By the Numbers: Hard Times in the Delta; September 2000; Scientific American Magazine; by Rodger Doyle; 1 Page(s)
The Mississippi Delta is perhaps the most fertile place on the earth, yet the people there are among the poorest in the country. The root of their poverty goes back to the early 19th century, when many Easterners realized that the climate and the rich alluvial soil-20 to 40 feet thick throughout much of the area-had extraordinary potential for growing cotton. But the lush, swampy land had to be cleared and drained, an enterprise less suitable for ordinary yeoman farmers than for those with substantial resources, such as slave owners. The land was opened early in the 19th century, and by 1860 there were 343 plantations, each with 100 or more slaves, in the 35-county Delta region shown on the map. This area is not the true delta of the Mississippi valley but includes the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta-hence the name-plus other counties in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi bordering the Mississippi River between Memphis, Tenn., and West Baton Rouge, La. This region is the most extensive blackmajority area in the U.S. today.
For years the planters were less than enthusiastic about bringing in new industry that would compete with them for unskilled black workers. Thus, when mechanized agriculture came to the region beginning in the 1930s, there were few industrial jobs to absorb laid-off field hands. Many of them, particularly in rural areas, became progressively more enmeshed in poverty, whereas the young and better-educated left the region. Indeed, the Delta was the largest subregion in the U.S. that contributed to the historic exodus of Southern blacks to Northern cities in the 20th century. The result has been, over the past 50 years, a population decline almost unprecedented for any major subregion. Most other black-majority counties in the U. S. outside the Delta have also lost population, but generally not as much. (One of the few with strong population growth is Fulton County, Georgia, home to Atlanta.)