When it comes to race relations in Mississippi, some of our history can only be accepted with a roll of the eyes and a sigh. A story on The Washington Post website about a resolution that passed the state Senate 100 years ago this month definitely provokes that reaction.
Our good senators voted 25-9 on Feb. 20, 1922 — 57 years after the Civil War ended — to ask the federal government to trade some of the World War I debt owed by European countries for land in colonial Africa. The United States then would ship all Black Mississippi residents to that location — creating, as the Senate resolution put it, “a final home for the American negro.”
The resolution, written by Sen. Torrey George McCallum of Jones County, said “the spirit of race consciousness” had grown in the United States after the war. It added that returning the descendants of kidnapped Africans to their ancestors’ home continent would “make a suitable, proper and final home for the American Negro, where under the tutelage of the American government he can develop for himself a great republic, to become in time a free and sovereign state and take its place at the council board of the nations of the world.”
The resolution did not say whether the departure of the state’s Black residents would be voluntary or mandatory. But language like making the United States “one in blood,” was a pretty good sign of its desire.
To make the story even more interesting, the 1920 census reported that 52 percent of Mississippi’s population was black. So Senate advocates favored getting rid of half of the state’s residents. That might have hurt during the next census.
The Post said most Black publications across the nation mocked McCallum’s idea. One observed icily that after decades of slave women being raped by White men and giving birth to mixed-race children, “the intervening shades are so numerous and various, it may be a question to determine who is a colored person. Of course, such things don’t bother McCallum.”
As if to prove that silly ideas can be colorblind, a newspaper published by Black leader Marcus Garvey endorsed the Mississippi proposal. Garvey believed that African descendants would never be treated fairly by Whites in America, and so his solution was a new African homeland for American Blacks.
McCallum’s resolution got out of a House committee, and on March 10, 1922, he took to the House floor to advocate for its passage. One paper of the day reported that he only wanted to settle a great problem facing the country. But the House was not convinced, voting down the resolution 40-32.
One opponent, Rep. John Holmes Sherard of Coahoma County, said he was unwilling to give up the Mississippi Delta’s farm labor. He had 500 Black workers on his plantation and had never had a quarrel with them. The economic interest of low-cost labor might have been the wrong reason to oppose this mean-spirited idea, but in history’s eyes the House got it right by killing this proposal.
Only a few years later, the Jim Crow laws in Southern states worked their own magic and convinced Blacks to depart. Many Black Southerners left willingly for better jobs in northern and western cities. There was no need for wartime debt forgiveness or obtaining land for “the American negro” in Africa.
And now, the dramatic finish: A cotton laborer from a plantation near Sherard’s was a young man named McKinley Morganfield. In 1941 he took his guitar and left for Chicago, where he became the legendary Muddy Waters.
Many of the songs Waters wrote were about the Delta, but when asked if he ever planned to return home, he spoke for thousands when he said, “Go back? What I want to go back for?”
Jack Ryan is editor and publisher of the McComb Enterprise-Journal.