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Wyatt Emmerich: The most Southern place on earth

 

Wyatt Emmerich

 

 

In a world changing at an ever-increasing pace, the spring convocation of the Delta Council stands as a monument to the old days. 

 

The Thursday cocktail party on the banks of Deer Creek in Leland is one of my annual favorites. Everybody arrives in colorful cotton sartorial splendor, even though the surrounding fields are now mainly corn. On my bucket list is to show up one year in a pink poplin suit. 

 

The Delta is the most Southern place on earth. It has a unique culture carved from its history. Its land was extremely rich, but it came at a high price. The swamp had to be drained and cleared. Travel was difficult. It was feast or famine. Malaria and yellow fever prevailed. Isolation and downtime during the winter led to legendary parties. The clash of black and white cultures left its own footprint of irony and contradiction. 

 

I remember once I attended Chamber of Commerce functions in McComb and Greenwood on back-to-back days. In McComb, I was served ice tea. In Greenwood, there was a full bar at the door loaded with hard liquor. 

 

Just about every politician of significance shows up at the Delta Council. On Friday morning, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture speaks and then we all go eat catfish on the grounds of Delta State.  

 

As we walked to the catfish fry, we ran into Jim Hood. Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Rex Nelson was walking next to me. They shook hands and immediately connected through a couple of legendary hunting camp stories involving mutual buddies. That's how it is at the Delta Council. Everybody knows everybody. Timeless. 

 

But times have changed. Under the veneer of ageless gentility, technology is transforming agriculture. Seeds are genetically modified. Designer chemicals kill bugs and weeds. Drones take infrared images of the crops. Plowing and planting is governed by GPS-controlled steering. Irrigation dominates. It's become a high-tech process. 

 

The people have changed too. It's not just the planters and businessmen. African-American Delta political leaders are now fixtures, taking their place as part of the Delta elite. 

 

People think of me from the Delta because I was graduated from Greenwood High School and my parents lived there for decades publishing the Greenwood Commonwealth. 

 

Actually, the Emmerichs are from McComb -- south Mississippi, by way of New Orleans where they operated a canning factory on Esplanade. My rebellious great-grandfather fled the family business and became the youngest conductor in the City of New Orleans. 

 

It is on my mother's side that we have real Delta roots, going all the way back to the 1830s in Coffeeville, then the Delta, where the Buntins, Lucases and Robsons were plantation owners. 

 

My great-grandfather Robert R. Buntin was born in Yalobusha County in 1857. He died of yellow fever in Tallahatchie County 42 years later, making his five-year-old son promise on his deathbed to abandon farming and become a lawyer. 

 

That boy, my grandfather, kept the promise, graduating from Ole Miss law school. He boxed, barnstormed and gambled to pay tuition and was probably Ole Miss' shortest quarterback. He became a judge down on the coast. His daughter, Celia, went to Ole Miss, a cheerleader, where she met my father. 

 

Everybody in Mississippi has these kinds of roots. It's who we are and why we are here. 

 

Later that night at Bill Dossett's house in Cleveland, talk turned to our Delta roots. He handed me a history of Tallahatchie County. Sure enough, there was my great-great-grandfather Rob Robson on nine different pages. Surely Bill and I are distant cousins. 

 

The previous week, I had been in McComb where Tom Catchings had discovered a treasure trove of old letters in the abandoned Enterprise-Journal building downtown. Included among them were a dozen long personal letters between my grandfather Oliver Emmerich and then-Senator Jim Eastland as they debated their respective stands on segregation. 

 

So I was happy to spot Woods Eastland at the Delta Council cocktail party. Woods is a Delta patrician if there ever was one. I showed him his father's letters, which I had photographed with my smartphone. He smiled as he read the words some 60 years after they had been written. Such deep roots. Such a small world. That's Mississippi. That's the Delta. 

 

Driving back with my old friend Hayes Dent of Yazoo City, we talked of life and our families and the challenges of our state. We talked of our friends in Texas whose businesses have flourished with growth and access to capital. How can we turn Mississippi around? 

 

We talked about our choice to stay in Mississippi and the frustration of being surrounded by those who are content for our state to never change. 

 

As we talked, the endless expanse of row crops floated by outside the car window, suffused with the fading glow of Delta sunlight. 

 

Wyatt Emmerich is the editor and publisher of The Northside Sun, a weekly newspaper in Jackson. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]

 

 

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