Category Archives: History

INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 19, April, 1927: Dick


He squatted by the slough and dropped his leaf boat into the muddy water. It bobbed along down toward the road. He jumped up to run after it.

“Mistah Dick, don’t you go down to that road,” Uncle Ned called. “You stay in the yard like yo momma say.”

Uncle Ned sat on the ground in the shade by the slough, making a leaf boat for Little Jim. He might be the oldest person he knew, maybe even older than Granpaw. His dark skin was kind of ashy, and the hair on his head and chin was white, like just bloomed cotton. Little Jim was watching Uncle Ned work, holding onto the shoulder strap of the old man’s clean overalls to steady himself.

He felt that since he was five-years-old, he should be able to go down to the road but knew better than to argue.

“Yessir,” he answered and scooped up his little boat and ran back. He had gathered the magnolia and oak leaves with Jim tagging along. Now Uncle Ned was making boats for the two of them. He watched as Uncle Nate poked a hole in the middle of a shiny magnolia leaf with his pocketknife. Then he carefully stuck the stem of an oak leaf into the hole. It looked like a little sail.

He handed the leaf boat to Jim. Jim grinned and said, “Mine.”

“Thas right, Mistah Jim. That one’s yo’s.” Uncle Ned said and laughed. It sounded like one of Mother’s hens cackling.

“Can you make me another, Uncle Ned?” he asked.

“Sholy,” Uncle Nate said and picked up another magnolia leaf.

“Me too,” Jim said. And Uncle Nate laughed again.

Little Jim was not even two-years-old yet, but if he had two boats, Little Jim wanted two boats too.

He watched the old colored man work. His hands and fingers were brown and shiny and lined with creases, except on the insides which were almost pink. He liked the way Uncle Ned smelled, like woodsmoke and fatback and pepper, all mixed together. And he liked Uncle Ned. He could not remember ever not knowing Uncle Ned, could not remember a morning when Uncle Ned had not gotten him, and later Jim, up and dressed for the day. Made him wash his hands and face too.

“Uncle Ned?” he asked, “Have you lived here forever?”

The old man laughed again.

“Nawsuh, Mistah Dick, I come here back in sebenty, eighteen and sebenty, with Mistah Henry Ferg’son. I’s still a young man then.”

Uncle Ned smiled at him. The white part of the old man’s eyes was light yellow, like the color of butter. Then those eyes got a glassy look, like the marbles in Dick’s pocket. Uncle Ned turned a little and stared out toward the road and across the road and the cotton fields over there.

“Wadn’t no cotton fields then. No hay neither. No roads. No houses. Nothing but woods, big ole oak trees it take two, three men to reach around. More of ‘em than you can count. Swamps and sloughs and brakes filled with them ole shaggy cypress trees, snake doctors buzzing over that black water.”

Uncle Ned looked at him with shiny eyes. “Why, you could walk through them woods all day and never once see the sun, everywhere you go squirrels and birds be jabbering and chirping in the trees, like they was passing the word that Man was in the woods.”

Uncle Ned had finished his second boat and sat there with it resting in his dark hands.

Little Jim tugged on the old man’s overalls. “Unca Ned, Unca Ned. Make mine. Make mine.”

“Jim,” he barked. “Uncle Ned was telling a story.”

Little Jim pouted up, but Uncle Ned set Dick’s new boat carefully aside and tousled Jim’s hair and smiled. “I start on yo’s now,” he said, and picked up a magnolia leaf.

“You ever go with yo daddy or one of yo brothers down below Blue Lake, that big ole patch of woods in the crook at the bottom end?” Uncle Ned asked.

“Yessir,” he answered. “Once. With Morris Bailey.”

“That sorter what it was like. Woods over everywhere. And critters. Chile, you never seen the like. There was bear, panther, deer, coon, possum, squirrel, beaver, alligator, snakes, and rabbit. And birds. What you say. More birds than you can ‘magine. Blue jays and redbirds and all kinds of black and brown and yeller and all mixed up colors. And them big ole peckerwoods hammering away. And them doves.”

“Where did it all go?” he asked.

“Lawd, Mistah Dick, hard as it be to ‘magine, we cut all them trees down,” Uncle Ned sighed, and the old man stopped again like he was looking somewhere else. Jim didn’t notice because he was watching a junebug crawl through the grass. A squirrel chattered at them from the oak tree they were sitting under.

“We come here from Alabama with Mistah Henry Ferg’son, seemed like hunderds of us coloreds, more’n I could count anyways, and mules by the hunderds, too, and wagons loaded with axes and handsaws and tents and stoves and food, everything we need to live here where there wadn’t nothing but nothing. It remind me of that Yankee army when they came through an ‘mancipated us back in sixty-fo.”

That surprised him. “You were a slave?” he asked.

“Sho, I was, Chile. What you expect?”

“I don’t know. Can you tell us about it?”

“Sho, but another day. Let’s finish this story first. When we come here, we free and we working fo’ wages. Slave days over,” Uncle Ned grinned.

“What did you do?”

“Well, we cut roads through them woods avoiding them swampy places and them brakes, and we pitched some tents to have a place to stay in. Them skeeters at night, Lawd, what you say! Then we commenced to clearing land, sawing and chopping down trees, oak and gum and who knows what all. Some we used to build houses and other buildings with the logs. Some we cut up for firewood for cooking and whatnot. Some that wadn’t good for nothing else, we saved for campfires. Most nights we went to bed early, but we’d have a fire to keep away skeeters in the summer and to keep warm in the winter.”

“Kinda like when Father and Grady and Morris Bailey go to hunting camp?” he asked.

“Sorta like that,” Uncle Ned grinned. “’Cept at our camp, there be a lot less whiskey and a lot more singing.”

“Like the songs we sing in church?” he asked.

“Kindly like that. Onliest most of ‘em made up and passed along. Not written down in a book like yo’ daddy have. Sometimes I think those songs rise straight up to heav’n like them sparks from the fire rise up to the stars in the sky. It was the best part of the day. Work done, belly full, smoking a pipe, relaxing ‘fore bedtime.”

“Father sings a lot. Grandma sings all the time. I like to hear her sing,” he said.

“She sholy do,” Uncle Ned agreed. He went on. “‘Ventually, Mistah Ferg’son hauled in a sawmill, and we commenced to sawing them logs we had piled up into boards.”

Uncle Ned nodded toward the house where Grandmaw and Grandpaw lived, then said, “We sawed the boards for that house right there. I he’ped build it too.”

The old colored man pulled a stick out of the pocket on the bib of his overalls and began to whittle on it, shaving off long strips of yellow wood. Then he stopped and stared out across the cow pasture and laughed. “And stumps. Good God a’mighty, we pulled stumps. Why, I could wear out two span of mules a day pulling stumps back then.”

Uncle Ned’s big hands rested on his knees. Little Jim was playing with his two boats in the slough. His brother’s feet were in the water, but he didn’t care.

“What did you eat?” he asked. It was close to dinnertime and he was beginning to get hungry.

“Oh, we brought flour and coffee and beans and such with us. Some bacon. The rest we hunted or fished for. Mostly venison, but turkey too. With all them woods being cleared out, game was ever’where. Ole Mistah Ferg’son he a good shot. His son, the Mistah Furg’son you know, he a good shot too. We fished the bayous and brakes too. Got us some fishes to eat.”

“Father’s a good shot too,” he said.

“He sho’ is,” Uncle Ned agreed. The old man brushed the shavings from his knees.

“I wisht you boys coulda seen it then. Hit was wild and scary and purty all at the same time. Them big ole trees. Why, it take three mens together to reach around one tree.”

Uncle Ned had already said that but maybe he didn’t remember.

“Cool and shady under ‘em too. Full of squirrels fussing at us as we work. And at nighttime them panthers be screaming and carrying on,” Uncle Ned said.

“I’ve never seen a panther,” he said.

“Reckon not,” said Uncle Ned. “Not likely to now. Might be one or two in them woods I told you Mistah Furg’son left down below Blue Lake. That be the onliest place ‘round here.”

“Maybe Father will take me there someday.”

“You ask him nice, he might.”

“When did you start planting cotton?” he asked.

Uncle Ned laughed. “Not for a while yet. First we had to drain them swampy places. That’s when we cut those sloughs and ditches to run the water offen into the them little runs or into the bayous. That water move slow but it move. It musta chopped the heads offen a five hunderd rattlesnakes and water moc’ssins down in the swamps. Had to be watchin’ all the time. Couple boys got bit. One of ‘em died. Wadn’t nothing nobody could do”

Uncle Ned shook his head and looked sad. “That was Philander, my brother. I talked him into coming with me and he fell in the water and got snakebit on the neck and died. I felt like it partly my fault.”

He sat down by the old man and put his hand on Uncle Ned’s knee.

