropper believed was that they were cheating. There was one set of accounting practices in particular that the sharecroppers considered cheating and the planters didn’t; a series of fees the planters levied on the sharecroppers over the course of the year. The goods sold at the commissary were usually marked up. Many planters charged exorbitant interest on credit at the commissary, and sometimes on the furnish as well – 20 percent was a typical rate. When tractors came in during the 1930s, the planters would charge the sharecroppers for the use of them to plow the fields. None of these charges were spelled out clearly as they were made, and usually they appeared on the sharecropper’s annual statement as a single unitemized line, "Plantation Expense."
Then there was indisputable cheating. There was no brake on dishonest behavior by a planter toward a sharecropper. For a sharecropper to sue a planter was unthinkable. Even to ask for a more detailed accounting was known to be an action with the potential to endanger your life. The most established plantations were literally above the law where black people were concerned. The sheriff would call the planter when a matter of criminal justice concerning one of his sharecroppers arose, and if the planter said he preferred to handle it on his own (meaning, often, that he would administer a beating himself), the sheriff would stay off the place. Some planters were allowed to sign their sharecroppers out of the county jail if it was time to plant or chop or pick, and pay the bond later on credit. (If a sharecropper committed a crime serious enough for him to be sent to the state penitentiary, in Parchman, he would pick cotton there too –it was a working plantation in the Delta.) If a planter chose to falsify a sharecropper’s gin receipt, lowering the weight of cotton in his crop, there was nothing the sharecropper could do about it; in fact a sharecropper was not allowed to receive and sign for a gin receipt on his own. If a planter wanted to "soak" a sharecropper, by adding a lot of imaginary equipment repairs to the expense side of his statement, the sharecropper had no way of knowing about it. As one Clarksdale planter puts it, quoting a proverb his father used to quote to him, "When self the wavering balance holds, ‘tis seldom well adjusted."
Everybody agrees that some planters cheated and some didn’t. Numbers are understandably difficult to come by. Hortense Powdermaker, an anthropologist from Yale who spent a year in the 1930s studying the town of Indianola, Mississippi, sixty miles down the road from Clarksdale, estimated that only a quarter of the planters were honest in their accounting.
The end of every year presented a sharecropper who had come up short with not many good options. He could stay put, piling up debt at the commissary until the furnish started again in March, and hope that the next year he would make a good enough crop to clear his debt. He could move to town, live in an unheated shack there, and try working for wages as a field hand or a domestic. He could, finally, try sharecropping on another place, and this was the choice that most sharecroppers made sooner or later. Some of them would pack up and move, and some of them would "slip off" in the night, to escape a too-onerous debt or some other kind of bad trouble with white people. The great annual reshuffling of black families between plantations in the Delta during the time after the settle and before the furnish is in retrospect one of the most difficult aspects of the sharecropper system to understand. The relatively few plantations where the sharecroppers regularly cleared money rarely had openings, so the families that moved usually wound up at another dishonest place where they would end the year in debt. The constant churning of the labor force couldn’t have been good business for the planters, either.
Many of the sharecroppers and planters obviously weren’t thinking all that far ahead. The more marginal the planter, the more likely he was to cheat, so that he could see some money himself at the end of the year. The more he cheated, the more likely he was to lose his labor after the settle. The sharecropper’s rationale for moving was, in part, some mix of optimism and disgust. John Dollard, the Yale psychologist who helped develop the theory that frustration leads to aggression, also spent time during the thirties in Indianola, Mississippi, and wrote the book Caste and Class in a Southern Town about it. Dollard explained sharecroppers’ moving by saying, "It seems that one of the few aggressive responses that the Negroes may make . . . is to leave a particular plantation . . . it is exactly what they could not do in prewar days, and it probably represents a confused general distrust, resentment, and hope for betterment. . . ."
