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, 1941. 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 far 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 In 1942 the charter of the Rust Cotton Picker Company was revoked for nonpayment of taxes, and Mack Rust decamped for Arizona; the leadership in the development of the picker inexorably passed from a pair of idealistic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 fotty-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 stripped 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 1, 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 fast band 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 sharecropper system, which arose in the years afrer 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 percent of black Americans still lived in the South-- 49 percent 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 1970, 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 in 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 comer 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, sun up to sun down 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.
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 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 1832, 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 streets in 1868. Clarksdale had no rail line until 1879, wasn't incorporated until 1882, and had no paved streets until I913.
The reason the Delta was quiescent before the Civil War wasn't just that the land was substantially uncleared and 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 War, 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 country side 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 provisions, 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 over specificity 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 story 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 War, 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 within," as a segregation-era history of Mississippi put it. But by 187 5 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 Peace, 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, the 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 1930 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 NEGRO, SAY
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 of 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': 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 wood burning 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 $1,3741 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 per cent 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 un-itemized 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 lndianola, 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 sharecropers' 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 pre-war 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 in 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 white’s 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-- 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 recede.
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 were over.
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 murderer "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 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 being 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, uncontrolled 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 pose, 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 would 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 invariably "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 in 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 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 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 were 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 middle class 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 culture to the fringes of an industrial one-- like Venezuela or Guinea-Bissau.
Today, a generation of historical scholarship-- most notably Herbert Gutman's The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom-- stands in refutation of the idea that slavery destroyed the black family. Gutman presents the slave family as having been organized somewhat differently from most American families (for example, there was no taboo against a woman's having her first child before marriage), but on the whole, in his tableau, the stable marriage was the dominant institution in African-American family life during and immediately after slavery. The aim of his book is to explode an exaggerated picture of black family life as having been utterly and permanently incapacitated by slavery, and he does this convincingly. It isn't Gutman's aim, or that of other recent slave historians, to tease out whatever differences there might have been between the family structures of rural blacks and those of most other Americans. Therefore the picture we have of black family life under the sharecropper system essentially doesn't fit with the work that historians of the black family under slavery have produced for the past quarter century.
In particular, the available evidence about the sharecropper family indicates that first marriages of lifelong duration were the exception; whereas in the slave family, according to Gutman, they were the rule. Present-day historians have not directed enough attention to the sharecropper system to have worked out the differences between what we now know about the slave family and the decades-old material we have about the sharecropper family. So it is somewhat mysterious where the structure of the sharecropper family came from, if the observers of it described it accurately, but they do provide a few guesses besides the legacy of slavery.
Dollard more than the others bought the planters' idea of the lazy, carefree sharecropper. "They are satisfied with a secure furnish, take it easy, and let the white man worry," he wrote. He blamed this on the planters. They had set up the system so as to inculcate a state of dependency in the sharecroppers: "The furnish system is a kind of permanent dole which appeals to the pleasure principle and relieves the Negro of responsibility and the necessity of forethought . . . . One can think of the lower-class Negroes as bribed and drugged by this system." Powdermaker, on the other hand, didn't believe that sharecroppers were either contented or absolutely free sexually. (If they were, she pointed out, then jealousy wouldn't be the great cause of marital discord and violence that it was.) She saw the caste
system as pervasively denying respect to black people, with the result in the lives of the black poor being not childlike enjoyment but grown-up pain: "Perhaps the most severe result of denying respect to an individual is the insidious effect on his self-esteem. Few can long resist self-doubt in the face of constant belittling and humiliation at the hands of others."
Powdermaker and Johnson both mentioned the relative economic independence of poor black women as a destabilizing influence on families, and both blamed the high rate of violent crime among sharecroppers on the custom by which white law enforcement officials regarded blacks as living (in Powdermaker's words) "outside the law." Johnson said that the sharecroppers' "extreme isolation from society" had allowed "unique moral codes" to develop, but he predicted that the closer the sharecroppers got to the mainstream of American society, the more disorganized their lives would become, at least in the short run. He wrote, prophetically for someone who had no idea how brief the run of the sharecropper system was going to turn out to be, "This group . . . has taken form . . . outside the dominant current of the American culture . . . . The very fact of this cultural difference presents the danger of social disorganization in any sudden attempt to introduce new modes of living and conceptions of values."
It is clear that whatever the cause of its differentness, black sharecropper society on the eve of the introduction of the mechanical cotton picker was the equivalent of big-city ghetto society today in many ways. It was the national center of illegitimate childbearing and of the female-headed family. It had the worst public education system in the country, the one whose students were most likely to leave school before finishing and most likely to be illiterate even if they did finish. It had an extremely high rate of violent crime: in 1933, the six states with the highest murder rates were all in the South, and most of the murders were black-on-black. Sexually transmitted disease and substance abuse were nationally known as special problems of the black rural South; home-brew whiskey was much more physically perilous than crack cocaine is today, if less addictive, and David Cohn reported that blacks were using cocaine in the towns of the Delta before World War II.
In the North, at the time, when problems of family disorganization appeared in black neighborhoods, they were routinely explained as a matter of recent migrants from the rural South bringing their old way of life with them to the city. W. E. B. DuBois, in The Philadelphia Negro, wrote, "Among the lowest
class of recent immigrants and other unfortunates there is much sexual promiscuity and the absence of a real home life.... Cohabitation of a more or less permanent character is a direct offshoot of the plantation life and is practiced considerably...." While researching the book, DuBois had spent a summer in rural Virginia because he wanted to learn about the area that many black Philadelphians had moved from; a few years later, in The Souls of Black Folk, he elaborated on the theme of troubled family life on the Southern plantation, saying, in a section about sharecropper life in rural Georgia, "The plague-spot in sexual relations is easy marriage and easy separation. . . . in too many cases family quarrels, a roving spirit, a rival suitor, or perhaps more frequently the hopeless battle to support a family, lead to separation, and a broken household is the result." E. Franklin Frazier, as a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago, studied the birth records at Cook County Hospital in the 1920s and found that between 10 and 15 per cent of the black mothers there weren't married. "Nearly four-fifths of these unmarried mothers were born in the South and over a half of them had been in Chicago less than five years," he reported. Frazier researched the unwed mothers' backgrounds and found that fewer than an eighth of them had grown up in the same home with both their parents; to his mind they were replicating the pattern they had known in the South.
RUBY LEE DANIELS saw her early life on the plantations around Clarksdale a little differently from the way that either the planters or the experts saw it. Certainly the marital bond for sharecroppers was an extremely unstable one in her version. When she was in her seventies, she could think of only one longstanding happy marriage among the people she had known well, her aunt Addie Green's, and even Addie had had two marriages break up before she got into the good one. In the old days, as Ruby remembered them, marriage was an institution lightly entered and lightly left. Nobody had any money to put on a real wedding ceremony, and nobody bothered to get divorced, because they didn't have any possessions to divide. As she says, "People would get married on a plantation one week, and the next week one of them would be gone."