“I’m sorry, Uncle Ned,” he said.

“Me, too,” Uncle Ned said and tried to smile.

“But one of them boys lived though. Go bit on the foot. Mitstah Furg’son cut that bite open with his knife, then snatched up a pullet – we was keepin’ some chickens by then, milkcows and hogs too – but he cut that pullet in two with an ax and slapped that raw meat on that bite. It pull that poison right out. Turn that pullet almost green, but saved that boy’s life. He was sick and fevery for a while. That foot swole up and got ugly too, but he lived even if he did limp the rest of his life. I ain’t never seen the like, ‘fore or since.”

“Dick. Jim. Time for dinner.” It was Lucille calling. Hungry as he was, he wanted to hear more.

Lucille called again. “Uncle Ned, Momma says to bring the boys on in for dinner.”

“Yes, Miss Lucille,” Uncle Ned answered. “Let’s go, young mistahs.”

“Aw,” he said. “I want to hear more.”

“I tell you more later. Time to clean up for dinner now.”

He set his boats at the base of the oak tree and started toward the house. He walked as slow as he could. Little Jim cried when Uncle Ned went to get him. He wanted to play in the slough some more. Uncle Ned picked Jim up and tickled him under the chin until the little boy laughed.

“You can take them boats with you, Mistah Jim, but we gots to clean yo’ hands and feet and face too before dinner. Like yo’ Momma say.”

Lucille had already run to the backyard and was ringing the dinner bell to call Father and Grady and Morris Bailey from the fields. they would be here soon. As he and Uncle Ned climbed the steps to the back porch, he smelled warm cornbread and his mouth watered. There would be peas and butterbeans and corn and pickled peaches, mostly put up last year because Mother’s garden was only just coming in. And she had baked a cobbler.

Uncle Ned scrubbed their faces, hands, and feet with cold water, soap, and a rag at the sink on the back porch. As he dried his hands, Father and his older brothers rode up on their horses.

Father climbed down. “Ned, will you take our horses to the stable, loosen their girths and give them a little feed and water?”

“Yassuh, sho will,” Uncle Ned said.

“Thank you, Ned,” Father said and stomped up the stairs.

“Hey there, Boy,” Father said and ran a big hand through his hair.

He grinned up at Father. Father was so big and tall, and strong, but then so were Grady and Morris Bailey who were washing up at the sink. He hoped he would be big and tall and strong just like them some day.

“What have you boys been doing today?” Father asked. He picked up Little Jim and gave his baby brother a kiss.

“We’ve been making boats with Uncle Ned and he’s been telling us stories about the old days when this was all woods with no cotton or hay fields.”

Father squatted down setting Jim on one knee. Father was no taller than he was now. “Well, Uncle Ned would know. Now, how about a hug?”

He hugged Father and kissed him too. Father rose and lifting him too, carried both of them into the house for dinner. Morris Bailey and Grady followed right behind.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cotton farming, Death, Delta, History, Life, Loss, Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized

INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 15, April, 1927: Morris Bailey


The sun cast feeble light through the overcast as Morris Bailey bounced eastward along Friendship Road. The long, dim shadow of the truck preceded them along the road through the decreasing morning gloom, wavering and bouncing in the ruts in unison with the truck itself. A chorus of birdsong greeted the day from the hedgerows along the dirt road, and the heady aroma of Mother’s fresh-baked biscuits and pungent smell of cured ham rose from the pail on the seat beside him. She had insisted on packing him a lunch that also included several hard-boiled eggs and a bottle of sweetmilk wrapped in moist burlap to keep it cool.

But it was the ham and biscuits that were calling to him now even though he had finished breakfast less an hour ago. Maybe just half of one he decided as he dug into the pail with his right hand and dug one out.

Father had suggested he take Friendship Road back to Sumner rather than cut over to 49 West between Rome and Parchman. Father was afraid he might not get over the Homecypress and Big Bear Bayous. The bridges would be higher and better out on the highway.

He turned north on 49 East. He already knew the east bank of Cassidy Bayou had overflowed. The lowest floor of the school there was flooded. No school for Lucille until the water went down. He was not even sure the bridge there was above water now.

They did not know if 49 East towards Greenwood was passable now. Best to avoid all the high water along the Yazoo. Uncle George and his family would be coming up 49 West with the same thought in mind, or so Father said: stick to the middle road between the Mississippi and the Yazoo.

At Tutwiler where 49 East and West merged back into one highway, he turned left and headed south on 49 West. He had to admit to a sense of excitement he could not quite suppress. It was an adventure, and he was all on his own.


1925 Ford Model TT One-ton Truck

Father had decided he could best spare the one-ton truck. It was practically new, a 1925 Ford Model TT. Father had gotten the model with the special gearing so it was capable of over 20 miles per hour, although he would not push it that hard. He set the throttle to about 15 miles an hour and relaxed.

It was nearly 50 miles to Indianola, and at 15 miles an hour, he should get there before noon. But that was fine. He had topped off the 10-gallon gasoline tank. True, he would not get much more than about ten, maybe twelve, miles to the gallon, but that would do.

The highway stretched away to the horizon, straight and featureless. The low morning sun burnished the water standing in row after row, long, glistening tongues reaching far into the fields. There was no traffic, so he stopped on the bridge over Homecypress Bayou. Brown, turgid water swirled and eddied, overflowing the banks and spreading into the fields.

It felt like the bridge itself, a lumber roadbed atop cross-braced pilings, was moving and groaning, but he could not be sure for the idling of the truck. Concerned, he hurried across, put the truck in neutral, and set the brake before running back. He stopped in the middle span of wooden bridge, felt the movement up through the bottoms of his feet.

He stared at the dark, surging water trying to comprehend the power when he heard a vehicle approaching from the south. He trotted back and climbed into the idling truck. He eased over to the right side of the road, waiting. He could see now that it was truck loaded with possessions. Uncle George, he wondered, and waited to see.

As the truck neared, he waved them down. It was not his Uncle George. It was an older man in stained overalls. Gray stubble covered his cheeks and chin. Deep lines of exhaustion etched his face, and his eyes looked like he had seen it all.

“Morning,” Morris Bailey said.

The old man raised one hand from the steering wheel and placed a knuckle under the brim of his ragged hat and tipped it back. “Reckon it is,” he said.

Bed frames, bureaus, chairs, and such were piled in mad disarray in the bed of the truck or lashed to the sides and back. The man’s wife leaned forward and attempted a weak smile. Her face was worn and fatigued. Two children, a boy and a girl, craned their necks to see who their father was talking to.

“Where y’all coming from?” he asked.

“Up from just outside Nitta Yuma. Got out just ahead of the high water.”

“Been traveling long?”

“Seems like forever. Over a week. Fits and starts. Nothing but fits and starts. Bridges out. Roads flooded.”

The old man shook his head slowly back and forth.

“Sorry you lost your place,” he said.

“Hell, weren’t mine,” the old man spat. “Leased that place. Lost the crop. Lost ever’thing. ‘Cept what you see. I’m flat broke.”

He considered for a moment, hoped Father would understand. Finally, he said, “My father is Henry Catledge. When you get to Tutwiler, ask the way out to his place at Friendship. Don’t know if he can put you on. If he can’t, he’ll know about anyone who needs help.”

The old man nodded. “Thank you, Boy. That’s kindly of you.”

“It’s little enough,” he said, then asked, “Which way did you come?”

“Come up 61 Highway, tried to get to Leland. Couldn’t. Had to turn back to Hollandale and take 12 Highway over to Belzoni, then come up 49 Highway through Indianola. That meant crossing the Sunflower twicet. Water was up almost all the way on them bridges, but they was still clear.”

The old man stared at him. “God knows, I ain’t never seen so much water in my life,” he finally said.

“Thank you, Sir. That’s good to know.”

“You ain’t headed down there, are you, Son?”

“Yessir, my father’s brother and his family are headed this way from down at Onward. I hope to meet up with them and help them any way I can.”

The old man shook his head. “Son, if they ain’t out yet, they ain’t getting out. Onward got to be all under water by now.”

He pushed the thought out of his mind that he might be on a fool’s errand, that Uncle George might have waited too long.

“Well, I am bound to do what I can,” he said.

“Reckon you are. Reckon you are,” the old man’s voice was resigned.

“Don’t forget to ask the way to Friendship in Tutwiler. Father’s cousin, Oraien Catledge, runs the barber shop there. He can give you directions.”

“We’ll do that, Son, and thank you again.

Another truck approached from the south.

“I guess we best be moving on. You take care of yourself, Boy.”

“Yessir. Ya’ll too.”

He eased the truck into gear.

“God bless you, young man,” the old man’s wife called as he pulled away.