The false-promise aspect of sharecropping, the constant assertion by
planters that your poverty was your own fault -–you and he were simply
business partners, your loss was right there is cold type on the statement
– made it especially painful. As a sharecropper, you found your life was
organized in a way that bore some theoretical relation to that of a free
American – and yet the reality was completely different. There were only
two ways to explain it, and neither one led to contentment: either there
was a conspiracy dedicated to keeping you down, or – the whites’ explanation
– you were inferior, incapable. Poverty and oppression are never anything
but hard to bear, but when you add to them the imputation of failure, it
multiplies the difficulty.
Ruby Hopkins stayed on the plantation at Hill House for only two years. During that time, Ruby’s mother, Ardell, met and married another sharecropper on the same place, a man named George Washington Stamps, known as G.W. In 1919 Ruby’s grandparents quarreled and split up, and her grandmother, Letha Hopkins, moved the family –0- Ardell and G.W., Ruby, and Ruby’s twin sister Ruth – down to a plantation in Anguilla, Mississippi, in the southern part of the Delta. In 1922, the plantation flooded; after the high water receded, the owner asked his sharecroppers to move to another plantation he owned, called Tallwood, which was outside Clarksdale on a rural highway that was known as New Africa Road because so many black sharecroppers lived there. The family moved.
In August 1924, Ruby’s grandmother died; after the settle that year, Ardell and G.W. decided to move to another place on New Africa Road because they thought they could make more money. They made the crops of 1925 and 1926 there, but during 1926 G.W. ran off with another woman, stayed away for a while, then came back and asked Ardell for a reconciliation. She agreed, but in her heart she hadn’t forgiven him for his transgression. After the crop she slipped off, taking Ruby and Ruth, and moved in with one of her sisters who lived on a pecan plantation that was on an island in the middle of Moon Lake, north of Clarksdale. They lived on the island during the great Mississippi River flood of 1927. Ardell remarried there, but immediately after the wedding her new husband became so jealous and possessive that while he was plowing the fields he would make her stand in the door of their shack so he could keep an eye on her. The first chance she got, Ardell arranged to leave the twins with an elderly minister and his wife on the island, slipped off during the night again, and went off to find a new life.
When Ardell was settled in with a new man – just housekeeping, not married – on a plantation in the nearby town of Lula, she sent for the twins. Ruby was baptized in Moon Lake in 1928. Ardell’s romance broke up not long afterward; the twins were sent to live with their grandfather, George Hopkins, who by then was remarried and was a sharecropper on a plantation in Belen, northeast of Clarksdale. Twelve-year-old Ruby helped chop and pick the cotton crop of 1929 there.
In 1930 Ardell was married again, to a man named Sidney Burns, and she took the twins back. The family planted its crop on another plantation along New Africa Road. In August, Ardell took sick. Her body seemed to swell up, and she could barely move. For three months she stayed in bed, gradually getting sicker. Members of the family sat up with her in shifts. Nobody knew what was wrong; it was only years later that Ruby realized that it was hypertension, the same disease that had taken her grandmother a few years earlier. Lying in bed and living on a diet of very salty food was probably the worst thing Ardell could have done for her condition, but she didn’t know that. On a Sunday evening, October 5, 1930, she died, at the age of thirty.
Ruby, Ruth and Sidney Burns finished making the cotton crop, and then Ruby and Ruth started moving again: first to an aunt’s place on another plantation, then to their grandfather’s again. This was an especially hard time in Ruby’s life. Despite Ardell’s unsettled life and frequent absences, Ruby loved her without reservation and always felt the love was fully returned; now she missed her mother terribly. The Great Depression, or, as sharecroppers called it, "the panic crash," had begun, and times got harder Ruby’s grandfather always seemed to come out behind. One year at the settle he was told he had cleared fifteen cents, and he came home to his cabin, sat down at the table, and cried. After the settle in 1931, he owed money and decided to slip off, but the planter got wind of his plans and on a Sunday afternoon came to the family’s cabin, took back the provisions they had just bought on credit at the commissary, kicked them out, and nailed the door shut behind them. At that point they were so poor that Ruby had no shoes; she had to walk barefoot ten miles down the road to an aunt’s house and ask to be taken in.