Ruby was well acquainted with the social scenery surrounding courtship and marriage-- Saturday night, and so on. She went to parties on plantations practically every Saturday night when she was a young woman. They would usually take place in somebody's two-room shack, with all the furniture removed
for the evening; there would be gambling in one room and dancing in the other, to the music of an acoustic guitar. At one party she remembered, a fight started, somebody fired a shot, and she and the other guests jumped off the porch of the shack and escaped through the cotton fields. Hoodoo was a theme in the life of Ruby's family all through the 1920s and 1930s. The deaths of her grandmother and of one of her aunts were attributed to their having been "fixed" by hoodoo doctors in the hire of their romantic rivals. The aunt who died had never recovered from the birth of a child; the theory was that another woman who was in love with her husband had sneaked into Ruby's aunt's house, stolen a lock of her hair, and had it fixed by a hoodoo man. Ruby's aunt Ceatrice was once involved with a man who mistreated her, but she wouldn't leave him. Ruby's grandfather became convinced that the man had had Ceatrice fixed, so he took Ceatrice to a hoodoo doctor to have the spell broken. The doctor instructed Ceatrice to go home, feel above the front door frame until she found a small bag, take it down, and throw it out the back door into the fields. Then Ceatrice had to walk out the back door, around the house, and back in the front door, and repeat this three times. She faithfully followed the doctor's instructions, and sure enough, she soon left the man.
All of this, though, had to do with the travails of courtship and marriage; in Ruby's mind, there was a great distinction between marriage and family. Marriage was a bitter disappointment. Everybody yearned for a happy marriage, but almost no one got one-- as Ruby puts it, "there was no till death do you part." This was the most immediate and painful way in which the difference between the promise of American life and the reality of poor black life made itself felt. To Ruby, the best (but not wholly satisfactory) explanation for marriage not working out was the constant pressure of poverty and the no-goodness of most men, their drinking and violence and unreliability and infidelity.
Ruby's feelings about her blood relatives, on the other hand, were entirely positive. She loved both her parents, understood their failings, and harbored no resentments against them. Her circle of acquaintances outside her immediate family, especially her aunts, had been a crucial source of support when she was growing up. People with minimal resources of their own had taken her in, as if she were their own daughter, whenever she needed help. Underneath the disorganization that outsiders saw was an extended-family system that had real strength. The network of friends and relatives got one another through the constant round of crises that made up the sharecropper life, crises so severe that
the accumulation of them caused many people Ruby knew simply to give up and lose themselves in fleeting pleasures. Ruby never gave up; as she puts it, she always found a way to scuffle and make it through. What enabled her to do that was a self-assurance that her family had somehow been able to create in the absence of any of the tokens of worth that are available to most people: "I know I don't have what other people have-- money, cars-- but I never felt lower than other people. My grandfather always taught me to feel equal to other people-- the big-shot people who went to this and that college and have degrees. I can talk just as good as them. I know the words."
When Ruby and her husband moved to Clarksdale at the end of 1938, she got a job as a cook and housekeeper for a white lady, at $2.50 a week. Ruby's education was pretty good for someone of her generation-- eighth grade, with some time spent in one of the country schools endowed by Julius Rosenwald, the Sears Roebuck tycoon in Chicago, which were much better than the ordinary plantation schools. Still, there weren't any careers open to her except the cotton fields and domestic work. The pay was so low that every respectable white family in the Delta-- even schoolteachers' and mail carriers' families-- had at least one full-time servant.
Ruby got by. In those days you could buy salt pork, or beans, or black eyed peas, for five cents a pound. You could make a batch of biscuits with a nickel's worth of flour. A dress cost $1.98 at the shops on Issaqueena Street. When money ran short, people shared what little they had. Ruby could go out on the trucks and pick cotton on Saturdays if she needed to. Sometimes at work she used to think: "This white woman thinks I'm good enough to nurse her baby and to make the meals that her family eats. Why am I not good enough to go in her house by the front door?" But such thoughts were not to be given free rein, even in one's own mind. When Ruby was growing up, she was taught to look up to white people, not to hate them. White people ran everything. They lived well. If you were black, you had to get things from white people. Rebellion against segregation was fruitless, so it was for Ruby a subject dealt with in whispers and private feelings. She had only one childhood memory of a protest against the system, and it was a hidden protest: a group of old folks walking down a country road in the 1920s when there weren't any white people around, quietly singing the old folk song "We Shall Overcome."
Black people in Clarksdale passed around stories, which were gradually burnished into legend, about the worst excesses of the system-- stories involving sex and bloodshed. One day a black boy in Clarksdale who was working in a white family's yard was called into the house by the white woman.
When he got inside, he saw that she had her blouse off. She asked him to fasten her in back. What could he do? Everybody knew that if a black man refused a white woman's advances, it was quite likely that she would accuse him of rape and he would be lynched. If he didn't refuse, and an affair began, and it was found out, an accusation of rape followed by a lynching was, again, the likely result. The woman could hardly afford to admit the truth, because if she did she would be banished from the community.
In this case there was no chance for the boy to make his decision, because the woman's husband walked in. She screamed, to indicate that she was being assaulted. The boy went on trial for rape, but the woman's husband had figured out the real story by then, and he stood up in court and said the boy should be set free. The freedom lasted only a few minutes. A gang of white boys waylaid the black boy as he was walking home from the courthouse, tied his feet to the back of a car, and drove all the way from Clarksdale to Marks with the black boy's crushed, bloody head bouncing along the roadbed.
Another story was about a crazy black man who got a gun, holed up in a cotton warehouse, and started firing shots out. The county sheriff, A. H. "Brick" Gotcher, arrived at the scene and went inside the warehouse to talk the black man into surrendering. The black man shot and killed Gotcher; Gotcher's deputies shot and killed the black man. In white memory, the story was completely nonracial because the black man had no grievance, and its lesson was that Gotcher was heroically brave. In black memory, the story was absolutely racial-- the black man had probably been set up in some way, and after he was killed his body was dragged down the black commercial strip on Fourth Street in broad daylight to impress in the minds of the blacks of Clarksdale that nobody else ever better try anything like that again.
Black Clarksdale was full of rumors and secrets, because there was so much that couldn't be expressed openly or that blacks were in no position to investigate. Everybody black in Clarksdale knew, though there was no hard proof of it, that Bessie Smith, the great singer who died after a car accident outside Clarksdale in 1937, had been refused admission to the county hospital on grounds of her race, at a time when she could still have been saved. Shortly after that, the same hospital refused admission to the wife of one of Clarksdale's two or three most prominent black citizens, a dentist named P. W. Hill, when she was in severe distress during child birth. She and her baby died on the road to Memphis, or
story went; it was so shrouded in mystery that even Dr. Hill's son and
namesake doesn’t know what really happened, because he never dared to
ask his father about it.
White society as a whole looked corrupt to black people, because the corrupt side of it was most of what black people (especially black men, who rarely entered white people's homes) saw. Black people knew things about white people's secret lives that weren't known in the white part of town. When a light-skinned baby was born in the black part of Clarksdale, gossip would circulate as to which respectable white citizen was the father. Sometimes a black family would live inexplicably well, and the reason was that a conscience-stricken white man was sending remittances for the support of his officially unacknowledged children. White men's cars would be seen parked in the black section, in front of the houses of prostitutes or mistresses or bootleggers. White policemen could chase women or gamble or beat people up in black neighborhoods without anyone in authority finding out about it. A lot went on in the county jail that never saw the light of day.
In addition to keeping white people's secrets, black people kept their own. In daily life, any resentment that blacks felt for whites was usually kept hidden under a mask of slightly uncomprehending servility that black people knew fit whites' basic picture of them. Involvement in a civil rights organization had to be kept quiet too, of course. At the time, most of the high school-- and college-educated black people in Clarksdale were in teaching-- "preach, teach, or farm" was the slogan that summarized the black career options-- and the state required black teachers to sign an affidavit that they weren't members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP was a middle-class organization that without teachers on the rolls would barely have existed, so black teachers joined it secretly. Any black people who had managed to accumulate some money took pains not to put it on display, because it was easy enough for someone deemed a rich, uppity nigger to have his bank credit denied, to find his white clientele (if he did construction work, or hauled labor to the plantations) abruptly taking its business elsewhere, or to lose his land through a trumped-up title dispute. There was an old tradition in the Delta of blacks gaining some temporary advantage by informing on their own people, tipping off the white folks about an errant black person's inclinations and intentions-- to slip off a plantation, say. The resentment of the snitches, the "white man's niggers," was so intense that keeping your mouth shut was considered not merely a matter of prudence with regard to whites, but also of honor within black society.
