John C. Willis. Forgotten Time: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta After the Civil War (American South (University of Virginia Press Hardcover)). Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. xiv + 239 pp. $55.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8139-1971-3; $19.50 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8139-1982-9.
Reviewed by Bland Whitley (Department of History, University of Florida)
Published on H-South (February, 2002)
The Rise and Fall of a Poor Person's Paradise
The Rise and Fall of a Poor Person's Paradise
Mention the Mississippi Delta, and chances are that images of independent, landholding African Americans do not leap to mind. Yet, as John Willis proves in his elegantly written account of the region, the Delta enjoyed an all-too brief period when it provided a haven for small and middling farmers, who took advantage of a fully functioning agricultural ladder to forge their dreams of independence and modest prosperity. Willis' treatment of this "forgotten time" (roughly 1870 to 1900) and of the reasons for its termination during the first two decades of the twentieth century may not displace visions of Sutpen-sized plantations farmed by armies of black sharecroppers and wage laborers, but it succeeds in showing that the path to the "most southern place on earth" was far from unimpeded.
Willis opens his account with the efforts of planters in already settled areas of the Delta (basically along the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers and a few other smaller rivers and streams) to revive their plantations following the Civil War. This was no easy task. Flooded, pockmarked fields testified to the destructive impact of the war, which in addition to the usual depredations had interrupted levee maintenance. Most important, of course, the war had ended slavery, and planters had to respond to and try to shape a free-labor regime for which many were temperamentally ill-suited. Managers of riverine plantations struggled through a tortuous process of negotiations with freedpeople. As in other areas of the lower South, sharecropping emerged as the preferred form of labor, balancing the desires of the freedpeople for more autonomy with the planters' need to ensure adequate crop production with inadequate capital resources. Although Willis does dip into the papers of the Freedmen's Bureau to gain access to the attitudes of the freedpeople, this section remains firmly rooted in the points of view of the planter class, often reading like a miniature version of James Roark's Masters without Slaves.
Far more original and compelling is Willis' rendering of the settlement of the backcountry, which became a land of opportunity for African Americans throughout the state. Focusing largely on the northern Delta counties of Washington, Bolivar, and Coahoma, Willis illuminates a variety of factors that contributed to this development. Most decisive was the tax policy of the Reconstruction-era Republican regimes. With planters and land speculators facing unprecedented tax burdens, many began to look at their interior landholdings less as long-range investments and more as burdens that imperiled their primary properties. Better, many concluded, to rent or even sell backcountry properties than to surrender them to a county tax auctioneer. Freedpeople gladly took advantage of attractive rental agreements and began the arduous work of taming the Delta wilderness. Although Willis does not make this point explicitly, it seems apparent that however politically disastrous Republican tax policies may have been, they had a real redistributive impact in the Delta.
Many freedpeople parlayed the success of their rental agreements into purchases of land. Willis breathes life into county deed records in order to focus on three freedmen who illustrate some of the different strategies available to black farmers on their way to landownership. The first exploited patron-client relations with elite whites to secure sweetheart loans and accumulate a sizable plot of land, which he rented to other freedmen. Shortly after political "redemption," however, his services as Democratic exhorter no longer needed, this farmer found his loan obligations too onerous and was forced to forfeit his land. The second staked out land in a previously undeveloped area and jealously guarded his independence, employing his large extended family and staying out of debt. Continually declining cotton prices eventually forced his hand, though, and like so many farmers throughout the nation, he found himself at the mercy of lien-holding creditors and finally went belly-up. The third embraced debt as a means of expanding and preserving his property but maintained his independence by securing loans from disinterested parties, often from well outside his area. His position was always tenuous, but by renegotiating and recycling debt with strangers, he held onto his land and passed it down to his children, one of whom had managed to earn a medical degree.
Sadly, the story of William Toler represented an exception to the eventual pattern. As quickly as the Delta became a region of black landholders, it was transformed into a region of white land barons and impoverished sharecroppers. Many historians might look at this material and use it to craft a familiar "window of opportunity" narrative, but Willis resists this temptation, arguing instead that the period constituted less an alternative denied than a fluke of the region's frontier status. Agricultural depression ensured a rapid decline of black landholding in the Delta. The plummeting price of cotton trapped everyone, elite planter and lowly sharecropper alike, in a vicious cycle of debt. In their own efforts to stay afloat, white planters and merchants ruthlessly exploited the economic and social liabilities (illiteracy being the most significant of these) of their African American neighbors.
