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Delta Fragments

The Recollections of a Sharecropper’s Son

John O. Hodges

Publication Year: 2013

     The son of black sharecroppers, John Oliver Hodges attended segregated schools in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the 1950s and ’60s, worked in plantation cotton fields, and eventually left the region to earn multiple degrees and become a tenured university professor. Both poignant and thought provoking,  Delta Fragments is Hodges’s autobiographical journey back to the land of his birth. Brimming with vivid memories of family life, childhood friendships, the quest for knowledge, and the often brutal injustices of the Jim Crow South, it also offers an insightful meditation on the present state of race relations in America.
     Hodges has structured the book as a series of brief but revealing vignettes grouped into two main sections. In part 1, “Learning,” he introduces us to the town of Greenwood and to his parents, sister, and myriad aunts, uncles, cousins, teachers, and schoolmates. He tells stories of growing up on a plantation, dancing in smoky juke joints, playing sandlot football and baseball, journeying to the West Coast as a nineteen-year-old to meet the biological father he never knew while growing up, and leaving family and friends to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta. In part 2, “Reflecting,” he connects his firsthand experience with broader themes: the civil rights movement, Delta blues, black folkways, gambling in Mississippi, the vital role of religion in the African American community, and the perplexing problems of poverty, crime, and an underfunded educational system that still challenge black and white citizens of the Delta.
     Whether recalling the assassination of Medgar Evers (whom he knew personally), the dynamism of an African American church service, or the joys of reconnecting with old friends at a biennial class reunion, Hodges writes with a rare combination of humor, compassion, and—when describing the injustices that were all too frequently inflicted on him andhis contemporaries—righteous anger. But his ultimate goal, he contends, is not to close doors but to open them: to inspire dialogue, to start a conversation, “to be provocative without being insistent or definitive.”

Recently retired, John O. Hodges was an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he was also the chair of African and African American Studies from 1997 to 2002. His articles have appeared in the CLA Journal, the Langston Hughes Review, Soundings , and The Southern Quarterly.

Published by: The University of Tennessee Press

TItle Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. 2-7


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pp. vii-11

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pp. xi-xii

This book has been long in the making. I only trust that the final delivered vol-ume justifies the long gestation period. Numerous individuals have contributed one way or another to whatever success I have achieved here. I offer thanks first of all to members of the Delta community with whom I have shared joys and sor-rows, successes and bitter disappointments. My family, friends, and schoolmates ...

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pp. xiii-19

Over the twenty or so years that I have been at work on this project, I have seen it take several shifts and turns in focus and emphasis until it has evolved into what it is today. Originally, it was meant to be a book of essays on the religion and cul-ure of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. The book would help correct certain misconceptions of the Delta and of “my people” that were presented in other works on ...

Part I: Learning

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pp. xix-21

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The Delta

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pp. 1-6

The place I call home is a land of profound contradictions and paradoxes, beginning with the history of its founding and extending to the people who have settled there. Located on the eastern edge of the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta, Greenwood, the major town and county seat of Leflore County,1 is truly representative of the culture and way of life of the entire region. Considering several facts and questions may help explain...

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The Wilsons

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pp. 7-14

I never knew my maternal grandfather, Eli Wilson, but those who did said that I resembled him not only in appearance but also in aptitude. According to my cousin Luevina Lymon, he was a stout, dark-complexioned man. “That boy,” some friends of the family said of me, “is the spitting image of Eli.” I always appreciated what seemed to me to be a compliment, so much so that I, quite unof-...

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The Hodgeses

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pp. 15-20

Unlike my sister, Edna, I had no knowledge of my father, Tommie James “T.J.” Hodges, when I was growing up. I was only about three when my mother left Richmond, California, where we lived, to return to Greenwood to help take care of my grandmother. The separation would prove permanent, though that wasn’t my parents’ intention at the time. Thus, at the...

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My Mother

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pp. 21-26

My mother was called Sister, Menthe, Mantha—everything, it seemed, except her real name of Samantha. I always thought that was a shame since she had such a beautiful name. My mother and I were close, and I loved her dearly, despite the near-death whippings she gave me. For a long period following her death in 1971, Those familiar with Saint Augustine’s deep affection for his mother, ...

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My Sister

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pp. 27-32

The house we lived in was not unlike that of the other sharecroppers in our area. In fact, the color of the houses identified them as belonging to the same planter. It was a green, three-room, frame shotgun structure with a tin roof. There were front and back porches. We had no running water and, of course, no indoor bathroom facilities. The toilet, or outhouse as we called it, was about twenty feet in back of the house at the...

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My Stepfather

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pp. 33-38

My stepfather was always difficult for me to understand. Here was a man who seemed to have very little ambition. He wanted, I suppose, to provide for me and my mother and sister. But he seemed not to want very much for himself. The only thing I ever saw him drive was a pair of mules pulling a sled loaded with stuffed cotton sacks or a barrel of water he had gotten from the commissary well. I remember this because...

