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Legacy on the Land: New Deal Resettlement in the Mississippi Delta

Paper given by Jane Adams and D. Gorton at the Joint Meetings of the Agriculture, Food and Human Values Society and the Association for the Study of Food and Society, Boston University, June 7-11, 2006

The Resettlement Administration/Farm Security Administration projects that gave sharecroppers and tenants access to their own land was an attempt to address rural poverty and the problem of tenancy through demonstration, or model, projects that embodied cooperative principles.


Map showing regional types of architecture. Rural Resettlement Administration. Created 1935 or 1936. LC-USF341-000552-B Part of RA exhibit. Untitled sketches with neighboring call numbers depict vernacular homes and floor plans. Library of Congress, FSA/OWI collection. 

The story of the FSA that has come down to those of us who are attached to the agrarian and populist traditions is a heroic one, of a progressive federal agency battling the forces of reaction and class power – particularly, in the South and far West, the landed oligarchy. This story is supported by the significant number of farmers assisted: By the end of 1944, by our current estimate based on a survey of 8 Mississippi Delta counties, perhaps 3.5 percent of the Delta’s land in farms was redistributed and the new smallholders made up approximately 2 percent of Delta farms.[1]

Lake Dick Cooperative Project was one of the few RA projects that modeled itself on the industrialized plantation. The "clients" lived in houses built around Lake Dick, and farmed the land collectively under the direction of a farm manager. This map is scanned from the original plat in the Jefferson County Courthouse, Pine Bluff, Arkansas.[2]

In contrast, most FSA projects in the Delta subdivided plantations into 40-60 acre plots, each of which was a diversified family farm. Dyess, Arkansas, famously home of Johnny Cash, was one of the earliest such projects, and one of the largest.

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But there is a darker side to these programs, one that is not captured in the story of the political battles that occurred in Washington. Nor is it captured by interviews with those who received land in these projects. One woman said “it was like we had died and gone to heaven” when they moved into their new, painted house at Clover Bend, Arkansas. Virtually everyone – even a man who left the project at Rena Lara, Mississippi, because he didn’t like the degree of supervision – recalled the projects positively.


 

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Mrs. Fay Melvee and family working in their garden. Plum Bayou Project, Arkansas. Marion Post Wolcott, May 1940. FSA/OWI

We will speak to this darker side in a moment. But first, a sketch of our aims and methods:

The life of the people, black and white, in the present day Delta, animates our search for the legacy of the FSA projects in the Delta. However, our research is located on the white side of the color line, a little explored area. We have found that many questions simply can’t be answered without far more research.


Bottom Right: Shaded relief map of the Mississippi Embayment, or Delta. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mississippi_embayment

We use all the tools of scholarship, including careful reading of the literature, courthouse and other records, and interviews. We also search the photographic record very carefully. Pictures may not always tell the truth, but they are a reliable indicator, for instance, of the race of the people depicted.

Bottom Left: Jane Adams examining plat maps of FSA projects in the Holmes County, Mississippi, court house, Lexington, Mississippi, 2005.

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They are also reliable in terms of depicting the material culture. Through this research we have stumbled across data that raises real questions about the progressive 1930s and the way that those efforts have reached into the present.

Fireplace in Negro sharecropper's cabin. Will be resettled on Transylvania Project. Louisiana. Russell Lee, Jan. 1939. LC-USF34-031934-D

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We had noted, as we went from county to county in the Mississippi, Louisiana and Arkansas delta surveying the Resettlement Administration and its successor Farm Security Administration’s farming cooperatives and other smaller projects, that the majority were settled by whites. Baldwin (1968:197) found that, by 1945, only 35 percent of tenant purchase borrowers in Mississippi were black. The figure was 27 percent in Louisiana and 16 percent in Arkansas – despite the fact that blacks were some 80 percent of farmers – largely sharecroppers and tenants – in the Mississippi Delta.

