It is easy to look at the Delta and the challenges the region faces and become pessimistic. Low earnings, lack of education, high teenage pregnancy and infant mortality rates, limited access to healthcare, weak commodity prices – all of these factors paint a gloomy picture, especially for a native Deltan such as myself. It sometimes seems beyond daunting. It appears hopeless.
But we must remember that the Delta is all about overcoming seemingly insurmountable obstacles. In fact, of all the achievements of our pioneering forefathers as they transformed the New World from a resource-rich wilderness into a mighty and prosperous country, few compare to the Mississippi Delta. The levee system and the network of drainage waterways stand as one of the greatest of engineering feats, and are a testament to what people, even of widely disparate cultures and beliefs, can accomplish when they work collectively.
Driving through the Delta today, travelers may see those neat rows of cotton or soybeans growing in some of the richest soil on earth and think what a natural wonder the area is. But that`s inaccurate. Without the perseverance and determination of the people, the region today would be an untamed and largely impenetrable jungle stretching from Vicksburg to Memphis. Mother Nature may have created the fertile soil, but the Delta is a purely manmade product.
When the first influx of settlers came to the Delta at the turn of the 19th century, they found that Native Americans had cut trails and established settlements on what little dry land the area had to offer, which wasn`t much. Early explorers found the land outside of those developed areas so heavy with vegetation and inundated with water that travel was virtually impossible. Dark and humid, it teemed with bear, alligator and panther. Perhaps the biggest threat was the tiny mosquito, which brought such diseases as malaria and yellow fever. To say it was inhospitable is an understatement.
Still, these pioneers – Europeans, Asians, Africans, Protestants, Catholics, Jews – started hacking away, enlarging the areas cleared by the Native Americans, and some communities even popped up primarily along the Mississippi River. But when the Civil War erupted, the region still had few roads, and some of those early settlements had long since been reclaimed by the Father of Waters, which flowed unchecked.
It was after the war when a few of the more ambitious pioneers began to realize that if Americans were ever going to utilize the rich alluvian soil of the Delta, a huge, concerted effort would have to be launched to control the waters and claim the land. As John Barry wrote in his book “Rising Tide,” which chronicles the wrestling of the soil from the Mississippi River`s grip and the building of the levee system that holds back flood waters, “To take the land from the river, to clear it, drain it, and protect it, required an enormous outlay of capital and labor. From the first, the Delta demanded organization, capital, entrepreneurship, and gambling instincts.”
Construction of the levee system actually began before the war, but, not surprisingly, was suspended during the conflict. However, the same year the struggle ended, the Board of Levee Commissioners was formed in Bolivar, Washington and Issaquena counties, and a massive, organized campaign got underway to complete and strengthen the levee system.
That, and a network of drainage canals and waterways, opened all of the Delta up to agriculture, and, other than the catastrophic failure of the levee system in 1927, has created the unique agricultural and commercial region we know today as the Delta.
Much as the first settlers of the region some 200 hundred years before, many of us now stand on the fringe of the Delta and stare, marveling at its potential while fearing that the effort to turn that potential into an improved quality of life for not just Deltans but all Mississippians is beyond our capabilities. The job looks too big.
Fortunately, there are those who have not been content to just sit on the outside and gawk. Instead of letting fear of the unknown and the scope of the task at hand stop them, they have, as a group, pitched into the Delta, determined to create a better place for all its residents. In short, they have taken the risk, made the investment and expect great returns.
Those returns are beginning to really show. New businesses are realizing that the Delta`s unique and ample resources, including the human kind, are a prize catch. New infrastructure such as the new Mississippi River bridge at Greenville and the proposed I-69, is opening up more and more of the area to economic development. Farmers are exploring the latest growing techniques and planting wholly new crops to combat adverse market conditions. And just recently, Greenville, the “Queen City” and largest Delta community, elected a young, African-American female as mayor.
Just as in the past, current Delta entrepreneurs represent all colors and all backgrounds. But they all proudly call themselves “Deltans.” They are leading the way, and are asking us to follow. Will we?
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at firstname.lastname@example.org.