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Forgotten Time: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta after the Civil War

Author(s):Willis, John C.
Reviewer(s):Harris, J. William

Published by EH.NET (July 2001)

John C. Willis. Forgotten Time: The Yazoo-Mississippi Delta after the Civil

War. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000. xiv + 239 pp.

$55 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8139-1971-1; $19.50 (paper), ISBN: 0-8139-1982-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by J. William Harris, Department of History, University of

New Hampshire.

John C. Willis has written an important and provocative book on the economic

history of the post-Civil War South. The “forgotten time” of his title is the

period from the end of the war to the 1890s, when, Willis (Department of

History, University of the South) argues, a generation of blacks (as well as

whites) benefited from considerable opportunity for economic mobility in the

Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Although Willis devotes some attention to such

cultural and social phenomena as blues music and family life, and more to

racial violence and politics, this economic story is the heart of his


Before the Civil War, most of the area between the Yazoo and Mississippi

rivers was too wet and too remote from convenient transportation to attract

settlers. After the war, this interior was gradually cleared. Much of the

clearing was done by African-American farmers who, either on their own, or

through rental arrangements with landowners, cut the timber, put the land to

the plow, and, surprisingly often, earned enough to buy substantial acreage.

While the political power of blacks during Reconstruction helped, more

important were the economic incentives at work. To clear the land, landowners,

whether individuals or railroad companies, offered terms for labor that were

favorable in both the narrowly economic sense of low rents and good prospects

and the broader sense of fair treatment.

To make his case, Willis relies on a wide variety of evidence, including

newspapers, plantation records, memoirs, and government documents. Most

important are the census records from 1870 to 1900 and local land and tax

records. With deed records, for example, Willis has ingeniously traced the

careers of black farmers who were able to build up substantial properties.

Usually they relied significantly on debt to do so. Willis argues that

mobility into the ranks of landowners was not infrequent for African Americans

before the 1890s, and, indeed, more black than white farmers owned Delta land

in the late nineteenth century.

After that time, several developments halted blacks’ progress and limited

their opportunities. Timber and railroad companies helped to clear the

interior, making it relatively more accessible to white planters with capital

(here, Willis neglects the role of levee-building in developing the interior

of the Delta). The depression in cotton prices in the 1890s wiped out the

property holdings of many blacks; rising cotton prices in the twentieth

century led to increasing land values, thus keeping land out of the reach of

the vast majority of black farmers. Politically, white Mississippians

disfranchised nearly all black voters in 1890. Thus landowning by blacks

declined and lynching of blacks increased.

Willis’s emphasis on black economic opportunity runs against the grain of most

writing on the postwar South, where economic historians, notably Roger Ransom

and Richard Sutch (One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of

Emancipation, New York, 1977), have stressed sharecropping, poverty, and

limited opportunity. His argument is reminiscent of C. Vann Woodward’s claim

that the immediate post-Reconstruction period was one of “forgotten

alternatives” in southern race relations (The Strange Career of Jim

Crow, third edition, New York, 1974). Willis perhaps exaggerates the

originality of his central argument; James C. Cobb (The Most Southern Place

on Earth: The Mississippi Delta and the Roots of Regional Identity, New

York, 1992) earlier argued that the disfranchisement of blacks in 1890 “led

directly to an era of drastically diminished economic, political, and social

prospects for blacks” in the Delta. Nevertheless, Willis’s claims for

opportunity are more boldly put, and his evidence is new. More than that, it

is, for most part, convincing. It is not, however, as convincing as it might


One problem is that Willis tells us too little about his key quantitative

sources, and he seems to have underused them. He tells us that he collected,

for three counties in the census years 1870, 1880, and 1890, data on “a

variety of demographic attributes, including literacy, age, household size and

composition, labor patters, personal and real property, and farm production”

on “approximately 25,000 of the region’s white and black farm owners and

laborers.” And this is all he tells us about this very impressive

database (by comparison, Ransom and Sutch’s sample from the 1880 census

includes 11,000 farms). There is no account of the sampling method for

counties or individuals, no summary of the numbers for each county or each

year, and, indeed, relatively little use of the data. We learn about the

literacy and ages of black farmers and sharecroppers, but not how many whites

and blacks of each status there were in each county or year, or how farm sizes

or production patterns varied by race and status.

About the county land records, the source of some of the most interesting

information in the book, we learn even less. How were the records organized?

Were they sampled, and if so, how? What was the relationship between the

population of farmers appearing in these records and that of all farmers in

the Delta? Without this kind of information, much of Willis’s account,

interesting as it is, remains anecdotal.

Willis’s analysis of lynching statistics, though less central to his argument,

is open to more specific cautions. Drawing on the NAACP’s compilation of

lynchings from 1889, he argues that, in the 1890s, whites were actually more

likely to be lynched (in proportion to their population) than blacks in the

Delta. After 1900, lynchings increased in number, and only blacks were

victims. However, data collected by Stewart E. Tolnay and E. M. Beck (A

Festival of Violence: An Analysis of Southern Lynchings, 1882-1930,

Urbana, 1995) offer a different picture. They double-checked the NAACP data

with other sources and extended it back to 1882. For a research project of my

own (see Deep Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of

Segregation, Baltimore, 2001), they generously shared their raw database

on Mississippi lynchings with me, and that database shows that lynching rates

in the Delta were considerably higher in the mid-1880s than in the 1890s, and

higher also than in the early twentieth century. Further, there are no

white lynching victims in Delta counties in their database for the 1890s.

Granted the inherent limitations for lynching statistics, I find it difficult

to accept Willis’s own interpretation of them.

The net effect of these questions about data and sources is to reinforce my

belief that Willis has probably overstated the opportunities for blacks before

1890, when most were, after all, still laborers and renters, and understated

their opportunities after 1900, when the Delta was still a magnet for black

labor because of its relatively high wages. It would be wrong, though, to

conclude on a negative note, because Forgotten Time is a significant

achievement. It is relatively brief, and because it combines graceful writing

and a provocative argument, it may well find a place in many classrooms and

graduate seminars. It deserves to be carefully read by anyone interested in

the economic history of the postwar South or of African Americans.

J. William Harris is Professor and Chair in the History Department,

University of New Hampshire. He is the author, most recently, of Deep

Souths: Delta, Piedmont, and Sea Island Society in the Age of Segregation

(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001)

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century