 

We found this surprising, since the projects were created by the most radical and, according to Jess Gilbert and Spencer Wood, “least racist” section of the agricultural New Deal, and since recent black history has celebrated some of the projects that went to blacks.[3]

 

Lunchtime for Cotton hoers. Dorothea Lange, Mississippi Delta. June 1937. LC-USF34- 017456-E

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​Why, then, did whites benefit disproportionately? Probably the most important factor was that Southern blacks could not vote. Having been legally disfranchised by the end of the 19th and early 20th century they counted nothing to the politicians who nominally represented them (Perman 2001).[4] Further, as we argue elsewhere (Adams and Gorton 2006)[5], Southern planters viewed blacks as largely fitted, due to their race, for agricultural labor and other physically demanding jobs. In contrast, they viewed whites as “naturally” part of the managerial or yeoman classes. They also preferred black laborers over white as sharecroppers and day laborers, viewing whites as largely unfit for physically demanding jobs or sharecropping since they were "difficult" to manage​ 

Inside the Depression-era national and cosmopolitan consciousness, white farmers appeared to be sliding down the agricultural ladder at an alarming rate, creating a peasantry of which Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace wrote in 1936 after his first trip through the South, “’I have never seen among the peasantry of Europe poverty so abject as that which exists in this favorable cotton year in the great cotton States’” (quoted in Baldwin 1968:164).[6]

 

Below, Left: Hopson Plantation, near Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi. Marion Post Wolcott, Aug ?, 1940. LC-USF33- 030948-M4

Below, Right: Dyess Colony. Contemporary photos and montage by D. Gorton. Dyess Colony, contemporary photos and montage by D. Gorton.

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Bottom, Left: Mother washing feet and cleaning up daughters in sharecropper's shack. Southeast Missouri Farms. Russell Lee, May 1938. LC-USF34- 031184-D

Bottom, Right: Arthur Rothstein, Aug. 1935. Sharecropper's child suffering from rickets and malnutrition, Wilson cotton plantation, Mississippi County, Arkansas. LC-USF33- 002002-M2

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We began to get an inkling that the trouble ran deeper when we came across these telegrams and memos to Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the National Archives' FDR library in Hyde Park, New York, which we visited after the ASFS/AFHVS conference in Hyde Park, New York, in 2004. They were letters and telegrams protesting the removal of African Americans from the Transylvania FSA project near Lake Providence, Louisiana.

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We then read “Witness to the Truth” by John H. Scott, the man who had initiated the protest and a subsequent NAACP inquiry. Transylvania, it turned out, had been settled by blacks soon after the Civil War. Here’s the story Scott tells (2003:81-83):
 

 

Transylvania, where I lived at the time, was the richest farming area in the parish. In fact, it was actually one of the richest farming areas in the entire state. … The Memphis company that owned the 10,000 acres where I lived mostly left the farming to the black families that had lived in the area for almost a hundred years, back before the end of slavery. The agents hired by the owners to run the place didn’t interfere with us too much, and over time the six-mile strip of property had turned into a thriving, progressive, and thickly settled almost all-black community with its own church, Rosenwald school, and stores.


Negro sharecropper and child who will be resettled, Transylvania Project, Louisiana. Russell Lee, Jan. 1939. LC-USF33-011929-M2

We'll take a brief tour, with Russell Lee, the day people were moved out.

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Scott continues,

Most families had lived there so long that some people had started to think of the land as theirs, especially the independent farmers. They had developed over the years thriving farms, and even in the 1930s some black farmers already used mechanical equipment and had built nice homes for their families on land they didn’t even own. Many children from the area had been able to go away for their high school education and some had even gone on to college.

 

1st Picture: Typical farmstead near Lake Providence, Louisiana. Russell Lee, Jan. 1939 LC-USF34-031927-D.

