Out West II: A Mississippi Story

In part two of our multimedia series, Out West, journalist Tiffany Walden uses her quest to find her grandmother’s Mississippi roots to connect the dots between Chicago’s West Side and the South.

By Tiffany Walden | Archival research by Black Vrchives


couldn’t remember the sound of her voice. My granny died on Dec. 5, 2006, about eight weeks after I found out she had cancer. I spent the week leading up to her funeral trying to remember her laugh, her cadence, her phrases. Rarely at loss for words, my granny had affectionate sayings and truisms for just about everything. Hold the line baby, she’d say before clicking over to let go of the person on the other line of the house phone. That’s ugly, she’d say when any of us were getting ready to make a bad decision.

It seemed the cancer took away her speech overnight. She hadn’t said a word since a couple of days before Thanksgiving. I was a couple of weeks into 18, an adult by societal standards but a child in the sense that my family tiptoed around telling me that my granny was dying. That Thanksgiving Day in hospice, she sat expressionless. She was unable to respond to my sister who was calling from Orlando to talk to her. I knew things would never be the same. I knew that I would never hear her voice again.

That spring before my granny’s death, I interviewed her for an oral history project for my AP US History class. I knew it was something I could knock out quickly. My granny had lived through everything – sharecropping in Mississippi, the Stock Market Crash of 1929, World War II, the Great Migration, and the murders of Emmett Till, President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. One night, months after her funeral, I tore up my room looking for the audio recording from that project. I needed to hear her voice again. When I found the project, the audio recorder wasn’t inside the manila envelope it was in. But the transcript was there. I read it aloud:

May 19, 2006: AP US History Oral History Project Subject: Irene Johnson (Buchanan)
Tiffany: When and where were you born? Johnson: Decen1, Mississippi on April 4, 1921.
When did you move from Mississippi? Johnson: In 1940. We moved to Tennessee.
Why Tennessee? Parents went there? Johnson: My father died when I was 7 years old. My momma and everybody moved to Tennessee. You followed your family.
Family photo: Irene's mother Nancy Johnson [right] and unknown gentleman [left].

The flight from Chicago to Memphis, Tennessee scared the hell out of us. It was a Monday afternoon this past June. Skies were clear. Once comfortably at cruise altitude, I fell asleep in the row ahead of TRiiBE cofounder Morgan Elise Johnson. About an hour or so later, as the plane prepared for landing, turbulence hit bad. I woke up to the plane taking a violent dip in the middle of a menacing cloud. The full flight fell silent – no more babies crying, no more mindless chatter, just the fear-inducing sound of everyone holding their breath in between each jolt.

One of the few gospel songs I know word-for-word, Kirk Franklin’s “My Life, My Love, My All,” looped in my mind as I prayed nonstop. I closed my eyes and tried to focus on the reason for this trip to Bolivar County, MS. Morgan and I were hired to teach Black kids at the Rosedale Freedom Project about storytelling. And the program is only a few miles away from the towns where our grandmothers are from, an opportunity to learn more about their stories.

See, Mississippi is filled with the voices of the overlooked – the many Black folk who ended up on Chicago’s West Side before and during the Great Migration but have been otherwise reduced to the two or three summary sentences in the sharecropping part of our school history lessons. You know that chapter. It’s after Reconstruction but right before the Civil Rights Movement. Well, that’s dependent on the willingness of your teacher to improvise outside of the history book and, of course, my West Side story isn’t written there. But maybe if I listen closely while in Mississippi, the omniscient roots of the trees and infinite streams of the river will be humming my granny’s tune.

“A whole bunch of people got right with God just now,” Morgan said, laughing but serious, as we walked to the Memphis International Airport rideshare pickup zone where a huge confederate flag greeted us.