For the black middle class of Clarksdale-- a group that made up about 15 percent of the black population and was defined more by education and attitude than by money-- the most important secret of all was not anything specific; it was the family life of the black poor. The catechism of the defenders of segregation ran this way: illegitimate childbearing, the short duration of romantic liaisons, and the constant domestic violence among the sharecroppers and poor blacks in town clearly demonstrated that blacks were sexually uncontrollable. This made social segregation a necessity. Social segregation led to legal segregation in education, government, and the economy. The main losers from legal segregation were not the black poor but the black middle class, whose members were educated enough to get good jobs but were denied them by law and by custom. The poor blacks' way of life, in other words, caused the middle-class blacks to suffer the humiliation and economic loss that went with second-class citizenship.
Outsiders who came down to study the South often mentioned how hard it was to get middle-class blacks to talk about the black lower class. "It is difficult to get the truth about the lower-class patterns from middle class Negro people," John Dollard complained. There was a code of silence on the subject. A scene in Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man has the hero giving the rich white Northern benefactor of a black college in the South a tour of sharecropper cabins in the outlying rural area. They meet a sharecropper who tells the benefactor, in great detail, the story of how he impregnated his own daughter. The narrator reacts with horror: "How can he tell this to white men, I thought, when he knows they'll say that all Negroes do such things? I looked at the floor, a red mist of anguish before my eyes."
In Clarksdale, all blacks lived on the east side of the railroad tracks, and all whites on the west side, but there were distinct neighborhoods within the black area. Most of the poor blacks lived in an area called the Roundyard, which runs along the bank of the Sunflower River; all of the black middle class lived in the Brickyard, a little farther north. Families in the Brickyard went to the more middle-class churches, such as Friendship African Methodist Episcopal and First Baptist. Their social life revolved around church circles and associations like the Masons and the Knights and Daughters of Tabor, a venerable black mutual-aid society that operated a hospital in the all-black Delta town of Mound Bayou, twenty-five miles south of Clarksdale. Their children attended the county agricultural high school
outside of town, which was the only secondary education available to blacks in Coahoma County, since Clarksdale didn't build a black high school until the 1950s. On Saturday night, most teenagers in the Brickyard were not allowed to go down to the clubs on lssaqueena Street, because they would be full of poor folks from the Roundyard and the plantations. If there was a shooting at the Red Top Inn, you were supposed to hear about it on the radio, not be an eyewitness. There were block clubs in the Brickyard; whenever a poor family, especially a poor family from the country, happened to move into the neighborhood, the block club quickly made contact and began the process of indoctrination into middle class standards of household maintenance. The transition from plantation to town was supposed to be a step up in the world.
IN 1940 RUBY'S aunt Ceatrice left her husband and moved to the town of Massillon, Ohio, where some friends of the family were living. There she met a man from Mississippi named Ulysses Wilkes, and together they moved to Chicago. Ceatrice got a job with a company that did janitorial work in big office buildings at night. In her letters and on visits home she painted a rosy picture for Ruby of life in the North.
In 1941, Ruby's husband, W. D. Daniels, was inducted into the Army and left Clarksdale for what was sure to be a long time. Ruby met and fell in love with a married man named Kermit Butler. Kermit had a good job, driving an ambulance for the Century funeral home in Clarksdale. Funeral homes were the only substantial black businesses in Clarksdale. They existed because of the strength of two traditions: Southern racial custom made it unthinkable for a white funeral home to handle black corpses, and every black person in the Delta, no matter how desperately poor, was determined to receive a decent burial. All sharecroppers, knowing they would probably die penniless, carried burial insurance to pay for their funeral and interment. Hortense Powdermaker wrote, "In the dilapidated shacks of undernourished families, whose very subsistence depends upon government relief, the insurance envelope is almost invariably to be seen hanging on the wall." Burial insurance was provided by the funeral homes, and the steady trickle of premiums provided them with a secure economic base.
They all had ambulances, too, partly to function as hearses and partly because there were no municipal ambulances to take black people who were critically ill (and barred from the hospital in Clarksdale) to the Taborian hospital in Mound Bayou. The owner of the Century funeral home, T. J. Huddleston, the
son of a slave, was reputed to be the richest black man in the Delta. (In the 1980s one of Huddleston's grandsons, Mike Espy, became Mississippi's first black congressman since Reconstruction, representing the Delta, and another, Henry Espy, was elected the first black mayor of Clarksdale, after defeating the scion of another black funeral home dynasty.) Century at its peak had thirty branches; Bessie Smith's body was prepared for her funeral at the Century home in Clarksdale.
Even though he was married, Kermit Butler was able to give Ruby a nicer life than she had ever known. He bought her dresses. He took her with him in the Century ambulance when he rode around the countryside picking up bodies, a courting ritual that may sound grim but wasn't to Ruby, who had never had much chance to ride as a passenger in an automobile or to stay dressed in good clothes all day long. In another stroke of good fortune, Ruby got a job as a waitress in a cafe at the intersection of Highway 49 and Highway 61. Her shift was twelve hours long, from seven in the morning to seven at night, but she could make as much as $12.50 a week, fantastically more than she had been earning as a maid.
Ruby fell in love with Kermit in a way she never had with W.D. Daniels whom she had married mainly as a way of making the passage to adulthood. In 1942 she became pregnant and decided to keep the baby. At twenty-five she was, by the standards of her friends and relatives, already well past the time to become a mother, and anyway she didn't believe in abortion. She knew quite a few girls who had died following the administration of quinine injections by older women, which was the standard abortion procedure in black Clarksdale, and, as she liked to say, you never knew whether that baby whose life you were taking might have grown up to be a preacher or even a doctor. She wrote W.D. a letter explaining the situation and offering him a divorce, an offer he took her up on when he came home on leave. Ruby gave birth to a son named George, after her grandfather, George Hopkins, and the next year she had another son named Kermit after Kermit Butler.
At the end of 1944 Ruby's twin sister Ruth left her husband and moved to Massillon, Ohio, the same town where Ceatrice had gone before settling in Chicago. Ruth was not in good shape. She was pregnant and so was in no condition to be moving North by herself. Her health was poor, anyway. She lived a much faster life than Ruby-- as Ruby puts it, "it was just party, party, dance and frolic." She drank too much, usually potent and impure home-brew corn liquor. In Massillon Ruth had a miscarriage and never recovered from it. She died in May 1951 at the age of twenty-eight.
about the time of
Ruth's death, a man from Clarksdale who had been
sick in a hospital in Memphis told
Ruby that the
man in the bed next to his was her father whom she had not seen since
their meeting in 1937. Ruby went to Memphis to visit him. He told her
he had left the Mississippi hills and
moved to Wardell, Missouri, where he was still a sharecropper, with a new wife and children. After Ruby
left Memphis she never saw or heard from him again.
The network of relatives that had sustained Ruby up through adulthood was pretty well gone now. George Hopkins had died in 1944. Her closest kin now was Ceatrice, and Ceatrice was in Chicago. Kermit Butler, despite having had two children with Ruby, was showing no inclination to leave his wife, and that took a lot of the gloss off their romance, to Ruby's way of thinking. Ruby began seriously to consider making the move to Chicago herself.