 

2nd Picture: Sharecropper's cabin. Transylvania, Louisiana. Russell Lee. Jan. 1939. LC-USF34- 031936-D

So I was really surprised when a white man told me one day that the Farm Security Administration now had possession of the Abston, Crump, & Wynne land. Plans had already been laid to move out all the blacks, about 250 families at that time in 1938, and resell the property to mostly poor whites. …

3rd Picture: Shed for mules and horses on sharecropper's place near Transylvania Project. Louisiana. Russell Lee, Jan. 1939. LC-USF34- 031887-D

4th Picture: Chicken shed on former sharecropper's farm. Transylvania, Louisiana. Russell Lee, Jan. 1939. LC-USF34- 031909-D

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For years, people had been promised that if the land was ever sold, they would be given the first chance to buy. Now we were finding out that no blacks would be given an opportunity to buy any Farm Security land in East Carroll.  [The FSA had already brought papers for people to sign.] Actually, they were signing away all their good farmland and at the same time agreeing to transfer to the Thomastown project, a resettlement project some twenty-five miles south of Transylvania in Madison Parish.

The black project at Thomastown, it turned out, would displace a number of white families. The NAACP complaint had brought some action from Washington, but nonetheless, in January everyone on Transylvania was evicted. The eviction was covered by the Pittsburgh Courier as well as by FSA photographer Russell Lee.

His photographs suggest the chaotic situation that faced the FSA administrators, the resident blacks, and the in-coming whites

Scott described the impact (p. 90-91):

The Transylvania community was torn apart. … We were put out of the place where most of us had been born, where many of our fathers and mothers had been born, back before the Civil War. Many people had to leave behind houses and barns they had built and the fine crop-growing land they had developed. They even took our Rosenwald school, with its blackboards and separate classrooms. … They took the children’s desks and all our school equipment and turned it over to the new white settlers, while the children displaced from Transylvania had to start attending classes all in one room at a church, with church benches instead of desks.


Negro mother teaching children numbers and alphabet in home of sharecropper, Transylvania, Louisiana. Russell Lee, Jan 1939. LC-

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They even took Seven Stars, the first black Baptist church in East Carroll, the church my great grandfather had founded, and sold it to the new settlers.

Because of the publicity, several projects were established for the displaced families. Thomastown, where the bulk of the community was resettled, had been planned for Transylvania's black tenants. The other projects were Henderson Project, just south of Transylvania, Lakeview Project on the north side of Lake Providence, and in Blue Front and Fortune Fork below Transylvania outside Tallulah.[7]

 

The women's club leaving the church and community building after a home management demonstration by the supervisor and a baby shower they gave for Mrs. Verden Lee, one of their members.

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Transylvania Project, Louisiana. Marion Post Wolcott. June 1940. LC-USF34- 054019-D

The tenants who worked Transylvania Plantation in East Carroll Parish were scattered along about 40 miles, from the north end of the lake that gave the town of Lake Providence its name, into Madison Parish on several plantations from Thomastown to Tallulah.

This map shows the general location of the projects in relation to the surrounding states.

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Curiously, it had not occurred to us to inquire about what happened to the people who were living on the plantations before the FSA acquired them. Greenfield, on the Washington-Issaquena County line in Mississippi, had been abandoned, grown up in Johnson grass, we were told by some of the first settlers. Dyess and Jerome were basically new ground, left open after timbering. But others had been working plantations. We began looking more closely at the FSA photographs for evidence.

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In 1936, Carl Mydans had shot a few frames (9 captioned, 6 untitled) at Sunflower Plantation, “just optioned by Resettlement Administration.” He shot the plantation headquarters, manager’s house, mule shed, gin and seed house, pecan grove, a barn, and the blacksmith shop. The plantation looks virtually depopulated, though neat and well-kept.


Captions: Plantation headquarters, Sunflower plantation, just optioned by Resettlement Administration. Near Sunflower, Mississippi. LC-USF34-006508-D


Manager's home at Sunflower Plantation now under option by Resettlement Administration. Near Sunflower, Mississippi. This is one of the largest plantations in the region.


Pecan grove with soybeans. Sunflower plantation, just optioned by Resettlement Administration. Near Sunflower, Mississippi.


Gin and seed house (to right) on Sunflower plantation now under option by Resettlement Administration. All by Carl Mydens, June 1936.

Except the blacksmith shop. Everyone there is black.