Ruby’s grandfather made a deal with a new white man and started sharecropping on his plantation. There Ruby and her step-grandmother began to quarrel. One day her step-grandmother hit her, and Ruby hit back; after that she left and stayed with some cousins on New Africa Road for a while. For the crop of 1933, Ruby’s grandfather was on another plantation, and Ruby moved back with him. One day the planter, a white man named Tom Ware, sent for Ruby and her grandfather to come see him at his house. Ware called them into the living room – an unusual invitation, since a sharecropper almost never saw the inside of a white man’s house – and asked George Hopkins whether he’d like to sit down and have some coffee. Then he said, "Uncle George" – white people called black people by their first names until late middle age, at which point the honorific "Uncle" or "Aunt" was applied – "Uncle George, I’d like your girl there." As Ruby sat silently, terrified, Ware complimented her grandfather on her beauty and maturity, and explained that if he agreed to this arrangement, he would clear money every year and never have to want for anything. George was noncommittal; that night the family slipped off.
Toward the end of 1933 things got a little better. Ruby’s twin sister, Ruth, had already been married once very briefly and run off from her husband; now she met an older, settled man named Ernie Thigpen, and they decided to marry. Ruby’s youngest aunt, Ceatrice, had gotten engaged too, to a man named Porter O’Neill. Ruth and Ceatrice had a double wedding in a cabin on a plantation on New Africa Road and formed a fairly stable extended family group. Ruby moved in with them. The group stayed together for the crop of 1934. After the settle, Ruby went to spend Christmas with her grandfather, who by then was a sharecropper on a big plantation outside the town of Marks, fifteen miles east of Clarksdale, that was owned (as were most things in the town of Marks) by a rich family named the Selfs. While she was there it rained for three days without stopping. Her grandfather’s cabin was flooded, and so were all the roads; they camped out on a hill and waited for the water to receded.
George Hopkins had become friends with another sharecropper family on the Self place, called Daniels. The Daniels’s son, W.D., used to come by and cut wood for George, and he and Ruby began to court. W.D. told Ruby he’d like to marry her. She told him he’d better do it soon, because as soon as the high water went down she was going back to Ruth and Ceatrice’s place, and there was a young man there named Harold Brown who wanted to marry her too. On February 2, 1935, a Saturday, Ruby and W.D. were married by a preacher on the Self place. Looking back on it, Ruby didn’t think she was really ever in love with W.D.; it was just that she was eighteen, and wanted to be grown.
Ruby and W.D. settled on the Self plantation and made crops there in 1935 and 1936. In 1937, W.D.’s father learned about a "Tenant Purchase Program" run by Franklin Roosevelt’s Farm Security Administration that would lend sharecroppers money to buy land. He acquired forty acres in the woods, laboriously cleared it by hand, and began making a cotton crop of his own. Ruby and W.D. lived there too. That year the high water came again, and the place was full of snakes that rode in on the flood. Ruby’s feelings about snakes were such that it was impossible for her to enjoy this new life of independent farming. She decided she wanted to move to town.
During that year, 1937, Ruby saw her father for the first time. After World War I, he had moved back to the hills, living here and there. Sometimes he would write letters to Ruby and Ruth in the Delta, or send them dresses. Now that they were grown, they decided to visit him. They traveled by train and bus to the town of Louisville, Mississippi, where they had arranged to meet him in front of a cotton gin. Their first glimpse of each other was a crystal-clear memory for Ruby into old age: "Oh, my children," he cried out, nearly overcome with emotion, and embraced them.