Once in the rental car, we embarked on the two-hour drive to Bolivar County, MS. I was eager to learn more about this place on the border of the Mississippi River that, in the early 1900s, was brimming with a profitable agricultural system built on the backs of Black tenant farmers, though with little to no reward for them at the end of each harvest. At the start of the 20th century, Bolivar County was home to 5,515 farms, totaling about 246,000 acres in land; a value of excess $5.8 million.2 That’s about $150 million in today’s money. Might I add, Bolivar County’s population in 1900 saw 4,017 whites to 31,230 coloreds, a disparity unexplained and unaccounted for in Dunbar Rowland’s cyclopedic description of a seemingly successful county.3

However, I wasn’t always this excited about Mississippi. I was scared of it as a kid. Every year, my dad tried to take me to Mississippi for his family reunion. My mom, though she had never been to Mississippi, would warn of mosquitos the size of my little hands. In school, I had learned a little about what Mississippi white folks did to 14-year-old Emmett Till from Chicago’s South Side. I also had read about the white-hooded ghosts who set a Black man on fire in Mildred D. Taylor’s Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and the brutal whippings of Black bodies in the reruns of Alex Haley’s television miniseries, Roots. Needless to say, those were reasons enough to skip out of any trip to the South.

My granny never talked about Mississippi, at least with me. Two years ago, in a casual conversation with her oldest child, my uncle Sunny, I heard a story about my ancestors for the first time. He reminisced about the two times my granny took him and his little brother to the farm in Mississippi. My uncle didn’t remember much about his great-grandmother, whom he affectionately called Big Mama, mostly because he grew up in a time when kids were seen and not heard. So he rarely, if ever, asked questions.

“I think the farm was right outside of Clarksdale. When we was kids, every summer we was on the Greyhound bus or train going somewhere to where we had to just sit and be quiet. [In Mississippi], we used to get up on this big ole red horse and ride into town with my great-grandfather, you know. Big Mama used to sit on the porch in a rocking chair with a whip. If you crossed the fence line, she popped the whip at you. After a couple of times, they didn’t take me back no more because of my mouth, you know, being down there with them white people.”

– Tiffany’s Interview with Sidney Parrish. July 23, 2016.

Negro children sitting on the steps of a tenant home on the Marcella Plantation in Mileston, MS. Photographer: Marion Post Wolcott, 1939.

Despite the bad things I had heard about Mississippi as a kid, my granny’s birthplace had become a mystifying mecca that I needed to know more about. I wanted to know where I came from. I wanted to know what my granny’s childhood was like, and why she never talked about her father’s death. Until my uncle Sunny’s funeral last November, I had never seen pictures of her before July 1960. That’s when she moved into the house I later grew up in on the 4000 block of West Lexington Street on Chicago’s West Side. Why is that? Did she look like me as a young girl? Did she create imaginary worlds with her dolls like I did? The day she lost her voice is the day I realized I didn’t ask the right questions.

We pulled up to the Rosedale Freedom Project and it felt like home. A metal awning drooped over the wooden porch, providing shade on this blistering hot day. Drivers waved to everyone on the porch as they passed by. Kids roasted each other, laughing over who has the “O” or “S” in a competitive game of HORSE on the court next door. Executive director Jeremiah Smith told the kids we were coming to Rosedale from Chicago to teach them how to question the world around them. One boy’s eyes lit up. He’s from Chicago, too, but moved to Bolivar County with his family a little while ago. Whenever he shares that with his peers, he said, the conversation shifts to violence. That happens to us, too, I said.

The kids were learning about the origins of “Black Power,” a slogan-turned movement popularized by Stokely Carmichael during a speech in Greenwood, MS in June 1966. At the time Carmichael, who had just become the national chairman for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, had shied away from King’s nonviolent philosophy. James Meredith, an activist and first Black student at the University of Mississippi, was shot by a white gunman during a 20-mile march against racism. That sparked Carmichael’s switch to Black nationalist thought. “We been saying ‘freedom’ for six years. What we are going to start saying now is ‘Black Power!’” The kids took turns reading each passage aloud, prepping for their upcoming Black nationalism v. Nonviolence debate.

Later, Morgan and I showed examples of the stories we tell in Chicago. Then, we set up storytelling stations to workshop interviewing and camera skills. Our mock assignment was to produce a video story about the Rosedale Freedom Project. At my station, we used a dry-erase board to come up with interview questions for two camp counselors. First, the basics: Can you spell out your name for me, please? Do you mind telling me your age and where you’re from? Next, a conversation starter: How did you find out about the Rosedale Freedom Project? Then, some of the good stuff: What do you like about being a counselor at the Rosedale Freedom Project? After writing down all of our questions, I shared a tip: Don’t be afraid to follow the flow of the interview. If someone says something interesting, and you want to know more about it, ask a follow-up question. I wish I did the same during my granny’s interview, I thought to myself.