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If Sunflower were a typical plantation, it would have had wage hands, sharecroppers, and perhaps share or cash tenants.[8] Given the photographic evidence, including Mydans’ and Marion Post Wolcott’s photographs of plantations in the immediate area showing black workers in the fields, and the demographics of Sunflower and the surrounding counties, in which some 80 percent of farmers were “colored”, one would expect that the overwhelming majority of residents on the plantation were black.


"Double shovel" cultivator being repaired at Sunflower plantation. Near Sunflower, Mississippi.. Carl Mydans, June 1936 LC-USF34- 006499-D

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However, when Russell Lee made a series of photographs in January 1939 as “background photo[s] for Sunflower Plantation,” he shot only white tenants. This was consistent with the project, which was white. What happened to the black hands who had lived there before the government took it over?

 We have one more piece of evidence that blacks (and possibly whites) were displaced by these projects. Nelson (1999:219)[9] writes of Oscar Johnston’s opposition in 1942 to the FSA,

Even more outrageous to Johnston was the FSA's practice of land acquisition. Although agricultural appropriation legislation for 1942 forbade FSA land purchases, a practice in effect for years, the agency still managed to acquire holdings indirectly. Johnston's classic and oft-cited example was that of the well-known Phillipston Plantation in Leflore County, Mississippi. When Connecticut General Life Insurance Company acquired the half-century-old plantation in the Great Depression, it retained Phillipston's black and white tenants, some of whom had resided there for forty or more years. Approached by FSA in 1942, however, Connecticut General sold out, not to the FSA -- because of legislative prohibition -- but to fifty or so FSA-acquired families to whom FSA loaned the requisite funds to purchase the tract. Phillipston's sixty-seven-year-old manager was let go, as was the entire roster of seventy-six tenant families. Invited to the property by neighbors, Johnston said he heard pathetic and heartrending stories from evicted tenants who had to be off the property by the end of 1942.

 

Plat of Phillipston Plantation, scanned in the LeFlore County, Mississippi, courthouse by the authors, 2005. The plantation lies in LeFlore and Holmes Counties, and was sold by Connecticut General Life Insurance Company.

Johnston testified in the famous 1943 Congressional subcommittee hearings that such occurrences were common, and his claim, despite being made to argue for the elimination of the FSA, appears to be well-founded.

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What happened to these evicted sharecroppers and tenants? We have Scott’s testimony that, due to federal intervention, most of the tenants on Transylvania Plantation were relocated to other projects. But we have no information regarding the ones who did not effectively organize and protest. Based on Scott’s testimony, white sharecroppers as well as black were displaced as the FSA created racially segregated projects out of plantations whose workforce had been racially integrated.


Photos by Marion Post Wolcott, June, 1940. Captions left to right, top to bottom.

Violet Davenport with her chickens by new chicken house. La Delta Project, Thomastown, Louisiana. LC-USF34- 053824-D

Clifton Davenport feeding some of his hogs by new barn. La Delta Project, Thomastown, Louisiana. LC-USF34- 053825-D

FSA (Farm Security Administration) borrower's son getting some canned goods for dinner out of the pantry in his home. La Delta Project, Thomastown, Louisiana. LC-USF34- 054130-D


Nurse Marguerite White Nurse Marguerite White treating a patient. La Delta Project, Thomastown, Louisiana. LC-USF34- 053873-D

In another photo the patient is identified as Alice Jane Holden, a tuberculosis patient, and explains that the nurse is showing her how to make her own paper cups which can be burned after use in her home on La Delta Project. Thomastown, Louisiana. LC-USF34- 053890-D

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We know that the concentration of people in one locale often has long-term consequences: Mileston Farm, an all-black project in Holmes County, Mississippi, was a center of movement activism in the 1960s, and the area south of Greenville that had a number of subdivided plantations retained its rural K-12 school and has become a magnet for working class whites [10]

 

Above: Mileston Plantation store and post office. Mileston, Mississippi Delta, Mississippi. Marion Post Wolcott, Oct. 1939. LC-USF34- 052233-D. Before project was established.

