The Mighty River runs through us all.
It binds us, north, south, big and small.
The River has made us who we are;
Without it, the Delta would not be.
The River brought us here to heal this land,
Hand in hand, you and me.
Let us go to the River.
Walk together to the River.
Let us go to the River.
The Mighty River of Life.
Since becoming the director of the Delta Center for Culture and Learning and the Mississippi Delta National Heritage Area in August 2014, I have traveled the Mississippi Delta region for the past several months visiting communities, meeting people of all walks of life, listening, and learning as a way to become reacquainted with a place that I love. As David Cohn, author of Where I Was Born and Raised, famously wrote, “The Mississippi Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and ends on Catfish Row in Vicksburg.” I have seen and experienced broad physical and social contrasts during my travels, traversing this diverse landscape of towns on the rise, hamlets in demise, parts known and unknown (as Anthony Bourdain would have it), structures going up and falling (or fallen) down, and spots remembered and forgotten.
These contrasts make the Mississippi Delta the wondrous place of myths, legends,
and hard facts that it is, for better or for worse.
The year 2014 was designated as the “Year of the Creative Economy” for Mississippi. According to the Mississippi Creative Economy website, Governor Phil Bryant cites that, “job growth in Mississippi’s creative economy has outpaced national creative economy growth in recent years,” which led to a 12-month-long celebration of Mississippi’s creative people, enterprises, and communities. These include architects, professors, culinary and folk artists, musicians, writers, museums, film companies, dance studios, cultural events and festivals, plays, bed and breakfasts, and the list goes on and on.
As Mississippi tourism director, Malcolm White, states, the creative economy, “is all about an authentic experience . . . The creative economy allows communities to tell their story. . . . In doing the telling, two things occur: one is they create an economy around heritage and cultural tourism and the other is that it builds civic pride, which is about a community accepting and agreeing on what their story is and then telling it collectively.”
There is no doubt in my mind that the Mississippi Delta is a creative region on the cusp of a cultural renaissance, the ideal place to tell the proud story of not only the people of the region and the state but of America and of humanity. Interestingly, according to the Mississippi’s Creative Economy study, among the state’s five tourism regions, in 2008, the Delta ranked last with regard to percentage of workforce employed in creative enterprises. Roughly seven years later, I wonder what our region’s progress has been, given all that I have experienced and seen during my recent travels?
Several programs, projects, and events position the Mississippi Delta as a leading cultural heritage tourism destination in the
21st century creative economy.
In the north Delta, there is the proposed redevelopment and expansion of 157-acre Circle G Ranch into a resort and retail destination between Walls and Horn Lake, MS, located just south of Memphis. As the famed wedding site of its former owner, Elvis Presley, the property is slated to include a retail center, restaurants, a concert auditorium, two hotels and a convention center, luxury condominiums, wedding chapels, honeymoon cottages, and an Elvis museum.
Roughly fifty five miles further south is Clarksdale, MS, billed as “the crossroads of culture and quirkiness with a dose of the Blues,” due to its diverse cultural arts scene comprising annual music festivals, museums, restaurants, and live performance venues.
Cleveland, MS, is the home of Delta State University, a regional institution of higher learning that has figured prominently in constructing the highly anticipated Grammy Museum Mississippi, which is expected to be the most technologically advanced music-themed museum in the world when it opens in November 2015. Southwest of Cleveland is Winterville State Park, a site of revitalized interest due to its prehistoric ceremonial mounds built by Native Americans of the Plaquemine culture between 1200 and 1250 AD.
In the central Delta, along the east-west Highway 82 corridor, the city of Greenville hosts the Mississippi Delta Blues and Heritage Festival, the oldest continually operating Blues festival in the country. Leland, known as the birthplace of Kermit the Frog and the childhood home of Muppets creator, Jim Henson, features Frogfest and the Highway 61 Blues Museum.
Indianola, the adopted hometown of BB King, the late great King of the Blues, is home to the BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center. BB King passed away this year, which prompted a week-long series of memorial observances, including a procession that started on Beale Street in Memphis and traveled south through several Delta municipalities along historic Blues Highway 61. Thousands from around the world descended upon Indianola where his funeral services were held. BB King’s final resting place is at the museum. Many predict that his gravesite will attract a steady stream of visitors to Indianola for many years to come.
About seven miles east of Indianola is Moorhead, home of Mississippi Delta Community College, recently opened a visitor center and museum connected to its “Southern Crosses the Dog” blues heritage. Further east on Highway 82 are the towns of Itta Bena and Greenwood, homes of Mississippi Valley State University and the Museum of the Mississippi Delta, respectively.
Ruleville attracts scores of Civil Rights heritage tourists to the site of the Fannie Lou Hamer Statue and Memorial Garden, which was completed in 2012. There also is emerging interest in promoting an Emmett Till Civil Rights heritage trail comprising the Emmett Till Historic Intrepid Center in Glendora; Bryant’s Grocery and Meat Market in Money; and the Emmitt Till Interpretive Center in Sumner.
In the lower Delta, located roughly 40 miles south of the crossroads of Highway 82 and the Blues Highway 61, is the town of Rolling Fork, home of the Great Delta Bear Affair, a celebration of President Roosevelt’s famous bear hunt and the creation of the Teddy Bear. A giant wooden chainsaw carved bear is created by an artist there each year, after which it is contributed to the town’s unique bear-themed public art trail.
Rolling Fork also is the birthplace of Muddy Waters, the father of modern Chicago Blues music; his life is commemorated with a Blues Trail marker, a “Blues Cabin,” and a memorial gazebo. The Deep Delta Festival serves as an annual celebration of the region’s Blues heritage with music, food, and recreational activities. The lower Delta also features various nature-based heritage tourism attractions, including the Theodore Roosevelt Refuge Complex, the Yazoo National Wildlife Refuge, and the Delta National Forest, the only bottomland hardwood forest in the US Forest system.
At the southern tip of the Delta is the city of Vicksburg, which boasts numerous antebellum mansions and sweeping views of the Mississippi River. It also is the home of Vicksburg National Military Park, which preserves the site of the Civil War Battle of Vicksburg featuring 1,340 monuments, a restored Union gunboat, national cemetery and a 16-mile driving tour.
Again, with all of these developments, I wonder how employment in the Delta’s creative economy looks now in comparison to other tourism regions of our state. I am hopeful that if such a study is conducted soon, the Delta will at least show significant gains even if it does not top the list.
Of equal importance is the community pride aspect of the creative economy, which can be quite difficult to measure. Delta towns and counties are notorious for being competitive with each other. One additional hope that I carry deep within me is this: that the people of the Delta will begin to appreciate what binds us as one region and one people. The Mississippi River is an appropriate symbol of what binds us. It is the Mighty River of Life, and like life, it has changed, moved, meandered, created, and destroyed over time. Yet, it is still flowing. Without the Mighty River, the Delta would not be the Delta.
So, I ask, for the sake of our beloved Mississippi Delta region: who is willing to walk together, hand in hand to the Mighty River, the Mighty River of Life?