THERE REALLY wasn't any young black person in Clarksdale who wasn't thinking about Chicago. During the traditional family reunion periods, July Fourth and Christmas time, people who had made the move would come home wearing dressy clothes and driving new cars. The mere sight of a black person, dressed as a businessman, pulling up to his family's sharecropper shack in an automobile-- sometimes a Cadillac!-- was stunning, a paradigm shift, instant dignity. Pay stubs were passed around and admired. Then there was the talk. You could find a job in Chicago in a matter of hours. Being black and from Mississippi was the only credential you needed, because white people up there knew that black folks from Mississippi were used to working hard; anyway, because of the immigration restrictions passed in the 1920s, there wasn't anybody else in Chicago who was willing to start out at the bottom. You could make fifty dollars, a hundred dollars, a week. The migrants were spoken of in awed whispers: "John's doing very well with General Motors." "Ben has a position with the Board of Education." In Chicago, the migrants said, a black person could go anywhere, and could vote, and was not required to step off the sidewalk so that whites could pass, and was not called "boy," and did not have to sit in the back of the bus. People who had spent time in Chicago seemed to have a whole new way of carrying themselves-- the police, who noticed it and didn't ike it, called it "The Attitude." The land of milk and honey had finally materialized for black folks, after all these hundreds of years in the wilderness.
The migrants were engaging in a good deal of gilding of the lily, of course. The new Cadillac was likely to be rented, or to have been bought on credit, and destined to be repossessed soon after the return to Chicago. The position with the Board of Ed might really involve holding a mop. White folks in Chicago, as everyone who moved North quickly found out, were not so completely different from white folks in Mississippi as was being advertised. Still, it was undeniable that the economic opportunity there was vastly greater; that moment in the black rural South was one of the few in American history when virtually every member of a large class of people was guaranteed an immediate quadrupling of income, at least, simply by relocating to a place that was only a long day's journey away.
The man who became the most famous son of black Clarksdale-- McKinley Morganfield, better known by his nickname, Muddy Waters was, at the outset of World War II, living in his grandmother's sharecropper cabin on the Stovall plantation, west of town. The Stovalls were one of the longest-established planter families in Clarksdale; Ruby Daniels had once made a crop on their place.
Certainly they would never have dreamed-- no white person in the Delta would ever have dreamed-- that in the long run the blues music Muddy Waters played at jukes on Saturday nights would stand as the Delta's great contribution to American culture, while the writing of William Alexander Percy would be a near-forgotten artifact of a peculiar regional way of life. Carter Stovall, the young scion of the family, happened to pass by Morganfield's cabin one day in the early 1940s when he was home on vacation from prep school in the East, and was amazed when he saw that a white man with a bulky tape recorder-- Alan Lomax, the folklorist from the Library of Congress in Washington--was sitting on the front porch recording his music.
In May 1943, Muddy Waters took the train from Clarksdale to Memphis and then caught the Illinois Central to Chicago, where he got a job on the loading dock of a paper factory. He came back often to visit, but he made his life and his music in Chicago.
A boy in Clarksdale named George Hicks, who was just entering his teens in those early years of the war, used to take special notice of the people coming back from Chicago in their cars and their clothes. George came from a family that was struggling to be upwardly mobile, so it was natural that the people from Chicago would make a strong impression on him. George's father, Oliver Hicks, grew up in a
sharecropper cabin on a white man's plantation near the town of Bobo, just south of Clarksdale on Highway 61. In the early 1930s, when George was just a small child, Oliver Hicks moved into Clarksdale to try to find a way to support himself that didn't involve picking cotton. At one point he went to Memphis, leaving his family back in Clarksdale, and worked for a company that made fences. He ended up back in Clarksdale. He opened a fish market that failed. He opened a grocery store that failed. He became a minister and spent Sundays preaching. Finally, in the late 1930s, Oliver Hicks got a job as a burial-insurance agent for one of the funeral homes in town, Delta Burial. On Saturdays he would take George driving out in the country in a beat-up old black '37 Ford, going from plantation to plantation and from shack to shack on each plantation, collecting premiums from sharecroppers: fifty cents per person per month.
George couldn't remember his own years in a sharecropper cabin, but he saw and heard enough in the course of making rounds with his father to know what life was like on a plantation: the spotty education, the fishy charges at the settle, the big patched-together families. In the Brickyard, where the Hickses lived, things were better, though occasional humiliations occurred there too. Once George's father was driving through a poor white neighborhood when a child suddenly ran in front of his car and got hit. Oliver Hicks got out, took the kid in his arms, carried him to the hospital, and walked right in the front door, an unthinkable violation of the code of segregation. That night a gang of whites circled the Hicks house; Oliver stood on the porch and stared them down until they went away.
Another time, George was walking along Issaqueena Street with his uncle, on their way to the black movie theater. A white policeman was coming the other way on the sidewalk. The etiquette in such situations was that the black people were supposed to step off the sidewalk, assume expressions of deep deference and humility, and let the white man pass. George's uncle didn't do this. He kept on walking on the sidewalk, and, since the policeman kept walking too, they bumped into each other and the policeman fell down. George's uncle was taken to jail, where who knows what might have happened if a higher power hadn't intervened. The uncle was running day labor to plantations in trucks, so the planters needed him; one of them found out he was in jail, put in a call to the sheriff, and had him released.
Sometimes George, like any black kid growing up in Clarksdale, would be harassed by the police. Some of the policemen liked to keep black boys on their toes by creating hostile encounters. George might be standing on a corner, and a policeman would come up to him and say, "Boy, what are you doing?" The proper response was to avoid eye contact and say "yassuh" and "nossuh" a lot, in which case, after a while, the policeman would move on. If it ever happened that George passed a white woman on the street, he had to avert his eyes then, too. The municipal swimming pool in Clarksdale-- white only-- was at the edge of the white section of town, right next to the all-white Clarksdale High School. The high school's principal used to stand out next to the pool in warm weather and block the way of any black male who wanted to pass by-- such as George, in the days when he was working as a delivery boy for a drug store-- so that he would not get a glimpse of white women in bathing suits. This business about white women was of the utmost seriousness. It wasn't too many years later that a boy named Emmett Till, back in the Delta on a visit from his family's new home in Chicago, was brutally murdered for supposedly saying "Hey, baby'' to a white woman-- and the only thing that surprised George about the Till case was that the murderers were put on trial; the Till cases of his own teenage years never made it to a courtroom.
In March 1947, George Hicks went to Chicago for the first time with his father and one of his sisters. They got on the train at the Illinois Central station in Clarksdale at 3:15 in the afternoon. The ticket cost $11.50, one way-- more than a week's pay for most black people. The train was packed. They got off in Memphis, boarded the Louisiane, and in the morning arrived at the Illinois Central station at Twelfth Street and Michigan Avenue, the Ellis Island of the black migration to Chicago, a vast towered pile of dark brown stone with a great oval waiting room. The station was south of downtown Chicago, only twenty-five blocks from the heart of the black belt on the South Side. The waiting room was full of people and baggage. Outside the station you might imagine, if you'd been told to expect it, that you could detect the pungent aroma of the stockyards, which were a few miles off to the southwest-- the smell of abundant hard work that paid much better than picking cotton. If you looked to the north, you could see the stolid office buildings of the Loop, and, to the south, the Chicago chiaroscuro of brick buildings, church steeples, and factory chimneys stretching for miles and miles through the thick hazy air as far as the eye could see; in George's words, "just a big raggedy smoky city."