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Whittington Plantation

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pp. 39-44

Several of the major planters in the Delta also had careers in regional and national politics. There were, for example, U.S. Senators Leroy Percy of Washington County and James O. Eastland of Sunflower County and Representative William M. Whittington of Leflore. As chairs and members of powerful committees, these men wielded power...

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Settlement Time

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pp. 45-50

Though most families knew the outcome, settlement day was filled with excitement and expectation. It was always held just a few days before Christmas. Whether or not one cleared anything could spell the difference between a joyous holiday season and a disappointing one. But even if our family didn’t clear anything, which was most often the case, we were generally allowed, even encouraged, to borrow on the next...

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One-Room Schoolhouse

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pp. 51-54

Unlike some of my classmates, who were eighteen when they graduated from high school, I was nineteen when I got my diploma in 1963. This was true not only for me but for several others who spent their first years attending plantation schools. In those days, as I’ve mentioned, school was held only during those times when blacks weren’t needed in the fields. This situation began to change as I moved into the second and...

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G Street Boys

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pp. 55-60

Believing we could do better in town than on the plantation, my family moved to 804 Avenue G in Greenwood around 1957, when I was about thirteen. About that same time or a little later, two other families with teenage boys moved to homes on Avenue G, the McNeals and the Elliotts. It was a matter of providence that we should all end up there at the same time, and we began a friendship that continues to this day. At that time,...

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pp. 61-64

While I felt a special connection with the boys on Avenue G, I had many close friends who lived throughout the city. One of my closest friends was Albert Garner, whose name appears prominently in several of these fragments. We attended the same church and worked alongside each other in the civil rights movement. Indeed, I was at his home so often that his mother treated me like one of her own children. Albert was bright...

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My Teachers

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pp. 65-70

As I mentioned earlier, I always liked school, perhaps because I feared the alternative. My mother assured me that if I stayed in school, the heaviest thing I would pick up would be a pencil. That was a good bargain for someone who had spent his childhood on a southern plantation. Not only would I go to school, but I would try my best never to stop going to school. Fortunately, as someone who enjoyed going to school, I have throughout my life been blessed...

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Going to the ’House

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pp. 71-76

I knew fairly early on that I would be going to college. Both my mother and stepfather, in their own ways, made great sacrifices on my behalf. My teachers and members of my church also expected it of me. I also knew that if I wanted to get the law degree that I thought at the time was essential to help my people, a college education was absolutely indispensable. I just didn’t know where I would go. It’s not that I had un...

Part II: Reflecting

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pp. 77-99

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Delta Blues

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pp. 79-86

According to a woman I knew as Miss Emma, one of my mother’s closest friends, my uncle Obe was the meanest man she had ever seen; she asked for water but he gave her gasoline. That line, of course, comes from the Muddy Waters1 song Miss Emma flipped the script to express her own feelings of hurt and pain. She, like Muddy before her, was expressing the most classic theme in the ...

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Gambling on the River

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pp. 87-92

The Delta bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards not only gambled all night long; he also gambled from town to town. Edwards was only one member of a breed for whom this type of hustling often meant a willingness to go anywhere the action appeared most promising. Malcolm X observed that, when it comes to gambling, you’re either the fox or the rabbit, the hunter or the hunted. To find ...

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Black Ways and Other Folkways

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pp. 93-100

As a black child growing up in the Mississippi Delta, I was surrounded by many attitudes, sayings, and customs that seemed to mark my community as special. Anyone seeking to understand this community can ill afford to ignore the rich reservoir of what we might call the folk or vernacular tradition. It consists of the music (gospel, spirituals, the blues, work songs, jazz), folk sermons, folktales, rhymes, and rap that spring from...

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African Gods in Mississippi

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pp. 101-104

It was not until I began the academic study of religion that many of the old customs and superstitions made much sense to me. To my youthful eyes, those practices were simply things the old folks believed and around which they regulated their lives. With the Delta of that time, there were many similarities to tribal or traditional societies, which is not to see them in a negative light. Such societies spend much effort to combat...

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A Delta Revival

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pp. 105-118

Each year at the end of summer, our church held its revival. I joined Good Hope Missionary Baptist Church when I was about twelve years old. I remember sitting on what we called the mourners’ bench,1 listening to the minister urging us to come to God while we were still young. There were about ten or twelve of us children, sitting there being preached to. While several joined during the first four days, many more waited until the last night to confess Christ. I also went on that Friday night...


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pp. 129-139

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The Black Church

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pp. 119-124

Booker T. Washington once quipped that if you could find a black man who wasn’t a Methodist or a Baptist, some white man had been tampering with his religion. Although not generally known for his humor, Washington was giving a fairly accurate picture of the state of religion during his time. With the notable exception of certain new religious movements that have gained some traction in the South, it hasn’t changed much since then. In fact, one of the most significant aspects of African American...

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The Black Preacher

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pp. 125-130

As far back as I can remember, folks have told me that I had a mark, or gift, which meant that they felt I had been set apart for some special purpose. No purpose in their minds could be greater than that of becoming a minister of the gospel. Admittedly, there was little in my early or later life that dispelled this notion among those determined to believe it. Family members and close friends claimed they remember me clowning around as...