A little over a mile later, he passed through Rome, the small town slowly stirring to life, streets still mostly deserted. A man in an apron sweeping the sidewalk in front of a hardware store looked up and waved. He slowed down and waved back but kept going.

Soon he reached the outer edges of Parchman, the state penitentiary with no fence around it, just thousands of acres of flat, featureless farmland with no place for an escapee to hide. The fields were nearly empty of the usual vast number of convicts, chopping cotton under the watchful gaze of the trusties.

In the hazy distance, he saw a car and a number of men, some afoot, some on horseback, milling about. Must be the bridge over Bear Bayou, he thought. The fields on the upstream side held a lot more water than the downstream side.

He pulled up and parked behind the car. Like the last bridge, it was all wood without any rails. Colored men in grimy prison garb of wide, horizontal blue and white stripes, were unloading ropes and axes from a wagon on the far side of the bridge that he had not seen at first. Their white guards, clad in denim and khaki and wearing revolvers on their hips, directed the work. Other colored inmates, trusty-guards with a distinctive blue stripe down the length of their pants, sat their horses with double-barreled 12-gauge shotguns resting on their thighs and watched the convicts from under broad-brimmed straw hats.

He recognized Mr. King, walked up and spoke.

“Morning, Mr. King,” he said.

Mr. King turned. “Good morning, Morris Bailey,” he replied. “What brings you this way today?”

Mr. King was a short, pleasant man who owned a place on the other side of Webb, deep in a bend of Cassidy Bayou, or the Little Tallahatchie as some called it. His place ran almost all the way down to Sharkey.

“I’m headed south to see if I can help Father’s brother George and his family. They’re coming up from Onward,” he answered.

“I imagine they must be covered with water.” Mr. King shook his head. The man looked heart-broken. “We may be too. Soon. That’s why I’m here. Trying to get some help.”


“Yes. I hoped to hire some convict labor to help me reinforce the levees and sandbag around the house and barns. You’ve seen Cassidy in Sumner, I imagine.”

“Yessir. Over the bank on the east side.”

“Well, its worse down our way, over both banks. Knott Rice and I’ll both lose probably half our crops unless the water runs off soon enough to replant. Which I doubt,” Mr King said.

As they talked, both men walked out onto the bridge, which vibrated with some unseen force. Convicts, their muscles bulging and sweat already covering their dark faces, were using the ropes to lower other convicts over the upstream side of the bridge.

“I’m sorry to hear that, Mr. King. Are you going to be able to get any help?”

“I doubt it. I spoke to one of the guards,” he said and tilted his head toward a large man in khaki with a thick body and a cloud of blue smoke around his head from a hand-rolled cigarette, “and just about every able-bodied convict is over on the River sand-bagging levees. ‘Bout the last thing we need is any more breaks in the levee.”

Trusties nodded and made room for them as they walked to the middle of the bridge. They peered over the side to see an old, flat-bottomed skiff had washed up against the pilings the bridge rested upon. Dark, frothy water filled with broken limbs and such surged and swept over, under, and around the skiff, pinning it in place and backing up water. The pressure must be enormous, like a giant hand pressing the skiff against the bridge, trembling with exertion.

The convicts in their striped uniforms swarmed over the pilings and cross-beams below them clutching the ropes tied around their waists with one hand and hand axes with the other. Those that had reached the skiff were hacking furiously at it with their hand axes. It was already nearly 80 degrees and their bodies were sheathed in sweat. Some had removed their shirts.

There was a cry as one of the convicts lost his footing on the slick pilings and plunged into the water. The unexpected strain yanked the rope through the hands of the convict on the bridge, tearing his palms. Before the man could regain his bloody grip the man in the water was tugged screaming underneath the skiff. Other convicts leaped to the rope, desperately trying to pull their friend from under the surging water. The men below shouting encouragement.

One of the straining men on the rope looked up at the guards.

“Boss! Boss! We cain’t pull ‘im up. He stuck.”

Morris Bailey realized that the rope turned under the skiff and the force of the water were conspiring to hold the man underwater. They would never be able to pull him up. The man would drown.

“Let him go,” he screamed. “Let him go or he’ll drown.”

The only reaction he got were glares and looks of disbelief, incomprehension from the dark faces of the straining convicts. He turned to a guard and pled with him.

“Don’t you see?  The water’s holding him under the skiff.”

“What are you talking about, Boy?” the big guard snarled.

“He’s right,” Mr. King shouted, and he was ignored.

“Pull, you sorry bastards,” the guard shouted.

He spun around in frustration, then grabbed a hand ax that someone had dropped, bringing it down with all his strength on the rope right where it went over the edge of the bridge. It snapped with a twang like a broken fiddle string. The men on the bridge fell back in a heap with howls of anger and outrage. The men under the bridge screamed when they saw the end of the rope disappear under the skiff. Trusties and guards turned on him with disbelief.

The head guard heaved his burly body towards him. The man’s face was florid with rage.

“What the hell you think you’re doing, Boy?” he said, jabbing a thick forefinger into Morris Bailey’s chest. He was so close, the brim of the guard’s hat brushed his own and smoke from the guard’s cigarette stung his eyes, but he stood his ground.

Mr. King interceded immediately. “He was trying to save that man’s life.”

The guard spun on Mr. King and hesitated. Morris Bailey knew why. The guard might not know him from Adam, but Mr. King was a well-known and respected landowner. A guard’s rank might carry weight on Parchman Farm, but out here on this road, in Tallahatchie County, he was nothing compared to a landowner, and the guard knew it. The guard’s mouth hung open, but before he could speak, one of the convicts shouted and pointed.

“Boss, Boss Malvern. Look ‘ere. It’s Calhoun.”

Everyone turned to look downstream. He craned to look around the bulk of the Boss Malvern to see a dark head bobbing on the brown water. The men on the bridge were shouting, “Calhoooun! Calhoooun!.”

Calhoun flung a black arm in a tattered sleeve into the air in acknowledgement and began dog-paddling downstream in the smoother flowing water, angling toward the bank as he went.

Boss Malvern turned a sidelong glance at him. “Lucky for you,” he snorted, then turned to one of the mounted trusties. “Roebuck, take one of those ropes and go fish Calhoun out. No sense in letting him just float his way to freedom.”

“Yassuh,” the trusty said. He gathered up a coil of rope, laid his shotgun across the pommel of his saddle, and led his mare across the bridge with a clatter of hooves, then down the roadbank on the far side. Once on the firm ground above the water, he began trotting downstream after the drifting Calhoun.

The convicts capered with excitement of their friend’s survival and shot discreet looks at Morris Bailey. It made him feel uncomfortable. He nodded in acknowledgement as Mr. King clapped him on the shoulder.

“Quick thinking, Son,” the older man grinned. “Not many folks on this bridge happy with you for a moment, though. ‘Specially Boss Malvern.”

“Nosir, I reckon not,” he replied. “But I knew everything they were trying to do to save him wadn’t going to work. That water was just too powerful.”

“Damn your sorry hides. Cut out the tomfoolery and git back to work,” the big guard shouted at the convicts.

Immediately, the men were again flailing away on the skiff with their hand axes. With a splintering crack the skiff suddenly tore apart. The vibration of the bridge ceased as chunks of shattered wood were swept through the pilings and downstream where Calhoun, smaller and further away, still paddled furiously towards the bank ahead of the fresh surge of water. Roebuck had nearly caught up to him.

One of the trusties leaned towards him from his seat on a bay mare. The weal of an old scar extended down one cheek and a trickle of sweat trickled down along the scar, but a smile split the man’s face.

“That was mighty kindly, Suh,” he said. “Mighty smart, too, thinking a that.”

“Damn it, Lander,” Boss Malvern yelled. “Quite chatting with the local gentry and get back to watching over these convicts.”

“Yassuh, Boss,” Lander said and winked at him as he turned the mare and resumed watching over the convicts.

“Let’s head on back to our vehicles,” Mr. King suggested. “I don’t think Boss Malvern cares for your company.”

They turned and strode off the bridge.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” he said weakly.

“I know, Son, and you were fortunate, or blessed, that Calhoun hadn’t already drowned or had his head caved in under there. He survived. And what you did made Malvern look bad in front of the trusties and the convicts. Makes his job harder.”

There was a part of him that twisted in his gut when he felt that someone was upset or angry at him.

“Guess he hates me for that,” he said.

“Probably. Some men are like that. Wish you hadn’t done it?”

“Nosir, I reckon not. Still …”

“Still, nothing,” Mr. King said. “You saved a man’s life. What’s more important? That brute’s opinion of you or that convict’s, that man’s, life?”

“That man’s life, of course.”

“I agree, and I think I know which action God smiles on. Still you might want to avoid Boss Malvern from here on out.”

He smiled. “That ought to be easy. I don’t expect to have much to do with Parchman.”

