Dispatches From Freedom Summer: The Ghosts of Greenwood

A reporter goes to Mississippi and encounters the echoes of family and the struggle for civil rights.

Black and white Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party supporters march on the boardwalk at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, N.J. Library of Congress

According to Aunt Charlotte, the church used to be a part of the Whittington Plantation, the white landowners having built it for the black sharecroppers. It’s still surrounded by crops, and Aunt Charlotte, stooped over her cane, pointed to a distant spot in the fields, saying their house, the house where my great-grandmother helped deliver my father, once stood there on the Whittington lands. I soon learned that nearly every black person here came from a family attached through labor (and sometimes blood) to white families and to plantations with names like “Star of the West.”

It was dusk and the Delta heat settled about my shoulders like a wool blanket. Heavy and uncomfortable, it made my notebook paper fall limp and my ink stop flowing. Gnats and mosquitoes swarmed my legs. Aunt Charlotte, wrapped in a memory, paused to listen to an owl hooting a melancholy warning.

“The old people would say someone is going to die,” she said.

Located in Leflore County, my dad’s hometown took its name from Greenwood LeFlore, the last Choctaw Indian chief, who signed over much of the tribe’s land for an Oklahoma reservation while he himself lived lavishly on 15,000 acres of Delta land that he worked with some 400 enslaved black laborers.

The Civil War, of course, left much of the South crippled, but not long after Reconstruction, Greenwood boomed. While white politicians in Jackson led the South in stripping black residents of their elected offices and newly guaranteed citizenship rights, white plantation owners rebuilt the levees on the flood-prone and swampy Delta. Cotton once again stretched as far as the eye could see, and Greenwood took its place as one of the cotton capitals of the world.

But this boom was made possible only by a reconstituted slavery, a system of coerced labor known as sharecropping. Vagrancy laws were passed, making it illegal for black people to stand around “idle.” Often the only defense was to prove one was in the employ of a white person.

White Mississippians, outnumbered by the African-Americans needed to work the land, implemented a violent and absolute form of social control. The nation’s most heavily black state, Mississippi lynched more black people between 1882 and 1968 than any other state in the country.

Greenwood’s Yazoo River is formed by the meeting of the Tallahatchie and Yalobusha rivers, and as we crossed the Yazoo River and headed to the heart of Greenwood, the ghosts of Mississippi grew close, and Aunt Charlotte finally loosened.

Aunt Charlotte told me that she was baptized in the Tallahatchie. She went on to speak of another river baptism, into the perils of the Delta’s color line.

She said her brother Milton—my dad’s namesake—and a cousin had once committed the sin of walking through a white neighborhood for a reason other than to simply go to work. Two white teenagers in a car gave chase, trying to run them down. Her brother and cousin were forced to jump into the murky river to escape. They returned home, muddy and wet, chests heaving from panic and exertion. Her mother, she said, was livid with fear.

“They got a hard scolding,” Aunt Charlotte said. “She said, ‘You’re going to get yourself killed.’”

We drove past the regal white courthouse, with its requisite Confederate monument standing guard out front. Aunt Charlotte told of another brother running home, chest heaving. A cousin who leased farmland from a white plantation owner had the gall to stand up to a white overseer who didn’t like him having taken a rest. Everyone knew that simply asserting one’s manhood could get a man strung from a tree, so her brother raced to get my great-grandfather to help guard his cousin against the lynching mob.

“My daddy grabbed his Winchester and rifle and his .38 long-nose pistol,” Aunt Charlotte said, and he headed to the cousin’s house to keep vigil. This was a well-practiced event: Family members often gathered arms to protect a loved one following a social breach, usually keeping watch until the loved one could be whisked out of town, almost always to the North.

“They usually had to leave before nightfall or the lynching mob would come,” Aunt Charlotte said quietly. The lynching mob did not come that night, but Aunt Charlotte never forgot the fear. That fright was as routine among black people in the Delta as heading to church on Sunday.

It was just a few miles outside of town, after all, where they found the body of Emmett Till. The tossing of black bodies into the muddy rivers for breaching the social order wasn’t unusual. The only reason people across the nation knew Till’s name was that his mother insisted on an open casket and allowed the ghastly photos of his bloated and mutilated corpse to be published in the nation’s leading black publications.

It was eerie being down here where it happened, just a few miles from where my dad grew up, and realizing how easily he could have been Till. We somehow convince ourselves that this is ancient history. But I am not even 40, and my dad was but four years younger than Emmett Till. Like my dad, Till’s mother had also left as one of hundreds of thousands of black Mississippians who fled their homeland during the Great Migration.

Mamie Till ended up in Chicago, and like my Grandmama, sent her son back down South during the summer months. My dad even shared Emmett Till’s light eyes, as well as that bravado that came from living in the North—that bravado that brought out the worst in white Southerners. One of my dad’s cousins told me that when he came back to Greenwood for the summers, my dad liked “progueing,” a local word for strutting around and being seen. He told me my great-grandparents kept Dad close.