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The Folk Sermon

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pp. 131-138

W. E. B. Du Bois’s description of the old-time Negro sermon presented at the dawn of the twentieth century is similar to what I remember as a child growing up in the Mississippi Delta. This type of sermon can still be heard on Sunday mornings in a large number of black churches in Mound Bayou, or Clarksdale, or Greenwood, or in any Delta hamlet or town. Indeed, what appears remarkable is that this art form seems to...

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Is God Good?

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pp. 139-144

On the second and fourth Sunday of each month, the members of a typical black rural church in the Mississippi Delta congregate to reassure themselves that, despite their hardships (one almost feels because of them), God is “a good God,” who will “in His own time” deliver them from their sufferings. “He knows,” the minister intones, “just how much we can bear.” A large chorus of “amens” rings throughout this church of about sixty or so worshipers. This scene is repeated at almost every black church...

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The Color Line

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pp. 145-152

W. E. B. Du Bois wrote more than a century ago that in most American cities you’d find nine-tenths of blacks separated from nine-tenths of whites by a color line. Still evident to a large degree today, this line was a tangible partition between the races, which separated them in all aspects of social, political, and religious life. In one city it might be a creek, in another a street, and in still another a railroad track. But whatever...

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Emmett Till

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pp. 153-158

Without a doubt, the most significant event of my youth was the lynching of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old Chicago boy, in August 1955. At first, the anger and horror were directed not so much at the perpetrators of this heinous act as they were toward Emmett Till and his family. What seemed even more appalling was that the reaction of the black community didn’t seem to be that much different from that...

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Ruleville Revisited: Reflections Fifty Years After Marius

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pp. 159-166

“It can be worth your life these days to work for civil rights in Mississippi.” So begins an article, “Ruleville: Reminiscence and Reflection,” by the late historian and novelist Richard C. Marius, published in the September 23, 1964, issue of the Christian Century (pp. 1169–71). Marius’s comments were spurred by the then recent flurry of civil rights activities that had engulfed Mississippi in the early 1960s and had reached a...

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Civil Rights

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pp. 167-174

We were neither shocked nor surprised when our civics instructor in high school failed to pass the literacy test necessary to become a registered voter in Leflore County. We knew that he was bright enough. After all, he was teaching us government, which meant he at least had a college education. But when he went to register, he was not able to pass a test that required him to copy a section of the state constitution and...

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pp. 175-180

I first met Medgar Evers around 1959 or 1960. As the newly elected field secretary of the NAACP, he traveled the state organizing youth chapters of the organization. My friend Albert Garner was the president of our chapter, and I worked alongside him. We usually met upstairs in his room at Hotel Plaza, a black-owned business in Greenwood that catered exclusively to African Americans, as its sign clearly stated...

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pp. 181-186

By most accounts, 1963 was the most significant year of the civil rights movement. It was also the bloodiest. The previous summer I had been involved in a number of voter-registration campaigns throughout the Delta, and I’ve indicated how those activities put my parents on edge. They knew how dangerous participating in civil rights activities could be. If I didn’t take a break from my activities, I ran the risk of not completing...

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Endesha: A New Walk for Freedom

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pp. 187-190

One of the most significant, yet overlooked, aspects of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was the role it played in instilling in blacks a sense of pride and dignity that inspired them to overcome circumstances of birth, race, and place to achieve something in life. A number of the movement’s lieutenants went on to impressive public careers. I have in mind such individuals as Jesse Jackson, Julian Bond,...

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Whites in the Struggle

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pp. 191-196

I could see it on their faces, the polite smiles that couldn’t completely mask the sense of frustration and bewilderment they were feeling. “Knowing your students” means that you can pick up on such things. Then comes the question that is on many of their minds: “Dr. Hodges, do you believe all whites hate blacks?” I have learned from years of hearing this question in various forms not to answer with the quick retort: “Of...

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Reunion as Pilgrimage

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pp. 197-202

Most of us have been away from Greenwood now for forty, fifty, sixty years, or more, reside in various places throughout the United States and abroad, and perhaps have no real desire to return to this place as permanent residents. The question so often posed by outlanders who wish to make our acquaintance is, “Where is home?” We respond with a question intended to make a clarifying distinction: “Do you mean where I now...

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Epilogue: The Delta Then and Now

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pp. 203-210

In bringing these fragments to a close, it is important to remind myself and my readers of that poignant statement by Nate Shaw (whose real name was Ned Cobb). I’ve endeavored to tell my story honestly and truthfully. Yet, there might be those who find in my recounting of the injustices I experienced coming of age in the Delta an effort to lay all the problems I faced at the feet of the southern white man. If Nate...

Appendix 1: Table of Black and White Persons in the Delta by Population, Education, and Income

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pp. 211-232

Appendix 2: Reports Relating to 1962 Civil Rights Activities in Which Author Was Involved

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pp. 212-216

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 217-222


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pp. 223-228

E-ISBN-13: 9781621900337
E-ISBN-10: 1621900339
Print-ISBN-13: 9781572335707
Print-ISBN-10: 157233570X

Page Count: 248
Illustrations: 15
Publication Year: 2013

Edition: First Edition.