“Let’s hope not,” Mr. King smiled and shook his hand. “I best be getting back. No help to be had here. We’ll pray and fight the rising water on our on.”

“Good luck, Sir,” he replied, and a thought struck him. “I passed a family this morning from down Nitta Yuma. Got flooded out and are looking for work. I suggested they head to Friendship and check with Father. You might want to look them over. Might be they’re worth putting on.”

“I’ll just do that,” Mr. King said. He climbed into his car, cranked it, and made a three-point turn in the highway. The older man waved as he chugged back north. “Safe travels,” he called.

He waved back, then climbed into his truck. He cranked it and sat there as it idled. It still bothered him. He got along with just about everybody. He like to get along with everybody. But he knew he had made an enemy today, and he hated the feeling even though he knew he had done the right thing.

He gazed unseeing as the men gathered up their ropes and hand axes and piled them into the wagon on the far side of the bridge. Motion caught his eye and on the far side of the bridge as rider and horse lunged up onto the road for the field. It was Roebuck on his mare with Calhoun, wet and bedraggled, perched behind the cantle clinging to Roebuck’s back.

Awakened from his reverie, he realized the bridge was clear of men and gear. Easing the truck into gear, he rolled across the bridge. As he passed the convicts celebrating Calhoun’s survival, he studiously avoided Boss Malvern’s gaze, but one of the trusties, Lander, pointed him out, and all the convicts and trusties together cheered as he passed.

Amid the cheering, he could hear Boss Malvern’s harsh voice cursing them all, him too, probably.

He smiled to himself, flung him left arm out the window in salute, and chugged on southward.


Convicts & tracking dogs, Parchman Farm


Leave a comment

Filed under America, Cotton farming, Delta, History, Life, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized

INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 14 – April, 1927: Minnie


She slipped into the study with the coffee pot hot from the stove in one hand and an extra potholder in the other. Henry was staring out the window, his mind obviously far away. His large hands rested on the edge of the desk on either side of his closed ledger. Weathered hands that sun and wind and work had been unable to rob of a surprising tenderness of touch. And skill. How many times had he delighted one of the children by taking their offered chalk and slate and drawing an amazingly lifelike horse or cow or chicken?

He looked up and gave her a weak smile when she reached over him to refill is nearly empty coffee cup. She placed the extra potholder it on the corner of his desk and set the pot on it, then settled into the extra chair he kept on his side of the desk, the one that Grady or Morris Bailey so often pulled up to the desk to sit at his elbow and go over the books and learn what they needed to know to run a farm. She used the kitchen table to sit with their daughters to teach them how to run a household.

He picked up his cup and swiveled his chair towards her. “Thank you,” he said, then blew across the surface of his coffee and took a tentative sip.

“You look worried,” she said.

“I am,” he said as he took another sip. “I think, I pray, we won’t see too much high water here. It’s one thing to have the sloughs and bayous overflowing and water standing in the fields, but the River …”

Lines creased his face. His cheeks looked hollow. He was 43 years old. Together they had left kin and home behind. They had brought their five children with them and she had borne three more. His parents had joined them. Together they had built a new life here at Friendship, and now it was being threatened.

“I’ve been reading about all that flooding up and down the River. Will it reach us?”

“I don’t think so, Mother, but our crop, if we get one in, will be off this year,” he sighed.

“We’ll get by. We always do,” she said.

“With the Lord’s blessing and the sweat of our brows, we will.” He managed another smile, as weak as the first.

“Yes, with the Lord’s blessing,” she said.

She came and perched on the arm of his chair. He breathed deeply.

“You still smell of flour from this morning’s biscuits. Smells good,” he whispered and wrapped an arm around her to pull her close.

“And you smell like Pinaud,” she said rubbing the back of her fingers across his freshly shaved cheek. She laid her arm across his shoulders and leaned against him. He looked up at her.

“We will get through this too,” he said, this time with assurance, as if he drew strength just from their contact. “I love you so,” he whispered.

She laid the side of her head on the top of his. Noted absent-mindedly that his hair was thinning there and graying. She sighed. Well, hers was graying too. They were no longer young. She had been a few months short of nineteen when they had married, and that had been what? Twenty-two years ago now?

No, they were no longer young, but their love was still deep and passionate, as yet unfaded by years and familiarity. He still treated her with tenderness and a respect that bordered on the courtly at times. She wondered if that from growing up in a household with nothing but brothers and a father who expected them to help their mother and treat her with respect. Whatever the reason, it was good and comforting and dependable. She gave thanks for him every day in her prayers and asked the Lord to watch over him.

She held him even closer. “I love you, too. More than you know,” she said.

They sat holding each other without a word being said. Soft clattering sounds of Iola and the girls came from the kitchen, familiar sounds, comforting sounds. Just outside the window, a wren lit in the nandina and began singing its heart out as if the swollen rivers, broken levees, and rising waters were a world away. It was so peaceful here that it was hard to imagine the horrors that people were facing in the flooding areas.

She felt Henry swallow and he said, “I’m sending Morris Bailey down to see if he can find George and Annie and their children. Help them get up here.”

She leaned back and stared at him. He must have noted the concern on her face.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Morris Bailey will be fine. He won’t take chances. He’s steady. And he gets along with everybody.”

“I know all those things. But by himself?”

“Can’t be helped. I need Grady here. Besides, Morris Bailey’s a man, you know, twenty years old, almost as old as I was when you and I got married.” He tried to put a little lightness in his voice to ease her worry.

“I know you’re right, but I can’t help it. I’ll worry until he gets back.”

“I know you will,” he said. “I will too.”

She knew he would but knew she would worry more. And differently. She already had one child far away where the water was rising and now another was headed that way. He was right. They had grown children who could make sound decisions and care for themselves and even others, but they were still her children. Becky had said more than once that a mother never stops caring for her children. So had Grandma Bailey. Now she was learning just how true that was.

She kissed Henry on the top of his head as she rose. Picking up the coffee pot and pot holder, she turned to head back to the kitchen. Henry reached out and placed hi s large hand lightly on her forearm. He looked up at her with real concern on his face.

“Morris Bailey will be fine,” he said.

She looked into his steady, dark eyes. “I know he will,” she said, knowing that Henry was right. But she prayed for her son anyway.Pop_Cat_Snow

Henry & Minnie playing in the snow, date unknown

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Cotton farming, Delta, History, Life, Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized

INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 13 – April, 1927: Henry

APRIL, 1927



He folded and laid The Commercial Appeal on the corner of his desk. It had been delivered by the mail rider yesterday just like every other day except Sunday, but he was just now finishing it. Pale morning light filtered in through the windows, but he still needed the kerosene lamp. He gestured at the paper.

“Says here the levee broke near Greenville.”

“Yessir, that’s what we heard in Greenwood,” Grady answered.

Morris Bailey, sitting beside Grady nodded. He and Grady had gotten in late last night but he still had an unusual look on his face, like he had seen something so stunning, so unbelievable that he could not comprehend it.

“Were y’all able to get all the supplies we needed?”

“Yessir. The trains are still running. We got everything unloaded and stored in the Commissary last night,” Grady replied.

He nodded approval. “How about the tractor parts? Wade have what we needed?”

“Yessir, that too,” Morris Bailey said. “I’ll start on that today. Should have the Farmall running soon.”

He did not respond but stared out the window at the slough between their house and his parents’. Water surged over the footbridge he had built in 1919. He thought he knew everything a cotton farmer could face, knew that high water was not uncommon in the Delta, but nothing had prepared him for water like this. Nobody else for that matter.

The ground was sodden. It seemed like it had rained all winter. He had squeezed in as much planting as he could at the first opportunity. The ground had barely been dry enough. Then on Good Friday, the heavens and opened up and the rain had been heavier than any he had ever seen. Or even heard about.

“Don’t know that we’ll be able to use it much. Fields are just too wet as it is,” he said. He was still staring out the window at the gray sky and watery light.

“News in Greenwood was that with the way the River is pouring through that break at Mound Landing, practically the entire southern half of the Delta. Bolivar, Washington, Sunflower, Humphreys, Issaquena, and Yazoo Counties. Sharkey, are likely to be under water soon,” Grady said.

All three of them turned to look at the large map of Mississippi that hung on the wall of his office. Cities, towns, highways, and railroads were marked on it. And counties in faintly shaded colors. He stared at the counties Grady had ticked off one by one. Nearly half of the entire Delta. He did the math in his head and let out a low whistle.

“Why, if just those counties are covered, that’ll be close to 2 million acres, nearly 3,000 square miles under water.”

“Good God Almighty,” Grady said under his breath.

He nodded. “Yes, He is Almighty. Our efforts to control the River…,” He paused, “seem puny in comparison. The River made the Delta what it is, put all this deep topsoil here for use, and it seems to want to keep doing just that.”