In 1938 Ruby found out that President Roosevelt had started another
government program called the Works Progress Administration, which gave
poor black people jobs doing manual labor for a dollar a day. She began
trying to talk W.D. into taking one of those jobs in Clarksdale, and finally
he agreed. After the crop they moved into town. Ruby’s sharecropper days
Americans are imbued with the notion that social systems proceed from ideas, because that is what happened at the founding of our country. The relationship of society and ideas can work the other way around, though: people can create social systems first and then invent ideas that will fulfill their need to feel that the world as it exists makes sense. White people in the Delta responded to their need to believe in the system of economic and political subjugation of blacks as just, fair, and inevitable by embracing the idea of black inferiority, and for them the primary evidence of this was lives like Ruby’s. To whites, the cause of the chaotic aspect of sharecropper society was not pain or deprivation, but incapacity. Black people were, in the words of William Alexander Percy, "simple and affectionate." David Cohn saw blacks as "emotionally unstable" and "childlike" people for whom "life is a long moral holiday."
The whites’ capacity for rationalization was such that in their vision of Delta society, it was whites who were in a tough situation; being black was fun. Whites had to shoulder responsibilities, whereas the very concept of responsibility was foreign to blacks – the portion of the brain that contained it must have been missing in them. Whites had to make sure the work got done, because no black person would work unless forced to. The conscience was another faculty that blacks were born without; Cohn wrote that the lot of a black murdered "is softened because he is rarely a victim to the gnawing pains and terrors of remorse which so often make living a bitter unbearable reality to the white man who has killed a human being."
Most of the rules and customs that whites made for blacks to live by emerged from, or anyway were justified by, the whites’ ideas about blacks’ "nature." Scrupulous financial dealings with sharecroppers were pointless, since any money the sharecroppers cleared, they would only waste. There was nothing wrong with the planters’ winking at all sorts of violations of the law by their sharecroppers, from moonshining to petty theft to polygamy to murder, because blacks had no moral life to begin with. The education of sharecroppers’ children was haphazard as a convenience to the planters, but also by design, because, in David Cohn’s words, "the Negro should be taught to work with his hands," and real schooling "tends to unbalance him mentally." The white ideal in the Delta was that a planter should be like a father and the sharecroppers like his children, dependent, carefree, and grateful. One of the big planters in Clarksdale, Roy Flowers, used to have his sharecroppers stand out in the fields at Christmas time while he proceeded down the turn rows with a pot of silver dollars, handing out (as another planter puts it) a little bit of the money he had stolen from them at the settle.
During the 1927 flood, William Alexander Percy was the head of the relief operation in Greenville, the largest town in the Delta, which is seventy miles south of Clarksdale. The Percys were probably the Delta’s leading family and considered themselves to be devoted friends of the Negro. The family staunchly opposed the Ku Klux Klan for years; William Alexander Percy’s father lost a seat he held briefly in the United States Senate to James K. Vardaman for being too liberal on "the Negro question." The flood put Greenville in a state of emergency that lasted for months; sixty thousand people, the great majority of them black, were in need of temporary housing. In working with the other town fathers to manage the situation, Percy wrote later, "Of course, none of us was influenced by what the Negroes themselves wanted: they had no capacity to plan for their own welfare; planning for them was another of our burdens."
The Chicago Defender, to Percy’s utter shock, began to criticize him for his management of the emergency. He felt the Defender’s "campaign of vilification" against him had an "embittering influence" on blacks in Greenville, and so helped cause a racial crisis that arose toward the end of the emergency. One day Percy lacked the hands to unload a Red Cross shipment of supplies, so he ordered the police to go to the black neighborhood and conscript some labor. One black man who resisted was shot and killed by a policeman. Soon, as Percy remembered it, "the Negroes had worked themselves into a state of wild excitement and resentment"; Percy called a meeting at a black church and insisted that no whites but him be present. There he delivered a speech blaming the murder on the blacks. As he recalled his words, he said: "Because of your sinful, shameful laziness, because you refused to work in your own behalf unless you were paid, one of your race has been killed. . . . That foolish young policeman is not the murderer. The murderer is you! Your hands are dripping with blood. . . . Down on your knees, murderers, and beg your God not to punish you as you deserve."
