I was recently in Clarksdale in the Delta region of Mississippi. It has a bitter sweet history. Before the arrival of the European settlers Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians occupied this region which intersected two Indian routes.
The Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek, written in 1830, saw the forced removal of the Choctaw people, and another removal act similarly removed the Chickasaw Nation to what is now known as Oklahama. In fact between 1830 and 1850, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Cherokee people (including mixed-race and black freedmen and slaves who lived among them) were all forcibly removed from their traditional lands in the Southeastern United States, and relocated farther west. Those Native Americans who were relocated were forced to march on what is now known as “the trail of tears” to their destinations, by state and local militias.
Years after these Native Americans had been rounded up and driven down the “trail of tears”, John G. Burnett, a U.S. soldier who took part in the relocation, reflected on what he and his fellow soldiers had done, saying,
“Schoolchildren of today do not know that we are living on lands that were taken from a helpless race at the bayonet point, to satisfy the white man’s greed . . . Murder is murder and somebody must answer, somebody must explain the streams of blood that flowed in the Indian country . . . Somebody must explain the four thousand silent graves that mark the trail of the Cherokees to their exile.”
Another local militia man remarked in 1870: “I fought through the Civil War and have seen men shot to pieces and slaughtered by the thousands, but the Cherokee removal was the cruelest work I ever done.”
As Del Abe Jones wrote of Andrew Jackson in his poem the Never Ending Trail:
“The whites honor the “Hermitage” And the man who once lived there But, that leader of our Nation Was cruel, unjust, unfair
He ordered the removal Of the Cherokee from their land And forced them on a trek That the Devil must have planned
One thousand miles of misery Of pain and suffering Because greed of the white man Could not even wait till spring
Once the Native Americans had been forcibly and unfairly removed from their lands, European-American settlers migrated in droves to this rich Delta region where the soil was excellent for growing cotton. Thus the African slave trade migrated there as well; five thousand and fifty eight slaves were brought in and forced to pick the cotton, which was being grown and sold at an immense profit by the white landowners.
Eventually the actual town of Clarksdale was founded on this Native American crossroads by white planters like James Lusk Acorn, and earned the title “The Golden Buckle of the Cotton Belt.” Even when slavery was finally abolished in the region and the erstwhile slaves became sharecroppers, they were still completely at the economic mercy of the white landowners.
Twentieth-century historian Nicholas Lemann writes:
“Like the establishment of sharecropping, the restoration to power of the all-white Democratic Party in the South was a development of such magnitude to whites that it became encrusted in legend; many towns have their own mythic stories of the redemption of the white South including Clarksdale.”
In the nineteen sixties African American citizens in Clarksdale began themselves to elevate the history of that region through their civil rights activism, however the white police department tried everything in their power to limit this. No matter, at the beginning of his campaign in 1960, Martin Luther King visited Clarksdale and urged its citizens to “stand in, sit in, and walk by the thousands”, which they did.
Clarksdale is now a tourist hub which one can visit to hear and learn about the the authentic sounds of Mississippi delta blues. In fact, at the junction of Highway 61 and Highway 49 just outside of Clarksdale, legend has it that blues great Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil one dark night in exchange for his extraordinary guitar skills. Two crossed guitars mark the spot. Eric Clapton has called Johnson, who died at the age of 27, one the greatest blues artist that ever lived.
I was in Clarksdale for a private event where my daughter’s firm, Harley & Company, A NYC based design and strategy studio, showcased Clarksdale’s history to one of their major corporate clients from the Los Angeles area, and their sixty or so guests. The guests stayed in the Shack Up Inn, built on an old sharecropping site, and as well as learning about the Native American “trail of tears”, the exploitation of cotton-picking African slaves, and the long history of civil rights in the region, they also learnt about the birth of Mississippi delta blues before it migrated to Chicago.
The event was capped off by a presentation by Standing Rock Sioux Chairman Dave Archambault, whose current fight against the Dakota pipeline represents just one more link in a long chain of resistance by Native Americans. The Dakota pipeline is also about their attempt to protect their most sacred space for their people and for the country. It’s one of the places in the map that has no major roads running through it, no train tracks, no pipelines, no oil spills — and it’s shaped like a heart. It’s one of America’s last beating hearts. They are protecting it for us, because of their history which is all of our history.
Taking away the Sioux Nation’s right to keep its lands, is just one more example of a federal government that eagerly colludes on illegal landgrabs and prioritizes profit over the needs of vulnerable peoples.
What ghosts still roam this town and the surrounding area I will never fully know, I surely felt them. It is certainly a place where the memories of humanities extreme suffering still linger.
The question I asked myself as I walked around Clarksdale is do we ever learn? Will America forever carry forward its bad karma of racism and bigotry and pain that the South has bequeathed to us, and will the federal government in the North continue, as it does today under the current administration, to aid and abet it?
Or will we become stewards of our own destiny, and be able to change this someday in the future?
Thanks for reading this article. I recently published a book which can be bought on Amazon.
A recent independent reviewer wrote:
Ms Harley’s setting for this captivating adventure is futuristic Earth, in which the humans that are left are living in caves and underwater after the distruction of the environment. Some are even colonizing new planets. Within this structure, the tension between greed and power versus a thirst for independence kept me reading on and wishing that I didn’t have to wait for the sequel.
About the Creator
Felicity Harley is a polished public speaker, published journalist, and writer. Along with her career as a nonprofit executive, she served for twenty years on the board of Curbstone Press, an internationally recognized publishing house.