He tried to imagine that much water, but his mind pushed back at the thought. It was simply too much. He turned back to look at his sons. “What were things like in Greenwood?” Henry asked.

“Well,” said Grady. “The riverbanks are piled with sandbags, but the water is coming over in places. I expect the north part of town between the Tallahatchie and the Yazoo may flood, probably part of Downtown too. The water is right up to the bottom of that new bridge, the Keesler.”


Greenwood between the Tallahatchie and Yazoo Rivers, 1927


Keesler Bridge, Greenwood, 1927

All three of them had read the newspapers and listened to the radio. They knew it was bad. It had been bad upriver, and it would be bad here, maybe the worst ever. Morris Bailey still had that strange look on his face.

“Father, the Yazoo is actually flowing backwards, upriver. And as bad as it is in the Delta, its worse in Louisiana. Arkansas is hard hit too. What will people do?” his son asked.

So like his mother, Henry thought, worried about the people.

“I don’t know, Son,” he sighed. “Lose their crops for sure and maybe all they own. Might lose their places too. Your Uncle George and his family barely got out in time. Every scrap of cotton they had planted washed away.”

“Think he’ll lose his place?” Grady asked.

“Doubt it. I imagine he’s prepared for one bad crop. We’ll help him if we can.” He tried not to sound as concerned as he was.

“What should we do?” Morris Bailey asked.

“Try to get our crop in. We’re not likely to see that kind of water here. At least I pray not.”

“I suppose with all the lost crops, cotton prices will be up,” Grady noted.

“Suppose so. One man’s loss, as the saying goes.”

He stared out the window again at the overcast sky. There was no threat of imminent rain. It was simply a uniform, featureless gray layer of clouds. He lifted his cup and took a sip of coffee. It was tepid, but he didn’t care.

“Surely do wish this overcast would blow over. A little sunshine would be good. Lift our spirits and maybe start drying up this standing water,” he said.

“Guess we’re lucky being far enough away from Cassidy Bayou,” Grady said. “Water’s up to the bridge in Sumner and folks on the east side are flooded out.”

“All those people. Where will they stay? What will they eat?” Morris Bailey said.

“From what I hear and read, Herbert Hoover seems to be visiting all up and down the river. The government’s working to set up relief stations and such,” he said.

“Why him, I wonder,” Grady said. “He’s in the Cabinet, right?”

“He is,’ Henry answered. “Commerce Secretary. Seems to know what he’s doing though. More than Coolidge, anyway. The big question, is who’s going to pay for it all.”

Grady snorted and stared out the window.

“A letter got through from Sadie while y’all were away. Greenville’s mostly under water, but she’s safe at the hospital. Even the student nurses are helping tend to folks. She said reports were that the River was as much as 60 miles wide down in Louisiana.”

Both of his sons’ eyes went wide.

“Hard to imagine isn’t it? That much water. It rains in Montana and floods in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana,” Grady finally said.


Greenville, 1927

“I certainly is,” he replied. “I don’t suppose anybody’s ever had to face anything quite this bad. All that water just has to soak in, run off, or evaporate. Cain’t much more soak in or we’ll be back to swamp, and it’s a long way down to the Gulf of Mexico. It’ll take time.”

“Too much time for a lot of folks,” Grady added.

He nodded, resigned to what he could not change but determined to do what he could, take care of his own and whoever else he could help, get a crop in. Someway. Somehow. Still, part of him wanted to roar in rage at the injustice, rail at God Himself for this disaster, but he knew that was senseless. Besides, he might question God and His plans, but he could never blame God. Not the way his life had been blessed. He shook his head to clear his mind.

“Tell you what, Boys. I want one of you to take the truck and head down towards Onward. You’re bound to run into George and his family. Help then any way you can and bring them here.”

Morris Bailey chimed up first. “I’d like to do that, Father,” he said.

“Very well, Son,” he said not surprised at all. Having something special to do might be just the thing. “Fill up the truck and a couple of cans. Gasoline may be hard to come by. Leave this morning. Tractor repair can wait.”

“Guess we better get to it,” Grady said and swatted his brother on the shoulder as they both rose to leave.

He watched the two of them as they walked down the hallway, settling hats on their heads and talking, the easy give and take of brothers, Morris Bailey asking Grady to help him gas up the truck and Grady agreeing. It had been the same with him and his brothers, particularly Swint, that special comradery you had with flesh and blood, someone you had known your entire life. He winced at that thought of Swint. He had been dead now, what, 13 years? Had it really been that long.

He turned to stare out the window. The sky looked sullen, the rising sun a diffuse smear of light in the overcast, but he saw none of it. Instead his mind wandered over other fields in other days, days long gone, just like Swint was gone. Long gone. And now this new undreamed-of threat to all he and Minnie, and now the children, had built and accomplished. He did not hear Minnie enter the room behind him.

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Cotton farming, Death, Delta, History, Life, Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized

INTO THE DELTA-Chapter 12: September, 1925-Lucille




Lucille stared at the tiny, red, wrinkled face of her new brother. She had just turned five back in July and was feeling like a real big sister now that she had two younger brothers, Dick, only two, and now James. She tucked the soft blanket back under his chin and looked up at her mother.

Momma was stretched out on her bed. He long brown hair was loose on her pillow. She looked tired.

“Momma, what shall we call him?” she asked.

“I think with a name like James Ralph, we’ll call him Jim,” Momma said.

“Jim,” She said softly. “I like that.”

Maurice came into the room and leaned over the other side of the bed.

“He looks just like Dick did when he was born,” Maurice said.

Lucille could barely remember when Dick had been born. She had only been two, but now she was five.

“Momma?” she asked. “Can I help you take care of Baby Jim? Like Maurice helped with Dick?”

Mother smiled at her and reached out to touch her cheek. Momma’s fingertips felt warm.

“Of course, you may,” Momma said. “There will be plenty for both of you to help with. Would you like to hold him?

“Oh, yes, Ma’am,” she answered.

“Climb up here beside me,” Mother said.

She kicked off her shoes and climbed up, then leaned back against the headboard and smoothed her dress out across her lap. Mother gently laid the baby in her lap.

“Put your arms around him and don’t let his little head dangle,” Mother said.

She was excited and a little scared at the same time. Excited to hold her baby brother, but afraid she might do something wrong and hurt him. He smelled funny. It tickled her nose, but she liked the way he smelled.

“Do all babies look like this, Momma?” she asked.

Mother laughed. “Pretty much,” she answered.

She stared at Baby Jim. He opened his eyes just barely and she smiled at him. Then his mouth opened wide. He had no teeth, just a wet, red circle. Suddenly he let out a wail and his red face got even redder. Her eyes flew open and she looked at Mother, startled and unsure of what she had done. She had only smiled at him. She was afraid she would cry.

Mother patted her on the arm and smiled.

“it’s alright, Child,” she said. “You didn’t do a thing. He is only hungry. He hasn’t eaten yet.”

She sighed, glad that Mother would take care of things. She always took care of things.

“I’ll take him,” Mother said, and she did. As soon as he started nursing, he quit crying.

There was a heavy crash from the back of the house that startled them all except Baby Jim.

“Maurice, run see what Dick has gotten into, please,” Mother said.

Maurice ran from the room, squeezing by Father as he came in. He leaned over and kissed Mother, then cupped Baby Jim’s head in his big hand. He turned to look at her.

“Are you helping your mother with the new baby?” he asked.

“Yessir,” she answered. “Momma let me hold him. But he cried.”

Father laughed. “Babies do that a lot when they’re little. You did too.”

Father eased himself into the rocker beside the bed and patted his knee. She knew what that meant and crawled into his lap. He had been in the fields all morning and smelled like sweat and tobacco smoke. She liked the smell and laid her head back on his chest as he wrapped his arm around her and held her close.

She tilted her head back to look up at Father and said, “I’m so glad we have a baby that I can help Momma with.”

“I am too,” said Father.

Maurice came back leading Dick by the hand. He clutched a piece of cornbread in his free hand. There were crumbs on his face and on his romper.

“Dick was trying to get to the cornbread Iola had put out for dinner,” Maurice said.

“Looks like he made it, too,” Father smiled. “Dick, are you being a good boy? he asked.

Her little brother started to nod ‘Yes’ but then shook his head ‘No’.

“No, I guess not,” Father said. “Come over hear and let me have a bite of that cornbread.”

It didn’t look like Dick wanted to share, but he obeyed Father. They all did.

Father took a little bite and said, “Mmmm, come on, young ‘un. Let’s go wash up for dinner.”

She hopped off Father’s lap. He kissed Mother again, then took Dick by the hand and led him off to the washbasin on the back porch. They looked funny walking side-by-side.

“Winnie Maurice,” he called, “If Iola has dinner ready, you can ring the bell.”