They stayed for two weeks with an aunt of George's who had moved up in 1939. She showed them the sights of the South Side, They visited the beach along Lake Michigan and went to the movies on Forty-seventh Street, the fabulous main commercial thoroughfare of black Chicago, which was lined with department stores, theaters, nightclubs, and hotels. There was no question but that they were going back home, though. By that time the northward migration had so depleted the Mississippi countryside that the burial-insurance business had gone sour and Oliver Hicks had lost his job, but the family's plans for George were still supposed to be played out in Mississippi. George attended the county agricultural high school for blacks, and after graduation he enrolled in Alcorn College, south of Vicksburg, the first member of his family to get past high school. He played linebacker on the Alcorn football team-- George wasn't very big, but he had a strong bantam's head, shoulders, and chest. The idea was that after graduation he would become a schoolteacher, slowly move up the ladder to an administrator's job, and maybe operate a little business or two on the side; bourgeois status, comfort, and security was what he had in mind. He might have wound up trying to find it in Mississippi (though that would have been a difficult proposition for someone of his generation), if he hadn't been always aware that there was another route he could take: the route to Chicago.
Bennie Gooden, a younger friend of George Hicks's, more ambitious than George, less comfortable, used to notice the people coming back from Chicago too. Gooden's father had a good job, pressing clothes at a laundry. His mother worked on and off as a domestic. With no parents at home, both securely employed, Gooden felt lucky-- but still he had to pick cotton on weekends, and still he didn't know what kind of better future he could make for himself. He knew he wasn't supposed to resent white people, When his mother would bring home a bucket of chicken backs and innards from the house where she worked, or when he would be permitted to go over there and eat a plate of leftovers on the back porch, there would be much talk in the family about how the people his mother worked for were good white folks, nice white folks.
Because something bothered him about this attitude, he indulged himself in small acts of rebellion. Sometimes, chopping cotton, he would cut off the roots of the plants with his hoe, just under the ground so no one would notice, so that the man would lose some of his crop. Or, when he was picking, he would weigh his sack twice to make more money. One day when he was chopping on the Tallwood plantation out on New Africa Road, a former home of Ruby Daniels's, the manager came over and
shouted, "If you niggers don't get the lead out of your asses, you won't get a nickel today,'' Gooden decided to get even, In the evening, when it was time to be paid, the manager sat in his truck and handed the money out the window to the black people as they filed past, not looking at them, as if to send the message that he considered them things and not people. Bennie went through the line, got paid, switched shirts with another boy, got back in line and got paid again. He was paid four times that day without the manager's noticing, though afterward he felt a little ashamed and didn't tell his parents, knowing they would say he had dropped down to the white man's level.
Bennie Gooden went to school in Clarksdale, studying from white kids' discarded textbooks at white kids' discarded desks, and then to the agricultural high school at Jackson State, a black college. His intention was to become a teacher-- what other ambition was available? He wanted to stay in Clarksdale, where his family was, but he hoped, desperately, that some way for him to become a big success would present itself.
Aaron Henry was born in 1922 on the Flowers plantation on Highway 49, the son of a sharecropper, When he was a small child, his father heard about Tuskegee Institute, the school Booker T. Washington, the former slave who was the most famous black man in turn-of-the-century America, had started in Alabama to teach blacks to become independent artisans in the segregated South. He brought the family to Tuskegee, took a course in shoe carpentry, and, on his return to Mississippi, opened a shoe store in the little town of Webb, twenty miles south of Clarksdale on Highway 49. When the store got established, the family moved into Clarksdale.
With the Henry family, half of Booker T. Washington's program for black America took, and half didn't: the family believed in becoming economically self-sufficient-- especially because sharecropping was the alternative-- but not in keeping quiet about segregation. Mattie Henry, Aaron's mother, was a member of the Women's Society of Christian Service, which was one of the few bi-racial organizations in Mississippi. White people, members of the society and their children, were occasionally in the Henry home. Aaron Henry had a white friend as a child. Once he asked his mother why he went to school only five months a year when the white boy went nine months. She said, "You're my boy, so you don't need but five." The whole routine of being called "boy" and "nigger" on the streets of Clarksdale always
bothered him. Once, working in the same job that took George Hicks by the town swimming pool, bicycle delivery boy for a drugstore, Henry rode right past and was caught and beaten by the police. When he was in the eleventh grade at the agricultural high school, he joined the NAACP-- openly, thus severely curtailing his future career options.
Aaron Henry joined the Army in 1943 and served first in a segregated unit, then in an experimental integrated one in Hawaii, so that he experienced both the standard racial hypocrisy of the armed forces and a better alternative to it. He read Native Son, by Richard Wright (himself a product of the odyssey from a Mississippi plantation to the South Side of Chicago), and was influenced by its anger over the black plight. He became a protege of Dr. T. R. M. Howard, an eminent figure who practiced surgery at the Taborian hospital in Mound Bayou and was a leader of the state chapter of the NAACP; they would talk about whether Henry should move North. Most of Henry's friends, two-thirds by his estimate, wound up leaving the Delta, usually for Chicago. But Dr. Howard urged him to stay in Clarksdale, arguing that he was one of a few black people who had a chance to work to change the system. If everybody like him left, life would be that much more difficult for the people who stayed behind.
Deciding to stay and work for civil rights wasn’t purely an intellectual matter for Aaron Henry; also, he had a quality that doesn't come from books or conversations, courage. A solid, compact man, he appeared to be completely implacable, as if the risks entailed in fighting segregation simply had no place in his mind. During his years of working after school in a drugstore he decided to become a pharmacist. He got his degree at Xavier University, a black school in New Orleans, and came home to Clarksdale in 1950. By then he had already joined enough organizations and given enough speeches to church groups that, in his words, "There was the feeling that Mattie Henry's boy was a smart nigger." He went around to all the banks in Clarksdale to borrow money to start a drugstore, and all the banks turned him down. He scraped a little money together and started it anyway, without a loan, in a storefront on Fourth Street. At the same time, he became president of the Clarksdale chapter of the NAACP. He was convinced that sooner or later after the Supreme Court was going to decide in favor of one of the school-desegregation cases that the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund had been filing for years, and that segregation would begin to crumble after that. The drugstore committed him to Clarksdale and gave him an independent base. He was ready for history to catch up to him.
BEFORE World War II, the cotton planters of the Delta were absolutely opposed to black migration to the North. Hortense Powdermaker, enumerating the whites' "creed of racial relations" in 1939, wrote that one of its main tenets was, “Negroes are necessary to the South, and it is desirable that they should stay there and not migrate to the North." Whites kept the black school system in Mississippi inferior in part because they didn't want sharecroppers' children to have career options beyond sharecropping. Senator James K. Vardaman once said that educating the black man "simply renders him unfit for the work which the white man has prescribed, and which he will be forced to perform . . . the only effect is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook." In the 1920s, Clarksdale was supposed to become the site of a new black college called Delta State, but the white planters succeeded in having it moved to the town of Cleveland, fifty miles away, because they didn't want new opportunities for blacks opening up in town. The relocation of Delta State was a well-remembered story in black Clarksdale, and there were lots of rumors about other enterprises the planters had kept out.