The black uprising that whites feared never materialized. The Red Cross agreed to begin paying people to unload supplies. The whole incident could be seen as an example of black commitment to nonviolent protest (against being forced to work without pay), even after a black man had been killed. The lesson whites drew from it was quite the opposite: blacks were cowards and would back down when confronted by the likes of William Alexander Percy; blacks were shirkers who, as David Cohn put it, "will discharge even the most rudimentary social obligations only under compulsion"; a social order based on blacks’ begin kept in a lower caste was the only answer for the Delta. There was a circularity to this logic. Blacks would be denied an opportunity – in this case, to express their views on the management of the emergency. They would respond in pretty much the way you’d expect. Their response would prove to whites that they’d been right not to trust the blacks in the first place. Education was a similar case: whites created a spectacularly poor school system for blacks that was designed to produce graduates who were only marginally literate; then whites would point to blacks’ deficiencies in speaking and writing standard English as proof that blacks were ineducable.
All these childlike qualities that whites in the Delta read into sharecropper society were not really the heart of the matter, though. The heart of the matter was sex. Here is Cohn again: "The Negro . . . is sexually completely free and untrammeled. . . . To him the expressions and manifestations of sex are as simple and as natural as the manifestations of nature in the wind and the sun and the rain, in the cycles of the seasons and the rounds of the growing crops. Sexual desire is an imperative need, raw and crude and strong. It is to be satisfied when and wherever it arises." The idea that blacks possessed a powerful, noncontrolled sexuality was responsible for the rough edge of the white Delta ideal of benevolent paternalism: a certain harshness was necessary in order to protect white women from black men.
The civil rights movement in the South in the 1960s looms so large in the national memory today that the movement’s great enemy, legal segregation, is remembered as the keystone of the caste system. But in the heyday of segregation, social segregation was more important to whites – social segregation built around absolutely preventing the possibility of a black man’s impregnating a white woman. Gunnar Myrdal, in An American Dilemma, written just before segregation began to crumble, provided a ranking of the various aspects of segregation in their importance to white Southerners. Whether blacks voted was only fourth most important, and the denial of good jobs was sixth; first was "the bar against intermarriage and sexual intercourse involving white women." David Cohn wrote: "We do not give the Negro civic equality because we are fearful that this will lead in turn to demands for social equality. And social equality will tend toward what we will never grant – the right of equal marriage. As a corollary to these propositions we enforce racial separation and segregation." And: "It is the sexual factor . . . from which social and physical segregation grows."
In the panoply of white fears about blacks, this sexual one was not only the most important but also the most wholly misplaced. Whites were right that blacks, given the chance, would choose not to pick cotton any more, and would vote for black candidates for political office, but they were absolutely wrong in imagining that any relaxation of the social codes of segregation would lead to the dreaded result of amalgamation of the races. It is tempting to see the white conviction that mixing of the racial stocks was the ultimate danger as another aspect of the pose they had struck to justify the system they had set up, but if it was a poise, it was an unconscious one, a sincere self-delusion. Everything flowed from their idea that if blacks and whites were allowed to deal with each other as equals, sex wold be the result. That was why blacks were always called by their first names and whites, from the age of ten or eleven, by "Mister" or "Miss." It was the reason a black person could not enter a white person’s house by the front door, or sit next to a white person in a public place, or go to school with whites.