Maurice ran form the room, calling for Iola. It was just the three of them.

“I think he is just about finished,” Momma said. “Now I am going to show you something that you can help me with, maybe the next time. Now watch closely.”

She climbed back up on the bed. She was excited because it seemed like Momma was sharing a secret just between the two of them.

“Hand me that cloth, Dear.”

She handed Momma a clean, folded cloth from the stack beside the bed, and Momma draped it over her shoulder. Then Momma held Baby Jim up to her shoulder with one arm and stated patting him on the back with her other hand.

“Can you pat Baby Jim like this?” Momma asked.

She scooted closer and began to pat her baby brother’s back, just like Momma had been doing. He didn’t seem to mind at all. She looked up at Momma.

“Keep going,” Momma said. “Maybe just a little bit harder.”

Suddenly Baby Jim burped. It surprised her and made her laugh. She looked at Mother.

“Why did he do that?”

“Babies nurse so fast that they swallow air too. If you don’t burp them, it makes them feel bad and they cry,” Momma said. “The next time I will let you hold him and burp him. That will be a big help. Will you do that?”

“Oh, yes, Ma’am, I will.”

“Good. No run clean up for dinner. I hear Maurice ringing the bell.”

She skipped out of the room so excited to be helping with the baby that she even forgot her shoes.

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Autumn, Cotton farming, Delta, History, Life, Memory, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized, writing

INTO THE DELTA-Chapter 11: August, 1922-Henry

AUGUST, 1922



Henry rested his hands on the pommel and sat easily in the saddle. The mare stretched her neck and nibbled at the grass in this shady spot at the edge of the field. The day was hot and muggy, the air dense and heavy. He stared out across the field, orderly rows of laid-by cotton, tall, much taller than it grew back in Choctaw County, foliage so thick that weeds couldn’t get enough sun to grow.

A single tree stood sentinel in the middle of the field, a refuge of shade for both man and beast in the vast sun-drenched expanse. It was a Delta custom that Henry had come to appreciate, the fields here being immense compared to those back in Choctaw County. The rattle of trace chains, faint and distant, fell on his ears. Far across the field, two farmhands, their wagon and mule team dancing in the heat waves radiating off the dark green leaves, eased along a turnrow. He had lived here for over a year now and was still amazed at how far sound traveled across the flat land.

“Hee yupp,” he called. A second or so later the barely distinct sound of his own echoed voice drifted back across the fields from the distant wall of dense woods. The two hands looked up and reined in their team. I was A.J. and Roosevelt, out checking the cotton houses scattered across Friendship, cleaning them out, cutting back weeds, knocking down wasp and dirt dauber nests, replacing broken boards and missing sheets of roofing tin. The picked cotton stored in them needed to be kept dry until they could get it to the gin in Sumner.

He waved, clearly not beckoning, but only in greeting. Both men waved back, clucked up their team, and continued their plodding mules’ pace toward the next cotton house. Other hands in other fields were performing the same essential chore. He would check on them this afternoon. It was a lot of acreage to cover on horseback.


Delta cotton house

He looked again at the thick verdure before him. High cotton, indeed. The dense growth reached as high as the mare’s withers, 15 hands, five feet. The blossoms had fallen from the cotton plants, the bolls were heavy and bulging, the ones near the bottom beginning to split open, hints of the vast harvest to come. He smiled with contentment. Nothing to do now but wait. Picking would start soon enough, and the cotton houses would be ready.

Behind him to the west low, dark clouds approached, remorseless and inevitable, like a marching army. He sensed it would rain soon, maybe within the next hour or less. A little rain would be fine but not too much.

The mare cocked her ears around even before he heard the clopping of an approaching horse. He lay the reins to the side of her arched neck to pull her head around, and she nickered to her stablemate, Dixie, pulling Father’s buggy.

“Afternoon, Father,” he said.

“Henry,” his father replied with a nod.

His father pulled up the buggy beside him. He was beginning to look a little frail, something in the set of his shoulders, but then, he must be, what, 74 by now. Still had to get out and check on the crops though. At least he had given up riding horseback for the buggy.

“Looks like another fine crop, Son.”


Cotton field at Friendship, first blooms

Father was shielding his eyes and craning his neck to peer out across the fields alive with heat shimmer and dragon flies skimming over the dark green surface.

“This will make, what, three good crops in a row?”

Henry tilted back his hat and wiped sweat from his brow.

“Yessir, it will. If the weather holds and we can get it all out and to the gin. And then get a good price. Plenty still could go wrong.”

“You’re a wonder, Son,” the older man chortled. “You are a good farmer and you know it, one of the best I have ever known, and not just raising a crop. You’re managing a place, what? Ten times larger than anything you had managed before. That’s good work.”

Henry felt a strange mixture of pride and embarrassment. He was thirty-eight years old, married, the father of seven now that Dick had been born, another son after four daughters. He had been farming on his own for nearly twenty years, and still his father’s praise affected him in ways he could not quite articulate.

“This move to the Delta was a risk, a mighty big risk, but you’ve made it pay,” his father added. “This farmland is so rich. Your brother George down in Onward is doing well, but not nearly so well as you are, Son.”

“We’ve been blessed, Father, particularly that crop in ’19. Not only was it good but cotton prices, over 35 cents a pound!”

His father nodded. “Yes, but they fell the next year. Always happens.”

The mare shifted her footing under him and he shifted his seat. He gripped the cantle with his right hand and twisted his upper body one way and then the other, easing the stiffness in his lower back. Settling back in his seat, he pulled his fixings from his shirt pocket.

“They did, but they’re coming back. Besides I put every spare penny back. Just in case,” he said. Henry snapped the match with his thumbnail and lit the cigarette that he had been absent-mindedly rolling.

Father chuckled, leaned, and spat a stream of tobacco juice into the dusty turnrow. Then he pulled a handkerchief from this pants pocket and wiped his mustaches.

“I’m sure you did,” he said. “I’m sure you did. You did buy that Ford truck though.”

“Yessir, I did,” he nodded.

“But here you sit on horseback.”

“The truck is good for hauling supplies from town or around the place, but I still like the way land looks from horseback. Maybe it’s just habit, I don’t know, but the land looks flatter driving over it, but if you ride it, or walk it, you see the texture, subtle though it is.”

He blew a plume of smoke that hung suspended before a freshening breeze carried it a way. The wall of cloud, and no doubt rain, was getting closer.

“The sloughs and bayous are obvious enough,” he continued, “but there are other low spots and contours. Just like back in Choctaw County, you plow with the lay of the land. That’s how you taught me.”

Henry finished his smoke, broke up the last few shreds of tobacco and paper and let them fall to the ground. “Let’s head down toward Blue Lake and see how Grady and Morris Bailey are doing. I gave them 30 acres down there to work together.”

“Let’s,” Father said and clucked up his horse. “Suppose you’re glad to have another son to raise and teach to farm.”

“Yessir, I’ll admit I am.”

Henry knew he was grinning like a possum eating muscadines in the moonlight. Didn’t care.

“Yes, I am,” he continued. “I think Grady may take to farming, but it’s hard to say with Morris Bailey. He seems, he seems to have different interests.”

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Son.”

He leaned forward in the saddle to better see his father under the roof of the buggy. Father’s face bobbed into and out of sight as the mare clopped along.

Father stroked his white beard with his free hand and grinned up at him. “Everybody can’t be a farmer, else who’d make and sell buggies.”

“Reckon not,” he said, straightening up.

Father reined up the buggy and Henry pulled up his mare.

“How old is Morris Bailey now,” Father asked.

Henry thought for a moment. “He was born in ’07. He’s fifteen.”

“Did you know you would be a farmer when you were his age?” Father asked.

He paused again and finally said, “Honestly, I don’t suppose I ever really thought about it. It just happened.”

“True. You became a farmer. Just like I was. George, too, but what about Bob or Burton or Aubrey? They may have farmed a little, but they all went on to other things, barbering, selling, and such. Why’d you stick with farming?”

He sat and simply stared across the flat surface of green, flat like the ocean he imagined but had yet to see. Maybe just flat like a lake. Finally, he spoke. “Now that I think about it, the first time you gave me a few acres to make my own crop, must’ve been ’98. Just five acres. There was something about seeing that first crop, my first crop, sprout and grow and bloom.”

The mare shifted under him. She sometimes got restless, but she was a sensitive horse too. Maybe she sensed he was struggling to express himself.

“I had seen it all my life, crops come in, but it was different when it was my own. I felt … proud. It was hard work but satisfying, the planting, the chopping, the picking. When we ginned that cotton and I made my first money. Well, I guess that’s when I knew.”

He turned to look at his father. “And, Father, here, this land. It’s so fertile. So rich. And there is something about cotton. It’s not like wheat, corn, or grain that you can just about plant and forget, at least in the Delta. Cotton takes tending, fertilizing, chopping, and weeding and enough rain, but not too much, and lots and lots of sunshine and trying not to worry about things you can’t control.”

