Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Forgotten Time: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta after the Civil War

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Forgotten Time: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta after the Civil War

Article excerpt

Forgotten Time: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta after the Civil War. By John C. Willis. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. Pp. xiv, 240. Acknowledgments, introduction, conclusion, notes, index. $55.00, cloth; $19.50, paper.)

For generations the Mississippi Delta has been linked in the public's imagination to rolling fields of cotton, wide disparities of wealth, and patterns of racial violence. Its loamy soil and lush landscape frame popular visions of a world where the white gentry ruled the black laboring class with an iron fist. These images, of course, are not without historical merit. During the near-century separating the end of the Civil War and the civil rights movement, the delta was a center for particularly vicious forms of sharecropping and segregation.

In Forgotten Time, John Willis seeks to revise the static portrait of the delta during the first generations of liberty as a place of fixed economic and social hierarchy. Based largely on a close scrutiny of tax and property records of the Mississippi counties that constitute the delta and on a reading of local newspapers, Willis argues that whites and blacks broadly experimented with labor contracts and strategies for buying and renting land. Indeed, Willis, in a significant finding, shows that the delta led the South in levels of black tenancy and landownership in the late 1800s. This surprising state of affairs did not last past the turn of the century, however, as falling cotton prices and a rising politics of white supremacy limited the extent and duration of ex-slave economic achievement.

The strength of Willis's argument lies in his clear-eyed analysis of the delta's cotton economy. Burdened by escalating property taxes during the Reconstruction era, white landowners sought desperately to hold onto their land by seeking new ways to attract and retain freedmen to work the soil. In counties near the Mississippi River, whites turned to the convict lease system, black codes, and sharecropping as means to secure a black labor force. They met with limited success. It was a different story, however, in the backcountry. Here whites and blacks struck novel economic arrangements. To entice blacks to this densely-forested area, which needed to be cleared and prepared for farming, whites initially offered generous terms of credit and, more importantly, the opportunity to rent or lease property. …

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