As late as the early 1940s, the owners of the King & Anderson plantation, an enormous spread of seventeen thousand acres just west of Clarksdale that was reputed to be the largest family plantation in Mississippi, sent two of their white managers to Chicago to see if they could get some of the sharecroppers who had left to come back home. The managers first met with John H. Jackson, the pastor of the magnificent yellow-brick Olivet Baptist Church, which was well on its way to becoming the largest black congregation in America. Jackson is probably best known now for having been the leading enemy of Martin Luther King within the black Baptist church; when the city of Chicago changed the name of South Parkway, the boulevard on which Olivet stands, to King Drive after King's death, Jackson changed the address of the church to Thirty-first Street so he wouldn't have to have King's name on his letterhead. In the 1940s Jackson was willing to entertain two white plantation managers, but he said he couldn't urge members of his flock to move back South until conditions for blacks improved there.
Then the managers held a long meeting with former King & Anderson sharecroppers in an apartment on the South Side. The managers announced that the plantation had undertaken a series of reforms, including electrifying sharecropper cabins and providing sharecroppers with regular written statements of their accounts so they would not be surprised at the settle. The former sharecroppers said they already knew all that, along with all the other recent news from the plantation; the Mississippi Chicago grapevine was very active, They complained about having been swindled on King & Anderson and other plantations, and about having been abused, degraded, and beaten by plantation managers and policemen. They showed no interest in coming home.
When the managers got back to Clarksdale and told the owners of the plantation what had happened, the owners arranged a meeting in Clarksdale to discuss the situation. After the meeting, the white leaders of Clarksdale asked the black leaders of Clarksdale to draw up a list of grievances, which they did: No good jobs, Cheating at the settle, Lynchings. Being denied the courtesy titles of "Mister" and "Missus." Poor schools, No hospitals, No sidewalks, gutters, or garbage collection in the black neighborhoods. Confronted with all this, the whites did nothing; the list of grievances could have been resubmitted virtually intact in the early 1960s.
When word got around about the demonstration of the mechanical cotton picker on the Hopson plantation, though, the attitude of the whites toward black migration changed almost instantly. A plantation didn't need hundreds of field hands anymore; a handful would do. It didn't matter if sharecroppers moved to Chicago, In fact, it helped to solve the problem of where the sharecroppers would go after their jobs were abolished.
Besides, the more far-sighted whites in the Delta had begun to detect a slight crumbling in the citadel of segregation. The New Deal was a generation old by now, and while politically it represented an accommodation between Northern liberals and Southern segregationists, the Delta’s planters perceived Franklin Roosevelt as a threatening figure. During his reign, various critics of the sharecropper system who at least raised segregation as an issue had emerged, and millions of Northern blacks had been recruited into the Democratic coalition, World War II had exposed thousands of young black men from the Delta to places where segregation didn't exist, and, having fought for their country, they seemed to feel entitled to things they didn't have in Mississippi. In Greenville, just after the end of the war, four black veterans went to the county courthouse and said they wanted to register to vote.
The registrar said they hadn't paid their poll tax for 1944. They came back with the money the next day, and the next, and the next, and every day they got a different excuse, Finally they filed a complaint with the FBI in Washington, and two agents came down to Greenville, interviewed the veterans, had them sign a complaint, and got them registered.
The implications of blacks voting were not happy ones for Mississippi whites, especially in the Delta, which was three-quarters black In 1935, there were more black people living in Coahoma County alone than in the states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada combined. Most middle-aged whites had been raised on their parents’ and grandparents' horror stories about life during Reconstruction, when blacks were enfranchised, By the 1940s, the school- desegregation issue had reached the notice of white planters, as well as Aaron Henry, A few civil rights activities had started to pop up here and there, All in all, the idea of getting the numbers of blacks and whites in the Delta a little closer to equilibrium began to seem attractive to whites on political as well as economic grounds. The best, the only, means to that end was black migration to the North. As Aaron Henry puts it, "They wished we'd go back to Africa, but Chicago was close enough.''
On the Hopson plantation, the idea of a looming civil rights crisis was very much on the mind of the Hopson family; it gave a new urgency to the long-running efforts to get the mechanical cotton picker ready for full scale production. Howell Hopson's brother Richard, who ran the plantation office, wrote a long, impassioned letter to the local cotton industry association in April 1944, a few months before the public demonstration of the picker, which makes clear the plantation's thinking on the picker's political implications. He wrote (via registered mail-- an indication that he meant to make an important statement: "I am confident that you are aware of the acute shortage of labor which now exists in the Delta and the difficult problem which we expect to have in attempting to harvest a cotton crop this fall and for several years to come. I am confident that you are aware of the serious racial problem which confronts us at this time and which may become more serious as time passes. After a little more discussion, he arrived at the solution: "I strongly advocate the farmers of the Mississippi Delta changing as rapidly as possible from the old tenant or sharecropping system of farming to complete mechanized
farming…. Mechanized farming will require only a fraction of the amount of labor which is required by the share crop system thereby tending to equalize the white and negro population which would automatically make our racial problem easier to handle."
Within a few years after the end of World War II, the mechanical picker was coming into general use on the plantations, and the sharecropper system was ending. Usually a plantation would build up its stock of machines until it had enough to harvest the whole crop, and then it would announce to the sharecroppers that it was switching over to an all-day-labor system to handle the chopping, which was still done by hand. One by one the plantation commissaries were closed down. The more established and paternalistic planters, such as King & Anderson and the Stovalls in Clarksdale and the Percys in Greenville, allowed their sharecroppers to stay in their cabins if they wanted to, but not to make a crop of their own. A lucky few got salaried jobs as tractor drivers; the rest who stayed had to work as day laborers, get jobs in town, or retire. Some planters forced their sharecroppers out by informing them that the garden spots they used for raising vegetables and keeping livestock would now have to be plowed over and planted to cotton. The smaller and rougher planters simply kicked out their sharecroppers and left them to fend for themselves. Often, when a sharecropper family left, the planter would bulldoze the cabin and grow cotton where it had stood. Share cropper cabins were understandably not in demand as housing. If the cabin wasn't on arable land, it usually just sat unoccupied, slowly sagging and giving way to vines. The Delta today is dotted with nearly spectral sharecropper cabins, their doors and windows gone, their interior walls lined with newspapers from the 1930s and 1940s that once served as insulation. They are humbler than what you'd ordinarily think of as the ruins of a vanished civilization, but that is certainly what they are.
The sharecroppers who left the plantations sometimes moved directly to Chicago. More often they settled first in the town of Clarksdale, either in preparation for the second phase of their migration or to become day laborers and continue to work in the cotton fields. Day labor as a large scale employment base was doomed in the long run, though, because in the late 1950s the cotton planters embarked on a second phase of their industrial revolution that was just as significant as the introduction of the mechanical picker: the development of chemicals that killed the weeds between cotton plants so reliably as to make hand chopping unnecessary. Within ten years, virtually all the former sharecroppers had to find some entirely new way to live.
The white people in the Delta were well aware that a massive displacement of people was under way, and that it would have enormous consequences-- not necessarily for them, since the consequences would be played out largely in the North. Writing in 1947, David Cohn issued the following dire prediction, which, to say the least, did not rivet the attention of a nation that was consumed with resuming a normal life after the war and wasn't inclined in any case to pay much heed to jeremiads issued by an obscure Southern apologist:
The coming problem of agricultural displacement in the Delta and the whole South is of huge proportions and must concern the entire nation. The time to prepare for it is now, but since we as a nation rarely act until catastrophe is upon us, it is likely we shall muddle along until it is too late. The country is upon the brink of a process of change as great as any that has occurred since the Industrial Revolution.... Five million people will be removed from the land within the next few years. They must go somewhere. But where? They must do something. But what? They must be housed. But where is the housing?