The words tumbled out in such a torrent that he almost felt embarrassed even if it was in front of his father. He took a deep breath.

“Maybe that’s it, Father, all that effort, day in and day out, that makes it so special, makes the reward so great, makes it taste so sweet.”

“Why, Henry, I believe you’ve developed a poetical streak,” Father said, and he did blush this time.

“That’s not a bad thing, Son, to feel strongly and dare express it. I have felt the same way. I feel that way about my roses even now. But not everyone feels that.”

“Yessir, I know. And Morris Bailey may not feel that way.”

“Morris Bailey’s a fine-looking boy with a good head on his shoulders. And he gets along with everyone. But you’re right, he may not be a farmer. It may not happen for him. Will you be disappointed?”

“I don’t think so, long as he does well.”

“By the way, I haven’t told you how much it meant to me, naming the baby after me. Richard Newton Catledge.” Father said the last slowly, then added. “Sounds mighty fine.”

“Hoped you would,” he replied and added, “Shall we head on down towards Blue Lake?”

“Let’s,” Father said and slapped his reins on his horse’s rump. “Giddup.”

They moved along easily down the turnrow side by side. Small birds, sparrows and finches mostly, the occasional red-winged blackbird, darted in and out of the verge on their right. He felt, then looked over his shoulder and saw the approaching line of clouds, thick, dark, and moving fast now, angled streaks of rain clearly visible between the cloud and horizon. He turned in the saddle and calculated. It would be on them quickly and probably move on through quickly too. Still.

He turned back around as the first fat drops plopped into the dust in the turnrow around them, kicking up dust but being absorbed so quickly as to leave no trace of moisture. That would change when the storm really hit. He looked down at his father.

“I think I’ll ride on. I’d as soon as not get wet,” he said.

“I’ll be along,” Father replied from under the buggy’s canvas roof.

Henry lifted both heels to the mare’s flanks, just a nudge, and she was off, all restless energy gone, converted directly into her love to run.

From a distance, Henry could see the Grady urging his team pulling the wagon toward the shed built onto the side of the cotton house. This part of the place was so far from the Lot that he had built extra sheds to protect equipment they might want to leave out in the fields. Two cotton wagons were already stored there.

Grady had seen them coming and pulled the wagon up under the outside edge leaving them the dryer place between his wagon and the two cotton wagons. He rode directly under the tin-roofed shed and into the cleared space just as the rain hit hard. Father was right behind him. It was crowded under the shed, but they were all four out of the weather, their animals too.

“Hello, Father, Grandfather,” Grady said from the buckboard seat, all business and responsibility.

“Hello, Daddy, Grandpaw,” Morris Bailey chimed in over the drumming of rain on the roof.

The wagonbed was filled with supplies, sheets of corrugated tin, lumber, a keg of nails, and the toolbox, that had been hastily piled in the bed of the wagon. The boy was sprawled comfortably among the gear, his wavy hair tousled and  a large grin splitting his face. Henry couldn’t help but smile back.

An occasional gust of wind drove spatters of rain under the roof and onto the four of them. The breeze was cooling, but the air was still hot and even muggier now. And it would be worse once the rain moved through and the sun came back out to bake the rain puddles right back into the air. At least some of it might soak in.

He reached over his shoulder and lifted his clammy shirt from his back and listened to Morris Bailey, always quick to start a conversation, chatting away with his father and thought, Father is right, that boy may never be a farmer, but I wager, he’ll be good at something.

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Cotton farming, Delta, History, Life, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized

INTO THE DELTA – Chapters 9 & 10: April, 1920-Minnie


The spring breeze wafted the rich smell of new growth in through the kitchen door and open windows. Minnie breathed deeply, aware again of lush aroma of the Delta, as she stared out the window. A pale sun was climbing towards noon in a flat, cloudless sky. Her milkcows, fawn-colored Jerseys and pied Guernseys, grazed on the new grass at the far southern end of the pasture. Soon they would turn and graze back northward.

Sadie and Willye Pauline were in school at Sumner. Maurice would not start school until the fall, and until then, Minnie let her play except for a few daily chores. Her dark-haired daughter and Philadelphia, A.J. and Flossie’s youngest, played in the backyard, chasing each other around the large cast iron wash pot. They squealed as they ran, their bare heels kicking up their dusty skirts.

She slid her large cast iron skillet onto the heat, pushed a stray strand of hair from her forehead with the back of her hand, and took up her cornbread batter. The steady sound of her mother-in-law’s churning brought her back from the pasture and yard and into the kitchen.

“Mother,” she said over her shoulder without looking up.

Becky Catledge was not really her mother, but Minnie called her that, or sometimes Momma, because that is what Henry called her. It still feels strange to call someone that, she thought. Her own mother had died two months after her birth. She had never known her. She and her older sister Lennie had been raised by their father and his widowed mother, Grandmaw Bailey.

She secretly wondered if there was some missing, some empty place in her that a mother would have filled. Not that she had ever doubted her grandmother’s and father’s love for her. Still, neither she or Lennie would ever know what their mother looked like, other than from pictures, have no idea of the sound of her voice, the feel of her caress. She longed for those things, once she had been old enough to understand what she had never had, longed for them with an ache deeper than physical longing.

So many of her life’s dreams had been fulfilled: a good husband whose love she never doubted, five fine children and another on its way, a comfortable home, and security. Her life was rich, and she knew it. Maybe it was because this was one desire that could never be realized.

She looked up from the cornbread batter she was stirring and turned.

“Mother, how are Father and Lennie and the children doing?” she asked.

Her mother-in-law’s rhythmic churning never slowed, but a pensive look came over her face. So like Henry, she thought, even his features favored hers, the smooth slab of her checks, the set of her jaw. And like Henry, she often looked stern, although she really was not. Sometimes, not as often now, but sometimes, she wondered how her mother-in-law felt about her. She and Henry had married in April and Grady had been born prematurely in November. There had been talk as people had counted the months, but in hushed tones only. Still.

“They are all doing well,” the older woman smiled. “Saw them all at church Sunday last. I think its good for your father having them there. The children are growing right up. Brice is twelve now and a real help to John. Jewell, Lucille, and May, let me think, they must be 14, ten, and five. They are thriving.”

From down the road, she heard Flossie calling, “Philly. Philly, come on home, Chile.” Almost immediately, Maurice ran up the steps, across the porch, and into the kitchen.

“Is it time to se t the table, Mother?” her daughter asked.

“Yes, Dear,” she replied. “The plates and utensils are on the table.”

The little girl started toward the dining room.

“Winnie Maurice,” she said. “What did you forget.

Maurice spun on her hell and ran to the sink. She pumped water on her hands and lathered them up and rinsed them, then dried them, barely, before dashing to the dining room.

Her mother-in-law paused in her churning, pushed a random strand of gray hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand, and laughed.

Minnie laughed too, her daughter’s dark hair, smile, and exuberance did that to her often. She realized that the older woman was looking at her.

“It is still uncanny how much you and Lennie look alike, both so beautiful.”

She blushed and cracked the door to the oven to see to the creamed corn baking there, then checked on the simmering pots of black-eyed peas and turnip greens. The cast iron skillet was hot enough, so she dropped a dollop of lard in. Over the sizzle, she heard the rhythmic churning resume.

“But I must say, she looks older now. Losing Swint was hard. It aged her. And poor Baby May. She never even knew her father.”

She had forgotten about that.

“But then you never knew your mother either, did you?” her mother-in-law added.

“No, ma’am, I didn’t,” she answered. “But then Momma never really knew her father.”

“Oh?” the older woman said and gave her a questioning look that was somehow laced with sympathy.

“He never made it home from the surrender in Virginia. Grandmaw Nancy got a letter from his Morrison kin in North Carolina. He caught the pneumonia and stopped off with them to recuperate but died there,” she said. “At least he had been with kin.”

Her chest suddenly felt constricted, clenched like a fist. She was dimly aware of the clatter of plates and utensils from the dining room, knew she should put the cornbread in the oven and send Maurice out to ring the dinner bell, give Henry and the boys time to get in from the fields and wash up. But she paused, suspended, her mind far away.

“Grandmaw Nancy was left with seven children to care for. I … I looked it up once in the family Bible. My mother was three-years-old when her father had left and five when he died, hundreds of miles from home.”

She stared out of the window through limbs just beginning to get their leaves, tried to look all the way to North Carolina, wanted to see what it was like where her grandfather was buried. Was it hilly like back home or flat like here in the Delta? Did someone care for his grave like she and Lennie had cared for their mother’s back home, she still thought of it as home, in the little cemetery at Concord Baptist Church?

