Up & Down the Delta

Remembering "Boss Lee" of Arkansas and Will Percy of Mississippi.



Countless stories have been told about the Mississippi Delta in both fact and fiction. No story is quite like the one about the Wilsons and the land that generations of that family owned and cultivated in Mississippi County, Arkansas — an area west of the Mississippi River, east of Interstate 55, north of Memphis, and south of Osceola. That story is told in Delta Empire: Lee Wilson and the Transformation of Agriculture in the New South (Louisiana State University Press) by University of Arkansas history professor Jeannie Whayne.

The story starts with Josiah Wilson, who settled in what was densely wooded swampland in 1848, which he turned into 2,300 acres of farmland worked by more than three dozen slaves. The story ends in 2010, when the Wilson family sold their “Delta empire” — 30,000 acres total. Central to this story, though, is Robert E. Lee Wilson, known in his day as “Boss Lee.”

He was a taskmaster. He was a risk taker. But he treated his laborers better than many planters of the day. He built them decent housing and schools. He provided them with healthcare. And he expected much in return: hard work on his land — land that was to grow into the largest, richest cotton plantation in the South. It was land that didn’t start out fit for farming.

As Whayne describes it in Delta Empire, Mississippi County, Arkansas, was once a center of pre-Columbian Native American culture. Corn supported the large population that settled there until a century of drought followed by famine caused that population to disappear. Then the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812 greatly altered the area by creating the “sunken lands” we know today, which made the landscape even less hospitable to settlers: heavily forested, yes, but covered in swamps.

Those forests were harvested for their lumber, and those swamps were eventually drained for agriculture, because for enterprising planters, what was left in place was God’s great gift to the Delta: layers of rich alluvial soil. Robert Edward Lee Wilson, a teenager in the 1880s, inherited 400 acres of it. He bought another hundred acres (for $17.50). And he set to work making money off of the lumber and money off of cotton. “Enterprising planter,” though, hardly describes Lee Wilson’s tremendous early drive. By the time he was 17 years old, he’d had himself declared of age to do business on his own.

Wilson’s father died in 1870. His mother died from yellow fever in Memphis when the boy was 13. He was then placed in the care of relatives, but at age 15, Wilson headed from West Tennessee back to eastern Arkansas, where he was almost disinherited by a brother-in-law who argued that Josiah and Martha Wilson were not married when Lee was born. But Wilson won that inheritance and never looked back. Nor did he look, according to Whayne, to the paternalistic, Old South mentality for inspiration.

“He imbibed the rhetoric of the New South — the rhetoric that the South after the Civil War will recover by developing industry and using Northern capital to do so,” the author says by phone from Fayetteville, Arkansas, where she has been on the history faculty at the university since 1990.

“Wilson borrowed money to buy land. He’d mortgage the land,” Whayne explains. “He bought more land. He’d mortgage it. He built buildings. He mortgaged them to buy more land. He was heavily in debt, but, according to his books, he was, in 1933, the biggest cotton farmer in the South.”

He did more than amass money. Wilson was a progressive and New Dealer. At his zenith, his 50,000 acres were organized into more than two dozen carefully managed plantations. He also invested in banks, in railroads, in manufacturing, and in education, and he established towns, such as Wilson, Arkansas, and others named after his children.

By the time of his death in Memphis in 1933, Lee Wilson had paved the way for later generations to extend and diversify the family farming business to include soybean and rice cultivation, seed and chemical enterprises — investments that led to even greater earnings. That sale of Lee Wilson & Co. in late 2010 by the Wilson family — including fourth-generation family members Robert and Steve Wilson of Memphis — amounted to $150 million, the legacy of a self-made man named Robert E. Lee Wilson.

Make that “an absolutely self-made man,” says Jeannie Whayne.

 

William Alexander Percy of Greenville, Mississippi, was no farmer despite the plantation his family owned outside of town. He was a Harvard-trained lawyer by trade, a poet by nature. But as a writer of poetry, he was less than successful. As the author of Lanterns on the Levee: Recollections of a Planter’s Son, however, he is certainly remembered.

Remembered too for the relief work he headed during the great Mississippi River flood in 1927, and for adopting writer Walker Percy after the boy was orphaned. Will Percy served as a mentor to Shelby Foote too, and he acted as a kind of father figure to the Fugitives: the writers John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, and Robert Penn Warren, who gathered at Vanderbilt in the 1920s.

Percy, who died in 1942, was also a homosexual who steered his own course in the first half of the twentieth century — a course charted with valuable insight by historian Benjamin E. Wise in William Alexander Percy: The Curious Life of a Mississippi Planter and Sexual Freethinker (The University of North Carolina Press).

First to last, though, Wise maintains that Percy was a white Mississippian of the planter class — “an identity that sat lenslike before [Percy’s] eyes, coloring his perspective of everything he saw.”

What he saw when it came to African-Americans was a breed apart, the black sharecropper system on the Percy plantation, in Will Percy’s paternalistic view, “one of the best systems ever devised to give security and a chance for profit to the simple and the unskilled.”

The South’s poor whites — “peckerwoods,” in Percy’s eyes — he summarized as “probably the most unprepossessing on the broad face of the ill-populated earth.”

But beyond these racist and class-bound views is the received notion of manhood and especially the South’s notion of manhood, which Percy was to question, wrestle with, and broaden to give a man such as himself a place in the world. Writes Wise:

“[Percy’s] own story of belonging — which emerges in his poetry, his diaries, his correspondence, his memoir — had a distinctly more diverse cast. It included different kinds of men: sculptors, poets, travelers, gardeners, and drifters; men who married and men who did not; men with practical sensibilities and men who were lovers of peace and beauty. Percy’s efforts to create his own stories of belonging make up much of this biography.”

And an excellent biography it is. 

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