| Assuming The Risk |
By Michael Orey
Genre: Non Fiction
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A Toe in Tobacco
By Mississippi standards, colonization came late to Holmes County. While the French and Spanish were staking claims along the coast in the 1700s, the north-central part of the state was largely uninhabited. According to an account written by J. Daniel Edwards, a local Holmes County historian, various Indian tribes that had lived in the area had abandoned it by about 1720, leaving it essentially unpopulated for a hundred years. The land was still considered Indian territory, though, until the Treaty of Doaks Stand in 1820 and the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek ten years later brought the region under U.S. control.
The best way to get a sense of Holmes County today is to enter it from the north, taking Route 49E out of Greenwood in neighboring LeFlore County. This takes you along the eastern flank of the Mississippi Delta, flat and cultivated as far as the eye can see, a carpet of shimmering green in the summer, bursting fluffy white, as though topped by warm-weather snow, when the cotton bolls open in the fall. Cotton is still king in this area gins and seed presses dot the landscapebut the cost of growing it, its need for vast quantities of herbicides and pesticides in particular, has made it less clearly the crop of choice.
Soybeans, wheat, rice, and corn also grow in the rich Delta soil. For all their fecundity, these fields convey a sense of desolation. The region, whose desperate need for laborers to plant and weed and pick cotton made it reliant on slaves and then sharecroppers, now seems almost devoid of people. Occasionally a pickup truck cuts across the horizon or a crop-dusting plane buzzes low over the fields. Even at harvesttime, activity is isolated: giant machines make their mechanized march across the land, picking four rows of cotton at a time. But few prosper from the land's bounty: With a per capita income of $9,500, Holmes County is one of the poorest counties in Mississippi, which, with a statewide per capita income of about $17,000, is the poorest state in the nation.
Route 12 heads east out of the town of Tchula (pronounced CHOO-luh), and the two-lane highway cuts across level land for about a mile. Then the road rears sharply up, and suddenly you have left the Delta and are in the rolling terrain that Mississippians call "the Hills." Pitching up and down now, the road progresses steadily to higher ground. There are still cotton fields here, but they intermix with stretches of uncultivated land, much of it woods. Entire groves of trees in many places are completely draped in kudzu, giving the appearance of some topiary project gone horribly awry. Giant human- and animal-like forms seem to be struggling to burst forth from the smothering green shroud. A joke in the South has it that if a cow stands too long in one spot, it will end up covered by the weed. Relentless in its growth, kudzu crawls across fields and into the gullies and ravines that crisscross the land.
As Route 12 enters Lexington, it curves down past a sign made of wrought iron that reads IS JESUS CHRIST LORD OF LEXINGTON, the question mark either missing or never intended. From here it's a straight shot into the town square, where the redbrick facade and clock tower cupola of the courthouse loom up like a cutout from a folk art painting.
Lexington, population 2,200, is the county seat; all over Mississippi, similar town squares with courthouses at their center serve as the civic heart of their county. In Oxford, home to William Faulkner, a historical marker on the courthouse quotes this passage from his Requiem for a Nun:
But above all, the courthouse: the center, the focus, the hub; sitting looming in the center of the county's circumference like a single cloud in its ring of horizon, laying its vast shadow to the uttermost rim of the horizon; musing, brooding, symbolic and ponderable, tall as cloud, solid as rock, dominating all: protector of the weak, judicate and curb of the passions and lusts, repository and guardian of the aspirations and the hopes . . .
Ellipsis and all, the plaque ends there, the maker perhaps out of bronze or out of breath.
On the lawn outside the Lexington courthouse is something else that can be found in town squares throughout Mississippi: an obelisk-style monument to the Civil War. The product of a Confederate memorial movement active in the South from the 1870s until World War I, the monuments tend to express a certain view of the conflict. THE MEN WERE RIGHT WHO WORE THE GRAY AND RIGHT CAN NEVER DIE, declares the one in Lexington, dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1908. On the ground next to the obelisk is a polished granite stone laid in 1976, on the bicentennial of the American Revolution. The stone is partly overgrown with grass, and you have to stand on it if you want to read the testaments to the Civil War.
Chartered in 1836, Lexington developed slowly prior to that war. But as the county seat, it became a magnet for banking and business. Several wagon and carriage manufacturers established operations in town, proximate as it was to forests of the choice hardwoods such as hickory, walnut, oak, and ironwood favored by that trade. Nearby springs gave rise to steam grist and lumber mills, and in 1859 local residents raised $500,000 for the construction of a cotton mill. As the local newspaper noted, that meant that "merchants may buy supplies of cotton fabric at home rather than from the unscrupulous Yankees."
By the turn of the century, Lexington had emerged as the economic and political center of Holmes County. In 1908, Samuel Cohen, a Lithuanian immigrant, opened a dry goods store on the square, and he was joined by other Jewish merchants who had originally come to the region as peddlers. Cohen's Department Store serves customers to this day, run by Philip Cohen, Samuel's grandson. But when the younger Cohen steps out of his shop and surveys the town square today, he sees none of the vitality that drew his grandfather there. As has happened in small towns everywhere, customers have fled to the Wal-Marts and other national chains in the outlying strip malls. The square looks and feels tired now, even taking into account the languor induced by the often-steamy climate. The movie theater has long been shuttered, and the Ben Franklin five-and-dime finally gave up in the early 1990s. Amid empty storefronts, the shops that remain seem to be struggling to hang on. Almost every building could use a coat of paint.
Nevertheless, the square is not devoid of activity. There's still some shopping that can be done, and the courthousewhich also houses the tax assessor's office and a meeting room for the county supervisors remains an unavoidable destination for many. A steady stream of traffic flows around the square, which serves as a junction for the main north- south and east-west routes in the county. Occasionally trucks rumble by, piled high with timber or hauling giant sections of prefabricated homes made at a plant just east of town. On certain Tuesdays, on the north steps of the courthouse, banks auction off property they have foreclosed on.
And for a brief few weeks in 1988, Lexington and its courthouse became the arena of a legal struggle pitting a poor black man and his family against a giant American corporation. While Lexington quickly faded from public view, the battle that was launched there raged on in Mississippi for nearly ten years, and would reverberate around the nation before it came to its dramatic end.
Excerpted from Assuming The Risk , by Michael Orey . Copyright (c) 1999 by Michael Orey . Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top