NOT everyone is poor in what has sometimes been known as the poorest county in America. Pointing out the big landowners, Tunicans often claim that the county is home to more than thirty millionaires. Perhaps more important, Tunica, unlike most rural counties in the South, has almost no poor whites. In fact, in the county seat, the town of Punica, which is 74 percent white, the county's reputation for poverty is difficult to credit. The wide main street is lined with a few basic shops--a hardware store, a drugstore, two banks--and is refreshingly free of links from any fast-food chain. An old-fashioned brick courthouse stands in the middle of town. Some of the houses in the most visible neighborhood are modest, though solid and well tended, but most are substantial, and a few might be called mansions. All sit back from the street on large, leafy lots.
To be poor in Tunica County is to be black. Most blacks live outside the town limits--the county as a whole is 74 percent black and only 26 percent white, the reverse of the town. Many blacks live in North Tunica, better known as the "sub" (short for "subdivision"), an unincorporated area adjacent to the county seat. There is some federally subsidized housing in the sub--small, neat brick ranch houses, trailers, and an apartment complex that looks like a barracks. And there are many houses that might more accurately be called shacks. No white people live in North Tunica, and the town has no desire to annex it.
The physical separation of the races in Tunica is not so surprising in itself. After all, few places exist in America where separation does not occur. What seems unusual to the outsider is that the two groups are so close to each other--just across the street in many cases--and yet so unambiguously apart. Robinsonville, the crossroads hamlet closest to the casinos, demonstrates this pattern in miniature. A quarter-mile stretch of street is serene, lined with gracious houses, their walls of freshly painted wood or ivy-covered brick, skirted by green lawns and shaded under arching trees. Last Fourth of July the driveway alongside one of them was packed with BMWs and Cherokees. A child's voice piped occasionally from another back yard, and in front of a third house a woman maneuvered her sit-down mower carefully around a tree.
The street just around the corner was lively. Along this quarter-mile stretch stands a featureless single-story cinder-block rectangle divided into tiny apartments, and a handful of shacks, their porches balanced on cinder blocks, the wood of their walls bare and weathered gray, their corrugated-tin roofs rusted. The postage-stamp yards in front of these homes are packed dirt and stones, and on the Fourth vans and old American luxury cars were parked in and around them. Music was blasting, and a couple of the porches were crowded. Cars and pickup trucks rambled down the street, paused while someone leaned in the window for a while, and then turned around and rambled up the street again. The two streets together make up almost the whole of Robinsonville, but they seem to belong to completely different worlds.
The blatant separation of the races in Tunica's schools shocks an outsider even more than the county's housing pattern, and neither blacks nor whites seem to object to this separation, which is most shocking of all. With few exceptions, Tunica's white children attend the private, all-white Tunica Institute of Learning. White churches reportedly raise funds to help the small number of white families who otherwise could not pay the tuition. Tunica's black children go to the public schools. Last year only one white student attended Rosa Fort, the public high school. Significantly, he was not from Tunica; his family had just moved into the county from California.
Certainly Tunica has changed radically since the 1940s, when the county sheriff accused the folklorist Alan Lomax of being a foreign spy because he violated the county's racial code. Lomax was detained because he interviewed the blues musician Son House, a black man, without permission from the planter for whoi House worked, because he referred to House with the honorific "Mister," and because the sheriff suspected that Lomax had shaken House's hand. Today the sheriff of Tunica County is black. But while Tunicans now eschew the virulent racism of the past, the attitude that fueled the old behavior--what scholars generally agree comes down to a fear of miscegenation--has merely been tempered, not eradicated. The principal of Rosa Fort, Willie Dismuke, who is black, is surprisingly offhand, for instance, when he mentions that fear of interracial dating is at the heart of the separation between the schools. A racial code still dictates relations between whites and blacks in Tunica, constricting both groups. As Sister Gus Griffin, of Catholic Social Services, a social-service organization in Tunica, observes, "I think in the social structure of Tunica white people would be ostracized if they sent their kids to Rosa Fort. Whites are in line too. They're not free."
Race relations influence Tunica's response to its new wealth, and in this way the county's plans for its future are the inevitable flowering of its history. Tunica has shared that history, for the most part, with the rest of the Mississippi Delta.
