Flooding in the Mississippi

Kingdom of Earth by Tennessee Williams

Directed by Lucy Bailey
April-May 2011
The Print Room

Some of the most fertile land on earth lies in the northwest corner of the southern state of Mississippi, in the flood plain of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers.  This area of 7,000 very flat square miles of soft, black soil is known as the Mississippi Delta, and from that soil today comes soybeans, corn, rice, oats, pecans and cotton.  But a century ago, when prices were higher and farming machines unknown, mainly cotton was grown, and that cotton was picked mainly by black field hands and sharecroppers who had escaped slavery, but not poverty.  On the whole, slaves did not work this rich land as it was not cleared until after the Civil War, which ended in 1865. 

For hundreds of years, up to 350 feet of topsoil had been allowed to lie fallow by the Delta’s native-American residents, accumulating with the floods that often came in the spring.  Buttressed on the east by the immortalised Choctaw Ridge, the Delta contains counties with names like Issaquena, Tunica, Tallahatchie, and Coahoma, the latter (meaning “red panther”) where Tennessee Williams passed the best years of his childhood, in a little town named after a white man who owned a lot of land, Clarksdale.   

The Delta of Williams’ childhood had a plantation, or feudal, economy.  It had no cities, just a few small towns, some of which could boast a movie house like the “Delta Brilliant” mentioned in Kingdom of Earth.  But the greatest attraction for the young white middle classes were the parties held in the grounds of the plantations, often decorated with paper lanterns of the sort that Blanche DuBois hung in the Kowalskis’ New Orleans apartment.  The blues and gospel music that has made the Delta famous came from African-Americans who could aspire merely to serve at such parties, like Williams’ beloved nurse Ozzie, daughter of a sharecropper, who spent her summers picking cotton when the Williams family went away on vacation. 

Blacks began leaving the Delta in droves only after the Great Flood of 1927.  Then plantation owners, desperate to keep their workers on the land, subjected them to degrading treatment in the crowded refugee camps established on the levees, or long dirt embankments designed to prevent flooding.  Shotguns were needed to stop black men from leaving the camps and to force them to stack sand bags on top of the levees, but their efforts could not hold back the swollen river, and most of the land lay under water well into midsummer that year.  Not until 1945 and the arrival in the Delta of cotton-picking machines were African-Americans encouraged to take the one-way train journey to Chicago.  In many ways Kingdom of Earth, though set in 1960, recalls that pre-machine, worker-dependent milieu of early twentieth-century Mississippi.