Most of this group are farm Negroes totally unprepared for urban, industrial life. How will they be industrially absorbed? What will be the effect of throwing them upon the labor market? What will be their reception at the hands of white and Negro workers whose jobs and wages they threaten?
There are other issues involved here of an even greater gravity. If tens of thousands of Southern Negroes descend upon communities totally unprepared for them psychologically and industrially, what will the effect be upon race relations in the United States? Will the Negro problem be transferred from the South to other parts of the nation who have hitherto been concerned with it only as carping critics of the South? Will the victims of farm mechanization become the victims of race conflict?
There is an enormous tragedy in the making unless the United States acts, and acts promptly, upon a problem that affects millions of people and the whole social structure of the nation.
A few years earlier Richard Wright, who viewed the situation from the completely different perspective of a black man, a migrant to the North and a Communist, sounded an uncannily similar, and similarly unheeded, warning:
Perhaps never in history has a more utterly unprepared folk wanted to go to the city; we were barely born as a folk when we headed for the tall and sprawling centers of steel and stone. We, who were landless upon the land; we, who had barely managed to live in family groups, we, who needed the ritual and guidance of institutions to hold our atomized lives together in lines of purpose; we, who had known only relationships to people and not relationships to things; we, who had had our personalities blasted with two hundred years of slavery and had been turned loose to shift for ourselves-- we were such a folk as this when we moved into a world that was destined to test all we were, that threw us into the scales of competition to weigh our mettle.
IN 1946 Ruby Daniels moved to Chicago. Her aunt Ceatrice had been living there for six years now, continuously reporting back that things were better in Chicago. Ruby's lover, Kermit Butler, was plainly never going to leave his wife. Older friends urged her to make the move. She gathered up her two sons, George and Kermit, and took the train to Memphis. She had friends there, a childless couple named A. C. and Frances Clark, who had been her neighbors in Clarksdale. Frances had often implored Ruby to give her a baby, since she couldn't have one of her own, and Ruby took the request seriously; the adoption of "gift children" by close friends was common among poor blacks in the South, a custom that involved generosity on both sides and usually helped get the child's natural mother through a hard time. Ruby felt that the difficulty of getting established in Chicago with two children in tow would be insuperable, so she left Kermit with the Clarks, bought an eleven dollar ticket on the Illinois Central night train, and rode up to Chicago with George.
She moved in with Ceatrice at 1666 Indiana Avenue, in the heart of the poorest part of the black belt. (Bigger Thomas, the Mississippi migrant hero of Native Son, lived with his mother and his sister at the imaginary address of 3721 Indiana.) Ceatrice lived in what was known as a "kitchenette" apartment-- an apartment in a building that had been chopped up into one- or two-room flats each outfitted with an
icebox and a hot plate. All the residents of the five or six apartments on each floor shared a common bathroom. Established middle-class black Chicagoans regarded the kitchenettes with something close to horror, as breeding grounds for immorality and ruiners of good neighborhoods. St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton, in Black Metropolis, an authoritative tour of "Bronzeville" (as they called black Chicago) published the year before Ruby moved there, wrote, "Into these kitchenettes drifting lower-class families moved, bringing a few clothes and buying a little furniture on time.... Thus once stable middle-class areas gradually become spotted with kitchenettes.... Middle-class neighborhoods in Bronzeville thus became the beach upon which broke the human flotsam which was tossed into the city streets by successive waves of migration from the South."
To Ruby, Ceatrice’s place was wonderful. The rent was only ten dollars a week, the people were friendly, and there was always somebody around to look after George when she was out. Ceatrice was working nights as a janitor at the Montgomery Ward building, an imposing structure just to the west of downtown Chicago. Ruby immediately got a job doing janitorial work at Ward's too, making over forty dollars a week. She worked there for a little more than a year.
Then, back home, Kermit Butler's wife died. Kermit called Ruby and told her he would marry her if she would move to Clarksdale. He had gotten a good new job: Charles Stringer, a top employee of the Century funeral home, had left to start his own mortuary and brought Kermit along as the ambulance driver. Because Stringer wanted Kermit to be able to respond quickly to emergency calls, he let him live rent-free in a room at the funeral home. Ruby wouldn't have moved back just for the accommodations, but she was still in love with Kermit, and his new situation made marrying him seem prudent as well as alluring. She brought George back to Clarksdale and moved into the Stringer building on Fourth Street.
It didn’t work out. Within a month, Ruby discovered that now that she was Kermit's wife, he was treating her the way he had treated his first wife-- that is, running around with other women. At the end of 1948, she took the train back to Chicago, this time, she expected, for good.
ULESS CARTER was born in 19I6, the same year as Ruby Daniels. He was the tenth of twelve children. He grew up on plantations all over the Delta, watching his father live out the sharecropper cycle of hope in the spring, anger and disappointment after the settle in December, and the road in January. Uless's parents stayed married and so were able to set their sights higher than Ruby's family. Miles Carter, Uless's father, several times became a renter, which put him in the upper class of the sharecropper world; renters supplied their own mules and farming equipment and got a three-fourths share of the crop, whereas sharecroppers, with no possessions at all, got only half. Miles Carter worked his children hard to ensure that he would have a good crop, and dealt with any hint of recalcitrance by getting out his old leather razor strop. During picking time, he woke the family before dawn, they picked all day, and if there was a moon, they picked into the night. They wore clothes made from old cotton sacks dyed with hickory bark, and greased their legs in the winter to stay warm. Often they had no shoes. Uless left school in the second grade so that he could begin working full time in the fields. Because the Carter family was trying so assiduously to get ahead, the unfairness of the system went down especially hard for them. Industrious renters they might be, but the planter still kept the books, and if at the end of the year he said the family owed him money, there was nothing they could do about it. Oneyear the planter called Miles Carter in and said he couldn't pay him because he had to send his son to college; Uless remembers his father coming home from that meeting crying. The family kept moving. Theymade a few crops outside the town of Sledge, northeast of Clarksdale, came out behind, and moved to a place in Indianola (the town Hortense Powdermaker and John Dollard studied) when Uless was ten. There the planter told Miles Carter he wanted the girls in the family to come up and work in his house. Miles, suspecting that the planter had more in mind for his daughters than housework, refused. At the settle the family didn't clear anything, and when they moved away, the planter came after them and took away their mule team to settle the debt. Miles went to the owner of the new place, told him what had happened, and said he wanted to hire a lawyer to get hi mule back. The planter said, "Carter, you can always get another mule team, but you can't get another life." He didn't hire a lawyer. He did get another mule team, but after three years he was behind again, and lost his mules again in settlement of an un-itemized debt.
In 193I, the Carters moved to the King & Anderson plantation outside Clarksdale. By this time Miles Carter was becoming less involved in fanning. He had developed kidney trouble and was unable to work in the field much. Also, back in Sledge he had gotten the call to become a minister, and by now he was traveling widely to preach. Uless's older brothers left, one by one, as soon as they got to their late teens. It was as if the whole family was losing its will to keep trying to use the cultivation of cotton as an avenue of upward mobility. When Uless was seventeen, tall and bony, his father told him to "stand head of the crop"-- that is, supervise the family's business affairs.