Outside, Morgan stood behind a young girl holding a DSLR. They were shooting b-roll of another group’s gardening lesson. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The gardening group sat under a tent to shield themselves from the searing sun. Morgan and her group didn’t have that luxury. One of Morgan’s kids complained about the heat and ran back inside. I followed, complaining about the bees.

Can you explain your experience in sharecropping?
Johnson: It was all fieldwork. We lived on the farm that we picked cotton on.
What was a typical day like?
Johnson: Got up in the morning, went to school. Came home and did chores. We had to wash dishes, fix dinner; clean up… we didn’t sleep all day like y’all do today. After that, we would do our homework.
What was it like working for whites?
Johnson: It was alright. They didn’t bother me. I worked for some when we moved to Clarkes4, Mississippi. I did some babysitting and did laundry.
What did picking cotton feel like?
Johnson: Go in the morning, work ‘til noon. Came home and got lunch. Then, go back and do that ‘til 4 p.m. or whenever you got off. It’s a day’s work. You lived on the farm.
Did the whole family work?
Johnson: Yeah
Family photo: Tiffany's grandmother Irene Johnson striking a pose at Daisy Studios in Memphis, TN in 1942. She was 21 years old.

Opting out of fieldwork, for any reason, wasn’t an option for my granny or any other sharecropper. Doing so was a matter of life and death. It was the family’s livelihood. By the time a child reached school age, they helped their parents pick cotton. The more hands a family has in the field, the more cotton the family can produce, and the more valuable the family became to the plantation owner. Though, this success didn’t always translate into cash.

Sharecroppers had charge accounts with plantation owners. Anytime the family needed to purchase clothes or food from the general store, likely owned by whoever owned the plantation, the expense would be added to their tab. If someone in the family needed to go to the doctor or hospital, the landlord had to authorize the medical visit and add the costs to the family’s tab. These expenses piled up through the year. On settlement day, after the family’s cotton production for the year had been added up and converted into a dollar amount, the manager subtracted the expenses. The average sharecropping family may end up with about $200 in cash,5 if the landlord paid up at all.

“I don’t care how hard we worked at the end of the year, there was never enough money,” Eliza Rogers told me. She’s the First Lady of the church that my childhood friend’s parents currently attend, New Jehovah MB Church on Austin Boulevard near Roosevelt Road on Chicago’s West Side.

Mrs. Rogers, 71, grew up sharecropping in Rolling Fork, MS. She remembers the stories her great-grandmother told her about being a cook in the Big House during slavery: being given the bones from dinners she cooked for her white family to go home and create a meal for her children. Mrs. Rogers moved to Lexington Street and Sacramento Boulevard on the West Side in 1965. She followed her grandmother, who sought freedom in Chicago after years of unpaid labor in post-slavery Mississippi.

“My grandmother and my great-grandmother, that’s what they knew how to do. They did the best they could,” Mrs. Rogers explained, “but when it comes down to sharecropping, and with us being younger, we didn’t understand why the money wasn’t there as hard as we worked. The money should have been there but it wasn’t.”

Eliza Rogers shares her sharecropping story. Audio story edited by Veranda Armstead.

right turn off Blues Highway 61 took us down the winding road to Alligator, a Bolivar County town of maybe 200 people. The buildings reminded me of those in the old westerns my uncle Billy used to watch at my granny’s house. Except, there weren’t any cowboys or watchful old men lounging around on the front porches of these businesses. The streets were lonely and the buildings soulless.

We came here to find the cemetery. Morgan’s great-grandmother, Josephine Brown, was buried here. Coincidentally, a mere 15-minute drive from my granny’s birthplace in Deeson. It’s why our friendship has always felt deeper than us. When I first met Morgan in college 11 years ago, it seemed like we grew up worlds apart. She came out of a two-parent household 40-something miles outside of the city in North Chicago and went to Lake Forest Academy, where she rubbed shoulders with the kids of the wealthy. I went to Providence St. Mel: a private school, yes, but only because my dad agreed to pay my tuition as a form of child support. Ever since I can remember, the North Shore has been synonymous with the American Dream and the West Side with stark poverty. But as my friendship with Morgan grew, I learned that we’re cut from the same cloth. Black Southerners were drawn to North Chicago initially because of its assembly-line jobs at the old Jelly Belly Candy Co., formerly Goelitz Confectionery Company, and domestic work inside the rich, caucasian homes of Lake County. And, just like the West Side, when the factory jobs and domestic work left the North suburbs, so did the soul of its Black neighborhoods. In turn, families did the best they could to provide for our futures.

