“They Don’t Write Books About Iowa”

Now in its sixth year, the Delta Conference explores what makes this region “the most interesting place on earth.”

Mt. Helena Plantation at Rolling Fork, Mississippi

Photography by Willy Bearden

“The Mississippi Delta has been called the most Southern place on earth. I would add to that — it’s the most interesting place on earth. So much of what has happened in the Delta is a microcosm of what has happened in this country, so it’s great for us to be able to discuss these things, and to have this day for people to come and celebrate the Delta.”

That’s Willy Bearden — author, historian, storyteller, filmmaker, and so much more — and “this day” is “The Delta: Everything Southern!” This one-day symposium held at the University of Memphis (this year on Friday, June 3rd) brings speakers from all over the country to talk about architecture, art, folklore, history, culture, you name it.

“It is an educational, entertaining, one-day collection of presentations by a variety of people from all walks of life, who speak about the Delta in very personal ways,” says Tom Mendina, assistant to the dean of the University of Memphis Libraries. “But it is not a lecture series, and I think it’s important for people to know that, because then you’ll understand why there is such electricity in the air when this event is going on.”

A Delta shack at sunset


Early Days

It may seem strange that events in Europe more than half a century ago led to the Delta conferences of today, but that’s how the event got started — when Dr. Nick Gotten, a retired internist, attended a lecture on the Holocaust.

“Years ago, I had joined the Friends of the University of Memphis Libraries,” he says, “and every month or so they would have these programs. I attended one on the Holocaust, and it was fascinating. Only 15 or 20 people were there, but I got interested in the programs and even joined the group.”

Gotten began to suggest ideas for other programs, and sometime in 2005 suggested a presentation on the Delta.

“My father had been a neurosurgeon, and I had already noticed how many of his friends and others were from the Delta, and how successful they were,” he says. “This region has produced some of the finest artists and musicians, not to mention professionals like doctors and lawyers, out of all proportion to their numbers in the general population. I thought it was sort of counter-intuitive that this supposedly backward and poverty-stricken area could produce such talent.”

The more Gotten explored this phenomenon, the more he became convinced that the Delta needed a broader examination. He persuaded Willy Bearden to put together a program, “and that was the basic premise — a one-day program on it. But then Tom Mendina at the library suggested we expand it to an all-day show.”

The first event, in June 2006, was limited to 100 people and only attracted about 75. Even so, Gotten thought it was a success. “What we did was tap into a special niche of people who loved the Delta,” he says. “You could just feel the audience really bonding with the speakers and with the whole idea.”

The first conference definitely featured a rather eclectic program. Speakers included Unita Blackwell, who became the first African-American mayor of a city in Mississippi, speaking on “The Struggle for Dignity.” Mississippi photographer Maude Schuyler Clay, whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair and Esquire, presented a collection of images, “Delta Land in 1969.” Paul Canonici, a retired pastor from Madison, Mississippi, talked about the Italian culture in this region. Willy Bearden spoke on “The Blues: Up from the Delta” along with University of Memphis professor David Evans, who played and commented on this genre. The keynote speaker was James Cobb, a professor of history at the University of Georgia and a noted scholar on the American South.

Bigger And Better

Gotten realized they had barely scratched the surface, and began to arrange another conference the next year. A committee was formed to discuss future topics and locate speakers and presenters.

“We try to strike a balance,” he says. “There’s something for everybody, and it’s not a stuffy, real serious thing. There’s a certain nostalgia for the Delta, but we don’t have a plantation mentality about it. We talk about it, warts and all.”
He remembers especially a moving presentation by Gloria Carter Dickerson, who was one of the first African Americans to integrate the school system of Drew, Mississippi, outside of Clarksdale.

“I am the daughter of sharecroppers,” Dickerson told the audience at the 2008 conference. In a presentation titled “Somebody Had To Do It,” she said, “My mother had grown up in poverty, and as far back as she could look — for generation after generation — she knew that her family had been poor, and she was determined that her family would not live that way. We would not work in the cotton fields. She would break that cycle of poverty.”

Other topics have touched on equally serious subjects, but sometimes with a humorous twist. Charlotte Hays, co-author of Being Dead Is No Excuse: The Southern Ladies Guide to Hosting the Perfect Funeral, had the crowd — which had increased to several hundred attendees over the years — laughing with her amusing anecdotes.

“My topic is ‘Dying in the Delta,’” she told the 2008 attendees, “and I think the best way to tell you how different [that subject] is from other places is when [co-author Gayden Metcalfe] went to pitch this book to the publishers in New York. They asked, ‘How do y’all make up these crazy stories?’ I told them, ‘We’re not making them up. If anything, we are toning them down, for Yankee consumption.’”

Many of the presentations deal with the art, architecture, and archeology of the Delta. Sam Brooks, the forest archeologist for the Mississippi National Forests, has spoken at three Delta conferences. A recent discussion focused on Native-American mound builders, whose work actually predates Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids.