In addition to the depression, black farmers had to contend with the success of efforts to develop the Delta. The penetration of railroads into the wilderness made the region particularly attractive to timber companies. Landholders, who may have been willing to offer beneficial rental agreements in exchange for having their land cleared, now found it easier to lease timber rights to big companies. This shift deprived small farmers of a significant cushion against collapsing cotton prices. Equally important, railroads and the development they spawned closed the gap between older plantation areas and the backcountry. The seeds of the demise of black landholding, Willis suggests, lay in the very success of freedpeople to carve out a place for themselves in the Delta wilderness, thereby making the area attractive to wealthier and more politically powerful whites. The entry of the boll weevil into the region early in the twentieth century deepened the trend toward white dominance. White planters, now convinced of the need for tighter control over their property, rejected rental agreements, turning instead to sharecropping and wage labor.
Willis packs a tremendous amount of information into this narrative, offering accounts of railroad development, fusion politics, immigrant merchants, and black cooperative efforts, among others. He deserves much credit for broadening our understanding of the Delta. His presentation of this material, however, leaves much to be desired. Too often Willis' laudable attempt to present the views and actions of blacks and whites with empathy and balance flattens out interracial conflicts and collaborations as episodes that featured individuals who were not coping with or benefiting from unequal power relations. Thus, the failures of individual African Americans who Willis profiles are often presented solely as products of choices they freely made. Willis rarely acknowledges that these choices were constrained. For example, he interprets the low rates of literacy among Delta blacks as a function of farmers' unwillingness to sacrifice family labor to the school system. Mississippi's poorly funded educational system and the resistance of many local whites to black education do not appear to have been important to Willis in this analysis. Similarly, Isaiah Montgomery's all-black colony Mound Bayou succeeded because of Montgomery's prodigious talents while a similar attempt at Renova failed because its founder Joseph Ousley, in the words of a contemporary white observer "'was not the same type of man that'" Montgomery was (p. 205).
The preceding interpretation may have been entirely accurate, but it is worth questioning Willis' reliance on the contemporary assessment of a Delta white. Too often in this work elite testimony is accepted at face value. Nowhere is this more evident than in Willis' rendering of the squashing of a black cooperative movement in Leflore county. Willis rightly questions northern, politically-driven perspectives, which stressed the event as an all too typical white massacre of black folks, but does not extend the same critical reading to local accounts. Instead, he tends to accept them as more or less factual reports, thereby lending greater credence to the Delta elite's bias. He vouches for contemporary white claims that Oliver Cromwell, the black organizer of the cooperative movement, was nothing more than a charlatan based on testimony that Cromwell had abandoned his followers. Given that other leaders were lynched, this seems a particularly uncharitable assessment. Willis interprets the event as a product of the overreactions and miscalculations of whites and blacks alike, citing the latter's issuing of an incendiary letter signed, "Three thousand armed men" (p. 129). Perhaps this was a miscalculation, but we certainly cannot assume that things would have ended differently had the cooperative supporters been more delicate in their phrasing. Although Willis deserves praise for resisting a portrayal of African Americans that stresses only victimhood, he needs to read his sources more critically.
Despite these flaws, Forgotten Time makes a valuable contribution. By bringing to light an underappreciated and previously misunderstood aspect of postbellum southern history, Willis restores a sense of the surprising disjunctures and opportunities that fill the past of even a "closed society."
. For an excellent collection that demonstrates the subtleties of the plantation Delta, see Karen Glynn and Tom Rankin, A Mississippi Portrait: Farm Security Administration Photographs, 1935-1940, CD-ROM (Southern Media Archive, Center for the Study of Southern Culture, University of Mississippi, 2000).
Bland Whitley. Review of Willis, John C., Forgotten Time: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta After the Civil War (American South (University of Virginia Press Hardcover)).
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