The Delta, cotton and the Great Migration

In an earlier post, I discussed Gene Dattel’s recent visit to Little Rock to talk about his book “Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power.”

In that book, Dattel touches on one of the most significant events in the history of the Delta regions of Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi — the Great Migration of blacks from these cotton-growing regions to the factories of the Upper Midwest and other parts of the country.

There were two phases of the Great Migration.

The first phase occurred from 1910-30 when about 1.6 million blacks left the South.

The more drastic phase was from 1940-70 when the mechanization of agriculture, combined with the evils of segregation, led to almost 5 million blacks abandoning the region.

By 1970, American blacks had gone from being a largely rural population to an overwhelmingly urban population. Almost 80 percent of them lived in cities.

For many Delta counties and parishes, there has been a steady population decline since the 1950 census. In the 1950s and 1960s, those leaving were mostly black. Since widespread school integration began in the 1970s, those leaving have been mostly white.

The one constant has been that the population is getting smaller. Arkansas counties such as Phillips and Mississippi counties now have about half the population they had 60 years ago.

The Great Migration is generally considered to have ended in 1970, but much of the Delta continues to bleed population as whites move out in search of better jobs and schools.

I’ve written before that Arkansas is rapidly becoming two states within a state. One “state within a state” in the central, west and northwest is gaining population and doing relatively well economically. The other ”state within a state” in the south and east is losing population and doing poorly economically.

Consider the information provided by the 2010 census: Arkansas had 39 counties that gained population in the previous decade and 36 counties that lost population.

Monroe County in the Delta lost 20.5 percent of its population.

Benton County in the Ozarks gained 44.3 percent in the same decade.

I see nothing to suggest that these demographic changes, which have had such a huge effect on Arkansas as the center of political and economic power shifts, will end anytime soon.

Much of it began with the Great Migration.

“Just as a labor shortage had created the need for slaves and later for free blacks in the cotton fields, so the 20th century migration of blacks was economically induced by a demand for labor,” Dattel writes. “Yet racial overtones persisted. Cotton, disenfranchisement and de jure segregation may have been absent in the North, but repression and de facto segregation were not. The Great Migration would force white America to confront race yet again, but this time in a Northern context. It would introduce black Southerners to the reality of white ‘Northern racism, the business cycle and class relations.’”

Frederick Douglass had posed this rhetorical question in 1865: “What shall we do with the Negro?”

Dattel writes: “White America’s answer was simple and resounding: Keep him in the South to cultivate cotton. … Before the introduction of mechanization to the cotton fields in the 1930s, and its full impact in the 1950s, the Great Migration surrounding World War I represented a real threat to the structure of Southern cotton production. Until the 1930s, the methods and technology of cotton farming were remarkably similar to those of post-Civil War America.”

Dattel notes that the need for cotton laborers in the South meant that “the presence of blacks was tolerated. And while they were needed, Southern state governments and individuals tried to prevent black cotton workers from moving north during the Great Migration. Only when mechanization arrived would white Southerners abandon their interest in black workers.”

In other words, mechanization changed everything.

Much of the nation began to prosper in the years following World War II. Thanks to congressional approval of the GI Bill, thousands of veterans became the first members of their families to attend college.

Following college, those veterans married, bought homes and purchased automobiles. American manufacturing made the switch from producing products for the armed services to meeting consumer demand. The automobile and steel industries flourished.

Men and women who once had worked as sharecroppers on cotton plantations in the Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana Delta now found themselves in steel mills and automobile factories in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, Gary and other Northern cities. Some of the best Southern cooking was now found on the south side of Chicago.

To truly comprehend the scope of the Great Migration, drive through the Delta during the Christmas holidays and look at the automobiles in the driveways with license plates from Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and even California. The owners of these vehicles have Delta roots, but their grandparents and parents fled the region years before in search of a better life.

Too often, those left behind were the poorest of the poor. Too often, the education their children received was below par and health care was almost nonexistent. It led to a downward economic spiral that continues to this day in many Delta counties and parishes.

Federal, state and local government agencies have spent huge amounts of money in the region. Having spent four years working for the Delta Regional Authority, I can attest to the fact that there are a lot of smart people doing good work in the region. I can also tell you there’s too often a lack of planning and therefore a lack of a clear investment strategy. Funds are spread thinly rather than strategically, serving simply to sustain misery in some of the tiny crossroads communities that have been dying since the end of the sharecropping era.

Pete Johnson, the original federal co-chairman of the DRA, once compared the Delta to a “giant Indian reservation, separate from mainstream society in the region’s larger cities — out of sight, out of mind unless it’s a weekend gambling excursion.”

The decline of manufacturing in Northern cities, family ties and improved race relations have brought some blacks back South. But the 2010 census figures show the speed with which whites have now abandoned a number of Delta counties and parishes.

It comes down to economics. Prior to mechanization, a large landowner might have needed 400 laborers to cultivate his thousands of acres of cotton. By the late 1950s, he was doing the same amount of work with 40 people. Now, it’s just four or five people doing the work.

I suspect that when the 2020 census figures are released, dozens of Delta counties and parishes will be even smaller overall than they were in 2010 while the percentge of black residents will be higher.

“The Delta is truly the quintessential intersection between cotton and race,” Dattel writes. “Cotton dominated the economy; blacks dominated the population. It was in the Mississippi Delta that cotton and culture combined to produce the musical genre of the blues, which has earned the region a reputation as a ‘primary taproot of black culture and history in America.’ It has been referred to as the greatest single subregional contributor to the stream of black migrants to the urban North. As one of the spokesmen for the Delta Chamber of Commerce noted in 1938, more than 40 percent of all cotton produced in America bloomed within 200 miles in any direction of the Mississippi Delta.”

Speculators and railroad developers brought in immigrants to fuel the boom. Chinese and European labor supplemented the existing black labor. Vicksburg grew from 4,591 people in 1860 to 12,443 in 1870.

“Times changed quickly,” Dattel writes. “No longer were cotton farms filled with black sharecroppers and their shacks. Mules and the farm equipment of a bygone era disappeared. Sheds for tractors and mechanical cotton pickers replaced barns and mule stables. The many black churches that dotted the farm landscape were abandoned as blacks moved to Southern towns and cities and to cities in the North. High unemployment resulting from the displacement of unskilled farm laborers remains an enduring feature of the cotton plantation landscape. The coincidence of the advent of technology, the civil rights movement and the end of legal segregation has left blacks in the plantation world groping for an economic identity.”

Dattel concludes that in the 80 years from 1861 to 1941, cotton descended from “an indispensable product to a surplus commodity. It was replaced by oil as the eventual strategic resource in the post-World War II global arena. In many ways, cotton had been the oil of the 19th century.”

So you want to understand what’s happening in the Delta today?

Go back and study the cotton economy.

Go back and study the Great Migration.

Then study the 2010 census figures.

You’ll have a much clearer idea how we got to where we are and a much more pragmatic grasp of what the future holds.

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One Response to “The Delta, cotton and the Great Migration”

  1. Delta says:

    I’m glad you wrote this piece. I grew up in Eastern Arkansas, and thought I’d never return after high school. Yet, here I am, going white flight in reverse, and I’ve never been happier. I think there is a certain cultural aspect to the Delta that is hard to appreciate by those who are not natives, although I’ve met people who have moved in from other areas (even from up North!) who seem to enjoy living here.

    Good point on strategic spending. Looking at other social issues, it should be obvious that smart spending is better than more spending. If a more educated workforce could ever be developed here, I think we would see more industry choose the Delta. It is encouraging to see highway improvement though.

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