The Mississippi Delta is the distinct northwest section of the state of Mississippi that lies between the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. Technically not a delta but part of an alluvial plain, it has been said that the Delta "begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel (in Memphis) and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg" (various writers have been attributed with composing this memorable line, but often David Cohn is credited with the saying. (David Cohn, Where I was Born and Raised, 1948) This region, created by regular flooding over thousands of years, is remarkably flat and contains some of the most fertile soil in the world. It includes the following counties: Washington, DeSoto, Humphreys, Carroll, Issaquena, Panola, Quitman, Bolivar, Coahoma, Leflore, Sunflower, Sharkey, Tunica, Tallahatchie, Holmes, Yazoo, and Warren.
The river delta at the mouth of the Mississippi lies some 300 miles south of this area, and is referred to as the Mississippi River Delta.
The Delta is strongly associated with the origins of several genres of popular music, including the Delta blues
, and rock and roll
. The music came out of the struggles of lives in which poverty and hardship were ever present for mostly black sharecroppers and tenant farmers. .
Agriculture and the Delta economy
For over two centuries, agriculture
has been the mainstay of the Delta economy. Sugar cane
were introduced to the region by European settlers from the Caribbean
in the 18th century. Sugar and rice production were centered in southern Louisiana
, and later in the Arkansas Delta
Early agriculture also included limited tobacco production in the Natchez area and indigo in the lower Mississippi. What began as back bending land clearing by yeoman farmers supported by extensive families was expanded into a labor-intensive plantation system based dependent on the labor of enslaved Native Americans, who were rapidly succeeded in the 18th century by enslaved Africans. Thousands of Africans were captured, sold and transported as slaves from West Africa. Many entered the Mississippi Delta through the slave market at New Orleans. As slavery was institutionalized as a heritable status, Africans and African Americans for generations worked the commodity plantations, which they made extremely profitable. African laborers brought critical knowledge and techniques for the cultivation and processing of both rice and indigo.
The invention of the cotton gin in the early 19th century enabled the widespread production of short-staple cotton, which until then had been too labor-intensive to process. By the early 19th century, cotton had become the Delta’s premier crop, for which there was international demand. It would remain so until well after the American Civil War, even in an era of falling cotton prices. Though cotton planters believed that the alluvial soils of the Mississippi Delta region would always renew, the agricultural boom from the 1830s to the late 1850s caused extensive soil exhaustion and erosion. Lacking agricultural research, planters continued to raise cotton the same way after the Civil War.
Plantations before the war were generally developed on ridges near the rivers, which provided transportation of products to market. At the end of the Civil War, most of the bottomlands behind the ridges were still covered in heavy dense growth of trees, bushes and vines. Most of the acreage of the Delta was uncultivated.
Following the Civil War, 90 percent of the bottomlands in Mississippi were still undeveloped. This led to the state attracting people to its frontier, where their labor in clearing land could be traded for purchase of land. Tens of thousands of migrants, both black and white, were attracted to the area. By the end of the century, two-thirds of the independent farmers in the Mississippi Delta were black. The extended low price of cotton had caused many to go deeply into debt, however, and gradually they had to sell off their lands. From 1910-1920, the first and second generations of African Americans after slavery lost their stake in the land and had to resort to sharecropping and tenant farming to survive.
Sharecropping and tenant farming replaced the slave-dependent, labor-intensive plantation system. This labor system inhibited the use of progressive agricultural techniques. In the late 19th century, the clearing and drainage of wetlands, especially in Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel, increased lands available for tenant farming and sharecropping.
Mechanization starting in the 1930s altered agricultural economics again. Thousands of laborers were no longer needed and migrated North in the Great Migration. During the late 20th century, there was an increasing dominance of lower Delta agriculture by families and nonresident corporate entities that held large landholdings. Their operations are heavily mechanized with low labor costs. Such farm entities are capital-intensive, where hundreds and thousands of acres are used to produce market-driven crops such as cotton, sugar, rice, and soybeans.
During the 1920s and 1930s, in the aftermath of the increasing mechanization of Delta farms, displaced whites and African-Americans
began to leave the land and move to towns and cities. It was not until the Great Depression
years of the 1930s and later that large-scale farm mechanization came to the region. The mechanization of agriculture and the availability of domestic work outside the Delta spurred the migration of Delta residents out of the region. Farming was unable to absorb the available labor force
and entire families moved together.
From the late 1930s through the 1950s, the Delta experienced an agriculture boom, as wartime needs followed by reconstruction in Europe expanded the demand for the Delta region’s farm products. As the mechanization of agriculture continued, women continued to leave the fields and go into service work, while the men drove tractors and worked on the farms. From the 1960s through the 1990s, thousands of small farms and dwellings in the Delta region were absorbed by large corporate-owned agribusinesses, and the smallest Delta communities have stagnated.
Remnants of the region’s agrarian
heritage are scattered along the highways and byways of the lower Delta. Larger communities have survived by fostering economic development
, and medicine
. Other endeavors such as catfish
, rice, corn
, and soybean farming have assumed greater importance. Today, the monetary value of these crops rivals that of cotton production in the lower Mississippi Delta. Shifts away from the river as a main transportation and trading route to railroads and, more significantly, highways, has made the river cities struggle for new roles and businesses.
