The Delta as a Classroom

as published in The Ole Miss, the annually published yearbook for the University of Mississippi

 

 

In the middle of a pitch-black Delta cotton field, an old one-room house made of fading wood planks and patches of rusty metal sits under the stars, far from streetlights. Covered in colorful, hand-painted signs, the building looks more like an abandoned, graffiti defaced shack than a legendary nightspot. This is Po’ Monkeys Lounge, the last authentic juke joint standing in the South. Located just outside of Merigold, Miss., this Delta original isn’t a place you stumble upon—it’s a place you must search for to find.

 

Last spring, a group of Ole Miss students and professors made a late-night trek to Po’ Monkeys, turning off Highway 61 and bouncing down a gravel road as bumpy as a washboard. Each car left a trail of dust like the spray from a flying crop duster. After taking in the outdoor décor—a prominent sign that reads “No Loud Music, No Dope Smoking, No Rap Music” and a fenced-in historical marker dubbing the establishment as a stop worthy on the Mississippi Blues Trail—the crew ventured through the doors, unsure of the experience to be had within.

 

Their expectations were not outrageous. Perhaps a few pool tables, a blues tribute band, and drinks poured by a heavy hand—a Delta twist on a typical night on the Square. But with one step inside, they were in another world.

 

The same curious but apprehensive feeling overtakes anyone who crosses the border between the Mississippi Hills and the Delta.

 

“You just have to soak up the atmosphere there,” Overby Center Fellow Bill Rose said. A Delta native, Rose instructs a small group of journalism students that travel to the Delta each spring. The Delta Project, sponsored by Meek School of Journalism and the Sally McDonnell Barksdale Honors College, allows a select group of students to spend a week reporting in the Delta. The reporters take in the highs and lows of Delta society before returning to Oxford to write their observations into print.

 

“The Delta itself is a great classroom,” Rose said. “You can see the extremes of life there. You can see extreme poverty, you can see extreme wealth, and you can see all the gradations in between.”

 

To an outsider, the Delta appears as ground zero for poverty, obesity and unsolvable racial divisions. But from the inside, the Delta is revealed as a place bursting with artistic creativity, entrepreneurial opportunity and educational reform. These qualities, both the good and the bad, are what the Meek School of Journalism Depth Reporting Team attempts to reveal in its annually published magazine, Deeper South, winner of the Society of Professional Journalists Best Student Magazine award in 2014.

 

Taken out of their classroom and comfort zones, from 60 miles east of campus to Clarksdale and beyond, the students hope to gain real-world journalism skills. Not only do they gain reporting experience, but they return to Oxford with a broader outlook on Delta society and the desire to make it a better place.

 

“They meet people they never thought they’d meet, they get experiences they never thought they’d experience, and all of that adds to the life experience of our students,” Rose said. There is a great deal of personal growth these students undergo while reporting in a place historian James Cobb dubbed “the most southern place on Earth.”

 

“The Delta experience really helped me to be able to go out of my comfort zone to talk to people,” Lauren McMillin, senior journalism major said. “I came away from it with a few new adventures under my belt and a greater feeling of confidence when it comes to reaching out to others and being resourceful.”

 

The Delta also possesses great potential for improvement. These dynamic students can be change agents through their experiences and analysis of that flat, fertile landscape.

 

“I really think the annual depth reports have the potential to foster change in the Delta,” McMillin said. “If anything, they have the ability to really bring about awareness and start conversations.”

 

Opportunities abound for Ole Miss students to experience and improve Delta life. Members of the Trent Lott Leadership Institute can compete for a summer internship with the Sunflower County Freedom Project, a non-profit that is tackling education reform by engaging young Deltans in its academically intensive five-week program called Freedom Summer.

 

“By providing them with a rigorous and structured classroom environment during the summer months and invaluable extra hours of instruction after school in the fall and spring, [we] are empowering these students through education,” junior public policy leadership major Joseph Duffy said. “We are giving them a chance where their schools have failed them.” His work with the Sunflower County Freedom Project not only gave him first hand experience in educational reform—it has called him to take further action.

 

“Working with the SCFP allowed me to gain a more real understanding of pervasive, widespread and deep-seeded inequality that persists in the Delta still today,” Duffy said. “It was ultimately my time spent there that has inspired me to stay here in Mississippi after graduation in order to work with others in trying to find answers to these incredible problems.”

 

This past fall, another batch of students had the opportunity to experience Delta culture firsthand. Biology professor Clifford Ochs and Anthropology professor Robbie Etheridge co-taught a course on the intertwining environmental and cultural histories of the Mississippi River.

 

“It’s really good for students… for everybody… to have a better understanding of the area in which they live,” Ochs said. “A lot of us live pretty isolated lives between the university and our little home in suburbia.”

 

In this honors special topics class, students from disciplines ranging from international studies to biology ventured from Clarksdale to Vicksburg. They even spent a weekend canoeing down the mighty river. Again, students were intrigued by the Delta mystique.

 

“I see the Mississippi Delta as a paradox. The area is the epicenter of much of Mississippi's suffering—where each problem we face reaches its utmost extreme. But the Delta is also a rich source of cultural identity for the state,” junior public policy major Kendall McDonald said. “I think the Delta becomes a symbol for the complexity of the state of Mississippi and for the South in general.”

 

McDonald’s classmate, Hannah Wikoff, was similarly affected. “As someone who had never been to the Delta before, I was excited to learn that the region is not as destitute and dusty as I previously had thought,” junior biology major Wikoff said. “The Delta is grossly under-appreciated and is an area integral to the character of our state.”

 

Despite its many problems and stereotypes, students have no problem immersing themselves in Delta culture.

 

“Our students at Ole Miss are very social. They love to talk, and so do people in the Delta. Nobody has any trouble communicating there,” Rose said of his students’ interviews.

 

For many, the Delta is home. This year, over 2700 students are from the flatland. It’s also the birthplace of Archie Manning, Governor Haley Barbour, renowned potter Lee McCarty and Senator Trent Lott, among other Rebel greats. There’s a certain hospitality amongst the Delta’s rustic setting—one that is just as captivating as it is confusing. 

 

The Delta can also throw a party. There’s no wonder Ole Miss students travel by the busload to enjoy a night of hazy blues at Ground Zero Blues Club or a jam-packed Christmas social at Hobson Plantation in Clarksdale.

 

This entertainment culture, among other Delta qualities, trickles down Highway 61 and into Oxford. The festivities of Double Decker weekend rival Clarksdale’s annual Juke Joint Festival. The coziness of a Delta nightcap can be recreated with a few good friends and a round Old Fashioneds on the City Grocery balcony.

 

The similarities run much deeper. Issues of discrimination and economic struggle still abound in our small university community.

 

“I think it’s important for cultivating a better society to know how your neighbors a little bit farther distance from your home are living. What you could do to improve how other people live, or solve problems that all of us face, even in Oxford, although some of us face them more than others,” Ochs said.

 

As Ole Miss students, a little Delta is in all of us. It may take just a short drive into those rolling flatlands and a simple lift of the “magnolia curtain” to realize it.