The manager of the section of King & Anderson where the Carters lived was a young, handsome, rough white man named Broughton. Broughton would ride around the place on a horse and stand over the black people who were picking cotton, sneering at them for being too slow. He and Uless took a dislike to each other. One Friday afternoon, Broughton came to the Carters' cabin and asked one of Uless's sisters why she wasn't out working in the fields. This infuriated Uless. He knew that most of the other families on King & Anderson used little tricks to fool Broughton. They'd chop just the ends of the rows and leave the weeds in the middle, then tell Broughton they were done chopping and do day work for cash. At picking time, they'd "pull" the cotton rather than picking it-- that is, break off the cotton boll at the stem instead of separating it, which meant faster picking and a heavier sack, but dirtier and less valuable cotton-- and, again, go off to do day work They assumed they wouldn't clear anything from sharecropping, so they did a sloppy job at it, fooled the white people, and tried to make as much money as they could on wages.
This ethic was known as "getting over," meaning, specifically, getting your own crop over with so you could do something else; more generally, it meant running some kind of a hustle, especially on white people, in hopes of coming out ahead in a game you couldn't possibly win by following the rules. The Carters were not trying to get over, but this won them no points with Broughton. Uless confronted Broughton, saying that he stood for the crop and any complaints Broughton had should be taken up with him, not his sister.
Broughton had it in for Uless after that. Uless brought in a good crop, but when December came, it seemed to take forever for Broughton to settle. Uless went to the plantation office one evening and saw Broughton and the other managers through the window, laughing, eating, and playing cards. He knocked on the door and asked when the settle was going to be; the men told him to go away and come back in a day or two, because they were still working on it. Finally Broughton announced that the
Carters had come out behind-- so far behind that he would have to take their mules and equipment to settle the debt. He broke into their barn, took everything, and plowed up their garden spot for good measure. As Uless saw it, Broughton, in addition to being gratuitously cruel, was trying to bully the family into staying on the place as sharecroppers rather than renters; with no possessions left, with a debt hanging over them, and with a naive seventeen-year-old standing head of the crop, they wouldn't have much choice.
Uless and his father decided to call Broughton's bluff and leave King & Anderson-- in fact to leave farming entirely, and move into Clarksdale. First Uless took the audacious step of going to see the head of the entire plantation, Edgar Lee Anderson, known among black people as "Mr. Edgar Lee," and telling him what had happened. Edgar Lee Anderson, a shy, quiet man, was a figure of awe in Clarksdale. He was the son of one of the two men who had started the plantation in 1873, and he ran it from the late nineteenth century until his death in the 1950s, supervising its expansion into a vast empire. The Andersons-- Edgar Lee, his two sons, and their families-- were the rare Delta planters who lived in something approximating what is thought of as the plantation style, in elegant white-columned houses furnished with French antiques purchased on Royal Street in New Orleans.
Uless went to the "big store," the main King & Anderson commissary and asked to see Mr. Edgar Lee. He was ushered in and told his story. He said he was quitting. Mr. Edgar Lee seemed surprised. He said he knew the Carters were good farmers and had made a good crop. He had expected them to clear money. If they were determined to leave now, though, he would wipe out any indebtedness that they had on the plantation's books. He said this was the only case he knew of where a black family had been mistreated at King & Anderson.
Hearing this left Uless with a feeling that Mr. Edgar Lee might be a good man, a man of God, but there was a lot he didn't know about what went on at King & Anderson. He kept quiet, though, believing that the Lord would rectify the situation in his own way one day. Sure enough, ten years later, Broughton suffered his downfall. He had picked out a sharecropper's wife who appealed to him and decided to make her his mistress. Every so often, he would stop by their cabin and order the sharecropper to do some repair work in a faraway corner of the plantation. When he was sure the man was gone, Broughton would come back to the cabin and take advantage of his wife. One day the sharecropper
to come back from his work early, and he saw through the window that Broughton and his
wife were in bed together. He tied up his mules, got down his
double-barreled shotgun, went into the house, and blew Broughton's head
The sharecropper went to Broughton's house, told Broughton's wife what had happened, and took off. He was captured several weeks later in Arkansas, but he was never put on trial or punished outside the law, partly because the Anderson family did not want the matter pressed. What Broughton had done was not consistent with Edgar Lee Anderson's view of what life was like on his plantation, and what the sharecropper had done was not a real violation of the code of segregation, since there was no white woman involved. To Uless, Broughton's violent end and ignominious burial without a head was the rare case of a white man's being punished for his mistreatment of black people.
The Carter family settled in the Roundyard, the poor section of black Clarksdale. Uless worked for a white family, then got a job at a restaurant, then worked for a white family again. His parents went out to the plantations on trucks to chop and pick cotton. The most money Uless ever made was six dollars a week.
He began to think more and more about the evils of segregation. The system seemed all-encompassing: it stretched back through as much history as Uless knew about and forward as far into the future as he could see. It permeated every aspect of his existence. Uless knew a little about his family's life under slavery, because his father's father had come to stay with them on a plantation during his final illness and had told Uless some things about it. He said the family got its name when some white people in Georgia named Carter (forebears of President Jimmy Carter, Uless later heard) bought a great-great-aunt of Uless's, just as you'd buy a horse or a cow. Slaves had to eat out of troughs as if they were livestock, Uless's grandfather told him. If you didn't pick fast enough to satisfy the white man, he'd whip you or kick you. If you wanted to pray or sing, you had to put your head inside a pot so you wouldn't be heard. The white man would put strong young men and women together and breed them, even if they were brother and sister.
In Clarksdale in the late 1930s and early 1940s, the indignities were not so severe, but they were constant and debilitating. Uless had to hurry home in the evenings because there was a town curfew for blacks (though not for whites). When he was working at white people's houses, he had to sit out on the back porch to eat the food he had cooked. He saw terrible things happen to people he knew. One
boy was kicked by the police for walking past the swimming pool. Another, back from Chicago for a visit, had his new car's windows all smashed by a white policeman who didn't like his attitude. Another was hanged before a substantial audience (which included Uless) for having been a witness to the murder of a white shopkeeper by two black boys; Uless had no connection to the incident, but the day it happened, when a white mob went looking for suspects, he was afraid he might be rounded up and killed. His parents would tell him to respond to such risks by being inconspicuous and staying away from places where he wasn’t wanted, and while he knew this was good advice, he found it unbearable to imagine living by it forever. By now Uless was in his twenties, an erect, dignified, gentle, square-jawed man with the bearing of a real personage, but he felt that as long as he stayed in Clarksdale he was consigned to being treated like a child.
Of course Uless had heard all about Chicago from other black people, and seen the suits and the cars at July Fourth and Christmas. One of his sisters had moved to Chicago and gotten a job as a maid at a black hotel. Some of the children of white people he worked for had urged him to go North. The daughter of one white family told Uless she had gone to a school in New York where white and black sat in the same classrooms; another family's daughter said she had colored friends at the college she went to in Chicago, and even lived on the same campus with black students. Uless found himself thinking about Chicago more and more, and finally he decided he had to go up and see it for himself.
In 1942, when he was twenty-five years old, Uless arranged to visit his sister in Chicago. On the day of the trip he went to the Clarksdale bus station to buy his ticket. When he got to the window, he handed his money to the clerk and called out his destination in a loud, nervous voice: "Chicago, Chicago"-- a voice whose timbre came from the expectation and disbelief he felt over the prospect of traveling far beyond the borders of the state of Mississippi. The clerk, a young white lady, wouldn't look at him. Some white people came up to the window, and she sold them their tickets before Uless. Then another group of white people came in and bought tickets. Uless began to wonder whether the clerk was going to sell him a ticket at all. Finally she said, in a simpering, disgusted tone, "Chicago, Chicago," as if to show Uless that he might be able to take a bus to the North, but, in her opinion, he was just another nigger. Still not looking at Uless, she offhandedly tossed him the ticket, and he hurried to the back of the bus.