The family lives of sharecroppers were, for the white people of the Delta, Exhibit A in their case that segregation was a necessity because of the nature of black sexuality. The white interpretation of the sharecroppers’ sex lives was that they were governed by the principle of absolute lack of inhibition: everybody was sleeping with everyone else whenever the impulse arose. Short-lived common-law couplings and illegitimate children were the inevitable (and, for many planters, the desired) result. Every aspect of the black social life on the plantations, as whites saw it, had a brazen sexual cast. At the Sunday church services there was wild shouting and singing, and women in variably "fell out" in swoons of not exactly religious ecstasy. The ministers were sleeping with their parishioners. In addition to religion, the sharecroppers practiced "hoodoo," hexing each other ion the pursuit of their turbulent romantic lives. Young men played a game called "the dozens," in which they traded imaginatively worded sexual boasts and insults. On Saturday nights there were raucous parties on every plantation, in a shack known as a "tonk" or a "juke," or in a family’s cabin. The sharecroppers shot craps, drank cripplingly impure moonshine whiskey, danced to loud, strange music, and got into fights. A standard Delta anecdote had a sharecropper approaching a planter with a sly smile and saying, "Boss, if you could be a nigger one Saturday night, you’d never want to be white again!"
A procession of professional observers from outside moved through the Delta and the rest of the sharecropper South during the 1930s, after the New Deal had brought a critique of the sharecropper system into the public debate. Probably the best-remembered of them today are James Agee and Walker Evans, the writer and photographer who collaborated on Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, which portrays the world of the small-scale white tenant farmer scratching out a living from the depleted soil of the Southern hills. The most detailed surviving accounts of the quite different plantation-based, all-black sharecropper system that prevailed in the Delta came not from journalists like Agee and Evans, but from professors; their work provides some evidence, from a source far more disinterested than the planters, about the nature of black sharecropper life. Hortense Powdermaker and John Dollard were both in Indianola in the 1930s. Charles S. Johnson, a sociologist trained at the University of Chicago (and later the first black president of Fisk University), published a study of black sharecroppers in rural Georgia, Shadow of the Plantation, in 1934. Arthur Raper’s Preface to Peasantry, published in 1936, is a description of the same area in Georgia that Johnson studied. Gunnar Myrdal traveled all over the South in the 1940s while he was working on An American Dilemma. All these writers rejected wholeheartedly the idea of a black inferiority, but they agreed that family life among sharecroppers was different from the ordinary family life of the rest of the country.
Johnson surveyed 612 rural black families, most of them caught up in the sharecropper system. There were 181 illegitimate children in the survey; 152 of the families were headed by a single woman. Though most of the families were headed by a married couple (often the marriage was common-law), only 231 of the 612 families were headed by a couple both of whom were in their first marriage. "Sex, as such, appears to be a thing apart from marriage," Johnson wrote; in the county he studied, 35 per cent of blacks tested positive for syphilis. Raper, without citing statistics, wrote, ". . . there is more illegitimacy among the Negro group and consequently more children dependent on one parent."
Powdermaker wrote that "the typical Negro family throughout the South is matriarchal and elastic," and that the "personnel of these matriarchal families is variable and even casual," often including illegitimate children. Marriages w4ere common-law in "the large majority of the households." Dollard wrote that "it is clear that social patterns governing sexual behavior are much less restrictive than they are among middleclass people . . . especially among poorer rural Negroes." Myrdal mentioned the "extremely high illegitimacy" among blacks in the South – 16 per cent of births to blacks were out of wedlock, a ratio eight times that of whites – and felt that the true figure for blacks was probably much higher because "The census information on the marital status of Negroes is especially inaccurate, since unmarried couples are inclined to report themselves as married, and women who have never married but who have children are inclined to report themselves as widowed."
In trying to account for what they found, these writers assumed they
were seeing the continuation of a pattern of family life that began during
slavery, when abduction from Africa, the brutal passage to America, and
regular sales that split spouses apart and separated children from their
families caused a mutation in the structure of the black family. Certainly
the black sharecropper family as described by the scholars who observed
it was quite different from families in traditional cultures, in Africa
or anywhere else in the world, where marriage is an elaborately formal
institution. The places in the world where marriage is regarded more casually
are ones where people have been abruptly moved from a traditional
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Dawn D. Bennett-Alexander