In recent years, due to the growth of the automobile industry in the South, many parts suppliers have opened facilities in the Delta (as well as on the Arkansas Delta side of the Mississippi River, another area of high poverty). Moreover, the 1990s legalization of casino gambling in Mississippi has boosted the Delta's economy, particularly in the areas of Tunica and Vicksburg.
A large cultural influence in the region is its history of hunting and fishing. Hunting in the Delta is primarily for game such as whitetail deer, wild turkey, and waterfowl, along with many small game species (squirrel, rabbit, dove, quail, raccoon, etc.) For many years the hunting and fishing have also attracted visitors in the regional tourism economy.
- B.B. King, blues musician
- Bobbie Gentry, singer, musician, "Ode to Billy Jo"
- Bukka White, blues musician
- Charlie Patton, blues musician
- Ike Turner, musician
- Henry Sloan, musician
- Howlin' Wolf, blues musician
- Jimmie Rodgers, country musician
- John Lee Hooker, blues musician
- Mississippi John Hurt, blues singer
- Mose Allison, jazz pianist and singer
- Muddy Waters, blues musician
- Robert Johnson, blues musician
- Sam Cooke, musician
- Skip James, blues musician
- Son House, blues musician
- Elmore James, blues musician
- Archie Manning, professional football player
- Dave “Boo” Ferriss, professional baseball player
- Emmett Till, lynching victim
- Frederick W. Smith, CEO, FedEx
- Haley Barbour, Mississippi Governor and former RNC Chairman
- Hodding Carter, journalist and author
- James Earl Jones, actor
- Jim Gallagher, Jr., professional golfer
- Jim Henson, Muppets creator
- Kent Hull, professional football player
- Leroy Percy, U.S. Senator
- Lawrence Gordon, movie producer
- Morgan Freeman, actor
- Shelby Foote, author and historian
- Willie Morris, author and editor of Harper's magazine
- Tennessee Williams, playwright
- Walker Percy, author
- William Alexander Percy, author, historian
- Zig Ziglar, inspirational speaker
- James L. Alcorn, Mississippi Governor and United States Senator
Festivals are important to the Mississippi Delta region, allowing each town or community the opportunity to celebrate their unique heritage. Following is a list of various festivals in the Delta:March:
- Italian Festival of Mississippi (Cleveland)April:
- Rivergate Festival (Tunica)
- World Catfish Festival (Belzoni)
- Leland Crawfish Festival (Leland)
- Crosstie Arts & Jazz Festival (Cleveland)
- Juke Joint Festival (Clarksdale)May:
- Deep Delta Festival (Rolling Fork)
- River to the Rails Festival (Greenwood)
- Mainstream Arts & Crafts Festival (Greenville)
- Summerfest (Hollandale)
- Showfest (Greenville)June:
- B.B. King Homecoming Festival (Indianola)
- Highway 61 Blues Festival (Leland)
- Delta Jubilee (Clarksdale)July:
- First Friday Jazz Festival (Greenville)August:
- Sunflower River Blues Festival (Clarksdale)September:
- Delta Air and Balloon Festival (Greenville)
- Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage FestivalOctober:
- Great Delta Bear Affair
- Octoberfest (Cleveland)November:
- Electroacoustic Juke Joint (Cleveland) December:
- Roy Martin Delta Band Festival (Greenwood)
Media and publishing
Newspapers, Magazines and Journals
- Belzoni Banner (published weekly) ()
- Delta Magazine (published bi-monthly) ()
- Delta Business Journal (published monthly) ()
- Clarksdale Press Register (published daily) ()
- Cleveland Bolivar Commercial (published daily) ()
- Greenville Delta Democrat Times (published daily) ()
- Greenwood Commonwealth (published daily) ()
- The Tunica Times (published weekly) ()
- WABG (Greenwood)
- WXVT (Greenville)
The Northern Delta is served by Memphis TV stations.
- Tunica Municipal Airport (Tunica) ()
- Mid Delta Regional Airport (Greenville)
- Greenwood-Leflore Airport (Greenwood)
- Cleveland Municipal Airport (Cleveland)
- Indianola Municipal Airport (Indianola)
- Yazoo County Airport (Yazoo City)
- Fletcher Field Airport (Clarksdale)
- U.S. Route 82 runs from Alamogordo, New Mexico to Brunswick, Georgia
- U.S. Route 49 runs from Piggott, Arkansas to Gulfport, Mississippi
- U.S. Route 61 runs from Wyoming, Minnesota to New Orleans, Louisiana
Appearance in culture
- The Mississippi Delta is the setting for several stories by William Faulkner, most notably "The Bear" from Go Down, Moses.
- Delta Wedding, novel written by Eudora Welty, was set on a fictional plantation on the Mississippi Delta.
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, written by Tennessee Williams was set in the Mississippi Delta.
- The Paul Simon song "Graceland", from an album of the same name, begins with the line "The Mississippi Delta was shining like a National guitar."
- Crossroads starring Ralph Macchio (The Karate Kid) is a movie that is loosely based on bluesman Robert Johnson.
- Down in the Delta, 1998 film directed by Maya Angelou and starring Alfre Woodard about a woman from the city who moves with her children to the rural Delta.
- My Dog Skip is set in Yazoo City in the book, and the movie was filmed there.
- Several scenes from O, Brother, Where Art Thou? are set in the Delta; the film was partially shot in Yazoo City. The film mentions small Delta towns Itta Bena and Satartia, as well as "the Crossroads".