Casinos, Catfish & Cotton: Exploring the Mississippi Delta
Greetings from the Mississippi Delta!
We left Jackson on Thursday night and have spent the past few days doing random interviews in parks, restaurants and churches. I set up most of my interviews in Jackson because the heat was overwhelming. Who wants to talk politics in the hot sun? Again, we were greeted with amazing displays of Southern hospitality. Interviewees often gave me contact information for friends and colleagues to interview; every person I called invited me into their home without hesitation, which doesn't happen very often in San Francisco. Then again, I've never done this type of project there...
We spent the night in Yazoo City, one of many small Mississippi towns struggling to survive.
It obviously has a proud history given the fact that so many stores are named after the town itself: Yazoo Cleaners, Yazoo Bank, Yazoo Laundromat, etc...
Despite its proud history, many stores are empty, homes are crumbling and the unemployment rates are high.
We stopped in downtown Yazoo to interview the owners of the "Black & White Store" and a group of young people who run a record label.
We then took the back roads, got lost and drove through the Delta. One minute, we're surrounded by vast expanses of lush green cotton, soybean and rice plantations, the next, abandoned homes and desperate poverty; many towns are all but empty.
As you drive through the Delta, a map and decent sense of direction is a must. There are no gas stations or convenience stores around for miles and no signs saying, "No Gas for 30 Miles." You're pretty much on your own.
After about an hour of driving, we stumbled upon Lake George Grocery, a store/small restaurant in Holly Bluff, population 142. The owners (husband and wife), who also run a hunting business to supplement their income, invited us to stay for dinner and try their deer meat (a number of deer head were hanging on the walls). We didn't want to drive in the dark and politely said no, but we are planning to go back tomorrow to interview a few more locals about the dwindling number of small farmers in the area.
From Holly Bluff, we drove to Greenville, a fairly large town full of strip malls and chain stores. Rather than spend time in town, we decided to drive north along the river towards Rosedale. On the way, we stopped at the Winterville Mounds, a museum on the site of a prehistoric ceremonial center built by Native American civilization that thrived from about A.D. 1000 to 1450. The mounds were the site of sacred structures and ceremonies. The museum also contains Native American artifacts including arrow heads, clay pipes, shell beads and pots. We got to talking to a man visiting the museum about our project and were invited to his nearby family reunion of at least 50 people. They happily shared their food and invited us to take part in various activities. We spent the day talking to young and old members of the family about segregation, civil rights, poverty, the war, minimum wage and education.
That night we drove to Rosedale, population 2440, another town struggling to survive. A number of people sitting on their front porches waved as we passed by. We stopped in the White Front Cafe: Joe's Hot Tamale Place and interviewed a few locals about the town's past and present.
Rosedale used to be a thriving community, full of blues clubs and locally owned stores. Today, jobs are scarce, leaving young people with no choice but to move away.
Later that night, we ended up in Indianola, home of the blues legend B.B. King. Indianola is a small farming community and seems to be doing better than many small towns because of its close location to the main highway. On Sunday morning, we went to the First Baptist Church and were warmly welcomed by mostly older members, but the sermon itself was extremely conservative and full of political references. I sat next to a woman who said she's fed up with the pastor's negative tone and low level of intolerance and is thinking about leaving the church, to which she has belonged for decades.
Tonight we went to a Fourth of July celebration in Greenville and interviewed both locals and people who drove in from Arkansas, which is only 20 miles away. The event took place near two casinos, which are located on the Mississippi River and are the only form of entertainment in town.
Driving around small towns with no itinerary and not knowing what we'll find is what makes this project special.