She turned her face away and blinked back tears, thought, What has my family done to deserve that? Three generations in a row, children with no memory of at least one of their parents.

The dasher slid though her mother-in-law’s calloused hand and settled with a soft thump to the bottom of the churn, but Minnie didn’t hear it. Did not even realize that her mother-in-law had risen and was standing beside her until the wooden spoon was taken from her hand and the sizzling skillet removed from the heat and her mother-in-law took both of her hands in her own. She had known Rebecca Catledge all her life, had married the fifth of the woman’s eight sons fifteen years ago, but in some ways thought that she had never really know her. Until now.

Minnie looked into the dark, almost black eyes, saw the sorrow there, the sorrow that the other woman had borne, realized her family had no corner on loss. Swint, this woman’s son own son, Henry’s brother, was dead, another voice stilled, another smile and touch available only in memory.

“It must have been hard,” she whispered, hesitantly, “burying a son.”

“It was … harder than you can imagine.”

“I would not wish it on anyone,” she said and releasing her mother-in-law’s hands, embraced her. The older woman hugged her back, clutched her as if seeking rescue, then leaned back and looked at her with a soft gaze.

“I imagine it was hard on Henry too. He and Swint were particularly close, like you and Lennie, less than two years apart.”

“It was, Momma,” she said. “He said very little, but I knew. A wife knows.”

Momma smiled and held her close again.

“They do, don’t they?” she said, then added, “When do you expect that child?”

Minnie leaned back and looked down at her belly. She was starting to show. She smiled and realized the tightness in her chest had eased, replaced by what? Comfort maybe? Peace? She was not sure what to call it, but she was thankful.

“Late June or early July,” she said.

“I’ll bet Henry would like another boy after three girls in a row.”

“I’m sure he would,” she laughed. It felt good to laugh. “But I fear he may be disappointed. For some reason I feel like it will be another girl.”


JULY, 1920

And it was. Another girl. Born on July the 4th. They named her Lucille.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cotton farming, Death, Delta, History, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized

INTO THE DELTA: Chapter 8, April, 1920-Lige

April, 1920


“What do you think, Grandpaw?” Grady asked.

Lige had to admit that it looked good. The land they had driven through was obviously rich. Every building on the farm that they had passed was in good repair. Vast expanses of open fields were dotted with farmhands, both colored and white, handling plows behind teams of mules. They looked tiny, antlike in the flat distance so different from the hill country in Choctaw County.


Becky & Lige (far right) with four of their eight sons & one daughter-in-law, Choctaw County, Mississippi

They bounced up to the house that would be their new home, right across the small, slow slough from the house Henry had built for his growing family. The warm, afternoon sun filtered down through the branches of oak trees just beginning to drop their tassels revealing the promise of thick foliage to provide shade come the heat of summer.

“Mighty fine,” he nodded.

He turned to look into the backseat. “What do you think, Becky?”

“It certainly is flat,” his wife, almost as old as he, replied. “But I like it. Looks like a good house.”

He stroked the long, white whiskers on his chin. He would be 72 this year and he was feeling his age. Or maybe it was just the long trip on the rough road, but he felt stiff.

As they pulled to a stop in front of Henry and Minnie’s house, Minnie came out of the front door and waved. She didn’t look very pregnant yet, but he knew she was from her letters. She is carrying the first Catledge that would be born in the Delta, he mused.

As they climbed from the car, the girls spilled out on the porch behind their mother: Sadie, Willye, and Maurice. They must be what? Ten, eight, and five, he thought. They were growing so fast. Grady and Morris Bailey too.

He and Becky brushed themselves off and climbed the stairs to the porch. There were warm embraces and kisses all around. Sadie was all grins and hugs, Willye, too. Maurice’s shyness amused him.

“Maurice,” Minnie admonished, “Have you forgotten your grandparents already? And your manners?”

His granddaughter’s wary embrace warmed when he fished a stick of peppermint from his pocket and held it out to her. She cast her dark eyes up at Minnie who nodded. She took it eagerly and popped it into her mouth, uttering a barely audible ‘Thank you’ around the red-and-white-striped stick.

He produced two more sticks, one for Sadie and Willye each and received a ‘Thank you’ and warm hug again from each.

“Mother, may I ring the bell for Father?” Sadie asked, then turned and smiled up at him. “He wanted to know the moment you arrived.”

“Yes, Dear, you may. One ring only,” Minnie replied.

The young girl dashed around the house to the bell tower in the backyard, her dress aswirl, her candy clenched tightly in her fist lest she lose it.

“Come in, come in,” Minnie said. “There’s coffee on the stove.”

He took Becky’s arm and they mounted the steps. As they crossed the deep porch, he turned at the sound of the truck to see Morris Bailey pulling up to the other house with their belongings. A single peal of the bell rolled across the flat fields and echoed ever so faintly off the dense wall of the distant forest like an answer from far away.

Minnie stood in the door. “The boys will start unloading. Come in and rest for a moment, then you can tell them where you want everything.”

“Go on in, Dear. I’ll be there in a minute,” he said and released her arm. He turned at the edge of the porch and looked across the far fields. He breathed deeply. Even the air was different here. You could feel it as well as smell it. It was rich, moist, fecund. He had seen many springs, many renewals, witnessed the eruption of new life time and time again, but this place was different.

“I swear,” he said under his breathe. “I never thought I’d see the like.”


Delta cotton field ready to plant

He turned and entered the house. He liked it immediately. He walked down the central gallery flanked by the parlor and dining room, office and bedroom. A flight of stairs led to the children’s rooms upstairs. The kitchen was in the back and radiated warmth from the large stove.

Minnie and Becky were seated at the kitchen table with steaming cups before them and the coffee pot on a trivet in the middle of the table, a table just large enough to seat the family. He took a seat before an empty cup which Minnie immediately filled from the pot.

“Thank you, Dear,” he said and added a bit of cream and ladled sugar into his coffee and stirred. Blowing across the raised cup, he took a sip and felt warmth seep into his body. It felt good in the kitchen. The hot, sweet, creamy coffee, the gentle patter of conversation, and the heat from the stove proved too much, and his chin dropped to his chest.

He was roused from his reverie by a familiar tread on the back porch and the thumping of Henry stomping his boots off. The kitchen door swung open, cool air blew in, and there stood his son, face ruddy from the cold and wind, a smile on his face. Another, older man stood behind him, William Ferguson.

“Hello, Mother,” Henry said and took Becky’s hands to help her to her feet, then embraced and kissed her.

He placed his hands and the table to lever himself up. No sooner was he standing than Henry wrapped his arms around him and gave him a kiss too.

“Father,” Henry said, “It is so good to have y’all here.”

Henry turned to his guest. “Mother, Father, you remember William Ferguson,” he said.

William nodded and shook each of their hands. “Mrs. Catledge, Mrs. Catledge, it is so good to see you again. And under more pleasant circumstances. Welcome to Friendship.”

Of course, Lige thought, the last time we saw him was at his father’s funeral. What? Three years ago now? He looks so much like my old friend.

“Let me get you a cup of coffee, Mr. Ferguson,” Minnie offered.

“No thank you, Minnie. I can’t stay. Besides,” Ferguson smiled, “I’m sure it’s been a long trip and y’all have a lot of catching up to do. I’ll be back later for a proper visit. I’ll bring Cora, too.”

Ferguson opened the kitchen door to leave and in burst Morris Bailey.

“Excuse me, Mr. Ferguson,” the boy said. “Grandmaw, Grandpaw, we got everything unloaded but don’t know where to put it all.”

“I’ll be right there, Child,” Becky said and went to get her wrap.

He settled back into his chair. Henry filled a cup and joined him. Minnie went on with preparations for supper. The familiar smell of baking cornbread filled the room. His granddaughters bounced in and out of the kitchen, helping with chores, laughing as they went.

“Well, Father, what do you think?” Henry asked.

He took another sip of his coffee.

“It looks like quite a place, Son. I’m looking forward to seeing the rest of it.”

“Of course, plenty of time for that. It was late December before we got all the cotton out of the fields. As you no doubt saw, we’re plowing now, running middle-busters, getting ready to plant. We’ll ride over it tomorrow.”

“Heard you had a good crop.”

Henry sat and simply stirred his coffee. His son’s gaze was faraway, like he was looking right through the walls and seeing the fields beyond them.

“Yessir, we did. Very good. And cotton prices were sky-high. I’ve never seen the like.”

It won’t last, he thought but did not say. Henry knew that. Needed no reminding from him.

Henry’s gaze shifted to him and focused.

“Wont last, though,” Henry said. “Good time to put all we can away.”

Lige smiled to himself and nodded.

“Good plan,” he added.

Leave a comment

Filed under America, Cotton farming, Delta, History, Mississippi, Mississippi Delta, Uncategorized