Mississippi: The Past That Has Not Died

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Nor did “more time” mean more money for Negro education. In 1886 Negro teachers averaged $27.40 a month; in 1939 the figure was $28—a gain of 60 cents. During the forties, take-home pay increased, but so did the gap between the numbers of Negro and white teachers. The ratio stood at three to two in 1890, but at 2.5 to 1 in 1950. In 1900 the state spent three times as much on a white student as it did on a Negro; in 1950 the margin was the same.

Moreover, the quality of Negro education fell steadily behind. In 1945 half the teachers in colored schools still hadn’t been through high school. There were only seven regionally accredited Negro high schools in the whole state. A Negro boy had less than one chance in twenty of going to a school where he could learn a foreign language.

“More time” was equally meaningless on jobs. In 1902 a Negro church in Jackson listed members in a wide range of interesting occupations—a bakery owner, a fashionable dress designer, a representative of tailoring firms, numerous painters and craftsmen. William H. Smallwood, a Negro, was Jackson’s leading expert on leases and deeds in the eighties. In 1905 Greenville listed numerous Negro doctors, lawyers, bookstore owners, cotton samplers. By 1950 all this was over. White workers had crowded out Negroes and monopolized the field. After World War II Greenville experimented with an imaginative plan for training Negro auto mechanics, but the results were disappointing. It proved impossible to place them.

 

In social life “more time” also found the Negro drifting back. In the 1890’s prominent Negroes like J. R. Lynch had lived on Capitol Street, not far from General George himself. By 1950 this was unheard of. All the time an elaborate system of social taboos continued to multiply, putting the Negro more firmly in his place—don’t shake hands with one … don’t let one in the front door … and never, never call one “Mr.” or “Mrs.”

And yet many Mississippians remained very fond of the Negro. “It is an historic fact,” declared Senator James Eastland, “that the Southern white people are the best friends he has ever had.” An overstatement, but still it was true that countless white people took care of Negroes when they were sick, fed them when they were hungry, and lent them money when they were broke.

The picture wasn’t all that rosy. Even those whites who felt most deeply the spirit of noblesse oblige had to trim their sails during hard times. And more and more whites didn’t have the spirit at all, as lumbering and other industries crowded out the plantation tradition. In any case, the Negro had to be “good” and “know his place.” Still, it was often a happy relationship, and to most visitors the mystery was how so many white people could be so devoted to the Negro and at the same time so firmly hold him down.

A Clarksdale housewife inadvertently supplied an “answer,” while trying to set a newcomer straight. “People up North,” she explained, “just don’t realize all the things we do for Negroes. We don’t hate them at all. We’re always untangling their problems—which is anything but easy, for after all they’re animals, simply animals.” A farmer from Calhoun County put it a little more bluntly: “The best way to understand how people here feel is to put it the way my daddy put it: the nigger has no soul. He is like a duck, a chicken, or a mule. He just hasn’t got a soul.” Certainly not all people in Mississippi felt this way, but a surprisingly large number—probably a majority—unconsciously agreed with the red-neck logger who summed it all up: “Let’s face it; the nigger is a high-class beast.”

Once this curious premise was accepted—that the Negro was something less than a real person—everything fell into place. It explained why the people of Marks were so proud of the paved streets in the Negro section—something that might elsewhere be taken for granted. It explained why a Delta housewife felt she was making a major concession when she said she was willing to let her cook use her bomb shelter in the event of nuclear war. It explained why a different standard of justice was meted out to Negroes—lenience when the matter was between Negroes, harsh treatment when a white was involved. And, of course, it explained the whole strange mixture of kindness and meanness. A man might feel kindly toward a “duck, a chicken, or a mule,” but he certainly wouldn’t want to vote with one or send his child to school with one.

Above all, the notion that the Negro was subhuman explained white Mississippi’s deepest fear and obsession: “the mongrelization of the race.” If a man really believed a Negro was “like a duck, a chicken or a mule,” he understandably didn’t want his daughter to marry one. And, paradoxically enough, he seemed sure she might. The idea of the inevitable progression was still at work: incidental contact at school must lead to social contact outside, which in turn must lead to mixed marriages and inferior offspring.

It did no good to point out that, even assuming any basis for such weird racial theories, all the experience of integrated schools elsewhere indicated that there would be no significant trend to intermarriage. The standard answer: Why take any chances? “We just don’t want any of those black babies with blue eyes,” declared a plantation manager near Perthshire.