IN defining the boundaries of what he regarded as a distinct region, the writer David Cohn famously remarked in 1935 that the Mississippi Delta "begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg." In fact the Delta begins twenty-eight miles south of the Peabody, just north of the Tunica County border, where the hills abruptly end and Highway 61 descends into a land that unrolls as flat as a floor to the horizon. And "the Delta" is not really a delta but an alluvial plain 200 miles long and seventy miles wide at its widest, across which the Yazoo and Mississippi rivers flooded and receded for millennia, depositing their riches, until the Delta became, as Cohn described it, "pure soil endlessly deep, dark, and sweet." It is probably the richest soil in the world. In the 1820s, when the first planters became aware of the Delta's agricultural potential, it was a swampy wilderness, choked with vegetation, where panthers and water moccasins lurked--"a seething lush hell," as one eighteenth-century scholar described it.
The historian James C. Cobb, perhaps the leading authority on the region, has called the Iississippi Delta "the most southern place on earth." Its history is the history of the South at its most extreme. From the start the Delta presented an opportunity for high-stakes gambling. The soil promised quick riches in cotton, but those who tried to win them risked cholera, malaria, and typhoid fever, and climatic extremes ranging from drought to floods to frost. Those whose bodies survived the diseases and whose crops survived the weather could see the whole endeavor come to nothing in the fickle cotton market. Such a gamble attracted wealthy landowners from the East whose plantations were wearing out and who could afford the enormous investment in cash and slaves necessary to clear and drain and cultivate the land. Producing a profitable cotton crop in the Delta required physical labor above all. By 1850 the slaves on whom the planters depended for this labor outnumbered whites in the most developed area of the Delta by more than fourteen to one.
Black men and women transformed the Delta. As Cohn explained, without the African-American there would be no Delta as we know it today.
The Negro's identification with the life of the Delta is fundamental and complete. . . . It was he who brought order out of a primeval wilderness, felling the trees, digging the ditches and draining the swamps. The vast rampart on the levees upon whose existence the life of the Delta depends sprang from the sweat and brawn of the Negro. Wherever one looks in this land, whatever one sees that is the work of man, was erected by the toiling, straining bodies of the blacks.
With its grueling, year-round work, malarial swamps, and planter class frantic to see its gamble pay off, the Mississippi Delta was perhaps the worst place in America to be a slave. Being "sold down the river" to the Delta quickly developed a reputation as a death sentence. At the other extreme the members of the Delta's white elite, freely spending their profits in dissipation and ostentation, soon became known for their pursuit of the good life. Poor and middle-class whites had no place in this plantation economy. "By the middle of the nineteenth century," Cobb writes, "the Delta had already assumed an enduring identity as a region where a wealthy, pleasure-seeking, and status-conscious white elite exploited the labor of a large and thoroughly subjugated black majority."
Long after the Civil War whites remained convinced that their success depended on the Delta's being a place where their interests, solely because of their race, always came first. As one Tunica County planter told a sharecropper early in this century, "This is a place for me to make a profit, not you."
However subjugated, blacks were essential in the Delta, since the cotton plantations continued to require a large labor force. Delta whites thus had to coexist with a group they feared but on whom they depended, and this, along with a bedrock of racial animosity, underlay the relationship between the races for decades. Beginning in the late 1940s, when cotton production was mechanized, eliminating the need for most agricultural labor, this relationship changed fundamentally. "By the end of the 1960s," Cobb maintains, "Delta blacks [were] largely superfluous to the economic interests of Delta whites"--a situation that largely defines race relations in the Delta today.
Although mechanization spurred a huge black migration to the North--part of the largest population movement in American history--African-Americans still make up nearly 70 percent of the Delta's population. The paramount problem in Tunica, from the point of view of many whites, is what to do with this group that stayed behind--a black majority disproportionately unemployed, dependent, and miserably educated, a population that many whites regard as dross. In fact, the wish of some whites, one white woman from Tunica whispered to us recently, "is for [black people] to go away," leaving Tunica for the whites. For both political and economic reasons, this has been true since mechanization. The black population, for its part, seems pretty well convinced that its fortunes in Tunica will never change. This resignation gives rise to a resentful passivity, which the white population perceives as an unwillingness or inability on the part of blacks to improve their situation. The behavior of each side thus confirms the worst suspicions of the other.