The Mississippi Delta is a unique and special place.
In my book, Delta Days: Tales of the Mississippi Delta, I quoted writer, David Cohn when he said, “The Mississippi Delta starts in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on catfish row in Vicksburg.” The Delta is an alluvial deposit of thirty feet of fertile loam, stolen from the prairies of America’s Midwestern bread basket by the Mississippi River, and moved down south by annual flooding. The soil of the Corn Belt is now nurturing King Cotton. In the 1950s, the Delta was more than a geographical location; it was home to a unique social, political, and economic system that reflected the best and worst of our southern agrarian society.
From William Leroy Percy to Bobbie Gentry, The Delta has always had advocates and promoters, but there never has been much formal recognition for the Delta. It was in this spirit that I invited my friends from New England to join me on a trip through the Delta. The previous year they had given me the full tour of Boston and Concord, and I wanted to repay them in kind.
A trip to the Rendezvous for ribs, and a night spent at the Peabody, was their introduction to Memphis after arriving on Thursday evening. The next morning we watched the ducks parade up the red carpet, and then headed south on U.S. 61. Our first stop was in Tunica for a quick tour of the casinos, and next to Clarksdale, (Cat Head Delta Blues, Inc.) home of the blues, for lunch. After a visit to McCarty Pottery in Merigold, (McCarty Pottery/McCarty Gallery Restaurant) we pulled into my hometown of Cleveland, just in time for dinner.
There was method in my madness for dining in Cleveland. Cheryl Line, an old friend who is the former director of tourism for Cleveland/Bolivar County and is considered to be one of the most knowledgeable tour guides in the Delta, agreed to meet us for dinner. We met at the Airport Grocery in order to sample the hot tamales, and Cheryl regaled us with intimate knowledge of the Blues and Hot Tamale trails that were such an integral part of any Delta tour. (Mississippi Tamale Trail)
My northern visitors were fascinated by the Delta, but were amazed that there was no formal organization that promoted such an interesting and unique area. Cheryl replied that while that had been true for many years, things had recently changed. In 2009, the 18 Mississippi Counties that comprise the Delta had been recognized as a National Heritage Area and The Delta Center for Culture and Learning, and Cleveland’s Delta State University had been chosen to manage the Heritage Area. This was all news to me. I had never heard of the National Heritage Area program.
Official promotion of the Delta became a reality with the creation of the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. One of 49 National Heritage Areas, the MDNHA is giving the Delta a unified voice. The Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University is the management entity for the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. The Delta Center provides the leadership and resources needed to achieve the regional promotion goals set by the MDNHA.
The mission of the MDNHA is to foster partnerships and educational opportunities that enhance, preserve, and promote the heritage of the Mississippi Delta. It further promotes activities that will advance the understanding of the area, while ensuring a balanced and sustainable approach to development and social transformation.
Together, The Delta Center and the MDNHA develop and present programs that engage the people who live in the Delta to preserve, celebrate and share their unique place and culture.
By building a network of public and private partners who are willing to participate in a coordinated and sustainable program of economic development, The Delta Center and the MDNHA are forces for regional development and transformation. From sponsoring symposiums and cultural gatherings, to coordinating and hosting educational exhibits and meetings, The Delta Center and the MDNHA are diligent in executing their cooperative missions in partnership.
The New Englanders were fascinated by the emphasis placed on the contribution to the Delta’s economic, cultural and political development by the area’s diverse ethnic population. When we visited the MDNHA offices at Delta State, this diversity was evident, from the clearing of the virgin hardwood forests, to the cultivation of cotton. The story of black slaves, Chinese laborers and Jewish merchants was inexorably interwoven into the Delta’s heritage. Descendants of these early pioneers are today’s merchants, teachers, and political leaders.
A Jewish Synagogue situated right next door to the First Baptist Church was one of our stops in the small town of Ruleville. There was noticeable surprise when they realized that in 1950, there was a viable Jewish community of merchants, farmers, and bankers. Today little remains of a once vibrant Jewish community in the Delta.
Names like Wong, Lee, Jue and Moon appeared on the abandoned storefronts in every little Delta town we visited. The MDNHA highlights the numerous Chinese grocery stores that at one time dotted the landscape of the Delta. The Chinese came to the Delta as day laborers, and quickly made the transition to merchants. The Chinese families were fanatical about education, and in years past, Cleveland boasted a three tiered school system; one for whites, another for blacks, and a third for the Chinese kids whose parents demanded a higher standard.
On a personal note, I may have participated in the first civil rights demonstration to be held in Ruleville. In my second grade year, the City of Ruleville built a community swimming pool. The city fathers, led by the Mayor, decided that not only were the blacks going to be banned, the Chinese were also to be excluded. I had several close Chinese friends, and more importantly, my grandmother had become friends with one of the ladies in the Chinese community.
My grandmother and I marched down the street to the Mayor’s house, and she called him on to his porch and set about to give him un-shirted hell about his racial policies regarding Ruleville’s Chinese citizens. The ban on Chinese kids was lifted, and we never heard any more about the subject. As with the Jewish kids, the children of the Chinese merchants became professionals and moved from the Delta—all that is left are the storefronts of their once thriving businesses.
Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville, is the home of the best steaks in America, and is a highly recommended Delta restaurant for anyone with a culinary interest, and of course hot tamales appear on most menus. Doe’s provided us with both their delicious steak and some of the best tamales in the world. No Delta tour would be complete without a visit to the Jim Henson museum in Leland, and the battlefields of Vicksburg were a must-do stop on the trip. There was one more plate of hot tamales on Catfish Row before ending our Delta tour.
Dinner at Walker’s Drive-In in Jackson on the eve of my guest’s return home, provided the opportunity to reflect on the week. It is difficult for those living outside of the area to come to an understanding of the Delta and its complexities, but my New England friends now had a clearer perspective of the region thanks in large part to The Delta Center and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area. Both made the cultural diversity of the Delta a reality for them, and had made all the difference in their understanding of this fascinating section of the country.
Please visit The Delta National Heritage Area web site at: http://www.msdeltaheritage.com
and their Facebook page at:
The Catfish Row photo, the McCarty Pottery Garden photo and the Mississippi River photo were provided by The Delta Center/MDNHA
The Peabody Lobby photo, the abandoned Delta storefront and the Henson Museum photo were provided by Deborah Fagan Carpenter