GREENWOOD, Miss.—In 1947, my father, along with his mother and older brother, boarded a northbound train in Greenwood, Mississippi. They carried with them nothing but a suitcase stuffed with clothes, a bag of cold chicken, and my grandmother’s determination that her children—my father was just 2 years old—would not be doomed to a life of picking cotton in the feudal society that was the Mississippi Delta.
Grandmama, as we called her, settled in Waterloo, Iowa, a stop on the Illinois Central line, and a place where thousands of black Mississippians would find work on the railroad or at the Rath meatpacking and John Deere plants. Grandmama took a job familiar to black women of her lot: working for white families as a domestic.
Almost every black person I knew growing up in Waterloo had roots in Mississippi. Mississippi flavored our cuisine, inspired our worship and colored our language. Still, when speaking about the land of their birth, my dad and grandmother talked about family and loved ones, but seldom about the place.
Mississippi was at once my ancestral land, and the sinister setting in any number of Hollywood movies, a villain in our national narrative, the place where a black boy named Emmett Till was tossed into the Tallahatchie River with a cotton gin fan around his neck. The only image of Greenwood I got from my family was of my great-grandparents’ farm, scenes of chickens and picking peas in the morning sun and my great-grandmother, Mary Jane Paul, refusing to take any mess. It was only when I got older that I learned my family did not in fact own the farm. Depending on who told the story, my family either leased or sharecropped the land that was, in fact, held by white plantation owners. In reality, the difference mattered little.
And though my parents would load us all in the car every summer to head to a different state for our family vacations, my dad never once took us to the state of his birth. Not for family reunions or funerals. Not for graduations or holidays. My father and grandmother both passed away without ever taking me to see their home.
As the nation prepared to mark the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer—that violent and heady 10 weeks when Northern volunteers joined forces with Southern activists in Mississippi, all working to meaningfully enfranchise black residents—I felt pulled to finally visit this place that ran in my blood but that I had never seen. Last month, at the age of 38, I visited Mississippi for the first time.
My 87-year-old great-aunt, Charlotte Frost, who had followed my grandma to Waterloo, happened to be visiting a granddaughter in Jackson at the same time I planned my trip. I picked up Aunt Charlotte and we headed north on U.S. Highway 49 toward Greenwood, into the heart of the Delta and Freedom Summer’s ground zero.
The Mississippi Delta, named after the river that gives it life, stretches 200 miles long and 60 miles wide, covering 19 counties in the Magnolia State. The ebb and flow of the mighty river left behind some of the richest soil on the face of the earth (topsoil here can reach more than 60 feet deep). This dark, fertile land, and the riches it could produce for the white people who owned almost all of it, would also make Mississippi one of the most dangerous places in the country to be black.
As we drove, I tried to get my Aunt Charlotte to open up about what it was like coming of age in a black family in the Delta. It was here, after all, that life for black people was so grim that it spawned the blues.
But Aunt Charlotte, peering out at the road through round glasses perpetually clinging to the end of her nose, said she never had any problems with white people, that they had respected her family and hadn’t done much to bother them. And then Charlotte went on to talk about the good school she went to in town and all the crops her family grew.
It was a familiar take. She and another great-aunt in Waterloo are the last of my Grandmama’s siblings, and I had tried before to get their stories, but had been met with a resistance to talking about the ugliness of Jim Crow Mississippi. I never push too hard at this gauzy version, because I know that women like my great-aunts—they pride themselves in their durable dignity, dress to nines, don’t use vulgar language and keep impeccable homes with plastic-wrapped sofas—have no desire to speak of the daily degradations they’d faced at the height of Jim Crow.
A wooden sign coated in brown paint announced our arrival:
Welcome to Greenwood
Cotton Capital of the World
But it was clear from the rows of lanky corn stretched out before the sign—not exactly squat June cotton—that the greeting’s boast was mere nostalgia.
We first headed to the Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church just outside of town. The plain, white structure was where our family worshipped. My great-grandmother and great-grandfather, Mary Jane and Percy Paul, part of the first generation born out of slavery, are buried in the overgrown cemetery, with its haphazardly placed tombstones. It turns out that this church is the one featured in the movie The Help, the place where the maids went to worship. I would come to learn that though the movie is set in Jackson, it was mostly filmed in Greenwood because the town seemed largely frozen in time. Its building and homes, and in some ways its culture, form a kind of time capsule of the era when cotton was king.
According to Aunt Charlotte, the church used to be a part of the Whittington Plantation, the white landowners having built it for the black sharecroppers. It’s still surrounded by crops, and Aunt Charlotte, stooped over her cane, pointed to a distant spot in the fields, saying their house, the house where my great-grandmother helped deliver my father, once stood there on the Whittington lands. I soon learned that nearly every black person here came from a family attached through labor (and sometimes blood) to white families and to plantations with names like “Star of the West.”
It was dusk and the Delta heat settled about my shoulders like a wool blanket. Heavy and uncomfortable, it made my notebook paper fall limp and my ink stop flowing. Gnats and mosquitoes swarmed my legs. Aunt Charlotte, wrapped in a memory, paused to listen to an owl hooting a melancholy warning.
“The old people would say someone is going to die,” she said.
Located in Leflore County, my dad’s hometown took its name from Greenwood LeFlore, the last Choctaw Indian chief, who signed over much of the tribe’s land for an Oklahoma reservation while he himself lived lavishly on 15,000 acres of Delta land that he worked with some 400 enslaved black laborers.
The Civil War, of course, left much of the South crippled, but not long after Reconstruction, Greenwood boomed. While white politicians in Jackson led the South in stripping black residents of their elected offices and newly guaranteed citizenship rights, white plantation owners rebuilt the levees on the flood-prone and swampy Delta. Cotton once again stretched as far as the eye could see, and Greenwood took its place as one of the cotton capitals of the world.