- Cotton Pickers Historic Site: A Community Driven Movement
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America’s Soul rendered in Blues music reveals a tortured “cotton-pickin’ spirit” indeed. While not only was the soul of America born and brined in the ante-bellum South, the tearful occupation of cotton pickin’ gave rise to “the most southern place on earth,” the Mississippi Delta, AKA, the “Cotton Kingdom” (Cobb, 1992). Planting, chopping, picking and ginning cotton within a system of slavery and international trade was how America achieved its “greatness.” There is no doubt that the phenomenal economic growth and global status as an “empire” is attributed to the overall output of the enslaved labor force that produced unprecedented [End Page 14] riches through rice, tobacco, indigo; but beyond those measures it was raw cotton that facilitated the global economy that loomed to England and France, specifically Manchester, England, AKA Cotton-landia, and the “Cotton Capital” that ultimately became the first industrialized city in the world, (Sokoloff and Engerman, 2000).
The factor endowment in America began in the nineteenth century by farmers and “cotton hunters,” a term ascribed by Benjamin Montgomery, father of Isaiah Montgomery the founder of Mound Bayou, MS, (Hermann, 1999). Cotton hunters were men and women in search of fertile farmland and labor to exploit for manufacturing and profits in the Mississippi Delta.
It is essential to note that factor endowments played a crucial role in shaping the British colonies’ institutions and economic growth; colonies with a richer quality of soil grew cash crops such as sugar, coffee, [tobacco], and cotton, which were most efficiently grown using plantation systems. As such, the demand for not only slave labor but also peonage within these colonies grew. Due to the vast inequality that the society developed due to a small elite population in comparison to the vast laborer population, they were able to maintain the wealth and power within the elite class via establishing a guarded franchise.(Sokoloff, 2000)
Many of these “cotton hunters” were escaping declining productivity in other Southern and Northern states. They brought with them enslaved African people, to do the backbreaking work of clearing the wild forest and subduing the Mississippi River with levees. It is important to note, these enslaved people came with skills acquired in Africa, specifically as it related to agriculture, i.e., cotton farming, weaving and general production. As result of that exploited expertise, the Mississippi Delta became the richest cotton-producing land in the world; and thereby produced the finest cotton found outside of West Africa.
Slavery and cotton production ultimately became synonymous with the American economy, specifically in New York and the South. Since the Mississippi Delta was one of the last areas of the South to be settled, during the antebellum period, the Delta region became arguably the most reactionary and repressive places for African Americans, hence “the most southern place on earth.”
The political and social maneuvering of the sharecropping system that replaced slavery helped ensure that African Americans, and cotton pickers in particular, remained poor and virtually locked out of any opportunity for land ownership or basic human rights … a “guarded franchise.” The sharecropping system grew from the struggle between planters and ex-slave laborers on how to organize cotton production. Planters wanted what they had before during slavery—gang labor forces, to work the fields. However, emancipated people wanted to be self-determined and to be able to not only own their own land, but also to educate themselves and govern their own communities. They wanted, earned, and deserved autonomous agency.
In honor of this struggle, my work as a public historian centers on an effort to create a commemorative site in [End Page 15] tribute to the legacy and contributions of Cotton Pickers in the Mississippi Delta. The history of a people is perhaps their most powerful possession. In the United States, the true cultural contributions of African Americans, and how they shaped American history have long been hidden, suppressed, and in many instances denied. Cultural institutions have been unable or unwilling to see African American history as a narrative significant enough to warrant the...