Up until the end of the Civil War, the Mississippi Delta was mostly undeveloped swampland, a sort of wild west that only the insane might try to settle. While some bold men had cleared some of the swamp and started cotton plantations, most planters had simply not made it that far, and weren’t willing to try. The Delta was home to yellow fever, malaria, oppressive heat and humidity, and one of the most unpredictable rivers on earth, the Mississippi River, which had a massive flood plain that could easily wipe out settlements in a large rainstorm.
Eventually a series of levees constrained the Mississippi River and ambitious men with slaves in tow, arrived at the river, realizing just how much wealth lay untapped in the delta. Delta soil was rich and was constantly being replenished by the river, making it perfect for growing many crops but particularly the greatest cash crop of the south, cotton. By the end of the 19th century, the delta had some of the wealthiest men in the southeast; men such as planter Leroy Percy (oh we’ll get back to him) had connections to the river, to train lines connecting Delta plantations to Chicago, and even financial connections to Wall Street and to Europe. The traditional image of the south is of a region that is disconnected from the rest of the world, yet the wealth of the Delta made it quite cosmopolitan.
Wealthy areas tend to be diverse, if only because when there’s money to be made, people from all sorts of backgrounds will seek their fortune. As a result, the delta in the late 1800s and early 1900s filled with immigrants coming north from New Orleans, itself one of America’s most prospering immigrant towns and trade ports. The most prominent of these groups were Jewish immigrants, Chinese immigrants, and Italian immigrants.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Jewish community describes being welcomed with open arms by the southern community, and being able to effectively integrate into southern culture. This culture seemed to be welcomed as simply another church congregation, and indeed many southerners refer to the temple as the “Jewish Church.” Likewise, most Jewish immigrants eagerly accepted southern traditions, and became leaders within the Delta business and political community. While some did become farmers and large landowners in the country, many moved to the cities of the Delta such as Clarksdale and Greenville.
(The inside of a Greenville Temple.)
Chinese immigrants also eventually became businessmen, particularly grocery store owners. Chinese men owned the vast majority of the grocery stores in the Delta region, though many also worked on southern railroads. The earliest Chinese presence in the Delta was actually on the plantations during Reconstruction. Southern planters figured they could intimidate black workers into returning to the plantation by threatening to hire Chinese workers in their place, who had a reputation as docile, hard working people.
Both groups struggled with the Civil Rights Movement. Chinese business owners were never embraced as fully white—they were not allowed to attend white schools—and mostly served black customers; but they were often threatened with violence by the White Citizens’ Councils if they did not stand for segregation. One Chinese man described his father signing petitions for the NAACP and the White Citizens’ Council to avoid controversy.
Many Jewish immigrants, meanwhile, were fully integrated into southern culture, and as one prominent Jewish citizen in Greenville described, they were oftentimes more southern than Jewish. In fact, many Jewish citizens expressed resentment at the presence of “outside agitators” who were advocating for Civil Rights; many were, in fact, northern Jews. While Jews constantly insisted they were welcome in the south, they were constantly afraid that such acceptance would vanish quickly if they took a stand on civil rights.
I can’t judge these immigrants for their position. I have no idea what I would do in the face of the constant terror brought on in the south by the White Citzens’ Council and the KKK. Yet it speaks to a fundamental problem in American politics and history, expressed eloquently by MLK Jr. in his Letter from Birmingham Jail.
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
I post this here not to judge others, but to warn people not to quietly accept that “negative peace” as so many often do.
Meanwhile, what happened to Italian immigrants. The plantation elite first brought Italian immigrants for the same reason they brought Chinese immigrants; they had heard that Italian peasants would adapt quickly to the caste system the plantation owners had in place. They would be good workers, and in this case, “good workers” meant workers who would work endless hours for little pay or as sharecroppers. In short, Italian immigrants were abused in all the ways black sharecroppers were abused. Yet Italians had the advantage of having sympathetic investigators in the Department of Labor, and perhaps more importantly, an Italian embassy that was willing to raise a storm over treatment of Italian workers.
Italians, as a result, were never welcomed in the way that Jews were, instead being rejected as troublemakers in the south. Many Italians were, in fact, sympathetic to African Americans and welcomed integration of the schools when it finally arrived in force in the 1970s.
And so that was the world of a thriving Mississippi Delta. It was a diverse and prosperous place, far from the backwater you may have imagined if you’ve never visited the south, or even if you have. Today, that diversity has faded. We walked through a Chinese graveyard, and found few names from later than 2000. All of these groups have moved elsewhere to seek out better opportunities. The jobs in many southern towns—particularly Greenville, which we drove through—have simply dried up; they either moved to other parts of the US or overseas. While Greenville was once the picture of a booming Mississippi River town, it is now filled with empty buildings along its main drag. That legacy of unemployment has hit not only rural delta, but the small cities as well.
Our blues tour begins today! I’ll have pictures on that, and I’ll try to talk about the link between religion and the blues as well.