Mississippi Mexicans in the Interwar Delta
Latinos did not again settle in Mississippi until the twentieth century, when agricultural labor brought them to the state in large numbers. Since Reconstruction, rural Southern elites had sought migrants previously Chinese and Italian to break blacks’ dominance over the rural labor market. Though the lumber industry in south central Mississippi recruited Mexican laborers as early as 1908, World War I and the Great Migration of blacks to northern and western cities most acutely forced the Delta’s white planters to confront the dilemma of their dependence on blacks, and to think seriously about recruiting Mexican workers as an alternative. By the mid-1920s Mexicans could earn more picking cotton in Arkansas, Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi than anywhere else in the country, as farmers there paid Mexicans an average of $4 per day for picking cotton, as compared to $1.75 in Texas and $3.25 in California.
In 1925, Mexican migration to Mississippi reached its peak. As the cotton-picking season arrived that fall, the Catholic priest at Clarksdale claimed that
5,000 Mexicans as he called Mexicans and Mexican Americans alike, without regard to citizenship were picking cotton on plantations in Clarksdale, Greenwood, Greenville, Cleveland, Tunica, and Hollandale. And more are coming every day, he wrote.2 Indeed, at the end of 1925, when the priest paid a visit to every plantation in his Clarksdale Parish, he found Mexicans and presumably, Texas-born Mexican Americans on all of them.
These workers were predominantly Mexican migrants who had left during the Mexican Revolution, spent some time in Texas, and then moved on. In this sense their profile mirrored that of the era’s Mexican and Tejano migrants overall. Though they had first lived in south Texas locales such as Crystal City, Pearsall, San Antonio, Mercedes, and San Benito, five-sixths of ethnic Mexican household heads, wives, and boarders enumerated by census takers in the Delta’s Bolivar County during the 1930 planting season were Mexican-born, whereas only one-sixth were Texas born. A quarter had first crossed the border before the Mexican Revolution (1910-1917), some as early as the 1880s; half had crossed during the revolution; and a quarter had crossed after the revolution’s end. Most had first spent some time in Texas.
Though most Mexicans and Mexican Americans would leave the Delta after the last of the cotton crop had been picked in December, many would try to stay in Mississippi. From March to December they would plant, cultivate, and pick cotton in family groups. Those who remained through the winter bought a few chickens, hogs, and cows, which would provide meager food. Others, such as A. Gonzalez, left their wives and children in Mississippi and migrated elsewhere for temporary work, at the end of the cotton harvest. Living even more precariously than he had in Mississippi, Gonzalez’s tertiary migration ended in tragedy. He was accidentally run over while asleep on the railroad tracks in Middlesboro, Kentucky, in November 1930.
Many Mexican families in Mississippi sent their children to school there, but a 1926 ruling of the Bolivar County Schools Board of Trustees prohibited them from attending the Gunnison Consolidated School along with white children. Instead, the county paid a Mexican community leader to offer instruction at a separate Mexican school on the plantation of J.G. McGehee. However, by 1928 the Mexican teacher had left the area, the number of Mexican children had dwindled, and the county was unable to convince a young Tejana woman to assume the role of teacher at the Mexican school. Hortensia Landrove, daughter of local community leader Rafael Lan-drove, and her young uncle George thus attended the white school for a few weeks during the winter of 1928-1929. The following year, the Robledo children enrolled in the second grade once the cotton was picked. Though Telesforo and Marla Robledo pulled their son Freddo out in February to help seed the next crop, their daughter Jubertina finished the school year, struggling with English but otherwise earning As and Bs. She was promoted to the third grade at the end of the year, even as many of her peers were left behind. She became the first Mexican to complete the academic year in the white elementary school of Gunnison, Mississippi.
In early 1930, however, school officials decided to enforce the 1926 school board ruling, telling Mexican families their children could not attend the white school. Landrove appealed to the Mexican consulate in New Orleans for help, and the consulate in turn asked Governor Theodore Bilbo to intervene. Comparable court cases that year in Del Rio, Texas, and Lemon Grove, California, argued that U.S. law did not permit discrimination against Mexicans because they were entitled to all the rights of other Caucasian citizens. In Mississippi, however, the consul did not appeal to U.S. law or to ideas about Mexicans’ racial categorization, but rather to the desire to strengthen the cordial relations that fortunately now exist between [the United States and Mexico].3
By April, the governor’s intervention had resolved the matter in Landrove’s favor, and the following school year Hortensia Landrove, her uncle George Perez, and Telesforo Robledo’s son Trinidad once again enrolled in the white school after the cotton was picked. All three finished the academic year and passed on to the next grade. The victory was crucial for Landrove. His children would be educated at a white school in the Delta, leaving open the possibility of gaining economic stability and culturally becoming middle class in the future.
However, Mexicans had entered sharecropping in the Delta at the beginning of its end. As cotton prices crashed from 16.78 cents per pound in 1929 to 5.66 cents per pound in 1931, white, black, and Mexican sharecroppers found themselves unable to pay the debts they had incurred by purchasing seed and equipment, let alone turn any profit. For most of the Delta’s Mexicans, the experiment with Mississippi was over. Neither deported by local officials nor able to secure consular help in repatriating, the destitute Mexican sharecroppers of the Mississippi Delta were effectively abandoned, left to finance their own return to Mexico or Texas.
Though their numbers were diminished, Mexican workers continued to come to Mississippi’s cotton fields seasonally throughout the 1930s and early 1940s. As World War II accelerated migration from rural to urban areas and increased wages off the farm, the Delta’s planters once again looked to Texas and Mexico for labor.