We drove up to a couple of homes in Alligator to ask the Black women on its porches where the cemeteries were. There’s only one, they said, and it’s right next to the old Pleasant Valley church on Front Street. We saw the church, parked and looked over the few grave markers in front of it. None of them were Josephine Brown. So we got back in the car and rode around some more, hoping to find the real cemetery. That’s when we ran into a Black man who directed us back to the old church. It’s the only cemetery he knows of, too. How could a town founded in the 1800s, once home to 1,000 people and three bustling cotton gins,6 have so few graves? When the Black man caught up with us at the old church, he told us his name was Mayor Tommie Brown, the first Black mayor of Alligator.

“We might be some kin,” he said. Morgan smiled. She told him that we were looking for her great-grandmother’s headstone. So he dialed up some of his relatives to see if the names Josephine Brown or her daughter, Morgan’s grandmother Azella McClinton, rang a bell. He told us to look around behind the church.

“There’s more back there,” Mayor Brown said.

On first sight, there wasn’t much back there – mostly overgrown foliage and woods appropriate for the setting of a scary movie. We crept to the edge of the forest and discovered one tombstone. Then another covered in weeds. I grabbed a stick and pushed away more dead leaves to unveil more flat headstones. None were Josephine Brown. Morgan then noticed a few more graves deep inside the woods but we couldn’t take a chance on going in there. There was minimal sunlight inside, and the real possibility of snakes and who knows what else. The old church and cemetery didn’t give the answers we were looking for.

What was school like?
Johnson: School was nice but we went in something like a church. But it was regular
What was the highest level of school you completed?
Johnson: 9th grade.

I thought every town would look like Alligator. But Deeson, about 12 miles west of Alligator, looked like a ghost town. Blades of grass stretched for as far as my eyes could see. A handful of wood-framed homes lined Deeson’s one winding road. A barn with the words “Deeson, MS” and three silos with “Old Delta Farms” painted across them were the only indicators of place. We had just discovered the 1927 record book for the Deeson School, and my granny’s name was in there. But looking around Deeson, there was no evidence of a school ever being here.

Unlike Alligator, there weren’t any Black women sitting on porches or the occasional Black man walking down the street in Deeson. It was still, quiet, except for the birds chirping in the distance and the bees buzzing by. I stood near the “Deeson, MS” barn with my eyes closed. I tried listening for my granny’s voice but I couldn’t hear her.

After my granny died, I searched the internet for Decen, Mississippi. That’s how she spelled it for me. But nothing came up online for Decen. I tried again in 2013. That time, Google threw me a lifeline: did you mean Deeson, Mississippi? Shit, yes! Wikipedia defined it as an unincorporated community, smaller than cities like Rosedale and towns like Alligator but not yet a ghost town like Mound Landing, a former cotton plantation with one of the largest slave populations in the U.S. that was later wiped out by the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927.

By the end of the 1920s, Deeson’s 8,800 acres was home to Delta Farms Company. It was one of two land extensions for the British-owned Delta and Pine Land Company in nearby Scott, the country’s largest plantation with 38,000 acres worth $5 million at the time.

“These plantation units had maybe a thousand acres in each, and each one of these would have it’s tenants who farmed the cotton, and oats for the mules, and corn for the tenants and the tenants’ pigs. You see, they were the only crops that we grew in those days. Really, the only cash crop was cotton. Any other crop but cotton was either to feed the mules and pigs or the tenants… We have had some white tenants here, but the tradition has been that our tenants have always been black. I don’t know any reason for this one way or another. It was just that they were thought to be better and less shiftless and so forth than some white tenants would have been.”

– An Interview with Mr. Early C. Ewing, Jr., vice president and director of research of Delta & Pine Land Company. June 5, 1978.

Day laborers picking cotton near Clarksdale, MS. Photographer: Marion Post Wolcott. 1939.

Google also showed me a genealogy site called Family Search. I didn’t expect to find much there. Everyone knows that it’s nearly impossible to trace our ancestry through U.S. Census data. Well, unless you’ve got Henry Louis Gates Jr. and his Finding Your Roots crew on your side. I gave it a try anyway, typing my granny and her parents names into the website. To my surprise, a digitized copy of the 1930 U.S. Census popped up. My granny’s name was right there on line 85.

