Cotton Comes and It Goes—
In and Out, Up and Down
“’Leben-cent cotton and twenty–cent meat,
now that’s a combination ya jus’ cain’t beat.
How’n the hell they ‘spect a man ta eat,
with ‘leben-cent cotton and twenty-cent meat!”
—Depression-era cotton farmer’s lament
Just as the dust storms and depleted soils of the Great Plains during the Great Depression forced many subsistence farmers and sharecroppers to migrate west to California from states like Oklahoma (which at that time also grew cotton on a wide scale), so mechanization, falling prices, depleted soil, boll weevils, government agricultural programs, adverse weather and climate changes, and other varied and often complex factors led to decreases in cotton production in the South in the second half of the twentieth century.
In his blog “Southern Fried,” Rex Nelson talks about that period in a post titled “The Delta, Cotton, and the Great Migration.” Here are some excerpts from that post, quoted with Mr. Nelson’s permission, but I encourage you to read the entire article by clicking here.
“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. [To view a video of Gene Dattel discussing this book and its subjects, cotton and race, click here.]
“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. . . .
“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 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. . . .
“’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.’”
Taylor Prewitt, whose family has been involved in large-scale cotton farming in Desha and Drew Counties in the Arkansas Delta for generations, had this to say about the changes he sees in cotton production in the Delta:
“One of the significant trends has to do with age of the farmers. The older ones are dying off, and there aren’t many young ones taking their place. And labor requirements are decreasing. Not much labor is needed, and when it is needed for harvest, there’s a shortage of trained help. So there is a trend to use even bigger mechanical pickers. Some farmers have sold their land to large companies, some of them foreign, and now rent the land from them. Farms are consolidating and getting bigger. There are certain economies of scale.”
When I moved to Oklahoma in 1977 the Delta and cotton production in it had both already changed from the days of my childhood and youth. Over these past thirty-five years as I have traveled back “down home” on what I used to call my “semi-annual pilgrimages to the Holy Land,” the changes in the Delta have become increasingly evident and depressing.
Even as cotton production decreased and crop diversification increased, the economy of the Delta worsened. Population and income and the attendant tax base also decreased, resulting in a failing infrastructure and a corresponding lack (or loss) of industry. At the same time, many vestiges of the Old South way of life like cotton gins and shotgun houses fell into ruins or disappeared entirely.
So now once again, as during the Great Depression, the Delta has fallen on hard times. In fact, for years it has replaced Appalachia as the region of the worst poverty in the United States. Of course, many concerned individuals, government agencies, and private foundations are doing all in their power to restore the Delta, an endeavor which I totally support.
As I also say in one of my endless self-quotes: “I am impressed by Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, but I would be even more impressed by His raising of the Delta—either literally or figuratively!”
I do not mean to imply that it was the seeming demise of King Cotton that brought about all the present problems of what I term “my beloved but blighted and benighted Delta.” (I have already referred to the depressed state of the Delta in my earlier post titled “My ‘Bucket List’ Trip II.” I will also address this issue in future posts.)
But the sad fact is that, as I also say, “The Delta is not a growth industry.” Yet I still love it—and always will though it is obvious that I can never return to it. As I say, “If God is ever going to take me back home to the Delta, He is first going to have to restore both it and me—which ain’t likely—at least not in my limited lifetime!”
Me and My Cotton Caps
“Cotton: The Fabric of Our Lives”
—Cotton Incorporated, America’s Cotton Producers and Importers
(For more information about this organization, click here.)
Nevertheless, ever since I have been living in exile here in Northeast Oklahoma, which has not produced cotton in decades, I have tried to identify myself as being not only an Arkie of the Covenant, as evidenced by my Razorback cap that I always wear, but also as a Deltan, as evidenced by the cotton boll caps that I have worn as I have been able to obtain them.
I have also decorated my home office with other cotton symbols—license plates, stickers, magnets, etc., all from the National Cotton Council, see photos.
The first cotton boll cap (a baseball-type cap with the image of a cotton boll on the front of it) was given to me (along with most of the cotton symbols pictured here) by a friend from McGehee back in 2000.
It was during another one of our “semi-annual pilgrimages to the Holy Land,” this time to attend Mari’s fortieth McGehee High School class reunion of the Class of 1960. (In a later post I will describe that reunion and that trip which included a tour of the Delta from south to north.) At that time I was also blessed by being made an honorary member of Mari’s Clique who presented me a tee-shirt with “Clique 2000” embroidered on it. (See my earlier post titled “My Annual Tributes to the Clique.”)
When we got back to Tulsa, our church, downtown, up-scale, high-church Trinity Episcopal, was holding one of its traditional Sunday morning services, but outdoors at a Tulsa park. Since Mari and I were chosen to serve as oblationers, those who walk down the aisle of the church bearing the bread and wine to be used in Holy Communion, I later told Mari, “I bet that was the first time in the history of Trinity that the Communion elements were delivered by a guy wearing a white tee-shirt and a cotton boll cap!”
Eventually that cotton-boll cap wore out. Fortunately, it was replaced recently by another slightly different cotton-boll cap from the McGehee Producers Gin. It was a gift to me from my McGehee High School classmate and friend Pat Scavo (originally Patsy McDermott who was featured in my earlier post titled “My First Encounter with Elvis and His Music”) and her friend Barbara McClendon Barnes, a native of McGehee, with deep roots in Selma, Arkansas, where I was born.
I wear it with pride and gratitude—and a great deal of nostalgia.
Collected Quotes on Cotton
There are volumes that I could write and refer to on the subject of cotton and the Delta, but I will close these two posts by presenting some final select quotes on the subject by me and by others.
“To quote my friend Danny Lynchard from Cleveland, Mississippi, I have a love-hate relationship with the Delta; I hate I love it so.”
“The Delta worships three kings: King Jesus, King Elvis, and King Cotton!”
“Deltans look for the return of cotton like Indians look for the return of the buffalo—and for the same reasons.”
“If I am ever exalted as long as I have been abased, I’m gonna be walking in high cotton.” (See the earlier photo of me standing in high cotton near my birthplace of Selma, Arkansas. )
“Without cotton you’d have to clean your ears with a stick.”
—Agricultural chemical company billboard at Marvell,
Arkansas, between Holly Grove and Helena, in 1980
“I was born in the delta region of Arkansas, in Desha County, near the point where the Arkansas runs into the Mississippi. But Delta, in this case, means more than typography. It is also a landscape of the mind, formed by the culture that blossomed out of that rich soil as surely as the cotton on which that culture was based.”
—Margaret Jones Bolsterli, Born in the Delta
“Somewhere between Russellville and Little Rock, you’ll start running into your first cypress trees. It’s a different river [the Arkansas] down there, full of cypress swamps, side sloughs, oxbows, cottonmouths, and alligators. . . .There are little communities of gray, weathered shotgun shacks tenanted by people living off of the cotton as much the same way as people have done down here for nearly two hundred years. . .”
—Conrad Vollersten, “The colors of the Arkansas,” in column titled
Along the Arkansas in unknown Oklahoma newspaper, nd
“The past is all around us. We live our lives against a rich backdrop formed by historic buildings such as the Lycurgus Johnson Lakeport Plantation house, the landscapes and other physical survivals of our past, such as the cotton fields, fishing holes, juke joints, churches, cemeteries, and other significant landmarks. Historic buildings and artifacts can define a region’s localities and communities.”(For more information about the restored antebellum Lakeport Plantation, see the photo below and click here.)
president of the Lakeport Cemetery Committee,
quoted in “Lakeport Plantation to host reunion celebration,”
McGehee [Arkansas] Times, July 1, 2009