The Mississippi Delta History
An Introduction to Delta Heritage
“The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg” according to David Cohn. Marlo Kirkpatric says that while “Cohn may be geographically accurate,” he was incomplete. “The Delta is not just a place, but a mindset.”
The Mississippi Delta is a mindset. It has a mystique of mythological proportions, or as Rheta Grimsley Johnson said, it is the “South of fiction and fantasy.” But this fantasy has grown out of the reality of American history. The Delta is a land that was virgin wilderness and swamp at the turn of the twentieth century, cleared for cotton and plantation life through the 1930’s, dominated by politically powerful gentleman planters, peopled by Black sharecroppers, Italian immigrants, Chinese, Lebanese and Jewish merchants. It is the source of “The Great Migration” north, and thus the home of the African-American populations of many Northern cities, like Chicago and Detroit. It is also the home of the Blues, Gospel, soul food, the civil rights movement. It was home to Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Richard Wright, Clifton Taulbert, Shelby Foote, and Hodding Carter. It is where Teddy Roosevelt saved the original “Teddy Bear,” and where Elvis Presley learned to dance and sing and drive a pink Cadillac. It is the land where Muddy Waters and Robert Johnson wrote the lyrics that eventually made the Rolling Stones, John Mayall, and Eric Clapton wealthy.
In the heart of the Delta lies the town of Cleveland. Named for President Grover Cleveland, the town began formation in 1869. Because of the Louisville, New Orleans & Texas Railroad that ran through the middle of town, people were drawn to Cleveland from outlying areas.
Cleveland is a town overflowing with living history. The blues are very much alive in the Delta, and one of the best places to experience the heritage and culture that is the blues is Dockery Plantation outside Cleveland. Often called the “Birthplace of the Blues”, Dockery Plantation was home to world-famous Delta blues musician, Charley Patton, and was recently honored with a marker on the Mississippi Blues Trail.
Aside from the blues history of the area, Bolivar County has deep roots in the civil rights movement. Amzie Moore, a civil rights pioneer, opened a gas station, beauty shop, and grocery store on Highway 61 in Cleveland. His business also served as headquarters for the area’s civil rights efforts. His home was declared a historical landmark on May 13, 2008.
The Mississippi Delta is a fantastic place, where the history of the area is still prevalent and visible in the world today. Cleveland and Bolivar County are prime examples of how the rich heritage of an area can shape and form a place to make it not only interesting and educational, but inspiring as well.