But the removals must have left a long shadow, as well. Scott (2001:92) writes that the people evicted from Transylvania left with a spirit of militancy that would produce many outstanding leaders in the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s, both in Lake Providence and down the road in Tallulah. … [E]verywhere they went, they carried a fighting spirit.

We now know, as we continue our research, that we must ask what happened to the people who were removed.


Negro sharecropper and child who will be resettled, Transylvania Project, Louisiana. Russell Lee, Jan. 1939. LC-USF33-011929-M2

The legacy of the New Deal is a long one, and complicated. This is, in part, a cautionary tale for those who would reform the world, concerning the unintended consequences of their actions.


Negro sharecropper with wire which he has rolled up after taking down fences on his rented farm, Transylvania Project, Louisiana. Russell Lee. Jan. 1939. LC-USF33-011937-M4

The women's club leaving the church and community building after a home management demonstration by the supervisor and a baby shower they gave for Mrs. Verden Lee, one of their members. Transylvania Project, Louisiana. Marion Post Wolcott. June 1940. LC-USF34- 054019-D

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Notes

[1] See (Baldwin 1968, Gilbert 2003, Roth n.d.) Roth, Dennis, Chapter 2. The New Deal.in Federal Rural Development Policy in the Twentieth Century. http://www.nal.usda.gov/ric/ricpubs/rural_development_chap2.pdf accessed and downloaded 6/2/06.

[2] In most, if not all, the RA communities, land was owned by a cooperative made up of the families living on the project, with individual parcels leased to individual families. Lake Dick, perhaps the most industrial of the projects, was settled as a village with cotton and corn land leased to individual members and feed crop land and livestock enterprise operated cooperatively (Hearings before the Select Committee of the House Committee on Agriculture, to Investigate the Activities of the Farm Security Administration. House of Representatives, 77ith Congress, 1st sess, part 2, June 7 to July 2, 1943. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.)Tabulation based on a survey of acreage and units of subdivided plantations, plat books in county courthouses [list counties inventoried].

In most, if not all, the RA communities, land was owned by a cooperative made up of the families living on the project, with individual parcels leased to individual families. Lake Dick, perhaps the most industrial of the projects, was settled as a village with cotton and corn land leased to individual members and feed crop land and livestock enterprise operated cooperatively (Hearings before the Select Committee of the House Committee on Agriculture, to Investigate the Activities of the Farm Security Administration. House of Representatives, 77ith Congress, 1st sess, part 2, June 7 to July 2, 1943. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office.)

[3] Nicholas Natanson, in his study of FSA Photography, "The Black Image in the New Deal," argues that the FSA photographers were in general more sensitive to race than other photographers of the period, inside and outside the government. New Deal and redistribution, and other tangible benefits, however, went disproportionately to whites.

[4] Perman, Michael. 2001. Struggle for Mastery: Disfranchisement in the South 1888-1908. Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press.

[5] Adams, Jane and D. Gorton, 2006. Confederate Lane: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the Mississippi Delta. American Ethnologist 33(2):288-309. 2006

[6] On the slide of whites into tenancy, see Woofter 1936:11-12; see also Raper 1941, 1943. Blacks were also sliding downward, but a smaller proportion of Southern blacks had ever been able to climb the ladder from wage labor or sharecropping to property ownership. While agrarian concern focused on family farmers, in the cotton South the line between "planters" and "farmers" was a fluid one, with only the largest plantation owners relying entirely on non-family labor in the fields.

[7] An East Carroll Parish site lists email addresses for "LakeviewMayor" and "HendersonMayor" http://www.eastcarroll.net/information.shtm (accessed 7-2-06)

[8] Woofter (1936:30) used Mydans’ photographs of Sunflower Plantation to illustrate a typical plantation.

[9] Nelson, Lawrence J. 1999. King Cotton’s Advocate: Oscar G. Johnston and the New Deal.  Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

[10] The importance of the FSA Tenant Purchase Projects in creating a rural white enclave south of Greenville, Mississippi, centered on a majority-white school, is explored in Adams and Gorton, Confederate Lane: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the Mississippi Delta. American Ethnologist 33(2):288-309. 2006.

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