Except, who is Robert Johnson? She told me her dad’s name was Ned.

Is Robert his father?

Hover over the image for a closer look at the 1930 U.S. Census for Deeson, MS.
What are the names of your parents?
Johnson: Ned and Nancy Johnson
Any siblings?
Johnson: I am the oldest of three. It was me, Katherine and Oscar.

I searched for my granny’s parents in the 1920 U.S. Census but didn’t have enough information about their whereabouts and parents to find them. I knew her father wouldn’t be in the 1940 U.S. Census because he died when my granny was seven years old, around the time of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. On April 21 of that year, the levees broke, sending flood waters across the Delta. The flood displaced 637,000 people in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. It’s listed as one of the country’s greatest natural disasters.7

Much like recovery efforts for Hurricane Katrina in 2006, racist practices and scandal prevailed during Red Cross’s recovery in 1927. Black journalists in Chicago reported on the slave-like conditions for Negroes “detained in outdoor camps on the levee” and forced to work without pay or much food.

If casual reports that the National Guard had been ordered to “shoot to hit” and “show no mercy” did not provoke public suspicion of mistreatment, J. Winston Harrington’s May 7 expose in the Chicago Defender brought to light the “peonage” of Mississippi’s “Jim Crow relief camps.” In large print, the paper described “Refugees herded like cattle to stop escape from peonage,” forced to wear numbered tags on their shirt to ensure their easy identification. Harrington had been informed by Mr. Del Weber, a white Greenville resident who witnessed black refugees being detained. Harrington decried the presence of the National Guard, which earlier that week shot a black refugee from Cary, Mississippi “when he attempted to take food and clothing into a relief camp occupied by members of our Race.” A white worker declared that the death would be a “lesson for the rest of the Niggers.”

– “The Red Cross Is Not All Right!” Herbert Hoover’s Concentration Camp Cover Up In The 1927 Misssissippi Flood by Myles McMurchy

The backyard of a Negro tenant’s home on the Marcella Plantation in Mileston, MS. Photographer: Marion Post Wolcott. 1939.

Was my granny’s father detained and forced to work in one of these Jim Crow relief camps? Did he die during the flood? Was he lynched or murdered?

I haven’t been able to find a record of his death.

sharp pain shot across my chest as we turned right onto the dirt path leading to the Mississippi River in Bolivar County. I had to get to the river. I wanted so badly to submerge myself in the stories it told. But, I was scared. Morgan could feel my fear. “Are there spirits here?” she asked. “Definitely,” I replied, persisting into the shadows that lurked in the marshes and leafy canopies surrounding us.  We’d come to the end of the dirt road. And there was no telling what lied ahead. It was here that we had to make a choice: do we get out of the car and tread uncertain ground, or turn back?

As we turned around, the souls of the River loosened their grips. But the guilt of not asking vital questions will linger forever. We drove with the incessant ringing of silence, resounding from the lost parts of us.

After Tennessee, where did you go?
Johnson: My momma moved to Cleveland in 1943. I left Billy and Sidney with my momma and moved to Chicago.
Did the riots and stuff scare you?
Johnson: Nah. They had riots over here on Madison. It used to be real nice but they tore it up.

… To Be Continued.

1.  My granny was born and raised in Deeson, Mississippi. At the time of the interview, she was 85 years old, and couldn’t remember exactly how to spell the small town.
2. Source: Mississippi; Comprising Sketches Of Counties, Towns, Events, Institutions, and Persons, Arranged in Cyclopedia Form. Dunbar Rowland, 1907.
3. Same as no. 2.
4. I believe she was referring to Clarksdale, Mississippi; a city in the neighboring Coahoma County about 24 miles northeast of Deeson.
5. Source: An Interview with Mr. Early C. Ewing Jr., vice president and director of research of Delta Pine & Land Company. Roberta Miller, June 5, 1978.
6. Source: “Down the Mississippi: Barack Obama Effect Ends White Rule In Deep South Town,” by Toby Harnden. The Telegraph, July 12, 2009.
7. Source: “The Red Cross Is Not All Right!” Herbert Hoover’s Concentration Camp Cover Up In The 1927 Mississippi Flood by Myles McMurchy, Dartmouth College.

Don’t forget to check out Part I of our series, Out West