Even the history-related topics often tie in with current events. Three years ago, Charles Crawford, a professor of history at the University of Memphis, gave an audiovisual presentation on the great flood of 1927, with images that bore a chilling resemblance to what we have seen in our hometown lately. He showed old photographs of the rising waters and a break in the levee outside Mound Bayou, Mississippi: “This released a tidal wave of water reported at 100 feet high and almost a mile in width. The terrifying force and speed of this tsunami gave no time for escape.”

The presentations on art often go beyond the landscapes and “typical” paintings you might hang on the walls of your home. In 2009, Dr. Carol Crown, a professor of art at the University of Memphis, spoke on “Folk Art of the Delta: Masters of Vernacular Art.” The artists she discussed included the Reverend H.D. Dennis, who used hand-lettered signs, found objects, gallons of brightly colored paint, and just plain junk — even an old school bus — to transform his wife’s grocery store outside Vicksburg into an astonishing fantasy world. Quilters like Pecolia Warner and Sarah Mary Taylor turned scraps of cloth into remarkable works of art. And in his spare time, blues musician James “Son” Thomas liked to sculpt crude human skulls out of the red clay he scooped from creek bottoms, adorning them with sunglasses, marble eyes, and even human teeth.

Other conference topics and speakers over the years have included:

“History and Vignettes of Dockery Farms” — McKay Dockery Clark discussed the self-contained agricultural community established by her grandfather in 1895.

“Mound Bayou: A Delta Example for America” — Dr. David Jackson, professor at Florida A&M University, showed how the African-American residents turned this all-black town “into a beacon of hope for blacks throughout the country.”

“A World Apart or a Part of the World” — Dr. Chester Morgan, chairman of the history department at Delta State University, explored how the Delta became the richest cotton-producing region in the country, making this “world apart” area a major player in the world economy.

“West African Music, the Southern Blues, and Delta Literature” — Dr. Reginald Martin, professor of English at the University of Memphis, discussed the dual impact of African and Southern music on the works of William Faulkner, Richard Wright, Eudora Welty, and others.
“Chai Cotton: Jewish Life in the Mississippi Delta” — Dr. Stuart Rockoff, director of the history department at the Institute of Southern Jewish Life, examined the Jewish migration to the Delta in the late 1800s.

“That’s How Boogaloo Did It” — Eden Brent, winner of the Blues Foundation International Blues Challenge, sat down at an upright piano and led the audience “on a journey through the music that made the Delta famous.”

“Breaking Convention: Hodding Carter and the Delta Democrat-Times” — Curtis Wilkie, professor of journalism at Ole Miss, discussed how the little Greenville, Mississippi, newspaper battled the conservative establishment of that state for three decades.

“Cotton and Race in the Making of America” — Financier Gene Dattel examined how the cotton industry “shaped the nineteenth-century global economy and magnified the United States’ racial problems.”

“Lost Plantations of the Delta” — Dr. Marc Matrana, a New Orleans physician, detailed the rise and fall of Southern plantations, with a special emphasis on “Seven Oaks,” the property owned by his ancestors in Louisiana.

“Delta Cuisine” — Martha Foose, author of the award-winning cookbook Screen Doors and Sweet Tea, offered the audience unique and decidedly humorous recipes for such fare as Strawberry Missionary Salad, Sweet Potato Soup, and Sweet Tea Pie.


Something For Everyone

The conference, expected to draw some 500 guests this year, has outgrown its old space in the Fogelman Executive Conference Center and in 2011 moves to the Michael D. Rose Theatre on the U of M Campus. As the conference has expanded, the organizers have added more features. Books written by the various speakers are now offered for sale outside the auditorium, and for the 2011 event, a special tour package was put together. The day before the event, attendees can take a guided cultural tour of Memphis, with stops at Graceland, Sun Studio, and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. When the conference is over, they can join Willy Bearden — in conjunction with Sweet Magnolia Tours — on a two-day tour of the Delta. Following the Mississippi Blues Trail down Highway 61, the tour will visit old plantations, Robert Johnson’s famous “crossroad” (where the blues genius supposedly sold his soul to the devil), a catfish farm, and a mix of down-home and upscale restaurants.

The tours are especially designed for visitors from outside the Delta, especially the growing contingent of Europeans and Asians who have a special appreciation for this region.

“What I’ve found is that Europeans often know more about the Delta than people actually from the Delta,” says Gotten. “They can tell you all about Robert Johnson, and they go down and snap pictures of his gravestone. There’s a tremendous amount of knowledge overseas about the Delta.”

Bearden, who took over as chairman of the conference from Gotten two years ago, is especially enthusiastic about sharing this part of the world with visitors.

“In my travels, I’ve seen that not everybody is like us, and that’s why people are fascinated by us,” he says. “All these artists, writers, and musicians who come from the Delta — that doesn’t happen in other places. You know, they don’t write books about Iowa. Now that’s not taking anything away from Iowa, but it says that so much of what is happening in our popular culture came right out of the Mississippi Delta.”

Looking back over the past six years, Gotten says, “There is no other university in the country that is doing a program like this, and I am really proud of it. When we started, we thought it would be for one year, and possibly two, but there is no end to the subjects you can talk about in the Delta. It has succeeded beyond our wildest expectations.” 

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