Located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, Clarksdale in the early 20th century was known as the "Golden Buckle in the Cotton Belt" with enormous plantations such as that of the Stovall family dominating the landscape. Clarksdale occupied a central place in the agricultural universe when in 1946 the International Harvester Company perfected the development of the single row mechanical cotton picking machine at the nearby Hopson Plantation. This technological milestone quickly revolutionized American agriculture and changed the Mississippi Delta forever.
Past this point the large workforce populations of underpaid and systematically exploited African Americans required to work the sprawling plantation tracts instantly became expendable, coming at exactly the same time that increasing numbers of African American GIs were returning home from WWII. The Illinois Central Railroad operated a large depot in Clarksdale which quickly became a primary departure point for the largest migration of human beings in modern American history, the black migration to Chicago and points north. This important rail hub provided an escape route away from an accelerating climate of racist hatred for which Coahoma County quickly became known as evidenced by violence against such well known local figures as musician Ike Turner and Civil Rights leader Dr. Aaron Henry.
The African American exodus from Mississippi was narrated (with Clarksdale triangulated with Chicago and Washington D.C. as a centerpiece) in the award winning book "The Promised Land" ISBN 978-0394269672 by Nicholas Lemann. "The Promised Land" was later produced as a documentary film series by the History Channel narrated coincidentally by award winning actor and now Clarksdale restaurateur, Morgan Freeman.
In 1954 a wealthy Clarksdale Attorney, Semmes Luckett, father of a large and influential family including Celeste, Semmes, Lucretia, and Money Luckett, argued unsuccessfully in favor of segregation against Thurgood Marshall in the United States Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education a ruling which overturned the legal underpinning of "separate but equal" accommodations in the U.S. Luckett's family still resides in Clarksdale and perhaps as an indication of the social changes evidenced in the city, William Luckett, the great nephew of Semmes Luckett, now serves as a business partner of Morgan Freeman.
There were 7,233 households out of which 36.8% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 35.7% were married couples living together, 30.0% had a female householder with no husband present, and 29.9% were non-families. 27.1% of all households were made up of individuals and 12.1% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.77 and the average family size was 3.38.
In the city, the population was spread out with 32.9% under the age of 18, 9.6% from 18 to 24, 25.2% from 25 to 44, 19.3% from 45 to 64, and 12.9% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 31 years. For every 100 females there were 81.8 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 73.1 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $22,188, and the median income for a family was $26,592. Males had a median income of $26,881 versus $19,918 for females. The per capita income for the city was $12,611. About 29.7% of families and 36.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 46.1% of those under age 18 and 31.4% of those age 65 or over.
In 1979 the Carnegie Public Library under the direction of Sid Graves began a nascent display series which later became the nucleus of the Delta Blues Museum. Graves struggled alone for years with little recognition and no support from an indifferent community to keep the museum going when no funding was available, often storing displays in the trunk of his car. Finally when the fledgling museum was discovered by Billy Gibbons of the rock band ZZ Top through contact with Howard Stovall Jr. the Delta Blues Museum became the subject of national attention as a pet project of the band and the Museum began to enjoy the recognition that it so richly deserved.
In the mid 1990's the soft-spoken Graves, then in fragile health, was forced out of the library's directorship and retired to Hattiesburg, Mississippi where he passed away on January 9, 2005. Under the temporary curatorship of musician and tour guide/outdoorsman John Ruskey, the museum grew to include a large section of the newly renovated library building. When finally relocated out of the library entirely, after spending a year in a converted retail storefront (1995-1996), the Museum moved into the restored Illinois Central Railroad freight depot building where it is currently housed.
As recently as the late 1990s the potential of the African American art form of the Blues as an economic resource had yet to be accepted by the predominantly white business community in Clarksdale despite all indications to the contrary and the persistent efforts of Sid Graves and others such as the award winning photographer and journalist Panny Mayfield, Living Blues magazine founder Jim O'Neal, and Attorney Walter Thompson, father of journalist Wright Thompson. The popularity of the Delta Blues Museum, the growth of the Sunflower River Blues Festival, and recognition of Clarksdale's blues legacy by the press in Europe, Scandinavia, and all across the United States continued unabated. In 1995 Mt. Zion Memorial Fund founder Skip Henderson purchased the Illinois Central Railroad passenger depot and with the help of local businessman Jon Levingston and the Delta Council, Coahoma County received a $1.3 million dollar grant from the Federal Government to restore the depot and in 1999 Clarksdale's "Blues Alley" was born.
At the turn of the 21st Century the situation has decidedly changed and the Clarksdale business establishment, recognizing the lucrative draw of tourism, has now embraced Clarksdale's role in American musical history at the crossroads of the immortal byways of the Blues, Highway 49 and Highway 61.